Saturday, October 2, 2021

Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity: Summary and Rating

 
The runes seem to read: THIS COIG OGE BMOGZE SIECE IS BPCIETH BZ THE VPUES OF SEGTHPL.
          
Bronze Dragon: Conquest of Infinity
United States
Commonwealth Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for Apple II
Date Started: 20 September 2021
Date Ended: 1 October 2021
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
     
As I started over with a new party (after the revelation of my alignment shift last time) and started playing the second plot, "The Philosopher's Stone," I began to develop a growing regard for the game. There's something enormously clever about the way the game constructs its random castles but seeds them with plot-specific encounters and puzzles. It accomplishes textually what a lot of roguelikes do graphically (not to mention Anthony Crowther's Captive and its sequel), but with more plot-specific items. It turns out that the game has even more in store for its "modules." Nonetheless, I never quite got past the cumbersome interface. 
          
The game probably would have sold better if the authors had called it a "sorcerer's stone."
      
Before I played Seekers of the Storm, I decided to try the second of the randomized plots. "The "Philosopher's Stone" concerns the titular object, once owned by a knight named Sir Bounty. He was visited one day by a wizard named Saerkcon ("orc snake"?) who, recognizing the value of the object, bought it for a paltry 25 gold pieces. It now remains in Saerkcon's obsidian fortress, from which the party's goal is to retrieve it.
   
Two of the scenario's three levels.
       
In an early encounter in the fortress, you find a scroll on which Saerkcon warns you to leave the building. "I cannot be vanquished for I have the lives of a cat." Saerkcon wanders from room to room, and sure enough, although we "killed" him numerous times, he kept popping back up. Eventually, we saw him for the last time, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was after nine "deaths." He was an extremely tough foe, requiring rolls of almost 20 on a 1d20 to hit. My wizard's "Shatterglass" spell ended up doing most of the work.
   
I had set up the fortress as 3 levels of 20 rooms each. As we explored for clues, we met many of the same creatures as in "Dungeon of the Undead": refuse bolisks, banshees, giant rats, bandits, hummers, fire beetle, shriekers, dwarves, elves, and halflings. The last three creatures are "good," and mindful of my previous experience, I dealt with them by bribing them with random items I picked up from the castle. They'll happily walk away with just about anything, including thuribles, trivets, and firkins (the game had me going to the dictionary quite often). I had forgotten to buy thieves' tools before entering, but fortunately none of the plot items are in locked chests.
       
The last step before collecting the stone.
       
Solving the plot meant mapping all three levels and doing a number of things in sequence in different rooms:
   
  • Find a bucket.
  • In a first-level room with a pile of sand, scoop up some of the sand in the bucket.
  • Use the sand in an altar room to quench the fire surrounding a Potion of Strength.
  • Drink the strength potion and use my enhanced muscles to push a boulder out of the way, uncovering the Thunder Hammer.
  • Smash a statue holding a long pole to get the pole.
  • Use the pole to fish a strange glove out of a pool of water.
  • Wear the glove while reaching in a pool of poison to get a stopwatch.
  • Use the stopwatch in a room where time had frozen to make it move normally; grab something called a "Disruptor."
  • Use the Disruptor to destroy the magic field surrounding the Philosopher's Stone.
  • Grab the Philosopher's Stone and make for the exit.
      
Once outside, we visited King Leopold, who cheerfully took the stone, the Thunder Hammer, and the Disruptor, and rewarded us with about 4,500 experience points--enough to exceed Level 2 and almost hit Level 3.
        
My knight after leveling up.
       
My financial rewards were less than they could have been, owing to my inability to lockpick anything, but I sold a lot of miscellaneous items and was able to purchase the "Yeti Attack" skill for my ninja and some supplies for the next expedition.

Thus primed, I moved on to the Seekers of the Storm module. This story is set at the dwarven castle of Whitestone in the woods of Milieve. The dwarves, of a sub-race called Drachae, had recently discovered an artifact called the Eye of the Storm. It was reputed to be powerful enough to level continents. Word of the discovery made its way to Kal, the "greatest wizard of the Mage's Circle." Coveting the item for himself, he raised an army of orcs, goblins, and trolls and stormed the castle, wiping out the elves of Milieve and all the dwarves in Whitestone in the process. The party sets out to avenge the deaths of the elves and dwarves and to prevent Kal from finding the Eye of the Storm.
           
