Thursday, June 17, 2021

Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen: Summary and Rating

With a title like this, you'd expect the game to be full of Star Wars references.
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
Repackaged with Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen and released as World of Xeen in 1994
Date Started: 20 April 2021
Date Ended: 1 June 2021
Total Hours: 44
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
The flip side of Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen, using the same tile-based, first-person, six-character engine that goes back to Might and Magic III. Darkside has the party foil the plans of Sheltem, the rogue AI from the first game in the series, again using the alias Alamar, again bent on returning to Terra. The main quest is not as notable as the hundred thousand side quests, puzzles, and encounters. Although packed with content and never boring, Darkside suffers from over-generosity in experience and a lack of significant character development, particularly for an experienced Clouds party with all the spells and skills. Its penchant for frivolity and its overall ease make it to me the least in the series so far.
This is probably going to be one of those reviews where the game rates high but my prose makes it sound like I hated it. I feel that way every time I write about Ultima, too. So let me say at the outset, even if the rest of this entry seems to belie it, that the Might and Magic series is one of my favorite RPG series of all time. I have loved them since I played the first two as a child. Even then, I sensed that they offered something that no one else was offering. If I seem negative, it's only because of the game's performance against my own hopes for it.
The Might and Magic games have always been generous. Jon Van Caneghem clearly had a history with tabletop RPGs and early CRPGs, but he envisioned worlds of bounty where those titles were sparse and unyielding. In Wizardry, Might and Magic's most obvious forebear, a 16 x 16 map might only hold a couple of fixed combats and two textual encounters. Van Caneghem's strategy was to give you something in every row and column. I have maps from the first game in which I had to go into the double letters to annotate everything. A Dungeons and Dragons module might take you from Level 2 to 5 over the course of 30 hours of campaigning. Van Caneghem had no problem offering games in which you hit Level 100 or more. Where Dungeons and Dragons and Wizardry regarded attributes as closely policed within a 3-18 range, you might start at 15 strength in Might and Magic and end at 500.
All I did was open a barrel.
This generosity is key to the first two games, immediately distinguishing and elevating the series from Wizardry and The Bard's Tale (which I find hopelessly boring in contrast). Looking through my notes in on Secret of the Inner Sanctum and Gates to a New World, I see all kings of messages and interleaves, prisoners you can torment or free, some kind of puzzle involving black and white checkerboard floor patterns, word games and riddles, a giant sudoku puzzle, a city where males take damage at every intersection but you can change sexes in the basement, an arbor in which you get rewarded for climbing every tree, and dozens of other encounters and side-quests--this in an era that otherwise showed no awareness of the concept of "side quests." Perhaps more important, each area offered a bit of lore, hinting at a large, complex story beneath the surface, one that occasionally (usually at the end) introduced elements of science fiction. Trying to figure out that story, filling in the gaps left by the materials, was a fun part of playing each game.
At the same time, the series has always offered a stupid side. You've heard me complain about it in every summary of every previous Might and Magic game. Wizardry acquired the same stupid side when David W. Bradley took over, and you've heard me complain about that. I've run out of original ways to complain about it. So I'll just say that Darkside of Xeen is a worthy successor to the previous games in the series in both the generosity of content and the stupidity of a lot of that content. If that doesn't bother you, you'll like the game a little more than I did. 
Is that pronounced the British way or the American way?
Beyond its thematic consistency, however, I thought Darkside was a lesser Might and Magic for a couple of other reasons. The first was also well-discussed during my last few entries: the game completely goes off the rails with the character leveling. It rewards the party with millions of experience points that no player would ever be able to redeem unless he engaged in some kind of optimizing financial strategy going back to Clouds of Xeen. At the same time, nearly everything you touch seems to bestow an extra 1, 3, or 5 levels. And it's not like these levels are ramping towards some major boss enemy or encounter. You could survive this game's toughest enemies at half the levels I achieved, which is only about two-thirds of the levels possible to achieve.
This gets into a second problem, which is that the game is simply too easy. Not only is the party over-leveled, but the proliferation of attribute-boosting fountains and altars exponentially increases the party's effectiveness in individual combats. As for accumulation of combats, they're hardly an issue when you can drop a "Lloyd's Beacon," ride a "Town Portal" to the nearest temple, and be back before anyone notices you're gone. Even if these easy teleportation puzzles didn't exist, the fact that you can sleep and fully restore health and magic--an issue that the series never solves--removes a lot of the challenge by itself. I'm anticipating lots of comments that say things like, "Well, if you find it too easy, just don't use those fountains/spells/whatever." Sure, but I don't think expecting the player to nerf himself is good game design.
It's amazing how fast enemies go from "challenges to be overcome" to "annoyances to be swatted."
I'm particularly disappointed in the lesser importance of spells. In the earlier games--and, indeed, in the later ones--magic is crucial to your strategy. Here, it so blatantly under-performs physical attacks that there's almost no reason to cast offensive spells except during a very narrow window of time in which a) your characters can't reliably hit some enemies, and b) those same enemies can be defeated with spells before they wipe the floor with you. The problem is largely the multipliers that the game gives with level and strength on physical attacks. By mid-game, your whomping most enemies away with one hit. Someone needed to rework that math.
The number of people reading this who will one day play the game but have not already must be small. But to those few, I implore you: when you do play, try something like an all-druid party or an all-barbarian party. Among the three major character focuses--melee combat, clerics' magic, and sorcerers' magic--create a party that entirely lacks one of them. Without any melee strength, you'll be forced to rely on spells, and combat will be more interesting. Without one of the magic types, you won't have as many buffing or transportation options (you'll be able to rely on limited charges from magic items in a pinch). I guarantee it will create a more exciting game.
A paladin and ranger set out to solve Xeen's problems alone.
In rating Darkside, I'm also including the World of Xeen content. I can't see any good way to separate them. I think the GIMLET will even out. It was partly because of the World of Xeen content that I felt leveling was too generous and the game was too easy, but it was also because of that content that I ended up feeling better about the game world and story. 
1. Game World. I don't know. A couple of weeks ago, I would have said that there is no new content here; that the game is just a rehash of the plot introduced in the first three games, a plot for which I have lost patience since the game seems more interested in making Star Trek references than exploring its own lore. But the ending of the World content, despite the questions it raises, was pretty cool. I felt less interested in either side of Xeen as a game world, though--there is no attempt at consistency whatsoever, and there are numerous unnecessary races added to the six character races, a few of which never make an appearance anywhere else in the game. The two Xeen titles suffered from a lack of the "Corak's Notes" feature of III. Score: 4.
