Thursday, September 30, 2021

Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness: Summary and Rating

I liked the game, but I never felt like I was "making the rules."
Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness
United States
Sierra On-Line (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS and Windows
Date Started: 5 August 2021
Date Ended: 24 September 2021
Total Hours: 24 (two characters)
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 47
Ranking at Time of Posting: 407/444 (92%)
A good sequel to a good series, Shadows follows the adventure of the blond hero (the same character as in the three previous games, importable if you have a save) in the land of Mordavia, which draws upon eastern European themes like vampires, werewolves, Domovoi, and Rusalki. There's also a hefty dose of Lovecraftian-style mythology. The player navigates the character around a series of screens and interacts with objects, NPCs, and the environment through a simple point-and-click interface. Puzzles tend to be on the easy side but are still fun, with different solutions for the different character classes. Combat, revamped for this title, looks like it was inspired by Karateka but doesn't play as smoothy. The CD version, published in 1994, fixes most of the bugs in the original and adds professional voice acting to the NPCs; the first game that I've played that was fully voice-acted. 

At some point, I lost my enthusiasm for replaying Shadows of Darkness as a fighter and wizard. I might eventually do it--at least before Quest for Glory V in a few years--but for now I wasn't interested in following the script another two times with slightly different puzzles. It was actually one of the game's strengths that served as a kind of "breaking point": the antwerp puzzle. I quite like the new puzzle interface and the various things that the authors did with it. But some of the puzzles, particularly the antwerp one, aren't fun four times in a row. After I screwed it up a few times on my fighter replay, I thought ahead to the door puzzle and the potion puzzles and running around chasing the Leshy and wading through the damned swamp again, and I decided it wasn't in the (tarot) cards.
That isn't meant to be an indictment of the game. I don't think it would be fair to ask any game to hold interest for three immediate replays. I do think that Shadows is the least "speedrunnable" of the series, but again that isn't a criticism. Good plots and puzzles take more time.
This NPC was creepier after she was cured of vampirism.
For the most part, everything that people enjoy about Quest for Glory is here in Shadows: Interesting use of historic themes, memorable NPCs, puzzles that are more fun than challenging, and different experiences for the four classes. Although the initial release was apparently a buggy mess, you wouldn't know it from the perspective of a modern player playing the final version. It even makes reasonably good use (as much as the series ever does) of its RPG elements. Certain tasks are unachievable until you grind your attributes or skills, and fighting gets notably easier as the game progresses.
While it will rate relatively high against other games of the era, in some ways (and perhaps in the final rating), it is my least favorite of the Quest for Glory titles. I say that knowing that for many fans, Shadows is the best of the series. There are just a lot of small ways that it didn't work well for me or didn't seem quite as original as its predecessors. In particular, I wish the authors had gone all-in on a darker theme and curbed some of the goofiness inherent in the series. To me, the game would be better off without Dr. Cranium, Punny Bones, the Leshy, and perhaps even Baba Yaga. (I hasten to add that I would replace those characters with less goofy NPCs who serve similar purposes; I'm not looking to cut content.) I would have liked to see a lot more development of vampire themes and of Katrina's character specifically. I am an absolute sucker for a sympathetic villain who makes a heroic turn, but Katrina's story just wasn't fleshed out enough, and her love for the hero should have been earned rather than automatic. 
1. Game World. There are a lot of positives here, including good use of eastern European themes and folklore. Quest for Glory has always excelled in setting its stories in under-represented milieus. The game has a plot, with a complex villain, which is more than you can say for two-thirds of its contemporaries. It also does a better job reacting (via its NPCs) to the hero's actions than a lot of CRPGs, including many modern ones. Lesser games would have NPCs talking about Nikolai in the present tense even after his death, or have the NPCs treat you the same way throughout the game. Thus, despite the misgivings that I just vocalized, I have to rate this one relatively high. Score: 7.
2. Character Creation and Development. When you're developing your skills from 250 to 400, it seems less notable than developing them from 0 to 100. (One thing that I didn't emphasize, though, is a "skill" slider that players can use if they're interested in playing more as a pure adventure game.) I do think the authors missed a lot of opportunity to make better use of the skills and attributes--simple things like lower prices in the shop or extra dialogue options for higher "Communication" or "Intelligence" values. On the other hand, there are more hard gates on skills here than in either Trial by Fire or Wages of War, both of which felt like they were ignoring the RPG aspects of the game completely, except in combat.
The series continues to do a reasonably good job giving a fundamentally different experience to each character class, but again perhaps not as good as the previous games in the series. Only the thief gets entirely new areas and side quests, aside from the minor stuff that the paladin does to rescue the Rusalka. Score: 5.
My imported fighter. These statistics are why this isn't a pure "adventure game." For some commenters' benefits, I apparently needed to show this screen more often.
3. NPC Interaction. This continues to be a strength. I wasn't in love with the interface, and its requirement that you click on the hero to "tell" and the NPC to "ask," and I would have liked to see the series venture into more dialogue options rather than just keywords. There doesn't feel like much role-playing going in with your interactions. But the NPCs definitely have memorable personalities, and interacting with them is vital to success in the game.
