Monday, June 28, 2021

Perihelion: A Fabulous Place with Great Ambiance

The emperor is a freaky-looking guy
      
As I closed my first entry on Perihelion, I was trying to figure out the combat system. The game does little to ease the player into an understanding of the mechanics. It begins with what many of my commenters characterized as the most difficult battle of the game. It's not even really clear why you're fighting it, except that some hooligans and priests have decided to riot, and the party gets caught in the middle.
   
For all it's difficulty, the combat system is conceptually easy to understand. Combat takes place on a small tactical map with various corridors and rooms (unlike the Gold Box games, they do not mimic the map pattern on which combat started). Characters act in an order that I assume has something to do with their speed. During a character's round, he can move, attack with a weapon, attack with a spell, use combat medicine, defend against physical attacks, defend against spells, pass, or change inventory. He can also open the network interface, but I'm not sure this has any purpose in combat. When I tried to TALK to the enemies, they just shouted insults at me.
           
Talking to a foe in the middle of combat.
     
Turn-based games usually fall into two categories. The first goes back to Wizardry: You specify actions for each character and then hit an "OK" button, which causes the actions to execute in turn, threaded with the enemies' actions. You have to anticipate the likely consequences of earlier characters' actions to avoid wasting the round. For instance, if characters 1 and 3 both cast "Fireball" at a group of kobolds and the first character's spell wipes them out, the third character's spell is wasted.
   
The second system is exemplified by SSI games such as Wizard's Crown and the Gold Box series. In those games, you have roughly the same types of actions as in the first system, but as each character's turn comes up, he performs his actions immediately. Later characters can then base their actions on what happened to earlier characters.
   
Perihelion is a strange hybrid between the two, in that movement executes immediately but attacks go into a kind of queue. At the beginning of the round, the character specifies what he's going to do--say, shoot his gun--and later in the round, the action executes and the character chooses a target. There's an action point system that I don't quite understand. It seems to apply to movement (i.e., characters with more action points can move farther) but not to attacks.
     
Targeting an enemy.
    
But the most confusing part of the game for the novice is the spell system. It shows some influence from Dungeon Master in that each spell is a combination of four runes. Each rune represents a concept like "confidence" "pain," "arrogance," "bravery," and "shame." It's a cute idea, but there's no real logic to the combinations. There are 36 runes, and together they can make 40 spells. The manual gives the names and recipes but not the effects. So, the spell "Aura Dispersion" uses anger, pain, and modesty and "Reality Shift" uses daze, anxiety, and arrogance, but the manual is mum about why you'd want to mix either.
   
In addition to the spell components, you also have to choose a method of dispersion. These include cone, sphere, ring, and tunnel. I guess I can picture what they do based on the names, but I'm going to need to experiment to be sure.
 
Preparing spells takes a while, at least until you get familiar with the placement of the runes and what the symbols mean. It would have been nice if they were listed in alphabetical order or something. You have to look at the spell list to see what "emotional components" go into the spell, then consult the rune list to see what runes represent the components, then find those runes on the spell creation grid. You can hover over the runes on the grid to see what they represent, but I'm not sure that's any faster.
     
Stringing together runes to make a spell.
     
Once you've created the spell, you can analyze it and see what it does. The analysis tells you what attribute governs its success, what type of resistance can be used against it, the range and area of effect, the "type of modification," and the "affected values." Spells basically work directly on characters' and enemies' attributes. "Acidic Fume" decreases dexterity and speed; "Liquid Light" increases strength and speed; "Rank Poison" decreases strength and vitality; "Metallic Layers" increases stamina. (This reminds me a bit of the system used in Knights of Legend.) I might be wrong, but I don't think there are any spells that, say, paralyze an enemy, or confuse him, or make him clumsy. Everything works directly on an attribute. To that extent, I suspect "Alpha Catharsis" and "Psion Antidote" will be important spells, as they're the only ones to increase vitality, this game's version of "hit points." On the other hand, maybe the trick is to focus on offensive spells and let the character with the medical kit take care of wounds.
     
Analysis of a spell.
      
The few spells I mixed helped me a little in the first combat, but what helped more was bringing all the characters into a small area at the top of the map where enemies could only approach one at a time. That allowed me to take out about a third of them one-by-one.
     
As my character moves to a safe corner, his speed goes up 10% just from walking.
       
While this was happening, I noticed a mechanic original to this game. My characters were leveling up in various skills in the middle of combat. Their increases were based on the actions I had given them. A character who had just moved might increase in speed, or one who had just fired a ranged attack might increase in perception.

