Sunday, August 29, 2021

Shadows of Darkness: Take a Deep Breath, Pick Yourself Up

Every time you visit Dr. Cranium, he's further along his quest to reanimate a body.
After the bugs and revelations of the last few entries, I thought it best to start over. I restarted with the paladin, as I wanted to see his story through. The prospect of starting over in a Quest for Glory game is never terribly daunting, since most of the time you spend in the game is scoping the territory and learning how to solve the puzzles. Once you have that down, you can speed through a replay. This time, I was a bit smarter. The game supports unlimited saves, so I started taking a new numbered save every 15 minutes or so. I also took more careful notes about what actions awarded me points, which I've annotated below in parentheses.
I'll recount the replay chronologically, although in shorthand when I'm covering things I already did in previous entries.
Day 0.5
  • Woke up in the initial cavern.
  • Searched the skeleton and got money and the dagger (2).
  • Searched second skeleton and got money and flint.
  • Got the torch.
  • Used the dagger on the flint and the flint on the torch to light it (6). 
  • Exited the cavern.
  • Picked up the sword and shield from the dead warrior. 
  • Killed the badders and left the cave.
  • Crossed the rope hand-over hand (15) and went outside.
  • Got the dark one's sigil from the arch after meeting Katrina (6).
  • Grabbed some rocks and flowers on the way to town. It got light as I walked.
Day 1
  • Walked to town, spoke to everyone, bought everything at the shop.
I realized that I had picked up flowers the first time but never really did anything with them. This time, I tried giving them to everyone I met. Olga was grateful for them. Most other characters refused them. I think they helped my "Honor" score go up a bit, though.
I'm just trying to be friends, Dmitri.
  • Used the key from the burgomeister to get into the adventurer's guild (6).
  • Got fine sword and rope and grapnel (2).
  • Signed adventurer's logbook (2) and used exercise machine (6).
  • Solved Dr. Cranium's door puzzle (6).
  • Used the TRAP to identify an antwerp (2).
While I was at the TRAP, I thought I'd use it to identify some of the other creatures in the game. The nature of the questions it asks you prevents you from identifying most of them (e.g., the vorpal bunny), but it did identify the octopus creatures above the monastery doors as "hexapods" and said I could feed them garlic (2). I had figured that out in the last session, but only by trying everything in my pack.

I gotta be honest; I don't think I've ever counted the tentacles on an octopus or squid.
  • Caught an antwerp in the trap (2) and solved the antwerp maze (6).
  • Solved Dr. Cranium's keyhole puzzle (6).
  • Talked to Cranium and solved his copy protection puzzles for health potion (2) and poison cure potion (2). Got one of each potion and some empty flasks from him.
  • Shuffled messages from Boris to Olga until the evening.
  • Checked into the inn and spoke to everyone there.
Here was the first major divergence. Alerted by commenter ATMachine to the importance of the encounter, I slept hour-by-hour until midnight, then went out of my room. My paladin senses alerted me to someone watching me. The domovoi (cool Wikipedia entry) was sitting above the fireplace like an elf on the shelf. He introduced himself and was happy to hear that I'm a hero, as Mordavia really needs one. He promised he'd explain more at a later meeting. There wasn't much to do at this point, so I went back to bed and slept until morning.
It took me a while to spot him.
Honestly, I'm not sure what hint I missed that would have led me to exit my room in the middle of the night. I think most players would "sleep until morning" if they used the bed at the inn at all.
Slept until morning.
Day 2
  • Went outside into forest. Met Leshy (2) and got his quest.
I went back to the screen with the squid obelisk and the bonsai tree. I tried throwing rocks at the "dam" again and managed to crash the game. Discouraged, I looked up the error online and discovered that I was approaching the puzzle wrong. What the fighter/paladin is supposed to do is loosen it with the rope and grapnel, climb up to the ledge above it, then retrieve it with the rope and grapnel. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me, since in previous games "Climbing" was always a thief skill and "Throwing" belonged to both fighter and thief. But anything to avoid the crash, I guess. I wasn't a good enough climber to solve this yet, so I marked it for later. 
Man who snag bonsai tree with rope and grapnel accomplish anything.
  • Finished Boris/Olga exchange. I didn't get any points for it, but my honor went up.
  • Killed a wyvern.
  • Met the Rusalka and gave her flowers (6).
  • Back in town, entered the monastery (6).
  • Gave garlic to hexapod and entered basement (6).
  • Drank liquor, had vision, and got Ritual of Blood.
  • Couldn't open the desk because I wasn't strong enough.
  • Returned to the adventurer's guild, used the exercise machine, practiced climbing for hours. It was dark when I left.
  • Went to the town square and met Piotyr.
  • Climbed over the wall, went into the forest, got drained by a wraith.
  • Met Anna and convinced her she was a ghost (6).
  • Finally got the damned bonsai tree (15).
  • Filled a flask with the goo that surrounded the tree in case it was "grue goo." I got (6), so I assume it must be.
I had been talking to Irene about this game, as she had played it with me back in the mid-1990s. She reminded me two things that I didn't remember. The first was that we hadn't finished it in the mid-1990s because of a bug. The second was that we had captured some will-o-wisps in a jar by giving them candy. I didn't have enough time to yell "spoilers!" before that second part was out.
Now that I knew that, I felt it was silly to ignore it, so I returned to the wisp screen, since it was nighttime and right next door to the bonsai screen. I lured the wisps with candy and then captured them in an empty flask (6).