I was curiously indifferent to the voiced dialogue. The acting was fine--and the developers deserve credit for using professional voice actors rather than whoever was in the room, the way Origin did. But the Coles had always done such a great job writing NPCs that I never had trouble imagining appropriate voices. In some ways, I think I might have preferred to continue using my imagination. Score: 7.
If you remember nothing else about the game, I bet you remember this.
4. Encounters and Foes. The Coles always deserve credit for creating original enemies (except for the generic bats), but that doesn't mean they're always interesting. The game's enemies didn't do a lot for me, particularly the "vorpal bunnies." This is one area in which the authors could have done a better job playing with existing mythology and themes. Nezhits and todorats and such. Werewolves, perhaps--removed from the gypsies, of course, and perhaps with some grotesque spin, such as you always encounter them in mid-transition.
Some positives: The enemies are well-described in the manual. The spacing between foes is good. You don't feel overwhelmed by combat, but neither is it trivial. The non-combat puzzles remain strong. Score: 5.
5. Magic and Combat. I'll give it to the authors: they keep trying. I like the Karateka approach, but something remains off with the timing. I don't think you can really effectively time jumps and parries. You spend most of the combat advancing and getting knocked down until you're in melee range. Things are better for spellcasters and thieves (who can throw knives); both can essentially stun-lock opponents until they're out of ammo. The variety of spells works well for puzzle-solving, but in terms of combat there might as well have been just one "blast" spell. Score: 4.
6. Equipment. Not a strength of the series or of this game. You find weapons and armor appropriate to your class early in the game, and it never becomes an issue again. There isn't even some nice item in the shop to save for like there was in the first Quest for Glory. Everything else is for puzzles. Score: 1.  
7. Economy. The series has never done terribly well in this category, but at least So You Want to Be a Hero and Trial by Fire had a few things worth saving for. At least Wages of War had potions to buy. Here, you get one potion a day from Dr. Cranium and that's it. If he'd sold the potions, and offered mana and stamina ones to boot, there would be something to do with your money.
Then again, only the thief makes any serious money. The rest of the classes largely rely on the initial funds they get in the cave and Erana's islet for the entire game. Late in the game, you get a lot of money from the wraiths, but to little purpose. Score: 1.
8. Quests. The game has a compelling main quest, but with really only one outcome and essentially no player choices. There are a handful of optional side quests that allow you to role-play more effectively, like reuniting Boris and Olga, befriending the Rusalka, and burning the monastery. I don't even think you get any points for those activities, but they're a lot of fun. Score: 5.
Committing arson to the evil monastery was a nice side quest.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I think the game accomplishes everything that could be accomplished with the point-and-click interpreter, including fixing some of the bugs in past games. The effort taken to give a textual description to everything you could possible "eyeball" is particularly admirable. I wish there had been a little more keyboard redundancy, primarily for switching between cursor commands.
The series continues to excel in its use of sound, including ambient sound, and musical leitmotifs. The voice acting, as noted above, is solid. While the graphics are generally well-detailed and composed, there were a few times I didn't think they were detailed enough to call attention to certain puzzle solutions. Score: 7.
10. Gameplay. The game world is open but a bit confining, and I don't really care for the linearity of the plot, particularly waiting for events to trigger. If things are going to happen in an order, I'd rather they happened on specific days, like in Trial by Fire, rather than based ambiguously on my own actions. The approach creates a lot of times when you're just waiting around for night to fall, or for some event to trigger on the next day. The overall length, however, is fine for the content.
As noted above, while the series remains extremely replayable, this is probably the least replayable entry. Score: 5.
That gives us a final score of 47. I'm surprised to see it higher than Wages of War, albeit by just a point, but looking over my GIMLET for that game, I can see why. I forgot how many issues I had with the interface, and that although there are more things to buy, the economy is still ruined by excessive gold. Anyway, 47 is still a strong rating (my average is about 28, and my average for the 1990s is only 33), and regardless of whatever small flaws I identified, it's generally been a joy to play and analyze.
Katrina throws some shade at Ad Avis. I think she could do a better job with the hair.
By March 1993, Computer Gaming World was offering a column called "Taking a Peek." It provided mini-reviews of current and upcoming games. The column took a look at Shadows of Darkness and deemed it "another award winning adventure." The text of the column suggests that the "review" is based mostly on promotional materials, however, and not direct gameplay experience. Scorpia got to the game the following month, and gave it a fair review, noting its numerous strengths (she particularly liked the auto combat) before spending the last half on all the technical difficulties. I didn't experience any of these, but I can imagine how frustrating it must have been. Because of those technical difficulties, she was forced to conclude that players "approach this one with extreme caution, and be sure of what you're getting."