Ultimately, the horrible pathfinding required me to slowly venture out of my safe area. The pathfinding seems very simple: the enemy will take a direct path to you. If he gets hung up on an obstacle on the way, there he remains. I never really analyzed the Gold Box's approach to pathfinding, but it employed a bit of randomness so that an enemy on the other side of the wall from you had a chance of darting left or right and then rounding the wall. In this game, the enemy on the other side of the wall will stay there forever. As commenters pointed out, an unscrupulous player could exploit this to have his character just run around and defend, increasing the associated attributes, essentially forever.
     
Enemies (left) line up below a wall. They can't see my characters (right) because of the post at the end of the wall.
     
After five or six deaths and reloads, I figured out how to deal with the remaining enemies. The diagram below shows the situation about halfway through the battle. Six enemies (red dots) are hung up below the wall to the southwest. As long as my characters (blue dots) stay where they are, the enemies will never move. But if my characters advance south through the gap until they're visible, all hell breaks loose.
      
Exploiting the game's rigid pathfinding to lure enemies into a kill zone.
      
To lure the enemies out of hiding, I send one character way over to the east, where he's still invisible to the enemies because of pillars at the end of their respective walls. Now if that eastern character moves just one square to the south, the enemies will perceive a path to him, but he's too far away for them to target him. So they'll break cover and rush towards him, exposing them to my characters to the north. Once one or two have broken cover, I can send the eastern character back up to the wall while the rest of the party deals with them. That's basically how I won the battle. 
      
The battle is over!
     
I was disappointed that the enemies didn't have any loot except for a single key. That key got me into the last remaining store in the city, where I used the netcode received from the baby (ASYLUM) to access the emperor's message. It read:
     
Hail, brothers! I'm Rex Helion, 34th emperor of Perihelion. I must apologize for the method you had to use to find me, but you can believe me it was necessary. Our best mediators have discovered a special way of using very complicated cause and effect relations to mislead the Unborn, because although it is getting more and more powerful, it is still half-blind in our world. We have not much time left, so now I share with you all the information I've got.
   
We were desperately searching for any similar situation in our history, and finally we found it in form of small, incomplete file-record in the central library of CloudWing. The record tells that more than thirty years ago a little sect has prevented the infiltration of a lesser entity into our dimension using a relic or device or something what they called . . . the Guardian. We have checked the complete list of sect-members: only one of them is still alive.
    
The name of that man is MIRACH, but we have quite limited information about his current whereabouts: he had appeared last time in the WatchTower colony, south of your present location. That man and his knowledge is possibly our very last hope. I'm afraid I won't be able to get in touch with you once again, it is already difficult to deal with the penetrating energy of the Unborn so download my special permission file: It will be my protective hand during your mission. And remember: you're the most powerful strike-force on the planet . . . if you fail, our world will be gone . . . forever.
      
Based on the first combat, I'm not sure the emperor wouldn't have been better off hiring six hoodlums and a few priests. It's also funny to briefly imagine that this game is a prequel to Ultima VII, and that the Guardian is going to save Perihelion but somehow become corrupted in the process, or merge with the Unborn, or whatever.
        
We download our new "imperial permission."
     
There wasn't anything else to do in MidLight, so after we rested a couple of times to restore lost attributes, we returned to the outdoor map. Instead of going directly to WatchTower, I detoured off the route to a cave to the west. The game indicated that it was SoulTomb Mines, but it wouldn't let me in "without a compelling reason." I got the same type of message when I tried to approach a stronghold to the northeast. It seems that despite the open-world feeling of the outdoor map, the game has a particular path in mind for you.
  
I thus went where the game clearly wanted me to go:
        
WatchTower-colony . . . the mysterious origin of the postnuclear civilization, the legendary inventor of the most powerful new technologies, the most independent city-state in the Empire, protected by the most brilliantly trained military force in the Allied Zones. It is an ancient monument, an entire world of seventeen underground levels built in the heart of the desert by rough stone and raw iron: it is a precisely organized and perfectly controlled society of more than eleven thousand citizens . . . and you came here to find one of them.
        
I guess we start at the top and work our way down.
      
You know--eleven thousand doesn't sound all that daunting to me. I've lived in towns that size where everybody knew everybody. That the narrator thinks that's a large city shows how far this civilization has fallen.
   
Man, I hope the "17 levels" isn't meant literally, though. That's going to take a long time. The first level, looking a lot like a standard RPG dungeon, started out in a small "reception hall." A door on the opposite side was locked. A short corridor to the west led to a network terminal. A short corridor to the east led to a security guard. We explained our mission and he gave us a new netcode: TUNNEL. He didn't know Mirach.
         