Irene always gets me in trouble.
  • Went to Erana's Garden and slept for the night, got the first nightmare. I spent more time searching the garden than I had the first time, and I found 30 crowns in a lamp.
  • Woke up to find the will-o-wisp dead! Lost like 30 honor points, which cost me the paladin healing ability. I guess I should have delayed finding them. Reloaded from before the bonsai. This time, slept in the garden first, then went and got the bonsai. Left the wisps alone.
Day 3
  • Encountered another wyvern. Tried letting the game fight for me, but the problem is, it never seems to parry. Got poisoned again and ran through all my stamina. 
I returned to Leshy with the bonsai tree, but he wouldn't even acknowledge that I had it. Fortunately, I had just spent a while clicking all around Erana's Garden, and I had noted a pile of dirt there from which the bonsai might have been removed in the first place. I took it back and planted it, and it immediately grew (6). 
Leshy made me play a little hide-and-seek before finally acknowledging me. He gave me a riddle whose answer was RUSALKA (2) before telling me his clue: the word "Disappear" should remove the bushes blocking the way to Baba Yaga's hut. I didn't need to visit her yet, so I saved that for later.
Aren't leshies supposed to have horns?
  • Returned to town and talked to Dr. Cranium, but he didn't ask me for grue goo yet.
  • Told Nikolai about Anna being in the forest.
  • Exercised at adventurers' guild until my strength was above 300. Returned to monastery, forced open desk, read about rituals.
  • Visited Olga, bought more rations, oil, and garlic.
  • At dusk, went into the inn and met Punny Bones.
  • Slept an hour, went back outside, had second encounter with Piotyr.
  • Climbed over the town gate, met Katrina, learned "Frostbite."
  • Returned to inn, met Punny Bones in his room and learned about his curse.
  • Slept until midnight, then went out into common area.
The domovoi was back. This time, he had more to say. He hinted that Tanya was alive, and that he wanted to help them for Yuri and Bella's sake. He also told me about the Rusalka and the fact that the gypsies would know how to uncurse her. He said he wouldn't give me any more information until I helped him. Apparently, there's a domovoi in the monastery, but it's desiccated and must be revived. I said good night, returned to my room, and slept until morning.
In case I hadn't already figured out how to get into the monastery, this would have helped.
Day 4
I returned to Dr. Cranium, solved the copy protection exercise for the Rehydration Solution (2), gave him the grue goo, and got the solution. I returned to the monastery and identified the domovoi as something I had previously taken as a statue. I dumped the solution on him (6). He came to life, gave me a hint about getting past the hexapod over the fireplace (which I didn't need), and left.
I couldn't think of anything to do at this point that didn't require another trigger, so I went out into the forest and spent a day in personal development. I threw rocks, climbed trees, fought monsters, and tried out my "Frostbite" spell. Despite a few combats, my "Dodge" ability remains fixed at 200. There's really no way to dodge in this game. You can duck, but I'm not sure it's the same thing, and it never seems to work anyway.
Nailing a monster with "Frostbite."
I made a visit to the Rusalka for no particular reason. This time, I had some dialogue options that I didn't have before (because of timing). I was able to tell her about Piotyr and his desire that I cure her. She had some introspective comments on how she became a Rusalka and what that means: "I suppose I drown people to get revenge for my death, but it's not a lot of fun. I mean, what good is revenge if you can't remember who you want revenge on?" Most important, she reminded me that the swamp may be navigable. "You need to be really strong to move in that muck," she said, "and make sure you have a sword ready!"
A lot of my statistics went up from today's activities.
She was right. Wading through the swamp saps stamina, but there isn't any other trick except to occasionally beat at the grasping limbs with your sword.
After a few screens, I found an obelisk (6) guarded by two creatures that the manual describes as "Chernovy Wizards." They cast spells as you approach and in combat. It took me a few tries before I was able to defeat both of them.
I blunder into two very hard enemies.
The obelisk indicated that it had a depression in the shape of my Dark One sigil, so I used it on it, and found myself on a puzzle screen with eight symbols. I'd seen them before. It took some shuffling through my screenshots before I found one in the monastery. The relief above the doorway had five of the symbols, in the same clockwise order as the puzzle. When I was out of symbols, I just kept going clockwise, and it worked. I got the Dark One's Bone Ritual (2). That means this must be the mad monk's tombstone.
While I was consulting my notes to determine what the Diary of Amon Tillado had said about the Bone Ritual, I remembered that another one was supposed to be found on the squid stone, revealed "by the light of a dead child's soul." I had assumed it had something to do with Tanya, but is it possible that wisps are the spirits of dead children? They do like candy, after all. I decided to check it out.
I captured one as before, then brought it to the obelisk. When I held the flask up to the obelisk, signs appeared. I used the sigil on the obelisk and it opened a puzzle where I (obviously) had to spell out the name of the Dark One, AVOOZL, with the letters. This opened a secret compartment and got me the Sense Ritual (6).
The flask reveals hidden glyphs.
On the way back to town, I witnessed Anna and Nikolai's reunion (2), but this time I had cause to come back to the square later, and they had returned. They thanked me for reuniting them and offered to help me if they could. Nikolai had some intelligence about vampires having moved into Castle Borgov and the secret passage necessary to get there. He also gave me his hat (2).
Dodging wraiths, I slept at Erana's place. 