But she also had the same problem I had with the ending:
Having worked so hard to reach this point, done all the rituals, and with the arrival of the Dark One imminent, you find that this dramatic moment is hardly more than a joke, literally. Only one physical action by your character is needed, and then it's over. Ho hum. And the banishment of the Dark One is glossed over with a little text--you don't even get to see a graphic of it! Did our art budget run short at the end of the project?
Modern reviews tend to rate Shadows the highest of the series, but a few authors have been more critical. Jimmy Maher makes some excellent points in a 2018 article about the supposedly "dark" setting:
I’ve played games which I’ve found genuinely scary; this is not one of them. It certainly includes plenty of horror tropes, but it’s difficult to take any of it all that seriously. This is a game that features Dr. Brain channeling Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a game where you fight a killer rabbit lifted out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a game where you win the final battle against the evil wizard by telling him the Ultimate Joke and taking advantage when he collapses into laughter. From the Boris Karloff imitator guarding the gates to the villain’s castle to Igor the hunchbacked gravedigger, this is strictly B-movie horror--or, perhaps better said, a parody of B-movie horror. It’s hard to imagine anyone losing sleep over this game.
Maher's analysis also criticizes (or at least calls attention to) the various "events" that must be triggered for the plot to move forward, noting that "it's too easy to get stuck in a cul de sac with no idea how to prod the plotting machinery into motion again." 
I don't know if poor initial reactions to Shadows or problems at Sierra that delayed the fifth game. In a 2003 interview, Lori Cole said that "Sierra didn't want to give us a budget or team to do [Quest for Glory V] right, so we moved on." The Coles ended up at Legend Entertainment working on a licensed title called Shannara, which most sites classify as a pure adventure game albeit with "RPG elements." In a 2012 interview, Corey Cole credited the fifth game's existence to fans' letters to Sierra. It took a couple more years and was released in 1998. 
It sucks that it's going to be so long before I get another Quest for Glory game to play. I wish the series, good as it is, had inspired more imitators. Then again, we are at the beginning of an era in which more interesting plots, NPCs, and puzzles became standardized within the RPG genre, and thus the need for explicit "adventure-RPG hybrids" was waning.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Revisiting Pool of Radiance (1988), Part 2

The epic battle begins.
In my first entry on the subject, we learned that the tabletop module Ruins of Adventure was not the source of the CRPG Pool of Radiance. Instead, the module was a byproduct of the CRPG--a way for TSR to make some money from the same material that they developed for SSI. The same authors are credited on both products.
Despite the similarities in the overall story (a group of adventurers helping to restore order to the city of Phlan) and geography, the two products diverge in several notable ways. I find this particularly odd because the Ruins of Adventure module suggests that it could serve as a de facto hint book for Pool of Radiance: "Players of Pool of Radiance will find useful clues to the successful completion of their computer mission in this module." I started this replay taking the module at its word, only to find that the differences are significant enough that a player really couldn't rely on the module at all. Phlan's Old City, as we saw, has a completely different map in the module than in the CRPG. The CRPG fills the area with encounters while the module only has random battles in the area, an inversion of what you would typically expect.
The variances continue in the area that most CRPG players would explore early in the game: Sokol Keep. The module gives a lot more background as to the strategic importance in controlling the island keep. The module players get the mission from the head of the City Council, Miles Dormans, who I don't think even appears in the CRPG. In Pools, the party gets the mission from the clerk, like every other mission.
The backstories complement each other, however. In both, Sokol Keep was the last part of Phlan to fall during Tyranthraxus's conquest. The last garrison was commanded by Ferran Martinez, a priest of Tyr. When he saw that the Keep would fall, he cast a last-ditch spell to protect it, raising armies of undead from the burial grounds. These undead still wander the keep today. The module says that if the characters successfully reconquer the keep from the undead, the monsters will respond by sending their own parties to try to take it back from the characters. The CRPG, on the other hand, has the monsters already anticipating the reconquest and thus already in the Keep in force. The player can even find a note from Tyranthraxus instructing his minions to prevent the characters' success.
Once again, the map provided in Ruins is different from the one in the CRPG. And once again, it is surprisingly less imaginative.  The module map contains no dead space except half a dozen squares in the northeast corner, whereas the CRPG map uses dead space effectively to suggest the overall architecture of the keep. The CRPG map puts the chapel (with the final battle) in the center while the module map has it in the upper-left corner.
Two takes on Sokol Keep.
Both start the same way, however, with the discovery of an elven skeleton outside the main gate. A pouch on his corpse holds a piece of parchment with three words. The CRPG player has to translate them with the codewheel: LUX, SAMOSUD, and SHESTNI. In the module, the latter word is for some reason SHESTNIK, and SAMOSUD has the last two letters eaten away; the players have to discover the rest of the word for themselves, although I had fun imagining them doing a Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness by yelling "SAMOS" and then mumbling something unintelligible at the end. SHESTNI or SHESTNIK is used in both products to deter undead from attacking the party. The undead enemies are all skeletons in the module but include zombies in the CRPG.
As I wrote over a decade ago, this still gives me a tingle.