At the end of the game, Prince Roland sticks his "staff" in the queen's "cube." Wait . . . that doesn't work.
2. Character Creation and Development. I generally like the number of ways that the characters develop, but as we discussed, Darkside is so generous that it stops mattering very early in the game, particularly if you brought a party from Clouds with all the spells and skills and a decent set of equipment. And it's always disappointing when a game fails to integrate character choices into the encounters and quests. These last few games should have included the alignments of the first two and offered more role-playing options based on those alignments. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. I'm going to do here what I did in my rating for Clouds of Xeen and give it a couple of points for having something of the concept of NPCs, but most of what you'd call "NPCs" in this game are really "encounters" that happen to feature a portrait of someone. True NPCs exist in the environment independently of the party. Previous games were rated for hirelings in this category, and their loss is also unfortunate. Score: 2.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game's bestiary continues to be relatively original. I suppose the problem here is that combats are so short that you often don't find out about an enemy's strengths or weaknesses. The game also continues to benefit from a high quantity of non-combat contextual encounters and role-playing encounters, including--making their debut in the series--dialogue options. Add to this the dungeons' navigational puzzles, and we have probably the strongest category in the game. I just wish so many of the puzzles weren't so easy. Score: 6.
An important if clumsy step in the evolution of the genre.
5. Magic and Combat. I offered my thoughts above. There are a lot of options but not much reason to use anything but a mallet. Score: 3.

6. Equipment. A surprisingly disappointing category. I like how many slots the game offered, the item identification system, the use of magic items as backups for spells, and how easy it is to swap around and evaluate things. I didn't like that nothing seemed to matter. Your level multipliers matter so much more in combat than your equipment that I sometimes spent hours in which a character's equipment was broken and never noticed.
The game also does a bizarre thing by assigning either a material or an effect to equipment but not both. So you might have an Obsidian Long Sword or a Long Sword of Undead Slaying but not both. With weapons and armor, the material is so much more powerful than the effects that you wonder why they bothered with the effects at all. But with wearable items, an Obsidian Necklace does absolutely nothing despite being worth like 200,000 gold pieces, while a Necklace of Strength might only sell for 2,000. Madness. Score: 4.
This all must weigh a ton.
7. Economy. Over the game, I think I probably spent about 30 million gold pieces, which is probably some kind of record. This hyper-inflation made most of the economy--shops, temples, spells--utterly insignificant, with the sole exception of training--for which you never have enough. It's broken however you look at it. Score: 3.
8. Quests. With the World of Xeen content, we had a couple of main quests. Neither had alternate endings or role-playing options, but they were modestly interesting. More important, as always for this series, are the copious side quests. When will these finally become standard? Score: 5
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are perfectly nice; the sound is a bit overdone but otherwise fine; the interface has a number of excellent elements that I covered in the first entry. This is about as high as a game can score until graphics and sound get good enough that they're truly immersive. Score: 6.
I didn't notice this until late in the game: If you have sound turned off, you get subtitles.
10. Gameplay. Like its predecessors, Darkside gets a lot of credit for nonlinearity--to the point that I finished most of the World of Xeen content before finishing Darkside. Some of you didn't agree with my random exploration pattern, but you must agree that only in this series of games would such a pattern be possible. Everything else suffers a bit: it was a bit too easy; it's only slightly replayable (with different party compositions); and it lasted too long.
But to bring it full circle, I can't say that it was ever boring. I might have groaned or even shouted obscenities at much of the content, but at least I was having a reaction. I wasn't mapping miles of featureless corridor. Every few steps, there was a new hut on the horizon, a new alcove in a dungeon, a new book to read or box to open. The game may have been long, but it was easy to binge. Score: 6.
That gives us a final score of 42, one point lower than I gave to Clouds of Xeen and lowest for the series so far. I really do think the first and second games--particularly the first--were better games. I don't mean they were better "for their years"; I mean they were just better. Sure, the graphics were primitive, but a lot of the mechanics--including combat, equipment, and the economy--were significantly better. There were just as many encounters and side-quests, but fewer of them were so blatantly goofy. But 42 is still well into my "recommended" range, and Darkside is certainly superior to a lot of other games released in its year.  
The advertisement promised an interesting, gritty story. I wish the game had followed through.
Once again, my review aligns reasonably well with Scorpia's September 1993 coverage in Computer Gaming World. She covered the economic problem, though didn't seem quite as bothered about it. She was more upset about the ease of the puzzles--she called out the same one that I did, involving the Vowelless Knights. She also thought the crossword puzzle was "pointless and boring" and that the Dungeon of Death in general was ridiculous. (She agreed with the game that she was a "super goober" for having wasted her time with it.) She thought the cinematic ending was worth not having any kind of final battle, and I have to grant her that, since it was very well done for its year. She also thought the endgame to the Worlds content (which she completely spoils) was worth reaching, even if it involved so much pointless walking on the final level. "A satisfactory conclusion to the current Might and Magic saga," she concluded. Later, the magazine nominated it for "Game of the Year," but it lost to Betrayal at Krondor.
Dragon made some changes to its computer game reviewing in 1993. The "Role of Computers" section was re-titled "Eye of the Monitor," and a newer reviewer--Sandy Petersen--seems to have taken over. The over-inflated rating system seems to have gone with the previous title and reviewers, which I suppose is good, as I was running out of ways to make fun of that. Petersen makes it clear that three stars is "Good" and five is "Superb," and there's a new "X" rating for "Not recommended" that's even worse than one star ("Poor"). The combined World of Xeen gets only three stars. Mr. Petersen is himself a game designer, having written Call of Cthulhu and the third edition of RuneQuest for Chaosium. He also contributed to several computer RPGs, including Darklands (1992). It is thus too bad to see him bumble right out of the gate by calling the Might and Magic series "Eye of the Beholder-style games." His subsequent review makes it clear that he didn't get very far: he thinks the game is too generous with money and marvels at the 50,000 experience points he got for solving one puzzle. Most of the rest of the review is occupied with speed and loading issues. In summary, even though I agreed on the star rating, the review kind of annoyed me.