Day 5
  • Returned to town and witnessed confrontation between burgomeister and townsfolk over the missing Igor and the captured gypsy.
  • Rescued Igor (15) and read all the headstones.
  • Returned to town, talked to Igor, and got the crypt key.
  • Went to the gypsy camp, but for some reason I wasn't welcome yet.
Baba Yaga's yard.
I went to the bushes blocking the way to Baba Yaga's and said the magic phrase. They disappeared. I walked west to the hut screen (6), which showed Baba's traditional hut on chicken's legs, although it seemed smaller than the last time I saw it. A tree with a hanging body loomed in her front yard. I assumed this was "hangman's tree" from the Diary of the Mad Monk, but there was nothing in the hollow.
Bonehead, the skull with the gem for an eye, recognized me immediately as I approached. (I honestly thought he was named "Morty," but I don't know why.) When I asked about the gnome, he asked me to bring him something "to keep the sun out of [his] eyes." I gave him Nikolai's hat (6), and he told the other skulls to let me through.
As I approached the hut, it shied away, apparently blaming me for having to fly all the way from Spielburg. "If you want to catch a chicken, think like a chicken," Bonehead offered. I went through my inventory, and the only thing I could think that a chicken might want is corn. I put it on the ground, and the hut came over and squatted atop it (6). I entered.
Somehow, I speak my "last words" through a coating of ice.
Baba Yaga had set up an ambush for me. The moment I entered, a bucket of water spilled on me, and the ogress shouted an incantation that turned the water to ice. She taunted me for a while and contemplated eating me, but she realized that what she really wanted was Elderbury Pie. Remembering that I'd successfully fetched her mandrake in the past, she zapped me out of the hut with orders to return with Elderbury Pie.
Fortunately, Bonehead helped with the recipe: bonemeal (clearly made with the mortar and pestle in Baba Yaga's yard), grue goo, and Elderbury berries. I knew where to get the latter two. I still hadn't figured out how to get the berries without the bush swatting me, but I could take the damage. I threw rocks at it until it dropped some berries, ran over, picked them up, absorbed the damage, and got away. I got some more goo in the usual place.
Oddly, this skeleton was gone later.
Bones were tougher than you might imagine. You can't loot them from slain enemies or get them from the cemetery. The Dark One's cave, which had some skeletons, is closed off. But I remembered a skeleton near the swamp, and I was able to get a bone there.
Returning to the hut, I ground the bone and added it, the goo, and the berries. I showed it to Bonehead, and he told me to bring it to one of the other skulls. The skull blasted it with some kind of heat ray, cooking it.
Bonehead looks dashing in his hat.
In the hut, Baba Yaga turned me into a hedgehog before remembering I was bringing her pie. She was forced to turn me back into a human. I dithered too long and she killed me, so I had to reload and go through the whole thing again.
I gave her the pie (6), and she offered to reward me. I had three options: something to restore the gnome's humor, a spell, or "something else." This was a tough choice, as I'd promised the gnome to help, but "something else" was the ritual from the tree. Fortunately, it turns out that you can repeat the exercise, with any of the individual ingredients of the pie, and get the other two rewards. Baba Yaga also had some information for me: the people in the castle (Ad Avis and Katrina) are the ones who summoned me here, but they intended for me to land in a "summoning circle," not the Dark One's cave. It's just that the cave happens to draw magical energies.
Baba Yaga is unexpectedly helpful.
I ran into the Leshy on the way back to town, and he had a couple more riddles for me (4). The second one indicated that the Heart Ritual would be found with a wraith in the woods. I still don't know how to survive their draining attack.
I waited until dusk and wasted some time looking around for Katrina. I climbed over the gate and returned to the inn. When I entered the gnome's room, something weird happened. My "Honor" went up, and the game said that I now had the paladin's "Danger Sense." Hadn't I had it all along? How did I lose it after Wages of War? Anyway, I gave the gnome the Good Humor Bar (15) from Baba Yaga, and he got his humor back. As a reward, he told me the Ultimate Joke, which the game didn't relate, but apparently I found it funny. I hope it's this one; I've tried to tell it a few times, but it only really works if you commit to the physical part as sincerely as Hackett.
I went to bed for a few hours, came out at midnight, and met with the domovoi again. He was happy that I'd freed his friend, and he agreed to help me. He related the story of Tanya and the big ape creature that I'd already heard from their point of view: Tanya's parents wouldn't let her go outside; Tanya befriended Toby and got the doll from him; Tanya's mother freaked and hid the doll; Tanya was sad, and Toby took her away to the castle. The domovoi told me where I could get the doll from the cabinet on the far wall. It was soon in my hands.
I wonder if now that I know where it is, I can just grab it in a future game.
I returned to my room, went to sleep, and found a note waiting for me when I woke up. How someone managed to slip in there is quite a mystery. It was from Katrina, asking me to meet her outside the town gates. I think this is the note that's sometimes bugged, so I suppose I've crossed that hurdle.
I would have kept checking the town gates even without this note.
Day 6  
Davy the Gypsy was waiting when I went outside in the morning. He thanked me for arranging his freedom, invited me to visit his camp, turned into a wolf, and took off. I didn't get this encounter last time.
  • Visited the gypsy camp (2), got the "Aura" spell and the information, had my fortune told (2). Unfortunately, the mandatory socialization afterwards kept me from meeting Katrina.