For most of the rest of this entry, I'm going to offer a detailed analysis of the rest of the differences and similarities between the two maps. I won't do this for every area in the game (unless commenters clamor for it), but I thought it would be interesting to get into the weeds with one map.
CRPG Encounter (2,11): Insects fall from the walls and ceiling. The party finds itself in battle with two giant scorpions. Their hits can cause poisoning, which means instant death for a party this level. Fortunately, they're susceptible to "Sleep."

Module Encounter: No analogue.

CRPG Encounter (2,8): Unused room with thick carpet of fungus, where it's safe to rest.

Module Encounter: No analogue.

CRPG Encounter (13,10): Old stable covered with mold and fungus. Nothing to do there.
Module Encounter (12,13): The same old stable, but a green slime will attack if the characters search the area. The creature must have been deemed too difficult for an early-level CRPG party. 
CRPG Encounter: No analogue.
Module Encounter (14,11): An old granary with a thick growth of fungus. Characters can eat the fungus for a +2 saving throw against fear for 24 hours. 
CRPG Encounter (13,7):  The collapsed remains of a blacksmith shop. "The croaking of frogs greets your entry." If the party lingers, they get attacked by four poisonous frogs (again, "Sleep" did a nice job here). Searching a corner produces a hammer +1.  
Module Encounter (13,8): Absolutely identical. It's also notable that although the room configurations are completely different, the coordinates of these two encounters are almost the same.
CRPG Encounter (14,5): An old armory. "All of the weapons and armor have decayed into uselessness." However, there's an illusory door on the back wall. This leads to a hidden area with a magic set of equipment: shield, long sword, chain mail, and mace.
No remains untouched by time or glow in the corner in the module.
Module Encounter (6,3): Again, virtually identical, including the illusory wall. Characters cannot detect it by searching; they must "boldly walk through it." Items are the same, except the chain mail is only "suitable for dwarves." Note, however, that this encounter is after the big battle with orcs and hobgoblins.
CRPG Encounter (6,2): The ruins of a barracks full of "the remains of bunks and chests." There are no items to find, but the party can encounter a group of haunts--ghosts of the defenders of the keep. Feeding them the keyword LUX causes them to "burst into a chorus of howls, moans, and other lamentations over their fate and the fate of their families." Ferran Martinez's spell bound them to the keep and they want to be released. They point the party to a secret area beneath the floorboards with a diary that explains (in a journal entry) what happened in the keep. There are also 5 gems in the compartment.
Module Encounter (9,2): So identical that it even uses much of the same text, including the part I quoted above. The big difference is the specific text of the diary isn't given in the module; the DM must make something up. There's also only one gem in the module.
CRPG Encounter: No analogue (or just a couple of the empty rooms).
Module Encounter (1,15 and 9,9): Empty storerooms with nothing to do.
CRPG Encounter: No analogue.
Module Encounter (7,10): A kitchen covered in ochre jelly. A Potion of Heroism is hidden on a shelf. The authors probably felt that an ochre jelly was too difficult a foe for a party of this level, particularly since CRPG characters are more limited in their innovations than tabletop characters; for instance, CRPG characters cannot create fire without an explicit spell or weapon. Still, it would have given me something else to do with these jars of flaming oil.
CRPG Encounter: No analogue.
Module Encounter (2,3): Some officer's quarters in which the full word SAMOSUD is written on a piece of paper. The room has a "slithering tracker," which is not a monster I've ever encountered before in a Dungeons & Dragons game.
CRPG Encounter (7,3 or 8,3 or 7,5 or 8,5): In the hall outside the main chapel, the party is attacked by a huge force of 31 orcs, 4 orc leaders, and 15 hobgoblins. To me, this is one of the most memorable battles in not only the game, but in RPG history. The first-time player is horrified at first, but hopefully figures out how to approach it with a combination of tactics, terrain, and spells. It seems spectacularly unfair to a party of this level, but the force the party faces is entirely physical (no magic) and almost entirely melee, except for the orc leaders with missile weapons. The orcs and hobgoblins have low THAC0s and mostly miss their attacks.
There are several ways to approach it. I buffed with "Bless" and "Enlarge." After the battle began, I made liberal use of "Sleep" on the approaching enemies while some of my characters tried to take out the orc leaders with "Magic Missile" and missile weapons. That didn't work very well (I kept missing or rolling low damage), but fortunately the orc leaders ran out of arrows after a few rounds, so I just had to heal their damage. After that, it was mostly a matter of using "Sleep" and "Hold Person" to create packs of immobile enemies around which the others got hung up. Having six mages capable of "Sleep" really helped.
Things look dire, but most of these enemies are asleep.
You only have to clear out half the enemies before the rest start surrendering. After the battle, I found a note on a hobgoblin's body with his orders from "The Boss."
Module Encounter (4,11): The number of enemies is the same, but none of the orcs are designated as "leaders." Technically, the battle does not happen here, in the entrance hall, but rather once the party reaches this location, the monsters will enter the Keep via the main gate. The party might encounter them anywhere. The module suggests that any undead still roaming the area will attack the army, which does not possess the code words.