I'm mostly glad that for the next entry, we'll be moving on from this engine. I think the series has accomplished everything it can with tiled worlds. The graphics are getting sophisticated enough that we need a realism of content to match the realism of visuals. Magic and combat simply never worked well in this engine; it was so much better in the earlier games when you could face dozens or hundreds of enemies at once and choosing the right spells was a major tactical question. I'm also glad we'll be leaving the story of Sheltem being chased by the spectacularly inept Corak.
World of Xeen advertises some of New World's other titles in its final area.
As for that next entry, despite the in-game promise of a new title in 1994, it wasn't until 1998 that we saw Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, a game that I was absolutely addicted to before I started this blog. I must have played it at least once a year between its release year and 2010, and not since. I may never reach it again. Before then, we'll have Swords of Xeen (1995), an ascended mod that I've never played. We'll also have the first three Heroes of Might and Magic games and Anvil of Dawn (1995), which looks to me like a prototype of the Might and Magic VI engine.
As I just typed that last paragraph, I noted that however annoyed I got with Xeen, my desire to check out Heroes (which I've never played), whether they qualify as RPGs or not, purely for the lore, is undiminished. This will always be one of my favorite series despite the developers' tendencies to trivialize it with goofiness. Live long and prosper, New World. Live long and prosper.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Abandoned Places 2: Not Abandoned Enough

What kind of monks live in the sewer?
For the first couple of entries, this game coasted on some unearned goodwill. An uncomplicated dungeon crawler was just what I needed, and it had been a long time since I'd had to make maps. It could have taken that time to earn my honest fondness, but I'm afraid to say that it has failed. Everything that distinguished its predecessor is missing from this sequel, and while there are times that it's an agreeable dungeon crawler, it really doesn't seem have much new to offer the Dungeon Master line.
When I last wrote, I had explored one and a quarter levels of a dungeon in which I was to find the Dobelal Shield. The dungeon ended up being nine levels. It took me about 22 hours to explore and map them. I had gotten way ahead in my blogging, so this session helped to put on the brakes a bit.
The levels were all a relentlessly monotonous 30 x 30, which is the first major break from the first Abandoned Places. That one had a lot more variety in dungeon shape, size, and depth. Maybe that's still to come in the sequel, but I doubt it. The dungeon had three sections: four levels of dwarven mines, three levels of what looked like sewers, and two levels of "ancient dwarven mines." Each section had its own textures and monsters, and once again I have to give the game some kudos for evocative graphics.
The game is best when making interesting textures.
But here we also have my first major complaint: Each section of dungeon has two and only two types of monsters, and sometimes they aren't even very different from each other. In the opening dungeon, there were skeletons and armored skeletons. In the four dwarven mine levels, I faced dwarves and spiders. The sewers brought monks and some kind of giant leeches. And the ancient dwarven mines had armored warriors and armored warriors with blue cloaks. Add to this the four different monster types in the wilderness, and I've faced 12 monsters in 35 hours. In place of "boss" fights, where most games would give you a special opponent, this one just gives you a whole lot of the regular ones.
The two types of monsters on the last two levels. I don't even think one is harder than the other.
There were times that the combats were tough, but the skills of my crew and the ability to run away and heal keep combat from ever becoming very hard. The toughest ones are when the game combines them with some other navigation puzzle. During this last session, there were times I had to fight enemies from a spinner, or in anti-magic zones, or in darkness. There was a memorable area in which I had to quickly kill a group of foes to get out of a fire square. But for all that, I've only reloaded because of combat deaths about five times. Almost always, that was because my voider in position 2 was killed; the game really seems to have expected the player to make two warriors and two mages.
Realizing that I'm in an anti-magic zone just in time to face a bunch of giant leeches.
The navigation puzzles are the harder part of the game, but they're not really hard in a challenging, fun way like Dungeon Master. I'm talking about things like invisible teleporter squares that jerk you all over the dungeon, or having to hit buttons while whizzing by on a slider. Some buttons activate secret doors, turning regular walls into illusory walls. It's annoying enough to have to head-butt every wall to test for secret door; it's enraging to have to do it a second time after activating a button.
Here, I had to get items out of a chest while standing in fire.
Sometimes, messages offer clues as to the nature of a challenge "But . . . where is the key?" one offered as I neared a locked door. Sure enough, no key that I found anywhere on the level opened it. Instead, the lock was unlocked with a gem. Without the message, I might not have been primed to try unorthodox solutions, but I still don't think that makes it a good puzzle. 
A message alerts me that I need to fill this chamber with longswords.
Worst of all are a couple of places in which hitting a button can put you in a "walking dead" state. I encountered two of these. There might have been more, but after the first two, I stopped pressing buttons unless it was clear that I needed them. The first was obvious. I pressed a button and two pillars appeared on either side of me, preventing me from moving. Pressing it again didn't lower them. Reload, no big deal. But on a different level, pushing a button raised a pillar that blocked the exit from a huge area. It wasn't clear there was no other exit until I had explored the entire thing and had saved. If my automated backup hadn't made a copy of the save disk just a couple hours prior, this would have been a very different sort of entry.
One of my ongoing complaints about the entire Dungeon Master line is their refusal to provide any equipment information and statistics. Abandoned Places 2 follows that tradition. You can tell which item of armor offers better protective value by the character's defense score, and a few items raise attributes, but that's about it. There's no indication of weapon damage (and unlike Dungeon Master, you don't even get damage values during combat), nor of any special abilities or resistances. This is particularly bothersome here because I suspect many of the weapons are useless or cursed. Some are just mysterious. A Sword of Mercy can only be handled by a fighter but raises intelligence and wisdom (useless to fighters) by a point each. It delivers less experience per successful blow than other weapons, and I suspect does less damage (which I supposed would make sense, given its name). I can't say for sure that a throwing axe called Rehebbel the Axe of Axes did nothing, but I never once saw an enemy die to it despite picking it up and throwing it multiple times in some battles. A Sword of the Lovely causes you to lose a level. 
This was disappointing.
The game does an interesting thing with armor. Certain weapons explicitly won't work in the hands of mages, but with armor, it appears if you put on something wrong for your class, it will allow you to equip it (which excited me at first), but you don't get any benefits from it. Thus, only a mage's defense score increases from robes, and only a fighter gets the +1 constitution benefit of the Helm of Dwarves. Even here there are some mysteries. A Chain Mail of the Bull seems to offer less protection than regular chain mail, and a couple of cool-sounding robes and cloaks offer no protection at all. Boots of Fumbling have no effect on statistics, but I think I'll avoid them anyway.