Arriving in a new city.
       
At the network station, the TUNNEL network had five documents. As usual, two of them were secured and inaccessible, including a "colony.map" file that would have been useful. Among the other documents, a "damage report" outlined the deaths and damage suffered during a recent eruption of energy "in the middle of the Central Sectors." A document called "HoloGate" illustrated something about "placing the three reactor-details into the HoloGate service-chamber." Finally, a "security report" contained an "uncoded keyphrase for Security Zone-pass." It was written backwards but resolved as:
   
THE THIRD FROM LEFT IN THE FIRST
THE FIRST FROM RIGHT IN THE SECOND
THE SECOND FROM LEFT IN THE THIRD
    
I spent forever trying to figure out how this was going to get me through the door. Ultimately, I realized this was a solution to the later puzzle, and the way into the complex in the first place was to upload my imperial permission to the network. (This is a good place to remind you that every action you take on the network costs credits, and "upload" is one of the most expensive actions.) This unlocked the door.
     
Even the game's documents are interesting to look at.
     
I started to explore the rest of the level, but I wasn't in a good place for mapping, so I decided to wrap up the entry a bit early and sink my teeth into the game more when I get back home next week. So far, I'm not in love with the mechanics of Perihelion. The time it takes to make spells puts me off from the whole system; I can't figure out aspects of the inventory system; the game wastes its dialogue system with too few keywords; and I'm beginning to wonder if the game has any economy at all, or if you just spend your starting credits on network access throughout the game. However, the atmosphere and visuals are worth playing for--perhaps not for the first time in CRPG history, but there can't be more than two or three previous games I would have said that about. 
     
Time so far: 11 hours, mostly in failed attempts to win the first combat.

52 comments:

  1. I'm greatly enjoying reading your experiences with this game Chester, it was always beyond me at the time.

    I'm not sure what you mean by the phrase 'wasting the road'

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    1. "Round" it was supposed to be. At this rate, everything I write by the time I'm 55 will be utterly incomprehensible.

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  2. I feel like the authors might have copied the "rune" system from Dungeon Master or one of its descendants without really thinking about it. In a real-time game, knowing the combinations by heart and clicking the runes accurately are valuable skills; in a turn-based game, it just consumes time. The other wrinkle would be discovering spells by experimenting with the runes, but it sounds like the rune combinations in this game don't actually mean anything.

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    1. Indeed they don´t. Combine any runes outside the (40) spells and you just get nothing. Logic does not help even for the actual spells since, say, Schizophrenia is created by roughness + repentance + calmness, and Solar Corona by devotion + detestation.

      The copy protection aspect may justify it but punishes players with legitimate copies, which was not uncommon back then with all sorts of weird feelies and gadgets (Lenslok anyone?)

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    2. LOL I still have my original C64 Elite with Lenslok.

      It was so horifically unusable it motivated my first ever game hacking, just to bypass the often-failed Lenslok.

      After three failures, you had to start over, and (with C64 disk drive) it about 5 minutes just to get to back to Lenslok again.

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    3. I had Lenslok on a Spectrum games (can't remember which) but I think it worked okay for me. There were plenty of complaints from fellow Spectrum users, though. Maybe it depended on the size of your TV (I had a monster I picked up in a junk sale).

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    4. The rune system, especially the part about choosing the method of dispersion, reminded me a lot of how Obsidian's Tyranny does magic spells. Obviously, it was a bit more intuitive and user-friendly there, but then they had 23 years of game design progress on their side.

      This is going to come off as a little mean, but I'm enjoying reading how much Chet is into the art direction of Perihelion while side-eyeing another Bandor game in the upcoming queue. You want to talk about some striking visuals...

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    5. The first experience I ever had with physical copy-protection was Metal Gear Solid, where you had to find a character's radio frequency in a screenshot on the back of the box. I was very little at the time, so I just thought it was just an awesome fourth-wall-breaking puzzle; I didn't realize it was copy protection until years later.

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    6. That probably was just intended as an awesome fourth-wall-breaking puzzle. Copy protection on the PS1 was baked into the discs themselves and required a hardware mod to bypass. Relying on external copy protection is something that simply wasn't needed. Meanwhile Kojima loved meta-game stuff and messing with the player's head - a key boss can only be defeated by switching controller ports, and there's an incident in the sequel where your Mission Control suddenly starts screaming at you to turn off the console.