There's no note from "The Boss," but the module makes it clear that the monsters "secretly followed in canoes and now want to prevent the characters from reclaiming the fort." The module specifies that the orcs make a "fighting withdrawal" once 20% of them have been killed and completely flee once 50% are dead. Surrendering is not given as an option, and I always wonder what it's imagined that my CRPG characters do with their surrendered captives. You never hear about them again, which is a bit ominous.
CRPG Encounter (8,10): The party encounters the ghost of Ferran Martinez. He asks whether the city "has been freed." The party has the opportunity to lie, tell the truth, or flee. If they tell the truth, Martinez says that "the city fell long ago to the unblessed creatures, imbued with the might of a magical pool." He specifically names "Tyranthraxus, Edranka, and Torath." He says that the sage Mendor was trying to find information about those wars, and he gives the party the SAMOSUD password before disappearing.
The party can also attack Martinez and have to fight a specter capable of draining two levels per hit. He has nothing and nothing happens if he dies. If you lie, he calls you out and disappears.
I'd note that the chapel has four confessionals in the CRPG but not the module. This makes sense, I guess. Is there any Forgotten Realms religion that includes confessions?
Note that Martinez is interpreting the pool incorrectly, like everyone in this game does. The only "might" anyone gets from it is being possessed by demonic creatures from another plane.
Module Encounter (2,3): Essentially the same except that the module spells the name "Tiranthraxus" in this one place only. It gives dialogue text for Martinez which is nearly identical to what he says in the CRPG. After he disappears, the characters can find a map of the city.
I was hoping the module had more to say about Edranka and Torath, but like the CRPG, it never mentions their names again.
The module does not mention the specific rewards for clearing out Sokol Keep. In the CRPG, Sasha gave us enough gold and platinum to give us 1,308 experience, far more than we had accumulated during the adventure. Afterwards, her next two missions are the recovery of information from Mendor's Library and determining what's going on in Podol Plaza, where an "item of great power" is rumored to be up for auction.
She also told us that Councilor Cadorna wanted to see us. He gave us a mission to recover an unnamed treasure from his family's old estate in the southern part of the textile complex. The module has a lot to say about Porphyrys Cadorna, including that his family's wealth comes from the "cloth guild." He is charming and intelligent but venal, obsessed with restoring his family's position of wealth and power. He holds the "least significant" position on the Council (echoed in-game by Sasha calling him "junior council member") but has greater ambitions.
I don't quite follow this logic, but I'm glad you're happy.
The module agrees that he first approaches the party after they have cleared Sokol Keep. However, he simply hires them to clear the Textile House rather than to find a specific object. And in the module, only after the players solve his first mission does he give them a second one to recover texts from Mendor's Library.
As I sorted through the looted equipment, leveled up, and memorized new spells, I thought about what makes Pool of Radiance the best Gold Box game. Part of it was in this very process. It has both a hub-and-spoke geography and an expedition-and-return exploration system. Most of the other Gold Box games keep you mobile for the entire plot. One of the worst parts about an expedition-and-return system, though, is having to "return" prematurely. It's like coming home from work in the middle of the day but having to go back to work again. Yuck. The module reinforces this preference by having Cadorna act like a dick to the party if they return to Phlan without clearing Sokol Keep. "So a bunch of frogs were just too much for you?" the text has him say. He then "votes against allowing any more missions to the PCs until the island and keep are cleared." I wish the CRPG had offered more of the depth of Council interaction hinted in statements like that.
Cadorna looks a bit like Commander Riker after he grew his beard.
The area around Kuto's Well was the most obvious place for the next expedition. In the CRPG, no one gives it to the party as a quest, but you have to pass through it between the Old City and either Mendor's Library or Podol Plaza and the Textile House. In the module, however, a sixth-level halfling fighter named Zolonsho approaches the party once they achieve Level 3 and asks them to accompany him.
The module portrays the well as a kind of "neutral area" in which no group denies any other group access to the well, the most reliable fresh-water well in the city. That doesn't mean everyone is friendly, however, and the party can encounter hostile groups of kobolds, orcs, and hobgoblins. The CRPG isn't as explicit as the nature of the area, but it basically conforms to this setup. There are only a couple of fixed encounters but lots of potential combats. We were attacked by kobolds as we entered the area, and I got to use the "sweep" attack that fighters received at Level 3. This allows them to attack every enemy in reach when the enemies are sufficiently low level. No other D&D game has this. 
The map of Kuto's Well in the module is very close to the CRPG, consisting of small groupings of buildings around the edges of the map with the well itself in the middle. The CRPG has one fixed encounter in the middle-south. After fighting some gnolls and then a lizard man leading some giant lizards, the party finds a mysterious woman locked in a building. She thanks the party for freeing them and says that the party's foe is an "evil spirit from an unholy pool." The module has no such encounter.
This woman doesn't even have an analogue on the NPC list.