For the longest time, every wearable magical item I found was for the fighter. Only at the end of the last dungeon in this session did I suddenly find weapons and armor meant for mages, including a Dagger of Effective Poisons, a Club of Power Oaks, and Fire Robes.
The third sewer level was particularly vexing. First, the stairways A and B are outside of the 30 x 30 area of the map; on other maps, the staircases were part of the map space. Second, so much space is unused in the northwest that I figured I must have missed something, but I couldn't find anything. To lower the gate at F, you have to hit the buttons at E, one of which is in fire. To get to the inner "E," you have to first hit the button at H, which lowers the wall at I. You have to get through the passages at G and I while being slid around in a loop by sliders. Some of the squares are dark, too. Oh, and there are constant missiles flying down the east corridor (in yellow), but don't hit the button at L to block them. That raises a pillar at M that you can never get to go away, trapping you in the area. (I just realized that I used M for several locations; the one I'm talking about is the one right next to L.)
My fighter started to fall so far behind in experience that I spent a few levels allowing him to get almost all of it. The crux of the problem is that spellcasters gain experience with every successful spell, but fighters actually have to hit an enemy to level up. But later in this session, my fighter found a couple of enchanted weapons that allowed him to overtake the spellcasters. He's now Level 13 to everyone else's Level 11.
There's been no "plot," as such, but one curious thing happened as I entered the third sewer level. One step into the hallway, and I encountered (in text alone) an "upset dwarf" who said: "You were told not to touch our treasure. Now take responsibility for what you have done. You will never leave this place alive and your destiny will not be fame and fortune but death itself." Yikes. Despite the warning, nothing special happened that indicated that the dwarves had it in for me. I wonder if I would have truly avoided this message if I hadn't looted any of the chests in the upper levels, or if everyone gets it.
Let me bullet a lot of miscellaneous things:
  • Gameplay can get very sluggish with lots of enemies around. I'm using the settings recommended by the developers, but very often, the game fails to register clicks. This can be fatal when that click was meant to cast a healing spell.
  • I've adopted the expedient of just using scrolls, wands, potions, burning oil, and so forth the moment I find it. There's nothing to save them for, and inventory space is precious. One exception is torches. I always have a few of those on hand because the "Light" spell only lasts a few seconds.
  • The game clearly has an encumbrance statistic because my characters slowed down their attacks noticeably when their inventories were full. That's another reason not to carry excess stuff.
  • I've found two pits. One went to the next level (you can return via "Levitate") and the other went to another area on the same level. That's confusing.
Preparing to drop.
  • The game's few sound effects include swishes and thuds in combat. If they signify anything at all (and are not just random noises), I think maybe they're accidentally reversed. When I see an enemy die from a melee attack, it's usually accompanied by a swish. I don't think I've ever seen one die on a thud.
  • Most messages come up once and never again. They dismiss themselves at a slight breeze. If I'm moving fast down a hallway and a message pops up, I often accidentally hit the next step before I see it, and it disappears. This means reloading.
  • There was a big area of the second level of the ancient dwarven mines (the last level of this series of dungeons) that I never found a way into. I can hear a lot of enemies clomping around in there.
  • When you cast "Create Food," one of around 15 food items gets randomly created. These generally vary in nutritional value (i.e., food points) from 1 or 2 (apricot, tomato, ear of corn) to 7 (potato, goodberries). But a fish, for some reason, is worth 40. It's always great when one of those comes up. It saves like 20 other castings.
By the end of the dungeon, I was sick of all the mapping. My tolerance for mapping is about 4,000 squares. I can do 10 levels of wizardry at 20 x 20 each, but a game with 900-square levels is going to lose me before Level 5. I persevered and found the Dobelal Shield behind a couple of locked doors on the last level. It was accompanied by a message from Kuhalk--I don't know if the game means the sword or the person the sword was named after. Either way, he related that Pendugmalhe has taken him to the dungeons beneath the old tower in the north forest.
How do we know what Kuhalk's voice sounds like?
I had really expected a teleporter or shortcut stairway after finding the artifact, but instead I had to walk all the way back up seven levels. 
When I got back to a town, I sold all my gems and jewelry, and then confirmed my growing suspicion that the shops in this game serve no purpose at all. Anything they sell is outclassed by the time you can afford to buy it. If you didn't reload after character deaths, you could spend some money on resurrections, but that's really the only point of collecting gold. Dungeon Master games so rarely have shops and economies that it's a bit enraging to see them introduced and then rendered meaningless.
I don't even think I'll bother to collect gems for the rest of the game.
As I wrapped up this very long session, I realized I couldn't continue without some sense of how much longer the game is. So I Googled around until I found this Slovakian site, on which a user named Ringo (who has commented on The CRPG Addict before) has mapped all the levels. There are 13 more; I've only played half the game. I don't think I have another 35 hours of mapping in me, so I'm going to adopt the rare (for me) approach of playing the rest of the game with Ringo's maps. Yes, it breaks the rules, but you have to break the rules now and then to keep things interesting. I never use spoilers to this extent, and it interests me to see how playing with them will change the fundamental experience. I would point out, too, that Ringo's maps only annotate the locations of things, not what they do, so I'll still have to solve the puzzles. For instance, I checked his maps of the dwarven mines against mine, and his would not have warned me about the two "walking dead" situations I mentioned earlier.
After 22 hours of gameplay, I still could barely get 2,000 words out of the experience, but that's par for the course in dungeon crawlers. Unless someone really wants one of those intensely detailed entries in which I cover the blow-by-blow of a single level, I'll probably wrap this up in one.
Time so far: 35 hours


Saturday, June 12, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: Won!

A final score in the billions is a good example of the inflation of everything in this game.
My last entry must have been maddening for anyone who knows the game well. I was minutes from winning, but I kept allowing myself to get distracted.
To win Darkside proper, I just needed to finish going up the various levels of Castle Alamar. Level 2 had a large area full of rings of elemental power, with four "sundials" in the corners. If I tried to walk in the elemental area, I got dumped back to the first floor. Clearly, I had to set the dials, but to what?
For some reason, I expected the answers might be found on the elemental planes, so I went back to the skywalk and revisited the Plane of Fire. That was a waste of time, but more on that in a bit. While I was there, I remembered that I'd taken screen shots of about 15 statues with various clues last time, so I went sorting through those. One of them said: "Nine is the time." I thus set all the dials to 9 and opened a way to a stone head in the center of the level who asked me Alamar's real name. I answered SHELTEM, and the way to the next level was open.