  • Visited the Rusalka, got her to remember her name, got a lock of her hair.
I laughed at this.
I didn't want to visit the castle again until I'd met with Katrina. I couldn't finish the Rusalka quest until night, so I spent the day in more character development. At night, Katrina was outside town again, but she didn't have much that was new to say. She claims to work at the castle, which is why she can't get away during the day. She asked me to meet her outside the castle gates next time.
  • Went to the cemetery, defeated Janos's ghost (6), and freed the Rusalka (15). This got me the paladin's "Honor Shield." I don't know why I didn't get it last time, or for that matter why I didn't still have it from the previous game.
I accidentally wandered up to the castle gates when I was trying to get back to town, and I was surprised to see Katrina there. I assumed she meant to meet her a different night. She wasn't wearing her headscarf this time. We went through a little small talk and flirting, but I still got nothing useful from her. I tried to use garlic on her, but she just said, "No, thank you. I can't abide the smell of garlic." She asked me to meet her in three nights' time and took off.
Katrina needs to learn the difference between "coy" and "subtle."
I climbed over the gate and returned to town. Piotyr met me in the square with a different message this time, encouraging me to defeat the wraith. I'm trying, buddy. Maybe "wraith" will be a dialogue option now.
You think you're being cryptic, but I totally get it.
I'm well back on track now, so I'll pick up next time, and perhaps win.
Time so far: 17 hours

Friday, August 27, 2021

Stronghold: Summary and Rating

My halfling emperor has defeated all enemies!
United States
Stormfront Studios (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1994 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 8 August 2021
Date Finished: 16 August 2021
Total Hours: 21
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 26
Ranking at time of posting: 215/444 (48%)
To wrap up my coverage of Stronghold, I'll discuss my experience playing a game on "Hostile" mode with a halfling ruler and dwarf, mage, fighter, and cleric vassals.
This is what a fully-upgraded halfling stronghold looks like, by the way.
I started the usual way, building farms and housing and claiming trees and mines. As my income grew, I expanded into granaries (you need a lot of food storage to get through winters), vaults, and some training institutions. My character got promoted to duke just on city-building alone.
Eventually, I started to notice enemy units to my east, and I went through the army-building process described above. The enemy faction was giant bats. I fought them to their "stronghold" (a cave) and destroyed it. Ultimately, that's what you need to do to defeat any faction. I found out the hard way that destroying a stronghold will immediately cause any random units of that faction to make a beeline for your stronghold in revenge. You need to prepare for this by having units in between (and it's very hard to send units to multiple different locations) or by cleaning up most of the random units before attacking the stronghold. This is usually pretty easy because enemies tend to have only a single unit on most rectangles except their strongholds. I found that if I set a destination for my army that would take them through the middle of a bunch of enemy forces, they would generally clear a path of destruction in between, wiping out those single units.
Big battle in front of an evil cleric's stronghold.
While I was finishing up with the giant bats, I ran afoul of another faction of "evil clerics" in the same area. They had low-level undead in their armies, but they were easy to defeat, particularly with my own clerics turning undead.
I set up a tower and immediately noticed a third faction in the northeast corner. I started sending my army against its outlying units, and there encountered my first problem. This was a faction of wights. Wights can only be turned by the highest-level clerics, and they can only be damaged by magic weapons or spells. The only way to get magic weapons into your party is by building forges and upgrading them at least once. I hadn't built any. I immediately had my dwarf, fighter, and cleric factions work on forges (mages don't get that option), but building them takes a long time, and you have to not only build them but then improve them one level so they start spitting out +1 weapons. Even then, they only distribute them to units at a rate of one per turn, and the distribution seems to be random.
Well, that's going to be a problem.
For a couple of entire seasons, I fought straggling wights with my mages doing most of the damage and the other units just serving as cannon fodder to keep the mages alive. Eventually, +1 clubs, short swords, and bows started appearing in the hands of my units, and I could do some serious damage. I pressed forward and destroyed the wight fortress. This entire time, I had been sending new units to the battlefront, but as I mentioned, a lot of them deserted and claimed parcels of land on their own. I manually unassigned some of these units, but others I just sighed and left them where they were, creating a string of occupied territory between my central kingdom and the areas I'd conquered.
I figured while my army was already in the field, I might as well focus on them and clear as many other enemy factions as I could. My kingdom was already built as much as it really needed to be. I had a solid income coming in and plenty of places to store gold and food. I had training facilities and equipment facilities for each type of unit, plus an arena that supposedly improves all factions faster. I was spending money to upgrade random facilities, trees, and farmland just so it wouldn't go to waste.
This was just a vanity project.
The army was in the northeast corner, so I picked a random square in the mid-north corner and sent them there, then moved them towards the northwest corner. You understand that while the main army was doing this, new units were traveling from my central kingdom to join them in these destination squares. As I got close to new factions, I started seeing their units. I cleared out two strongholds of dire wolves, one of giant toads, and one of evil fighters. I began to wonder how many damned factions there were on the map. My main character was crowned emperor--enough to win a "lawful" version of the game--during this process.
This halfling truly bows to no one.
All of a sudden, I was in serious trouble. One of my guard towers to the west of the kingdom was wiped out by a party of obsidian statues. They literally seemed to come out of nowhere (and in more than one sense; I've never seen them in a previous D&D game). I realized with horror that there was a line of them extending westward heading for my kingdom, and specifically my mage's keep.