The game gives us the backstory as we approach.
         
Ahead of the trip, we consulted patrons at the bar. A couple of surviving dwarves and an elf were drinking morosely, apparently the only survivors of the attack. The elf wished us well in avenging his people, while the dwarves waxed about the glories of the old Whitestone Castle and the hospitality of its king, Goldrune. The serving boy recommended bringing a torch, while a "fat man" at the bar said to steer clear of the surrounding forest. The bartender, meanwhile, had a contrary opinion to offer: "The dwarves brought the wrath upon themselves. I say, side with the winner--Kal."
    
Even would we have chosen such a route, it didn't seem possible, as we were attacked by orcs and goblins on the road to Whitestone. When we arrived, I was surprised to see this adventure arrayed like a classic text adventure rather than one occurring in the randomized levels of a castle. Instead of room dimensions, the text at the top of each screen offered area titles. Although there were still "exits" listed by number, the paths often twisted and turned between areas. There was even a classic Infocom-style maze of similar areas. I had to switch to Trizbort for mapping. The first floor of the castle used the same interface as the previous "plots," with room dimensions and exits annotated by their positions on each wall. But the second floor switched back to the more "conceptual" map used by the outside.
    
The outdoor map of the area.
           
And the indoor castle area.
         
The outdoor area had a number of squares of forest on the west and the ruins of a village on the east. I cleared out some goblins from the village and met a strange bard named Perelas. He said that only the Eye of the Storm could defeat Kal's forces, and that the Eye was hidden in something called the Chamber of Borgo. To get into it, we will have to use a magic harp. Perelas had the harp in his hut, but he had scattered the strings around the area. I gather we'll have to find eight of them, as the first two I found were "low C" and "high C." 
        
"Don't get excited, Kenny," I would say if Kenny were still around.
        
Encounters in and around the castle included:
     
  • The castle has two towers. One of them has been struck by lightning repeatedly while the other is still clean and intact. It's unclear what's causing the first one to keep getting hit.
  • A couple of trees that we could climb to find a "damp key." I'm not sure how a key can be "damp." 
  • As I explored the eastern forest, I encountered a squadron of orcs running towards something. I followed them until they disappeared into a clump of boulders, indicating the presence of a hidden trap door.
  • In the forest, we found the body of a messenger clutching an actual bronze dragon. The statue had a message inside with a letter to King Leopold from King Miegra of the Valley. Miegra begs Leopold to send heroes to help lift a siege brought by Buel, "King of Terrors." This doesn't seem to have anything to do with the current plot. I wonder if it's a teaser for the sequel.
  • We sneaked into a cave and found a "monster meeting" in which an image of Kal admonished the assembled orcs and goblins to do a better job finding the Eye of the Storm and killing the party. This was echoed in a series of letters written by Kal to his "general" in these parts, a cyclops who we killed. In the letters, his exasperation grows.
      
I feel bad for killing the cyclops. He was under a lot of pressure from his boss.
       
  • Wandering into an area called the Forbidden Forest, we were captured by living trees called "Gnaroors" and taken as gifts to the Goblin King. The goblins were having a hot dog roast, but they accidentally set the gnaroors on fire, and we escaped in the chaos.
    
This feels like a melange of six separate episodes from Tolkien.
      
  • Two hobgoblins had taken over the throne room. The battle was extremely difficult, partly because hobgoblins in this setting can apparently breathe fire.
  • A small chest had an object actually called a "red herring."
   
We should probably take it with us.
       
  • Two barracks had sleeping guards. The game often lets you "surprise" enemies, giving you a free round before they can act. With sleeping enemies, you get two free rounds as they slowly wake up.
  • The "upstairs" area of the castle had a bunch of rooms with random symbols--parentheses, exclamation points, slashes--carved above the doors and used as room titles. I spent some time trying to see if there was any way to decipher them. The messages only use eight symbols, and I suspect they're going to correspond with the eight notes on the harp, perhaps telling me the order to play. I don't think they're cryptograms; I spent some time with them and couldn't come up with anything.
    
I can't find any words that follow these patterns of characters.
      