This is one way to avoid having to grout.
The next level had a bunch of individual squares of each of the four elements. I had to figure out the safe path. Again, a statue had my back. One of the statues in the basement had a long string of letters representing air, earth, fire, and water, and together they traced the safe path through the elemental forces and to the stairs.
The ending was anticlimactic in terms of our own participation. A cinematic took over as we went up the last set of stairs. It shows Sheltem sitting on his throne. "Come to me," he says, as the door opens. Someone from the party tosses Corak's soul box into the room. It lands on the floor; the lid pops open; and Corak emerges. 
I still don't understand exactly what these guys are made of.
"Corak?!" Sheltem screams. 
"Yes, it is I. You have nowhere to run, Sheltem."

"Nor do you!" Sheltem retorts. He takes off his helmet, revealing a scarred and burned face--half-destroyed, really. "I'm ready for you this time. This fight will be your last."
Then I shall head to Gotham City!
"I cannot fail!" Corak declares as their battle begins. We get about half a minute of the two entities casting spells at each other. Finally, Corak bounces some kind of energy beam off the ceiling and then Sheltem's throne, hitting Sheltem in the back and driving him into Corak's grip. 
This is just a bizarre-looking throne room.
As they grapple, Sheltem says, "Admit your defeat, Corak."
"I do," Corak replies. "Initiate self-destruct, Code zero-zero-one."
"Do not want!"
"What?! No! No!" Sheltem hams, as some kind of energy dissolves both entities as well as the floor beneath Sheltem's throne room. For some reason, the hole in the floor shows open space beyond, including a nearby planet. As their remains get sucked out into space, a bolt comes out of somewhere and blasts away Sheltem's tower. That seems like an unnecessarily thorough self-destruct sequence.
What are we even looking at?
The party then gets a winning screen, but of course things aren't over yet. The next screen has a note from the Dragon Pharaoh that the World of Xeen still needs us and that we should return to the Great Pyramid.
If you're interested, my score at this point was 2,523,228,511.
The game reloads in Castleview. We cast "Town Portal" to get to Olympus and then took the skyship to the top entry of the Great Pyramid. There, the Dragon Pharaoh outlined the steps necessary to bring about the final destiny of Xeen: turn on the four machines in the corners of the other side of the world, awaken the elemental sleepers on this side of the world, rescue Prince Roland, and open the way to the cloud world above Darkstone Tower. We had already rescued Roland, of course.
Much of the rest of the game was perfunctory. We visited each of the elemental planes in turn. Each had elemental enemies aspected to the plane: fire idols, water terrors, earth blasters, and whirlwinds. Some of them were hard to hit even for my high-level party, but they couldn't really damage us, and when we did hit, they died in one or two. Each plane had a single treasure chest with 1,000 gold and a few items. Each had a shrine that offered us an elemental "test," the purpose of which is unclear. And each had a statue that together told us the exact same things that the Dragon Pharaoh had just told us about how to win the game.
That sounds like a weapon in a Buck Rogers game.
From there, we returned to the Clouds side, where the only difficulty was judging how many squares to "Teleport" to the floating platforms in each corner. Once there, we activated four reflectors, each aspected to one of the four elements.
Maybe it doesn't know the words.
To open the way to the clouds above Darkstone Tower, I needed the Chime of Opening from the Southern Sphinx. I was somewhat annoyed by the dungeon. At Level 150, I still had to buff strength to open the coffins (none of which had anything anyway), my ninja failed at disarming most traps, and everyone kept getting cursed. It was trivial to drop a "Lloyd's Beacon" and zip over to Vertigo for healing and uncursing, however. The monsters were easy enough--dragon mummies and ghost mummies and phase mummies. Being able to kill them in one hit somewhat justified all the leveling I'd done.
When multiple dragon mummies don't bother you, it's time for the game to end.
Still, the dungeon seemed to be designed to troll me. There's a section of pendulum and blade traps that can tear apart even a high-level party, and a couple of enchanted candles wanted me to pay 2 million gold, each, to disable them. Who has that kind of cash at this point in the game? I nearly ran out of money having the temple cast "Uncurse." Then there were these barrels that just handed out 2 million experience points, as if experience isn't utterly worthless by this point in the game.
Either this is just to screw with players, or the game really has no handle on its own economy.
The sphinx was three levels, and it had the same sort of deal as the northern sphinx I explored a lifetime ago. We had to descend into the basement to find the letters that spell the sphinx's name, then speak that name at the stairway from the main level to the upper level. It was like the developers read my last entry, because as one final needle, they made the sphinx's name PICARD. 
Actually, I guess that wasn't the sphinx's name, but rather the mummy that rules the sphinx from his throne on the upper floor. He said he'd give me the Chime of Opening in exchange for a widget ("a hypothetical item of which its existence has never been proven"). We had one from ages ago. I couldn't remember why, but a check online shows that we got it for bringing Halon the Inventory a hot lava rock. Picard gave us the chime, and we warped out of there. Honestly . . . a "widget"? If you're the developer of this game, how do you not make Picard demand a Tribble instead?
If the revival series has any guts, it will end with Picard getting mummified on a distant, flat world.
I steeled myself for Darkstone Tower, forgetting that I'd already cleared it, so that was a nice surprise. I just had to return to the top staircase and go up to the cloud level. There, we met the game's final challenge: a pointlessly long spiral walkway with little signs advertising New World Computing's other games. It took a good 10 minutes to follow the path all the way to its terminus. I feel like they should have thrown in some combats here. 
Did you have to disable "Teleport"?
The walkway ended at yet another pyramid, and entering it triggered the endgame sequence for the World of Xeen expansion. You can watch it on YouTube, but I'll summarize it for the sake of completeness. The image shows a domed platform on the top of a very long pole--almost a space elevator. I have no idea where this is supposed to be. I guess maybe the final pyramid takes you there, but the in-game graphic doesn't show anything extending upward.
Where did this thing come from?
"And so the call went out to the people throughout the lands of Xeen that the prophecy was nearing completion," we learn. "They came in great numbers to witness the momentous occasion." As we're about to see, one hopes that they came in total numbers. On a dais surrounded by packed bleachers, Queen Kalindra and Prince Roland get married. Kalindra "presents" the Cube of Power and Roland "presents" the Scepter, and these artifacts are combined on something called the "Altar of Joining." 