I immediately recalled my army, but it was too late. The obsidian statues blew through my outer defenses. By painstakingly swapping new Level 1 units for some of my more experienced ones, I was able to halt them on a hill one square to the south of the mage's keep, where a pitched battle began. A few fighter, cleric, and mage units held them off long enough for my field units to start returning to the square.
The resulting battle lasted literal years of game time. I think the seasons changed nine times. During most this time, I had every new unit join the battle, but otherwise the kingdom went on as normal. (You don't have to click within a rectangle and watch the battle for the battle to continue; I'm not sure if it makes any difference if you do.) I continued making upgrades, including to my main stronghold. I upgraded forges and armories. 
This battle would not end.
One of my commenters wanted me to comment on combat sounds. The game is otherwise relatively sparse with sound. Where it's not sparse, it's annoying. For instance, when you click on one of your leaders to view his statistics, there's an obnoxious pause while the game loads a sound file--either a cheer, silence, or jeers depending on his favorability with the populace. But in combat, the sounds are pretty good. There are clanks and thuds for weapons and lots of sounds associated with spell effects, including a satisfying zap when a mage fires off a lightning bolt. Unfortunately, I think these sounds contribute to frequent stuttering during combat. There are some other oddities, too. I think there might be a maximum number of characters that the game can depict on a single screen. Very often, my army would clear out the enemy forces but still show as "in combat." I would click off the screen and return, and there would be half a dozen more enemies there.
Slowly, the tide started to turn in their favor. The game had been going on so long by this point (about 10 hours of real time) that I almost welcomed a loss. I could still say I "won" with the previous character but also had the experience of combat. But I sucked it up and started taking units from built rectangles and sending them into combat. Immediately, the structures started to decay, and ultimately I lost most of them. As even those units fell, I started taking more and more. By the time I eventually turned the tide, I had deconstructed fully half my kingdom, including key facilities like vaults and forges.
Things got pretty grim for a while.
The one positive from the experience was the army that remained was mostly higher-level units. My thoughts immediately turned to revenge. I sent everyone I had westward, towards where I assumed the obsidian statues were coming from. About the same time, a faction of trolls started attacking from the south, so I had to permanently station some units on their path of approach to deal with them, which mostly worked. I also let new units occasionally establish themselves in the rectangles from which I'd taken the veteran units, thus slowly rebuilding my kingdom. Fortunately, I had plenty of income still, and because I was already emperor, I didn't really need to keep anyone happy.
Before I found the obsidian statues, I cleared out a faction of minotaurs. The statues themselves weren't as hard on their home turf as they'd been on mine, but the final battle still took so long that I established a series of outposts on the west side of the map. Outposts allow you to spawn new factions in areas other than the central kingdom. It's not quite the same thing as "vectoring" in Warlords because you can't control what percentage of new units spawn there, but it's better than nothing.
Destroying the obsidian statues' stronghold was the highlight of the game. I then sent my army southeast into troll territory and destroyed them. From my guard towers in their territory, I identified the final faction, which was a bunch of goblins in the southeast. They swiftly fell before my horde of Level 6-8 units.
On this map, you can see my kingdom in the center and my field units entering the goblin kingdom to the southeast.
"All enemies destroyed," the game told me, as I settled back in satisfaction, ready to finally write this entry. That satisfaction turned to rage when the message changed: "Next wave of enemies appear." Seriously!? Destroying 12 other kingdoms wasn't enough?! The neutral or chaotic hero really gets a raw deal in this game.
Next what now?
The "second wave" consisted of a smaller number of more difficult enemies, including more obsidian statues, more giant toads, fire giants, and the dreaded Lord Mindark. Some of their strongholds spawned right next to rectangles I was already occupying, leading to immediate combat.
I had a high-level army already in the field, though, and my kingdom was by now restored to full power. I was having to stop every few minutes to spend tens of thousands of accumulated gold on new buildings and upgrades I didn't even need. Upgrade some random farmland for 3,000! Turn a tree into a forest for 4,000 (how, exactly?)! Make that forge capable of +2 weapons for 8,000! Build another arena!
I can't remember what these enemies are.
Thus, the only difficulty was the time it takes to send units from one place to another. I revved up DOSBox considerably during this period. As the army reached each kingdom, though, they were pretty swiftly victorious. I destroyed the fire giants last. Steeling myself for a "third wave," I was happy to see that the game, in fact, ended there. I could continue playing, but my score wouldn't be recorded beyond what I'd already accomplished.
Major rewards for destroying Mindark's stronghold. Too bad it's the end of the game.
In retrospect, that I was able to win twice in succession, including on "Hostile" difficulty, suggests that perhaps the game is a bit too easy. Then again, I never faced medusas, red dragons, stone giants, or vampires, all of which the manual says are possible. Perhaps you need to play custom difficulty to generate those, or perhaps I just got lucky. Because I found it relatively easy, there are a lot of aspects of the game that I didn't explore, a lot of buildings that I never tried, and a lot of variables that I never optimized. For instance, I didn't overly worry which race claimed a mine, tree, or farm even though dwarves, elves, and halflings do better with those things, respectively. I didn't fiddle much with the "pyramids" (which adjust the proportion of time spent on various activities). I never had one hero build a location and then transfer it to a different hero. I never did much with walls or even bridges. 
I wish I could put these two against each other.