Combats are mostly with orcs, goblins, and trolls. Some of them are quite hard, but the characters have a lot of hit points and I had my elder take nothing but healing spells. Wandering parties of 1-3 orcs frequently enter areas I've already cleared. At least one area has an enemy (a "shadowy form") who can't be hit with regular weapons. Another area serves up a battle with vines and snakes, the former of which wrap around and immobilize characters, the latter of which can cause poison damage. The cyclops was particularly hard. He throws boulders from afar and mashes with a club up close. The characters required a 17 or above to hit him, although some characters had bonuses that effectively lowered that to 15.
   
Unfortunately, I'm going to bail without finishing this one, having already played most of it twice. The first time, I screwed things up by using save states instead of the game's internal saving system. The problem with this is that the game writes world changes to the castle disk, and I had triggered some events (like the gnaroor kidnapping) that, once written, never return.
    
A weird elf bard greets us.
   
But this turns out to be a problem even if you're playing legitimately. The "following the orcs" encounter above can apparently only be done once. It leads to an underground area that includes a battle with a cyclops. Past the cyclops is a cave exit that leads up to an eagle's aerie, where they have a key quest item. You have to have a bucket of bird seed and a rope and grapple when you arrive here, or you can't finish the area. Unfortunately, it appears that your one chance to enter this area is when you follow the orcs, meaning you have to have the rope and grapple and bucket before you enter the first time. Having played through most of the scenario twice, I'm not really keen on doing it a third time. Part of me feels a little bad because the scenario feels like a real module.
    
As much as I admire the construct of the game, the interface is a killer. I don't really blame the authors for it, as it works "on paper." In practice, it just slows things down too much. Moving around a text adventure map, particularly parts you've already explored, should be lightning fast, not a process of hitting "0" to exit, then scrolling through the potential exits. Combat could also have been faster, and with far fewer wandering monsters. Having to fight all the wandering orcs in Seekers is another major deterrent.
   
There are a few other issues. I don't like that the only way you can level up is to visit the king, and that he'll only see you if you bring him a major artifact. My party could have gone to Level 4, but we would have had to finish Seekers or play one of the other plots to get an artifact worthy of Leopold's attention. Second, I feel like the 1d20 rolls aren't really random. They seem heavily weighted to the lower end. I routinely faced enemies that I only needed a 6-9 or better to hit, and yet watched my characters whiff six or seven rounds in a row.
          
I tried to visit Leopold without an artifact, but his queen didn't like any of our stuff.
        
In a GIMLET, I give the game:
    
  • 4 points for the game world. The backstory for the universe and the scenario are fairly well written, if derivative. As I'll cover below, we get more info in the second disk.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. The different classes and their special abilities are interesting. Development, though difficult to achieve, makes the characters notably more powerful. 
  • 2 points for NPCs. I'll grant that status to the denizens of the bar who give you hints.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. There are some interesting enemies with special attacks and defenses, more so on the second disk. I think some of them are even resistant to particular weapons. What I like best in this area is that almost all encounters are "contextual encounters," meaning the monsters make sense for the setting and often have some dialogue or description before attacking. The inventory puzzles are fun, too.
     
The game always offers a brief description of each enemy.
      
  • 5 points for magic and combat. There's a lot of potential here. Between weapon choice (different weapons work at different ranges), special abilities, usable items, and spells, there are a lot of combat tactics. Spells go up to Level 10 and include plenty that summon monsters and do mass damage.
        
A typical combat round against an orc.
        
  • 6 points for equipment. There are a lot of weapon and armor types for the characters to buy, find, wield, and use. I didn't get to experience a lot of the potential here because of poverty. The manual has precise statistics for each weapon and armor type, and a wizard in Dragon Village helps identify magical items. There are of course a lot of usable items.
           
I was never on the cusp of being able to afford this.
          
  • 5 points for the economy. It's very tight. At my richest, I had maybe 100 bronze pieces, and there are items of equipment that go for tens of thousands. There's a bartering system when you're selling items that I didn't cover.
  • 2 points for a main quest with each module, though no real choices.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. There are no graphics or sound; the text is in ALL CAPS; and the interface is needlessly cumbersome. I give that one point for the game's cleverness in creating and annotating castle "maps" even though you never see a map. 
  • 3 points for gameplay. Its difficulty is pitched just about right, and the randomization of the plots makes it at least partly replayable. Everything else suffers in this category, particularly the pacing. It just takes forever to accomplish anything, whether you're trying to swap between characters in Dragon Village or just move across half a dozen map squares. 
   
That gives a final score of 37, which edges it above the "recommended" threshold. There is an awful lot to like about this game, and I'd love to see it remade with a better interface and a lot less disk-swapping.
   