The Ancients originally seeded each XEEN with three artifacts, but that got awkward.
A light bathes the room, shoots upward from the chamber, and reaches an apex in space above the world of Xeen, which we see now for the first time as it is: a thin rectangular wafer. (The terrain seen on the Clouds side is a pretty good match for what you find in-game.) The beam splits and arcs from its apex, with four separate beams going to the corners of the land and hitting the four reflectors. Somehow, these reflectors do less reflecting and more relaying, sending the beams around to the Darkside, where they form their own apex. 
My screen shots are going to be lag behind my descriptions for a while.
I'd love some geometry major to tell me what shape we have at this point. If the lines were straight, we'd simply have a couple of pyramids with rectangular bases (I don't believe "pyramid" presumes the base is square), joined at the bases. But instead, the graphic shows the lines arcing to each corner, forming something like a Reuleaux polyhedron but with a flat base.
Whatever the shape is called, the game pretends that two of them joined at the base basically form a sphere. A bunch more beams of light appear, giving shape to the sphere, which then turns solid. There's a final flash, and we're suddenly looking at a planet with continents and water and everything.
The original Xeen looks a bit like a Pop Tart.
This is not uncool, but there are a few problems. I have no problem with the idea that we just created a planet. The game already established that there are portals to the four elemental planes at the corners of the world. It's not a stretch to suggest that by opening those portals and using some combination of magic and technology, the ancients could channel and manipulate the elemental forces in such a way as to create a planet. I might have rewritten the terminology a bit. The "reflectors" might become something like "focusing beams" or something, but I'm otherwise down with the concept. 
See, to be "reflectors," there needs to be a beam coming out somewhere.
My issue is that the graphics suggests that the old two-sided Xeen forms the core of the new world. You literally see the sphere forming around it. I don't know if the sphere is hollow or solid, but either way, the people in that dome are in for a tough time. What I would have done is show the dome--which already looks like a flying saucer--popping off its spindle, heading up into space, and then firing the beam downwards. You could then imagine that it was like an ark, keeping the inhabitants safe until they could land on the new world. 
A better ending all around would have been to set the endgame in the core of the world rather than the clouds above it, then show the new planet sort-of "puffing" into existence out of the existing wafer. You could then pretend that the existing structures were preserved on the new world.
Okay, I'm with you so far, although we have to assume there's something in space causing the apexes to form where they are.
But sure, if I was willing to accept multiple VARNs attached to a CRON, I'll accept this. It's a cool ending to the lore of the series, and I wish the game had been more interested in that lore than making Star Trek references. Might and Magic is best when it gives you hints about its universe to ponder. Think about pyramids in general. What are we to make of them, and the clearly Egyptian themes like sphinxes and mummies and pharaohs? Is this just a clumsy borrowing of ancient Earth culture, or is there a deeper suggestion here that the Ancients visited Earth, or even came from Earth? (The answer is almost certainly the former, but it's more fun to pretend it's the latter.) Not only do we later encounter a pyramid on Enroth, but its guardians are called defenders and sentinels "of VARN." How does that jibe with previous lore?
See, this is where you lose me.
We never did find out what happened to the Might and Magic III party that supposedly "beamed down" to Xeen. If they were the original inhabitants of Newcastle, that doesn't explain how they later made it to Enroth. If the party in Clouds is supposed to be the same party, it doesn't explain why they don't have the same default names, or why they're busted back to Level 1. One possibility is that Enroth orbits the same star as Xeen--that it's that other planet you can see in many of the Xeen screenshots. The III party beamed down, got lost or had other adventures, and later hopped back into one of the two crashed ships and flew to the sister world.
A couple of days ago, commenter Jason Mehmel posted some excellent insights as to why the developers might have allowed such jarring transitions from serious plot to slaptstick comedy and nerdy references. In a concurring reply, P-Tux7 remarked both accurately and prophetically: "I'm pretty sure 'SUPER Goober'" was still burned red-hot into Chester's corneas when he watched the endings (the first of Darkside, and then Xeen as a whole) try to be awesome and heartwarming."
The simple fact is, I highly value good lore. It hasn't come up that often on my blog because so few games do it well, even through the 1990s, but I highly prize a good setting and backstory in which you learn little pieces of it as you explore. This is probably why Morrowind remains my favorite RPG, and why I feel so positively about The Elder Scrolls in general. The world-building is massive, and while a casual player will experience the major themes, names, and plot, I love that practically every dungeon I explore, every house I burgle, every NPC I speak with, is going to tell me something interesting about the world.
What's happening to all the people on Xeen?
You can count on one hand the game series that even attempt to build an interesting game world through 1993. Of them, I have to somewhat "write off" the Dungeons and Dragons games, just because you need so many external sources to really involve yourself in the game worlds. After that, you only have a few things left: Star Control, Starflight, Ultima, and Might and Magic might be a comprehensive list. In 15 years and 500 games, we have maybe four series that have any sense of world-building--one of the things that I most look for in a game--so I hope you can understand why I get so irked when developers undermine their own world-building with a bunch of nonsense. Being a fan of an ongoing setting is fun--see all the great discussions people have about the Star Wars and, yes, Star Trek universes, Babylon 5, Doctor Who, Brandon Sanderson's "Cosmere." Those fans forgive occasional lapses. The words are big and complicated, after all. Some of the most fun in fandom is trying to reconcile seeming inconsistencies or plot holes. "The author forgot" is never any fun. Let's find an in-universe reason that the Eagles didn't fly Frodo to Mount Doom or no one ever used the "Holdo maneuver" before. I want to find an in-universe reason that we never meet the Might and Magic III party on Xeen but they somehow show up on Enroth later. But that desire is weakened by every pair of flying feet and every mummy named "Picard." Why would I put effort into a setting whose author clearly didn't care? This is what gets Star Wars fans so upset about the last trilogy.
Scratch that theory.
"Your problem," you now want to tell me, "is that the Might and Magic series was never meant to be taken that seriously." First off all, sod of with the passive voice. I'll believe that it "was never meant" to be taken seriously when Jon Van Caneghem shows up in the comments and says so. Second, if an author doesn't want his work taken seriously, the least he could do is not tease the audience. Make it outright parody, like Keef the Thief. Don't make me believe in the Avatar and then send him to Mars. Imagine getting all the way to the A Dream of Spring and finding out that Jon Snow's parents are Lyanna Stark and Bozo the Clown.