I wouldn't say that I "enjoyed" the game--I don't really like city simulators--but I found it remarkably addictive. The character who won on "Hostile" took about 14 hours, and I'm sorry to say that I played most of that in a single day, from about 14:00 to about 04:00. There never seemed to be any good place to stop. I've had the same feeling with Warlords and other strategy games. I've never played Civilization, but I've heard players say that it's almost impossible not to binge. Afterwards, I saw city blocks in my dreams. I felt vaguely ill, like a mental hangover, the next day. There are times after playing an RPG in which I don't feel like it was a great use of time, but I rarely feel so utterly drained.

In a GIMLET, I give the game:
  • 1 point for the game world. There isn't much to the story. You're not even told what planet you're on.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The specific assemblage of "characters" makes a big difference in gameplay, and I like the way that units can get experience through training instead of just combat. 
The only "leveling" that matters is in random units, like this one.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The enemies are D&D standard, with their strengths and weaknesses well-programmed. There are no other types of encounters or puzzles.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. There are a lot of factors in combat, but you don't control any of them except what units to bring. This makes combat more strategic than tactical.
A battle before the obsidian statue stronghold.
  • 1 point for equipment. You have no control over specific inventories, just what your kingdom in general is capable of producing.
  • 5 points for the economy. It's one of the most vital parts of the game. It lacks a certain complexity, though, and about 3/4 of the way through any game you're spending money just to spend it.
  • 2 points for a main quest, or at least a main objective.
Destroying the evil Mindark is the closest the game has to a "main quest."
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. I found the graphics too small and the sound too sparse, but the interface is the biggest problem. There are some things that work well, but these are overwhelmed by the deficiencies--no ability to control individual units, no ability to mass-unassign units, no ability to stack units, no ability to see developed and undeveloped parcels, and more.
  • 7 points for gameplay. Games take a bit too long, but beyond that it's hard to find much to complain about. There's a lot of challenge and replayability packed into each session, particularly with the initial game options.
That gives us a final score of 26, which sounds low, but this is a city-simulator/strategy game being rated with RPG criteria. 
Note that SSI called it a "kingdom simulator."
Computer Gaming World tackled this one in November 1993, with H. E. Dille giving it a positive review, though noting that once you master the strengths and weaknesses of various characters, it's nearly impossible to lose. My experience bears this out. 
Overall, it's a much better game than I would have expected given the circumstances of its development and release. It was authorized by SSI in the waning days of their D&D license. In addition to the last of the reliable Gold Box games, this period resulted in a flurry of unconventional titles, including Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace (1992), Fantasy Empires (1993), Dungeon Hack (1993), and Menzoberranzan (1994). I haven't played most of these. The general consensus seems to be that they're mostly misfires, maybe with a few good ideas, but to me Stronghold is more solid (again, for its proper genre) than the rest. Of the developers SSI used, Stormfront always seems to have done at least a competent job.
In 2017, Christopher Weaver, the founder of Bethesda, interviewed Don Daglow, project director for Stronghold, for the Smithsonian Institution. In the interview, Daglow takes credit for the conception of Stronghold. He had been musing about a combination of SimCity and Dungeons & Dragons, but he held off development on it until he came up with the concept of the 3D side view to make it look less like SimCity specifically. He goes on about the 3D in a 2000s GameBanshee interview, too (it "was an optical illusion created in 2D with display panes and careful use of camera angles!"). I find it amusing what elements developers think matter. To me, the 3D view is the least interesting part of Stronghold. It would have been easier to work with each plot if you had seen it from the top down, like SimCity, and thus better understood the positioning of terrain elements. Anyway, Stormfront pitched the game to SSI, got the green light, and the result is in front of us.
There's a part of me that wants to start a new campaign, so I'd better get away from this time suck fast. Dark Sun recently appeared on the upcoming list, so we'll have a new D&D game fairly quickly.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Shadows of Darkness: Nuages (Part 2)

Continuing from yesterday's narrative:

Together, Wherever We Go

In the last entry, I told of the old Nikolai, futilely searching around his house for his lost wife, Anna. Olga told me that she was lost in the forest and "eaten by something terrible."
I found Anna's ghost while wandering through the forest. Unaware that she was dead, she begged me to lead her home but was incapable of following. The game forced me to encounter her a few times before I could finally clue her in that she was dead.
How did Nikolai even die?
After she accepted her fate, the game allowed me to tell Nikolai where he could find her. Nikolai went hobbling off into the forest. The next time I visited the square where I'd seen Anna, I found both of their spirits. (There was no indication of how Nikolai died.) They both expressed their love; Anna said they could now be together forever; and the spirits united and disappeared. 
This is a touching scene. Honest.
Another way to look at it is I used an addled old man's grief over his lost wife to convince him to wander into the woods until he died of exposure. Paladin!
Let Me Entertain You

Returning to the inn one evening, I sighed to note the presence of a gnomish jester standing on a table and telling jokes. He introduced himself as Punny Bones. (He's voiced by prolific voice and character actor Hamilton Camp.) His jokes were terrible, but he suggested that wasn't his fault. He'd somehow forgotten most of the good ones.
Punny gets a review.
At his invitation, I later met him in his room. He related that his lack of humor was a curse from Baba Yaga. Having no sense of humor herself, she got angry when Punny Bones told a joke about her, and she cursed him so that he would have no sense of humor, either.
Don't try to make sense of it.