The authors released an add-on disk called Dragon Side II later in 1985. I had previously characterized The Twisted Speare as a second "adventure," but it isn't really. Instead, it's a tavern that replaces the unnamed one from the first disk. A lot more NPC interaction is possible. Patrons react to different characters in different ways, and will comment on various inventory items.
 
There is no "scenario" with the second disk, but there are 12 new "plots," and they all sound more complex than their counterparts in the first game. Consider this description for the second plot:
 
It began so simply. Tum Ak Lar and his band of heroes were attacking the fortress of Aquiem. They penetrated its outer defenses quickly and were battling their way through the courtyard when it happened. Accounts vary, but some facts are certain.

Four spectral cubes guarded the courtyard door to the inner chamber. Tum killed one, a cube blasted Adrian to foil his leap, and Lovli and Forcon both missed. The wizard Quislan had an idea: to teleport a cube away with a dimension door spell. Just as he cast it, the spectral cube began to turn white....

No one knows why, but the resulting explosion killed every member of the party and the cubes, save the one the spell was cast upon. It solidified into color-streaked stone, and began to grow until it reached its present form, a very odd castle.
      
Plot 10 is a murder mystery ("Murder Royale") that actually takes place in the Twisted Speare.
    
The manual for Dragon Side II gives a bit more information about the setting. The world is actually called "Infinity" (this is a regrettable trend; cf. PerihelionLords of Midnight). Dragon Village is situated in the kingdom of Hinterland on the continent of Medalia. King Leopold VI rules Hinterland, but his authority is challenged by Lord Usul of the Shadowlands. King Miegra rules Far Wind Valleys in the southeast. Dragon Side II takes place in the city of Stratford in the nearby kingdom of Saxony.
    
On their website, the authors (Adam West and Dan Schnake) report selling about 1,000 copies after taking out an ad in Computer Gaming World. In the November 1986 issue, Johnny Wilson gave the game a favorable review, although noting that some players may not like it because of the lack of graphics. (For me, that wasn't so much the issue as the nature of the text interface.) For at least one issue, the authors fielded a newsletter called The Dragon's Tale, and you could send them $4.00 for a solution to Seekers of the Storm. Unfortunately, the promised sequel (The Burning Storm) never appeared.
   
         
The authors later reincorporated as CrossCut Games and published RuneSword 1 (2000) and RuneSword 2 (2000), both on my list, as well as a couple of board games. A third RPG called Dungeon Delvers has been promised since the mid-2000s. I don't think the site has been updated since about 2009. I tried contacting the authors through the site and never got a response.
    
Part of me hates to be leaving the title. There's so much I didn't get to experience, including the rest of Seekers, 22 more "plots" (many of them very intriguing), the higher character levels and spells, and the  more powerful inventory items. The game deserves a lot more scrutiny than I was able to give it, and I hope some other blogger--one who hasn't set the same kind of goal that I have--takes up that challenge.

31 comments:

  1. If a party came to my fortress with firkins I'd let them be too. They better not even try to give me trivets, though, or it's ON.

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  2. I wonder if the "damp key" refers to something other than wetness. i.e. something to use on a musical instrument to damp the sound. Or something in reference to underground mine/cavern gas. "The term damp probably is derived from the German dampf, meaning fog or vapor."

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    Replies
    1. I was thinking that the key might be carved out of a somewhat porous stone, and thus could retain some water.

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    2. Maybe there's an adjective randomizer and damp is one of the options?

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    3. Isn't there a 'damp' key on old pipe organs?

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  3. My attempt at decoding the runic inscription is "this coin, one bronze piece, is backed by the vaults of Sendal." Who or wherever Sendal might be; Google didn't offer much help. Maybe I got a few letters wrong.

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    Replies
    1. Ah, yes. I was misinterpreting naudiz (n) as gebo (g). I don't think some of the other letters work, though, unless there are other ways of writing the characters that I don't know about. That's entirely possible. I'm not a futhark expert. I don't even know what the one you're interpreting as an "a" is, for instance. The best I could figure is that it was peorĂ° (p), even though it doesn't look quite right.

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    2. I'm certainly no expert, either. It's been a while since I did anything with the futhark, so I was entirely working off some half-remembered knowledge and the parts of your initial transcription that came close to producing words, then assigning letters to the runes I was uncertain about until I ended up with an intelligible phrase.