Here, the opposite happened. By the end of my last entry, the New World Crew had gotten me to the point where I was ready to wash my hands of the entire series. Then, Xeen ends with a bunch of stuff that makes it interesting again. I don't like being yanked around this way. My memory is that it gets a little more stable with The Mandate of Heaven, but unfortunately it's going to be a long time before we get there.
Final Time: 44 hours


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Abandoned Places 2: A Small World After All

"Claw monkeys" attack me in the game's wilderness.
I don't know if Abandoned Places 2 is going to score very high on the GIMLET, but it's been a nice, relaxing game for this week, a perfect companion to the spring breeze blowing through my window. It offers a nice contrast to both Might and Magic and the writing-heavy work that I have to do this summer.
We left off as I was entering Level 3 of the starting dungeon. This one was a bit easier to map than the first, featuring lots of long corridors and big rooms. It was conceived as a set of tombs, and stepping on squares in front of the tomb doors usually offered some information about the resident of the tomb. Examples:
  • You see a note written in gold above the entrance: "Here sleeps Marcus the Mage. We hope he will rest in peace, for his and your sake."
  • Difgabos mightily defended the city when it was under attack by twelve hundred trolls. The warlord made them flee with only one hundred warriors."
  • You stand before the tomb of Lord Vezil, who founded and built the city from nothing. He is rumored to be buried with his favorite jewelry.
"For his sake and yours" would have been so much better.
I thought the names might be references to the backstory of the first game, but I couldn't find them anywhere in there. Nor are they the names of the first game's heroes.
Enemies were just more skeletons and armored skeletons, same as the first level, when my characters were Level 1 instead of Level 4. There was one large room in which we had to fight about 20 of them, but even that wasn't too difficult as long as I kept up on healing. My necromancer got "Cure Serious Wounds" at some point, which made that easier.
The party encounters an anti-magic zone.
The dungeon's puzzle did more to kill me than the enemies. There was a long corridor where I kept having to deliberately walk through fire squares because the regular squares were "slick" and kept pushing me back. I don't have any "Walk on Fire" or "Resist Fire" spell yet. Even worse was a room that slid us into a group of fire squares, each of which had a slider pushing us to a different square. In my panic to get out of the room, I kept running headlong into walls. This area produced the only party death so far in the game. On a reload, I had to act quickly to open a door from within the fire and then step out of it.
There were more chests on this level than the first, many of them with things like gems, jewelry, and statuettes. I think these are probably just for resale. My characters finished getting suits of armor on this level, plus a few helms and boots to go around. 
Finding the first quest object.
Ultimately, we had to find two keys to open two successive doors. They led into a chamber with a final treasure chest, which contained the Elixir of Health. We took it back to the wounded Master on the first floor.
A follower takes the elixir from you and pours it into the mouth of the Master. The Master opens his eyes and says, "Thank you for not letting me die after finishing my mission. Now go to the old Southern Dwarf Mines and seek the ancient magic shield called 'Dobelal.' I know little on this artifact, but some say the dwarfs knew it well. But be cautions with them! It is said that Pendugmalhe took control over the strongest dwarven army, too. Maybe Pendugmalhe found the Dobelal, but he can't destroy it without the ancient sword Kuhalk and the powers of his strongest creatures summoned upon the artifacts. I doubt he can get them all to curse the weapons, but who knows . . . . We had better find at least one of the artifacts to make sure he can't finish his crazy plan. Your journey will not be easy, but hopefully Kuhalk and I will give all the help we can. Now go."
The way out of the dungeon was unblocked. I had expected that we would emerge into a top-down overworld, like in the first game, so imagine my surprise when instead we found ourselves in a three-dimensional outdoor area. Imagine my further surprise when it turned out that the area was on fire, and the party started taking massive damage. Even if you're ready for it, you can barely get out of the fire before you die, and I wasn't ready at all. It took me a couple of reloads. No explanation is given for this forest fire that mysteriously never spreads nor diminishes.
This doesn't seem fair.
The forested area was 30 x 30, just like dungeon levels. (I just realized now that there were only two dungeon levels, and that the small "second level" actually fits within the blank space left over on the "first.") It was less interesting to map because there were no puzzles or treasures, just a lot of trees, water, and occasional combats with bears and giants. The graphics are quite nice, though, with particularly good detail in the trees.
Giants attack as I explore their area.
I ultimately found my way to a city on the edge of the map. It was just a menu town with buttons for an armorer, a tavern where you can find a jewelry merchant, a food shop, and a magic shop. I sold all the excess that I had dragged from the dungeon, but even then, my gold wasn't enough to buy anything interesting.
One of the interchangeable cities . . .
. . . and its armory.
When I left the city, I was confused to find myself in an area that didn't match my map. I soon realized that each city has two exits, and that these cities serve as bridges between outdoor maps. Ultimately, I found four outdoor maps, each 30 x 30, connected by four cities. (Three of the cities are perfectly aligned between the maps, but for some reason the one that connects the northeast quadrant and the southeast quadrant enters in one column and exits another.) The cities seem interchangeable. They have no names, and all the shops sell the same things.
Within the four areas, I've found three dungeons on three different maps, including the one I emerged from. I probably need to take a swing around the southwest quadrant to make sure I didn't miss anything, as the map has no purpose otherwise.
The four 30 x 30 maps, stitched together.
I think the outdoor areas might respawn, as a few times I encountered enemies in areas I thought I had cleared. They also might just wander around a lot. If they respawn, it should provide some opportunities for grinding if it turns out to be necessary. Then again, since you get points for successfully casting spells, I could "grind" by just having the spellcasters cast "Create Food" all day.
Speaking of food, the mechanic is about as annoying as I expected it was going to be after the first entry. Food depletes at a rate of one unit per minute, real time, so if I get a character up to 60, I don't have to worry about him for an hour. But casting of "Create Food" can create something worth anywhere from 2 units to 20. I usually have to cast it about 10 times to get a character's statistic over 50. I also think it's amusing from a realism perspective that characters don't complain about hunger until they're so hungry they're literally taking physical damage from it.
I popped into the northwest dungeon, but the mages I met at the bottom of the stairs were way too tough for my party, and the place didn't look very much like a dwarven mine. 
I was here far too early.
In the southeast dungeon, on the other hand, I was greeted by a dwarf immediately on entering. "So you are the Heroes of the Crypt. We have been looking forward to meeting you. Though most of us are forced to hide in tunnels and caves, we will try to help you if possible."