Both products have a hidden area beneath Kuto's Well, home of the bandit leader Norris the Grey. I remember commenting on his ugly appearance in the game; the module makes it clear that he's a half-orc. In both products, the party has an option to surrender to Norris and be dumped in the ruins with no valuables. The module choreographs the battle with Norris in more detail than the CRPG, specifying various hit and run attacks, arrow attacks, and other ambushes around the various chambers. The CRPG has a bit of this--some arrows fly at the party when they first arrive--but mostly Norris just attacks in a random chamber. The composition of the enemy force is different. In the module, he has goblins, orcs, and kobolds, but in the CRPG he has kobold leaders and lizardmen.
It's effective, but slaughtering enemies as they sleep always feels a bit evil.
The CRPG battle has the enemies arrayed in two battle lines. Again, "Sleep" really helps here, cast in groupings of three on the second line, although not as much as "Lightning Bolt" would help. Norris has a magic long sword in the CRPG that he doesn't possess in the module, plus a message in which Tyranthraxus tried to order him into his forces. Norris's treasure hoard is about the same in both products, and both make it clear that the primary outcome of defeating Norris is a base of operations that the party can use. Of course, that has limited utility in a CRPG, and I suspect most players (like me) never returned to the area again.
I can do that almost anywhere.
Again, the two maps of the areas are mostly the same but with some weird variances. The module map lacks a pointless secret area that has bothered and frustrated me every time I played the game. I was hoping that the module would explain why it was there. I was actually hoping it would explain more about Norris, too.
My map of Norris's area (left) from the CRPG versus the module's (right).
That seems like enough for this session. In a few weeks, I'll finish Podol Plaza, Mendor's Library, and the Textile House.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Game 433: Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity (1985)

The authors were surprisingly not from Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky.
Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity
United States
Commonwealth Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II
Date Started: 20 September 2021
Bronze Dragon is a text-based adventure-RPG hybrid in the mold of Eamon (1980). You create a character on a "hub" disk, which features a town called Dragon Village, and from there go on any number of adventures that were supposed to be created on module disks. The problem, as with so many Eamon-inspired games (cf. Knight Quest), is that there weren't many subsequent modules. Bronze Dragon shipped with one scenario, Seekers of the Storm, as well as 12 "plots" that can be customized into dungeons of different length and difficulty levels. Later the same year, the authors released another scenario called The Twisted Speare. That was it. In some ways, I understand why players didn't warm to Bronze Dragon's odd interface, but the authors showed enough originality in characters, monsters, and mechanics that the game cannot be dismissed as a simple Eamon clone.
The main menu.
The game's main menu looks a lot like Eamon's, but it starts showing its originality in the character creation process. You're invited to create a large roster, from which up to five characters can go adventuring at once. Although its races are relatively standard (human, elf, dwarf, halfling), its classes are a bit unusual: knight, assassin, ninja, elder, and wizard. An "elder" is essentially a priest. The character also chooses an alignment from virtuous, lawful, chaotic, and vile. For all the talk in other RPGs about "chaotic good," it's clear that in Bronze Dragon, the first two alignments are "good" and the second two are "evil."
Attributes are strength, agility, intelligence, constitution, and endurance, each existing on a standard Dungeons & Dragons scale from 3-18, but their values are completely determined by class and race. There's no "re-rolling." 
Creating a character.
New characters want to visit Dragon Village's equipment store, where their starting gold doesn't go very far. The game includes a huge variety of weapons and armor as well as adventuring staples like lanterns, ropes, and iron rations. My starting characters could basically buy one weapon and one armor type.
Purchasing items. Weapon and armor selections are specific to each class.
There are other menu options for selling items looted during adventures, learning spells (each spellcasting class comes with a few slots per level), learning martial arts, visiting the pub, visiting the healers, identifying equipment at a wizard's house, and storing gold in the bank. The pub is an interesting option. Before talking to anyone, the game asks what adventure you plan to go on next. After loading the appropriate text, it offers a selection of NPCs who provide various adventure-specific hints.
Things to do in Dragon Village.
Up to five characters at a time can go on an adventure, which definitely marks a departure from the single-character Eamon. As for that adventure, you have a few options. The game comes with 12 "plots" that can be seeded into a randomized "castle." The plots provide the framing story, a couple of key encounters, and an Amulet of Yendor that you have to retrieve. You decide how many levels the castle has (up and down), how many rooms it contains, and the difficulty of both monsters and the overall scenario. The minimum dungeon size is one 10-room level, but the game often warns you that your choices have created a castle too small to fully contain the plot. Seekers of the Storm and The Twisted Speare are two full scenarios in which the castle parameters are fixed.
After choosing your adventure, you have to swap disks around a few times while the game creates your scenario ("castle") disk. After that, it's off to the adventure.
Setting some options for a randomized adventure.