      My best guess is that the cover artist made up a runic alphabet partially based on the futhark, but changing the values for some runes and making up a few new ones. Maybe they only remembered some of them and didn't have an encyclopedia handy.

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    3. I realized almost instantly that the symbols said BRONZE along the bottom and then just used cryptogram skills honed from reading Games magazine my whole life to figure out the rest.

      Definitely knowing the Ultima runes both helped and hindered.

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    4. Based on my wikipedia based research, these might be anglo-saxon runes.

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  4. The punctuation is made to look like letters. So that screenshot is something like MUNDER ONLY something MAY ENTER.

    It was hurting my brain so that's as far as I gave it.

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    Replies
    1. Wow, I would never have noticed. You were on the right track; I think it reads:

      THUNDER
      ONLY THE WISE
      MAY ENTER

      Some of those symbol clusters gave me a bit of a headache, especially the !-!-! for "th" and (/) for (sideways) "s."

      It's ugly, but I'm a little impressed by how the author made a not-very-obvious code work with so few symbols.

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    2. Man, that's impressive. I never would have gotten that. Even knowing that's what they were going for, I can't interpret the other screens.

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    3. Aha! Yeah, the THUNDER makes sense now. I noticed the T was !- and didn't realize the "T" "H" combo is just basically "M".

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    4. Whoops. I see that my initial read of "M" was different in the "MAY" thing. But I never went back over it to realize it. Good work sticking it out and figuring the whole thing, Atantuo.

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    5. Okay, armchair sleuths...

      But what does it mean in the context of the scenario?

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    6. Given how the scenarios are described to work, I'd assume it's a hint about a wisdom-themed item being needed to enter a thunder-themed room of some sort.

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    7. Maybe one could figure out the code by comparing the names of spells and actions with their “encrypted” variant? E.g. in the screenshot the black-on-white word should be “Protect” which, I guess, is the name of the selected spell.

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    8. You'd think if there was thunder, only the unwise would enter.

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    9. The truly wise are only concerned about lightning...

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  5. AlphabeticalAnonymousOctober 2, 2021 at 9:45 PM

    Poor Kenny - he contributed a certain ineffable something to almost every comment chain!

    Re. the damp key: I seem to remember that Tom Sawyer carved himself a key out of wood at one point, so that's one key that could conceivably be damp.

    Finally, a possible small typo or missing word: "Even we would have chosen"

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  6. I'm so happy you are reviewing this one - another memory from childhood.

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  7. Huh, what a fascinating little game. Quite a lot to admire in the diversity of content and amount of story conveyed.

    I presume one of the towers contains the lightning elemental hence the damage.

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  8. It looks like they have transitioned fully into board games and are still active there. They raised $200k on kickstarter and released a game in the last few years.

    https://www.facebook.com/crosscutgames

    https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/872048165/transmissions-board-game

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  9. Was there any capacity for writing your own adventures, or did you have to use the pre-made "plots" and expansions?

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  10. "the Eye of the Storm. It was reputed to be powerful enough to level continents"

    "I'm too busy to attend", "I don't wish to bring my powers to bear on this situation" - Kal

    I really want to know what other matter was more important to Kal. An artifact to destroy complete worlds?

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    Replies
    1. An artifact REPUTED to destroy complete worlds; maybe Kal just doesn't believe that.

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    2. It sounds like Kal is just really lazy and doesn't want to get up off his couch, TBH. He was too busy eating chips and watching the Packers game.

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  11. I'm excited to see Sorderon's Shadow coming up. It's more of an Adventure game using "Landscaping" (like Lords of Midnight) than a CRPG, but it was a very ambitious and very difficult game. I couldn't even complete it with a walkthrough, and there's nothing about it on YouTube.
    It may be just nostalgia now, but I remember it had a fantastic atmosphere and cast of weird and wonderful characters.
    If you can complete it, it will be a major achievement IMO.

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  12. Who would have thought that, a somewhat decent game. At first, it seemed like one of these 'I-only-do-that-because-it-makes-me-drawing-maps'-things again, but well, glad I was wrong.

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  13. The Red Herring in the chest reminds me of 10-year old me getting stumped in an early adventure game where as a joke, a cook asks you to find him a "red herring". I had no idea of the reference and spent several hours wandering the dock and ocean areas trying to figure out how to fish before I eventually discovered the right way to go.

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