The mines feature some fun graphics--one of the game's strengths--along with numerous attacking dwarves. I guess these must have been corrupted by Pendugmalhe. The first level had a small area behind a secret door where my characters took constant damage, and a number of teleporters that dumped us into this area. There were at least two anti-magic zones, something that continually worries me since my party is so magic-heavy. One of these was in an area full of water and fire, so I couldn't cast "Levitate" or any healing spells. I just had to plow through them and hope for the best. 
Instead of always just showing wall textures, occasionally you get something like this.
As I entered one room, I got a message from some dwarves: "We have come to wish you good luck. But don't you dare touch our treasures!" I really hope they just meant in that one room (where there was one chest), as I opened chests liberally throughout the dungeon.
Other than that anti-magic zone, the party composition has really been working out. My fighter is the deadweight, currently running about 40,000 experience. My voider, in contrast, has almost 100,000. (That's only a single level difference, though.) He got "Fire Storm" a while back, which damages enemies in both columns, and he's likely to continue earning the lion's share of experience until the other two casters get something comparable. 
The spell system is more sophisticated than I originally gave it credit for. Each spellcaster has three status bars, indicating their mana pools in the three different spell spheres: cosmos, elemental, and necromancy. Each spell uses a different combination of these mana pools, as indicated in the spellbook. "Magic Missile" is pure cosmos, but "Sleep" requires a little of each. "Fire Area" is a lot of elemental and a little cosmos.
There are 48 total spells in the game, spread across eight levels, and I think each spellcaster can learn all of them, but each class learns them in a different order, and each class has a different capability for casting them. So while my voider might eventually get "Cure Serious Wounds," he'll only be able to cast a third of them as the necromancer, who has more spell points specific to that spell.
Regardless of the allocation, it feels like the game was a bit generous with spell points, or perhaps the speed of the regeneration of those points. I have not so far had any character run out of points in combat, and they usually fully regenerate before the next combat.
So far, I have 17 of the 18 spells that make up the first three levels. Since I don't have a lot else to report, I thought I'd offer my notes on them. The sphere given is the one that requires the most mana.
Level 1
  • "Magic Missile" (cosmos) and "Meteor Swarm" ("elemental") are both missile spells that only hit the column of monsters on the same side of the caster. They were good when they were all I had.
  • "Light" (elemental) does what it suggests, but most of the dungeon squares are already lit. You only need it in special dark squares, and there haven't been enough of those that I've even noticed how long the spell lasts. Duplicated by torches.
  • "Create Food" (elemental) is absolutely essential, as above.
  • "Sleep" (necromancy) is a bit wasted, unless it works on undead, which I didn't try. The first living enemies you meet are too advanced for it; you need to upgrade to "Dream" (Level 3).
  • "Cure Light Wounds" (elemental) was invaluable until replaced at the third level.
Level 2
  • "Power Bolt" (cosmos) and "Globe of Air" (elemental) replace the Level 1 missile spells.
  • "Create Fire" (cosmos) is another offensive spell that creates a temporary fire square. It's replicated by burning oil.
  • "Levitate" (elemental) is necessary to get over water squares.
  • "Create Potion" (necromancy) is a weird one. It seems to create a Potion of Healing 75% of the time and a flask of burning oil 25%. I suppose it could be useful if I found a large anti-magic area.
  • "Cure Serious Wounds" (necromancy) is a better healing spell.
Level 3
  • "Fire Storm" (elemental) is a better damage spell and effects everyone in front of you, not just the column that lines up with the caster.
  • "Fire Area" (elemental) is like "Create Fire," but it creates a two-square ring of fire around the party, burning everyone who's even vaguely aware of the party's presence. Awesome.
  • "Wall of Illusion" (elemental) puts a temporary illusory wall in front of the party. It might be useful if I was trying to get away to regroup and heal.
  • "Dream" (necromancy) is a more powerful sleep spell. "Sleep" in this game is really just "freeze."
  • "Body Heal" (necromancy) is a more powerful healing spell.
Freezing a couple of dwarves with "Dream."
Getting back to the dwarven mines, the first two levels have not really expanded the game's bag of tricks. There are lots of secret doors, buttons, pressure plates, teleporters, spinners, and corridors with spells whizzing by. Trying to approach the game without mapping would be a nightmare, but when you're making careful maps, none of this is terribly bothersome. Back in the original Abandoned Places, I noted that in the early levels, there was no complexity to buttons or pressure plates. When you saw one, you almost always wanted to activate it. (That sometimes makes it hard to map, however, as you can't always be sure what button opened what area.) Later in the game, it got more complicated. A button might open one door but close another. This game seems to be repeating the pattern, or at least the fist half of it. So far, there's no mystery to buttons or plates. If you see one, you press it, because it's going to open a passage that's otherwise closed. This generally means that I can solve puzzles in the order I encounter them. In a more serious Dungeon Master game, I would map everything I could without touching anything so I could be sure exactly what effect everything had.
As I got to Level 2 of the mines, there were three messages in quick succession:
  • You hear a voice saying, "You may freely go now. Do not push your luck, before its too late!"
  • The voice is getting angrier. "Leave now, rats."
  • Hundreds of dwarves are ahead, dead and tortured.
Not that I wanted to see such a thing, but it's too bad we're not in the era in which such things could be depicted visually.
The only way to go (other than locked doors) took me into a huge room called the "Room of Chaos." Here, every single one of the game's tricks was on display in a huge 13 x 15 room. My map below shows three teleporters with one destination (the 1s), numerous spinners, a couple of which are also dark squares, two slider loops, and a bunch of traps. I'm not really sure what the point of the room is. Other than a small pile of gold in the middle of one of the slider loops, there wasn't much to find except the exit. I'm not sure if I missed something.
The aptly-named "Chaos Room."
That I took the time to list and describe every spell means that I've hit that point that I always hit in Dungeon Master-style games, where there's not much left to say but still a lot of game left to play. Mapping those four outdoor areas, for instance, took about six hours but only provided me enough content for a few paragraphs. If this were Might and Magic, those same 3,600 squares would comprise 14 map areas--more than half of the outdoor game world--and there would have been enough content in there to blog about for weeks. One of these days, it would be interesting to see a hybrid of the two approaches--something with the real-time combat and puzzles of Dungeon Master and the density of content of Might and Magic. If anyone knows of such a game, please share.
Time so far: 13 hours