The gypsies later told me where I could find Baba Yaga, but I can't figure out how to get past the magical bushes that block the path. If she has a weakness for food, it's not for any food that I'm carrying.
I would imagine that's true of a lot of bushes.
Punny Bones is pretty goofy, but the character basically works in this world. There's nothing particularly wrong about the idea of an itinerant gnome that makes his money as a comedian. He didn't bother me as much as I would have thought.
Wax On, Wax Off

The part I like most about Quest for Glory games is watching my statistics increase as I successfully employ them. I had been returning to the adventurer's guild daily to use the strength machine (you can only use it once per day) because I thought I needed improved strength to get the bonsai tree in the swamp. I later became convinced that I needed to improve my climbing skill for the same reason. Fortunately, there's a ring on the ceiling of the guild that you can use to practice climbing, by tossing your grapple up to it and shimmying up and down the rope. The only problem is forgetting to grab the rope and grapple when you're done, which I only do every single time.
It looks to me like I'm doing okay.
Again, I thought I had to buff up so I'd be strong enough to push the squid obelisk out of the way of the bonsai tree, but it turns out that all pushing does is knock it over so that you can climb back up to the cave (the path you originally come down is too slippery). Clicking around with other solutions for the bonsai tree, the game suggested I needed to climb up to the ledge above it. It took me a while to build my climbing skill to the point that I could do that with the grapnel and rope. But that was a dead end, too. I suspect that's simply the thief's way back up to the cave.
Man, I could have solved this hours ago.
Essentially, I had misinterpreted the scene graphically. The only thing stopping me from getting the bonsai tree was a pile of rocks creating a dam in the river of goo in which the tree sat. By knocking them apart with my own rocks, I broke the dam and the tree came loose and flowed down to the end of the rocks next to me. Saving the tree from goo is a requirement to get help from the Leshy.
Well, now it feels more like I'm playing an authentic version of the game.
Unfortunately, I can't figure out how this ends because the game crashes if I pick up the tree or try to leave this screen. I don't know whether this is a temporary problem or a permanent one, so I'm going to continue playing and solving puzzles until I know for sure this is a "walking dead" situation, then figure out what to do from there. The error is #47 ("not an object") if anyone has ever seen it before.
All I Need is the Girl

It was Olga who first clued me in that the residents of Castle Borgov might be vampires. As for their "Master," I know it's Katrina, the woman who met me outside the cave when I first arrived. I remember it from playing the game in the 1990s, but even if I didn't, I think I would have figured it out by now. Any woman who only hangs around at night despite insisting that it's dangerous at night clearly has something going on.
Katrina was waiting for me after I climbed over the town gate one evening (it took me a few tries). She chastised me for wandering around at night and gave me the "Frostbite" spell to protect myself. We flirted a bit, and she gave me some generic answers to questions about Mordavia, magic, and the like, but she abruptly departed before I got through the rest of the keywords.
What game are you playing?
My first attempt to get into Castle Borgov was to climb the gates at night, when Boris was off-duty. That got me promptly eaten by the two necrotaurs guarding the other side--which I don't understand, as I can defeat necrotaurs in regular combat.
Things are about to take a dire turn.
Later, after freeing Igor and getting the key to the Borgov crypt from him, I found the secret way into the castle through the crypt. The key opens the way into a dark mausoleum with statues against the walls. Some of the statues conceal hidden doors, but the ones I initially tried just brought me back to the crypt. The one I needed to get to the castle was locked, the key hidden under a seal on the floor.
A cool crypt.
The seal was another puzzle, and from my perspective not a very fair one (cf. our recent discussion on color-blindness). I intuited what needed to be done almost immediately: spell out the name BORGOV in colors that begin with the same letters; that is, blue, orange, red, green, orange, violet. Someone like me has to solve this kind of puzzle like a logic puzzle if Irene isn't immediately available to come over and help. Looking at the six colors (on the left side of the crest) in order:
  • The first could be red, orange, or green
  • The second could be red, orange, or green
  • The third could be yellow or orange
  • The fourth could be green or brown
  • The fifth could be blue or purple
  • The sixth could be purple or green
How I love color puzzles.
Since I only had one candidate for blue, that meant blue was definitely #5. That left me with only one candidate for purple, which was #6, which left only green as #4 (brown isn't in the puzzle at all). Yellow (although not used by the puzzle) had to be #3. I couldn't figure out red and orange by elimination, but at this point I was down to only two possible sequences, so I tried both and one was right. Later, while typing this, I realized that the colors are presented in the standard ROY G. BIV order (minus indigo), so I could have saved myself some time and angst.
The correct combination opened the seal, which contained a key. That key led me to a passage behind one of the statues that ran all the way to the basement of Castle Borgov.
A typical castle room.
Castle Borgov is a large series of rooms with two or three doors, sometimes concealed behind bookcases and operated with hidden switches. One required me to spell out "EXIT" in letters on the spines of encyclopedias.
The extra letters confused me. I tried AX TIME and EXAM IT first.
There wasn't anything in most of the rooms. Some of the doors opened to stairwells leading to towers. I had to kill some giant bats in one of the stairwells. There were two places that I couldn't pass. One was a door that opened into the castle's main hall. I blundered into Katrina and Ad Avis, who immediately killed me with blasts of magic. (This was a bit of a spoiler. The game should have just had the character die when he opens the door without showing explicitly what happened.) The other was a downward staircase that ended at a door guarded by two goons. Their conversation indicated that the door led to the dungeon, but that no one was in the dungeon. Trying to get anywhere near the goons led to instant death.