Once you're actually in a castle, Bronze Dragon makes a pretty bad first impression. It's so bad, in fact, that the first time I played it, I thought that something about the interface was bugged or corrupted in my copy. Part of the problem is that the first room of each scenario has no description beyond the scenario's backstory, so after you read the backstory, you're left with only the "header" of the game's interface. Most other rooms have descriptions below the header.
The opening setup for the second scenario, "The Philosopher's Stone."
The interface header shows the active character's name; the menu or sub-menu that you're currently in; the character's hit points, armor value, and endurance; and the available commands. It's the "available commands" part that doesn't work so well. They're mapped to the number keys from 1 to 0. You can press the numbers themselves to highlight them or use the arrow keys to move through them. ENTER executes the commands. The "Regular Commands" menu is the same for everyone, with 1-0 corresponding, respectively, to rest, fight, search, look, diversion, advance, retreat, use object, inventory, and leave (the room). Almost all of these options have sub-menus with their own commands, and even on the regular menu, you can hit SPACE to toggle to a special set of class-specific and race-specific commands for each character. 
The first gameplay screen (minus a bunch of black space below it). The 1-0 numbers correspond with the standard commands for each character.
It's not as bad as I thought it was at first. It's helped by allowing the player to hit the first letter of each action, so "F" takes you automatically to 2 ("Fight") without having to remember the number or scroll through the commands. But it's still more cumbersome than it needs to be, and I rather wish the developers had done away with the numbers and just offered a text list of the available options at any given time.
Anyway, all navigation is through these commands or through numbered menus on the screen. There's no GET LAMP here. If you want to pick up a lamp in the room, you choose 3 ("Search") and then 1 ("Search for Object"), and then choose the lamp from the list of objects in the room that pops up.

Actions cycle through the characters. There are times when it doesn't matter which character performs an action ("Leave," "Look," "Search"). If you need a specific character to do something, you can just "Rest" until you get to him or her. When I first started playing, I thought the game would be a pain with a party and that I'd just field a single character at a time, but it turns out that it works pretty well even with a group.
Combat is fought through menus, too. In my first attempts at the adventures, I faced an odd variety of foes, including crypt zombies, enchanted clouds, piercers, dwarves, banshees, and curiously easy "tower demons." Enemies can start in the room at short, medium, or long ranges, and you may have to advance depending on the length and range of your weapons (again, each character does this individually). Melee combat uses a THAC0-type system by which the game tells you what number you need to roll (or higher) on a 1d20 to hit the enemy. Numbers flash by too fast to time, and you hit ENTER to freeze on one of them. If you hit, the game rolls separately for damage done. If you slay an enemy, characters immediately get the experience (called "skill points") divided among them.
Chester makes his roll.
Although the mechanics are relatively basic, there are some tactical considerations associated with special abilities and spells. Each class has two special abilities: "Swordplay" and "Rage" for the knight; "Assassinate" and "Sneak" for the assassin; "Martial Arts," "Imitate Dead," and "Leap" for the ninja; "Destroy" and "Innate Heal" for the Elder; and "Cast Energy" for the wizard. Elders and wizards can also cast spells from a pool of "charges." Level 1 combat spells for wizards include "Shatterglass" (c. 12 damage to a monster), "Snare," "Attraction" (pulls a monster into short range), and "Protect." There are obviously more at higher levels. I've barely begun to explore different spells and special abilities, but clearly they create a lot of tactical scenarios together.
And my mage blasts an enemy with shards of glass.
Endurance depletes with each action, and you have to stop for a few rounds of resting every so often. There's a good chance that wandering monsters will enter the room while you're resting.
After a few false starts, I determined to create a solid party and win the "Dungeon of the Undead" scenario, which is only available to Level 1 characters. My party was:
  • Chester, a virtuous human knight
  • Ezio, a virtuous halfling assassin
  • Hattori, a lawful human ninja
  • Pius, a lawful dwarf elder
  • Morgan, a virtuous elf wizard

(For reasons covered anon, it makes sense to have the party entirely "good" or entirely "bad.")
I equipped everyone with weapons, armor, and food. Hattori got some thieves' tools, but I didn't have enough money for him to learn any martial arts yet. Pius learned 5 charges of "Heal Wounds" and 2 charges of "Zombie," which summons a zombie to fight with the party. Morgan learned 8 castings of "Shatterglass," 25 castings of "Find Traps," and 4 castings of "Snare."
First-level spells available to the wizard.
I then made a new adventure using Plot #1 ("Dungeon of the Undead"), with 15 rooms per level and 4 castle levels. I then had Chester enter the bar to get rumors. When he entered, the bartender was whispering something about a container. I greased his palm with gold, and he offered that "the magic stuff" is hard for newcomers. The nobleman wouldn't talk to me. The blacksmith said that zombies are hard to kill. The waitress said: "The wands are the first step. You only need one." The hooded assassin wanted 50 bronze pieces, way more than I had left. None of the other characters had anything to offer.
The "container" bit actually has some relevance.