      It is possible that it was intended to swipe at the rental market - this is essentially illegal in Japan, and a lot of developers feared that it would destroy US sales. This is unlikely, as the more usual means of doing so were making the game much harder, and that had mostly died out by the PS1 era.

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    7. I had SUCH a hard time with that puzzle in Metal Gear. Stuck for days. Solid Snake had some kind of disk in his inventory and I spent several play sessions trying to figure out how to get a code off of it.

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    8. Ha, I had the same problem back then. I believe you get the in-game disk in the very same cutscene that tells you to "check the back of the CD case."

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    9. had the sam eproblem, searched ingame for a cd case...

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  3. Congratulations on getting past the infamous 1st combat.

    From now on, having deciphered the quirky spell system and the combat mechanics, your progress will be fast. And your suspicion is spot on: game is completely linear.


    'a prequel to Ultima VII, and that the Guardian is going to save Perihelion ..." -> Origin from the early 90s would proudly grab your idea and spawn two Ultima spin-offs in no time. Heh.

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    1. I so wish they did. Even the Worls of Ultima were better than anything that came after VII part 2.

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  4. Your suspicion is correct, there is no real economy here. Also, if I recall correctly, note that the amount of money left that you see is money per person, not per party. Thus, you're unlikely to run out of credits unless you're really profligate.

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    1. Is there any way to earn additional credits as the game progresses? (If Chet has already mentioned this, I missed it.)

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    2. I haven't mentioned it. Just at the close of this last session, which I'm writing the entry for now, I found a "credit card" with 3,000 credits on it. That's the only money I've found.

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  5. After reading that, I had to check the first post to make sure this game wasn't French.

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    1. Touché!

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    2. You mean it's not? How odd. I always assumed it was. This game has every hallmark of French game design, down to having inscrutable poorly-explained game mechanics. It reminds me of the B.A.T. games in a lot of ways.

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  6. The capitalization of WatchTower makes me wonder if its supposed to be a reference to the tech metal band. They do capitalize their name like that, and the author probably heard of them, but that might be stretching references a bit.

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    1. Maybe, but this game has a fetish for proper names with InterCaps. MidLight, WatchTower, SoulTrap Mines, PureBlood (an NPC), and so forth.

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  7. Is "ambiance" (rather than "ambience") a joke on the spelling errors in the game that you mentioned last post, or a typo of your own? Or a joke/reference that I'm obtusely not getting?

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    1. It is neither. It’s a perfectly correct spelling of the word.

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    2. It's like gray and grey. English do be like that sometimes.

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  8. The Emperor's portrait in the first image looks suspiciously like Feyd Rautha from Cryo Interactive's 1992 Dune game.

    https://www.filfre.net/2018/11/controlling-the-spice-part-1-dune-on-page-and-screen/duneprg_001/

    Almost as if they took the image from Dune and retouched it. I wonder what's up with that.

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    1. I had the same reaction, but it's different in a lot of small details. Wouldn't be surprised if the artist had seen the Dune art (which is itself an edited photo of Sting).

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    2. Wow, good call. I never would have found that. As for "what's up," I know that when I need to design a cover for a report or book, I can never start from scratch. I have to grab something off my shelf and use it as a base. Probably a lot of graphic artists are like that.

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    3. I thought the same thing! I didn't think it was the same image or anything, but the characters do look very similar.

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    4. It is typical (and considered best practice) to use reference of some sort for any sort of illustration. That said, it's definitely frowned on to use someone else's art as your very closely followed reference rather than just as inspiration. Aside from a few aspects (hair, tattoo, eyes) the exact pose and anatomy maps from one to the other VERY closely, so this looks like trace-then-detailing.

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    5. It's "frowned on" to an extent but it's also incredibly common in older games (as well as comic books). Hardcore Gaming 101 has a wonderful compendium of examples -- I'm particularly fond of the fact that they have an entire section just for "Schwarzenegger and Stallone":

      http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/tracing/tracing.htm

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    6. Not wrong about that @stepped pyramids! Particularly in the era before the internet-as-we-know-it, artists under tight deadlines could expect to get away with it fairly easily. These days you pull that sort of thing and it's very likely to get you castigated by fans and blacklisted by your employer (as recently happened with a couple MTG card illustrations that heavily traced over the art of a fan and of another MTG artist). There's a range to it. General consensus is that there's a 100% fine area (heavily using or tracing reference you've sourced yourself, such as your own photos or stock footage you've bought), a grey area (heavily using photo reference you don't own right off of Google images, but significantly changing major aspects such as color palette, stylization, adding setting details), a potentially darker grey area (tracing reference from other artists working on the same IP completely owned by the client or when you otherwise have permission of IP-holder), and a definite no-no (tracing over the work of other artists you don't have any IP permissions for). Those rules also tend to go out the window for things like internal-use-only concept art, as opposed to illustrations and art assets intended for public consumption, or genuinely collaborative works.

