Saturday, January 29, 2022

WarWizard: Key Progress

Fixed enemies don't move, so although these two headhunters are ostensibly "guarding" the passage, I don't have to fight them unless I want to.
In this session, I finished exploring the continent, this time noting where the boundaries transitioned between kingdoms. It turns out that these boundaries are unrealistically straight, even when there are nearby landscape features that would serve as better boundaries. I assume this was done for ease of programming. The kingdoms are arranged into a 2 x 3 grid. The four southernmost kingdoms are roughly square (it may turn out they are exactly square once the water edges are fully mapped). The two northern ones are either compressed on the y-axis or they extend farther north than I've been able to map so far.  
Each kingdom has a capital, a handful of other cities, and at least one dungeon (or otherwise non-city place to explore with combats and treasure). Since I have to find nine artifacts, either some dungeons hold more than one or some of them will be found through other means.
The continent and its six kingdoms.
A river cuts into the continent from the northeast, nearly reaching the center, where a bunch of adjacent mountain ranges make passage difficult. Because of the rivers and mountains, there's a natural clockwise exploration pattern that starts in northeast Cara (where the game begins) and presumably finishes at Castle Gildain in Aladain, guarded by hordes of monsters. 
Once I finished the map, I started over in Cara and began exploring each of the locations more carefully. The game begins at the Hermit's House, nestled in a mountain nook on the road between Little Island and Caer Tiran. I checked in, but the old WarWizard had no new information. North of here is Little Island, which offers a pub, inn, clothing store, and locksmith. An NPC in the pub warns me that the nomads in the faraway deserts are swindlers. Joinable NPCs are all warriors and citizens. The locksmith sells a key to the palace in Cara and a Level 3 lockpick; I purchase both.

Caer Tiran, the capital of Cara, is situated on the north side of a bay. In addition to an inn, pub (citizens, warriors, one cleric, one mage), weapon store, armor store, and temple, the city has the royal palace. There, a guard warns me that his men were forced to destroy the bridge leading to Aladain; you can see the ruins of the old bridge north of the castle. A female wizard says that the castles of Caer Sorith and Car Ereth lie far to the south, off the main road. A solider tells me that Aladain has fallen and "evil runs amok even in the lands to the south." Duke Bendor suggests I seek an artifact of great power in the swamps to the southeast. As covered before, there are no swamps to the southeast; he probably means southwest, where the Caves of Anbari are found in the middle of a swamp. That would make sense, as the Duke of Cara's clue would pertain to a location inside Cara.
Arriving at the capital of Cara.
The key I purchased in Little Island gets me into a storeroom, where I loot the chests for 394 gold and over 250 food. There are some weapons that I leave (nothing much better than what I have) and a suit of plate mail that I don't have the strength to carry--which is odd, given that I'm supposed to have maximum human strength.
Before attempting the Caves of Anbari yet again, I make a visit to Kaleth in Zebesk. The "legendary" nomad's keep lies on a river bend in the northeastern desert. The town has every service except for a locksmith and stable. It's here that a wizard tells me to take the key from his chest so that I can visit the nomad lords, but then doesn't move so that I can't search his space. There's a chest in the square next to him, but it has nothing in it--or so it seems. Keep reading.
The spell store sells "Awaken," "Tongues," "Protection," "Enhancement," and a Ring of Fireballs. I buy "Protection" not because I want it, but because it's the Level 1 sorcerer spell and I need to get to Level 2 as a sorcerer to be able to cast "Tongues." While exploring, I also purchased "Healing 1" in some other town. You only get 5 spell slots, and you can only memorize spells at inns, but you don't actually have to pay to sleep. Since you get experience for casting spells, it makes sense to find an inn and keep memorizing and casting "Healing 1" until everyone is healthy. This takes as long, and is about as annoying, as repeatedly casting "Cure Light Wounds" in Pool of Radiance.
Casting multiple "Protection" spells per round to build my experience.
The process illustrates how the interface is often broken. To cast a spell, you:
  1. Hit "C" or click the "Cast" button.
  2. Type or click the number of the character who is casting.
  3. Click the spell you want to cast.
  4. Hit the "U" key or click on the "Utter" button.
  5. Type or click the number of the character the spell is being cast on.
Which of those steps is not like the others? Step 3--it's the only one that forces you to click. Since there are only five spell slots, there's no reason that the creators couldn't have mapped each one to the 1-5 keys, and then casting spells repeatedly would be a relatively quick process of typing C-1-1-U-4 (to cast the first spell on person #4). Instead, the forced clicking interrupts the efficiency of the process.