I meant to get a shot without the text, but I screwed it up.
At the top of another tower, however, I found a room occupied by a giant apelike creature and a little girl. The giant ape, which the girl called "Toby," slammed the door in my face if I tried to enter, but I could stand on the threshold and talk to the girl.
Do you play a little Harry Belafonte on the radio?
She was a vampire. In a long conversation, it transpired that she was Tanya, missing daughter of the innkeepers. Toby used to visit her at the inn, and one day brought her a doll that she named Vana. When her parents found the doll, they freaked out and forbade her from seeing "Toby" again. Tanya ran away with the creature instead, and he brought her to the castle. At some point, Katrina (who Tanya calls "Aunt Trina") must have turned her into a vampire. Tanya misses her parents but think that they wouldn't want to see her now that she's a vampire. Yuri and Bella must have been aware that vampires were a threat, as they used to make Tanya wear a garlic necklace. Now she wears a choker that Katrina gave her. The relationship between the two is weird ("Aunt Trina says she will be my friend and take care of me . . . She says that I'll be her little girl for ever and ever"). Tanya does not like Ad Avis, who she calls the "dark man." Neither does Toby. Maybe that's something to exploit. Anyway, Toby was clearly barely tolerating my presence, so I eventually left after suggesting to Tanya that she keep my visit a secret.
This is probably some anagram.
For now, I couldn't find anything else to do in the castle, so I left. I'm looking forward to learning more about Katrina and what she's trying to get out of all of this.
You'll Never Get Away from Me
Back to the Rusalka. The gypsies told me that to free her, I would have to:
  1. Remind her who she is and how she died.
  2. Weave her hair into a broom.
  3. Beat the broom three times against her murderer's grave.
  4. Kill his ghost.
  5. Give the spirit "what she truly desires."
I had already found her name on her gravestone: Elyssa. When I had re-visited her before, the game wouldn't let me tell her. It did now, though. She remembered her death. She had gone skinny-dipping with her fiancé. She refused his affections, so he drowned her ("he always did have a low frustration point"). She gave me her hair, which I wove into the hand broom I had previously bought from Olga.
Did previous games allow you to use one inventory item on another like this? I can't remember.
Elyssa's fiancé, Janos, apparently got to live out his life with his fellow townsfolk thinking that Elyssa had drowned. They buried him next to an empty grave for her. I beat at it with the broom, and his ghost appeared and promptly killed me. Reloading, I cast the gypsies' "Aura" spell first, and this time I was able to defeat the ghost.
When do I avenge all the people that the Rusalka has killed over the years?
When I returned to Elyssa, her comely features had faded, leaving a rotting corpse behind. I sucked up my revulsion and gave her a kiss, which put her to rest at last. Paladin!
Does she have to be hugging me at the same time?
Some common themes and other notes from this session:
  • You really have to talk with people multiple times. Almost every time I swung through town, people had something new to say. I've been trying really hard to improve my "Communication" and "Honor" statistics by ensuring that I click on myself and greet the NPCs, then click on them to talk about various topics, then click on myself to say goodbye, but it's more annoying to do this than it was in Wages of War because you can't do it from the same screen.
  • If "Cask of Amon Tillado" wasn't enough, there's another clear Poe reference in the cemetery, where one of the headstones is to "Ligeia," another Poe short story. Ligeia's body comes out of her crypt if you open it during the day, and the animation has you shove it back in and close the door. If you open it at night, you get attacked by Ligeia's ghost.
I don't know. That looks like Rowena's ghost to me.
  • I'm really sick of getting poisoned. I started this session poisoned, probably by a wyvern. I continued to get poisoned by wyverns and giant bats and a trap in the mausoleum. It wears off eventually, but it's annoying until it does. Dr. Cranium will only give me one antidote per day.
  • I'm running out of money fast. I haven't found any way to make more. No monster drops any. There isn't even a "sell" option when talking to Olga.
  • Wandering the forest at night carries the risk of running into a wraith. Wraiths automatically drain all your life force the moment you see them, then continually drain after that, so not even a healing potion can help you. Neither can the "Aura" spell, which is supposed to protect against undead. I honestly don't know how to defeat them.
Protected with what?
  • It's been fun watching Dmitri's opinion of me grow throughout my quests. When I first arrived, he barked at me that they didn't like strangers. By the end of this session, he was saying things like "Good to see you!" when I spoke to him.
Don't gush so much, Dmitri. You're embarrassing both of us.
  • I keep waiting for that hawk to be involved in a puzzle somehow.
As I wrap up, I find myself with only a few puzzles. I have to figure out how to get to Baba Yaga, the end of Erana's dream message, how to explore the castle without dying (I'm thinking I want to oil the hinges), where to find the other rituals, and how to communicate with the will-o-wisps. I'm sure I have a few more in my notes. I really enjoy the characters in Shadows of Darkness (at least, most of them), and while I don't think voice acting is necessary to an RPG, having professional actors involved in this one does add something to their personalities. 
Just as I was readying this entry for publication, however, commenter ATMMachine alerted me to a "walking dead" scenario that I've almost certainly already experienced. Coupled with the crashing issue reported above, I think this means I'm going to have to start over. Hopefully, progress will be quick through the areas and puzzles I've already solved.
Time so far: 12 hours