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  9. "While this was happening, I noticed a mechanic original to this game. My characters were leveling up in various skills in the middle of combat. Their increases were based on the actions I had given them. A character who had just moved might increase in speed, or one who had just fired a ranged attack might increase in perception."


    Is Perihelion really the first rpg with a Xp system where you have to use skills to level them up?

    If so that's actually mighty interesting.

    (As an aside, i find these kinds of xp systems are almost universally terrible - they all encourage grinding/do stupid random actions for xp)

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    1. To expand on this, it's not just than this kind of xp systems encourage grinding (lots of other systems also do after all) - it's that they actively punish good play.

      Needing to nine spells to defeat an enemy is suddenly better than needing three, since you get triple the xp. Quick, efficient victories give minimun reward.

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    2. No, it's not the first. Quest for Glory did it best, but even that wasn't the first. It may be the first where it actually happens in-combat, though, and particularly in this style of combat.

      I get what you're saying, but there is a bit of realism to it. In life, your expertise at a task generally grows in proportion to the time you put into it, not necessarily how efficiently you do it. That is, boxing someone for 20 minutes probably makes you a better boxer than sucker-punching them and knocking them out immediately.

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    3. DikuMUD, released 1991, gives a chance for your skills to improve each time you use them. This means your weapon and dodge skills usually improve in mid-combat. I'm not sure if its predecessors also do that.

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    4. This kind of leveling system always gives me nightmare flashbacks to Final Fantasy Tactics, making everyone stand around with no weapons hucking rocks at one of their own guys for hours in order to "train".

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    5. In Dungeon Master (1987) you acquire XPs in specific abilities in this way. You can also level-up in the middle of a combat.

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    6. Yes, that's true, but you have to "level-up in the middle of combat" because there's no "out of combat." Combat is integrated with regular exploration. I wasn't expecting it in this sort of game, I suppose primarily because it's impossible not to think about the Gold Box system while you're playing it.

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    7. Final Fantasy II (released in 1988) also had a use-based leveling up, where attacking with melee has a chance with increasing STR, etc, paired with traditional JRPG game play.

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    8. What about Magic Candle series? IIRC you could get skill increases in the middle of combat there.

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    9. Yes, all right, fine. It's not as unusual as I thought. I should have just said that it surprised me without suggesting that it was particularly innovative.

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    10. We won, guys! (Victory laps around the corpse.)

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    11. RuneQuest gives us progression based on skill use in 1978 in a tabletop game. I'm sure someone tried a computer implementation soon after.

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  10. FFII's leveling system has got to be the victim of the worst smear campaign in video gaming. Because enemy rank factors into the chances of your weapon, shield, and magic levels increasing, it's often much more productive to go after the toughest enemies you can find than it is to sit around attacking your own party members. (This goes for all versions of the game, not just the GBA remake.) Nearly every review of the game out there ignores this completely in favor of repeating a meme for clicks.

    FFII may have many shortcomings, but as far as I'm concerned, its stat progression system wasn't one of them.

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  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. Booobs, I'm afraid your time on this blog is over. I can't stop you from commenting, but your comments are unwelcome and I will be deleting them from now on with no further commentary.

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    2. Now I'm really curious what he said :p

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    3. PetrusOctavianusJune 30, 2021 at 7:31 AM

      Mr. Addict don't like boobs?

      Delete
  12. Don't bother with spells. Just equip all characters with nunchuks and you will demolish all enemies (even the Unborn).

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  13. The rune system profoundly fails to achieve the potential initially promised by their intriguing approach. The player is required to enter the same information multiple times, as different magic users share many of the same spells. It becomes a typing and translation chore, entering information from the manual into the game, repeatedly.

    Each class has about 30 spells. Suppose you have three magic users. Enjoy the many mouse-clicks to initiate nearly 100 spells.

    This would have been much more rewarding, if runes were discovered in the game. Imagine the satisfaction of completing another spell or two with each rune discovered! The copy protection remains equally functional through the manual's enumeration of spells.

    This mechanic was used to good effect in SSI's "The Summoning," although it used gestures rather than a rune system. Their approach made the discovery of another rune and the expansion of your character's magical power a delight, rather than a nuisance and a chore.

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