I gathered the party and started the adventure. The opening text read:
Many fearless adventurers have sought the Parchment of Power--and died for their efforts. This is not surprising, because the parchment is within the Dungeon of the Undead, a place of evil and death. The Parchment of Power is so named for its ability to "bestow pure healing," an aspect of its nature which isn't fully understood.
You now stand outside the Dungeon of the Undead, which glows a pale white through the mist that surrounds it. Eerie organ music floats out from the stone structure. The mist seems to part as you walk up.
As usual, the starting room had no additional descriptive text. I could return to Dragon Village or take one of four "misty entrances" in each of the four cardinal directions.
"The west wall and columns are cool and polished," the next room description read. "The walls and floor are hard. It is dim." I soon learned that the game draws its room descriptions from a list of adjectives (e.g., reinforced, slick, gnarled, weak, stained) and nouns (e.g., walls, columns, ceiling, alcove). One room will have walls that are cool and polished and ceilings that are weak and stained; the next will have a slick alcove covered in blood and a floor that is reinforced and oiled. It basically works, although some of the combinations make little sense.
How can an alcove be "gnarled"?
The game also has a library of descriptions for the rooms' exits: a misty doorway, an oaken door, a double-barred door, a scratched stone door, and so forth.
The rooms and their various exits do create a cohesive dungeon layout. Each room tells you its dimensions, in multiples of 10 feet, and the specific position of the exits along each wall. For instance, a northern doorway marked "3" is three squares along the north wall from the west wall. With this information, you can make maps of the levels. This is useful because room descriptions and door descriptions often repeat.
This room is 4 x 6 squares. There are two doors on the south wall, one two squares from the west wall and one six squares from the west wall.

My map of one of the levels. "Ds" are stairways down. I feel like there must be something in that 1 x 3 area to the northwest, but I couldn't find any secret doors leading into there.
Monsters that I encountered in the dungeon included crypt zombies, skeletons, halflings, dwarves, giant ants, giant rats, and "refuse bolisks," perhaps a corruption of "basilisks." Halflings and dwarves are "good" creatures, and you're supposed to bribe them to leave you alone rather than fight them if you're playing a good party. I missed this in the manual, with consequences that we'll soon see.
A giant rat gets a bite in.
You find a lot of junk in the rooms, including random items of clothing, bars of soap, and various types of dishes and cutlery. There are also a lot of containers, like boxes, cupboards, and chests. Many of them are locked and have to be opened with the ninja and his tool kit. I kept forgetting to swap his weapon back into his hand after doing this, which would cause him to attack the next enemy with his tool kit and damage the kit. Anyway, what's more frustrating are the containers that aren't locked, because it feels like you should be able to do something with them, but no set of commands seems to let you simply open or look in a container. Everything you pick up sells for at least a few bronze pieces back in Dragon Village, but your encumbrance limits you, so you want to prioritize the expensive stuff.
The various items in one room. "Pennon" is an actual word and not a misspelling of "pennant" as I originally thought. It means "pennant."
I guess the dungeon was once a temple led by a priest named Doomeis. There are numerous inscriptions to him as we explore. A wraith says that he "went too far" and that "everyone paid for his foolishness, Doomeis most of all." His name is written in blood on a wall that used to hold maps. Spirits scream his name from somewhere below a rift in the floor. 
Despite his confidence, he does not appear to have lived forever.
The first puzzle item we find is a Wand of Freezing. On the same level (second), we also find some Jumping Boots, but they are "too hot to touch." I use the Wand of Freezing on the boots and am able to collect them. On the fourth level, we find the Parchment of Power, but it is "too fragile to take." A nearby room has a scroll casing, but it is "floating high above your head." I have to use the Jumping Boots to get the scroll casing, which I then use to collect the fragile Parchment of Power. After that, all that's left is getting out of the dungeon.
My knight collects the scroll.
The party escapes with the Scroll and piles of stuff to sell back in Dragon Village. We have also amassed about 1,200 skill points, or roughly half of what most classes need to reach Level 2. You don't simply level up when you reach the threshold, however. You have to visit one of the two local rulers, King Leopold or Lord Usul. King Leopold will only reward good characters and Lord Usul will only reward evil ones (which is why it makes sense to have all characters the same alignment). The manual promises that they will offer skill point and treasure rewards for artifacts claimed during the adventures.
Wasting my time on a visit to Leopold.
I take the Parchment of Power to King Leopold, and here the game pulls out the rug from under me. Apparently, since I killed halflings and dwarves in the dungeons, my characters' alignments all changed to "chaotic." Leopold therefore won't see us. But he's the only one interested in the Parchment of Power, so after winning the first adventure, I can't really claim any kind of reward for it. All I can do is sell my meager treasures and buy a few equipment upgrades.
At least he's enthusiastic.
Thus is my first experience with the game. I find the interface slow and frustrating, but it has a few good ideas, and I want to try some of the spells and abilities at higher levels. I think I'll continue on to the Seekers of the Storm adventure before wrapping it up. We'll talk next time about the development team, which is still (mostly) together and working on games to this day.
Time so far: 5 hours