The good news is that, unlike leveling with weapons, spell leveling is relatively fast. You need 500 spell experience points to get from Level 1 to Level 2 in each of the spell classes. Each casting of a Level 1 spell gives you 30 experience points. I reach Level 3 as a cleric before I know it. By loading up on "Protection" at inns and casting them all in subsequent combats (you can cast up to 3 spells per round), I soon reach Level 2 as a sorcerer, too.
Memorizing multiple copies of my first spell.
Once I have "Tongues" available, I throw my party back into the Caves of Anbari, determined to make progress. As before, the Caves of Anbari transition to the Caves of Kolin, and the Caves of Kolin have a back exit into a valley, where there is a third entrance to the dungeon of the Ogre King. I am determined to beat my way through the parties of lizardmen, ghouls, and ogres, even if I have to return to town for healing after every single battle.
It turns out that I cleared more of the caves on previous expeditions than I remembered. My real obstacle in finishing the caves is not the enemies but the many locked doors and chests. None of my lockpicking or bashing seems to do any good. Over time, I discover that this is because I've misunderstood some key aspects to the game's interface. In my defense, those aspects are stupid. But my slow discovery of them meant that I end up looping through this set of dungeons about six times.
The earliest thing I discover has to do with secret doors. An NPC in the dungeon alerts me to their possibility. To find them, you have to bash your way into blank walls. You may not discover them the first time, so if you really suspect there's a secret door there, you want to do it repeatedly. I am initially confused when I enter the Cave of the Ogre King, defeat one party of guards, and find a blank room with no treasures or exits, but I discover a secret door (which I cannot open) on the east wall.
Opening a secret door involves hitting the wall repeatedly until this comes up.
Frustrated at all the doors and chests I can't open, I leave the caverns, save the game, and spent about 40 minutes rushing from town to town to figure out which locksmith sells the best pick. This turns out to be the one at Tel Keliok in Essea. I reload, head directly there, buy the Level 8 pick, and return to the dungeon. It does get me through some of the doors, including four of them in a "jail" area, each of which has stacks of NPCs behind them. Only one of them gives any kind of hint (the artifact in the caves is a belt), but the others include clerics and wizards who will join the party if I feel like taking the time to rearrange things.
(One of the other major discoveries of this session is that when you encounter "an NPC," you may in fact be encountering a stack of up to 8 NPCs. You can see how many there are based on how many buttons are active on the left-hand side of the screen. Typically, only the top NPC has anything interesting to say, if any of them do, but the others might include races and classes that you want to enlist in your party. Until this session, I'd only ever noticed the "top" NPC.) 
The top NPC is giving me this clue, but there are six more NPCs in this "stack." Incidentally, I've yet to have an occasion to "bribe" or "threaten."
More successful use of the lockpicks gets me some cool treasure, including a short sword +2, a Potion of Charisma (permanently improves charisma by 1), leather boots +1, and a robe +2 for a mage. But I still can't get through other doors, including the one in the Ogre King's chambers.
The most annoying message ever.
I'm just about to give up when, during some random clicking on a chest I've already explored, I figure out what I've been missing. It turns out that when you open chests, you do not by default see any keys the chests contain. You only see other "items." To see keys, you have to click on the chest icon above the window that show's the chest's contents. I thought you only had to click on that if you wanted to use a key on a chest, but apparently you also need it to see what keys a chest contains.
This is the "item" view of the chest we're looting (there are no items) . . .

. . . and this is the "key" view.
It gets worse. When you loot enemy corpses, there are actually three views of their potential items: backpack, keys, and body. The entire game, I've only been looting the items on the "backpack" screen, and then wondering why lizard men who attacked me with long swords +1 never seemed to have long swords +1 once I killed them.
There are keys everywhere in the Caves of Anbari, Kolin, and the Ogre King. Everywhere. I've just been missing them. Lockpicks and bashing are entirely unnecessary: there's a key to every door and chest. Screaming with frustration, I finally find the key to the Ogre King's lair and use it to get through the secret door and a second door beyond.
Confronting the Ogre King.
The climactic battle with the Ogre King is fairly easy. He attacks alone, and while he hits hard, no single enemy is that threatening. My party of warriors winnows him down, and pretty soon I loot the WarWizard's Belt from his body. I at last have one of the nine artifacts.
That's one gaudy-looking belt.
That wraps up the land of Cara. I make my way next to Zebesk. In fact, I've already been using one of its towns, Forest Glen, located just off the main road, to rest in between visits to the Caves of Anbari. In addition to an inn and pub (which all towns have), it has a stable, and more out of curiosity than anything else, I buy a horse. I guess it cuts down on food use and makes you fatigued less quickly, but you can't ride them through forests or deserts. This makes me reflect on the fact that many RPGs offer horses, but in most of them, they're more trouble than they're worth because you're always having to mount or dismount to explore and fight (and remember where you left them). The best approach I've seen to horses is in Darklands, where once you buy them, they're just in the background. It's assumed you use them when you travel but otherwise you don't have to micromanage them. 
This horse didn't last long. I left him somewhere and forgot where.
MiddleGate is practically across the road from Forest Glen, but it offers a spell store and a clothing store. There are some leather boots +1 I can buy for the rest of my party once I feel like I have enough gold. An NPC in the pub tells me: "Near Caer Ereth lies a hidden valley surrounded by impenetrable mountains. Therein lies a hidden settlement that no one has seen for a thousand years. Many think there is great treasure there!" North of Caer Ereth, there is such a valley, but I have no idea how to enter it. There are several mountain ranges that seem to completely encircle large bits of land. Maybe I'll eventually find something that lets me fly.
I suspect he's talking about this area of my map.
I return to the nomad city of Kaleth, and lo-and-be-goddamned-hold, there is a key in that chest in the wizard's room. You just have to know how to search chests for keys. I suspect the same issue is behind Rangerous's inability to find a key in a drawer. And we were speculating that the game had already been "played!" All those chests we thought were "empty" weren't really empty; they were just empty of "items," which is the default view and doesn't include keys.
Ironically, my eighth-level lockpick gets me through the door that the wizard's key opens. It takes me into the royal palace, past some royal guards, up some stairs, and into some rooms with some fantastic loot. There are some light helmets +1, a magic collar +1, and potions of Increase Wisdom and Increase Stamina. The latter improves hit points for all my body parts by 2; it's the most significant character development in the game so far. Oddly, some of the potions I find are things like "Damage Self" and "Decrease Wisdom" and "Decrease Strength." Even more oddly, the merchant in town sells such potions. I can't imagine what use they have. I don't think you can use potions offensively.
"Increase Stamina" potions is the only way to give a permanent boost to maximum hit points.
In the throne room, I meet the four Nomad Lords, who together recount the history of the WarWizards and say that a piece of the armor can be found in the jungles to the south.
The Nomad Lords have one throne, but they stand together in a single stack.
The "jungles to the south" have a ruin called the Temple of Alor, dedicated to a minotaur god. I have been here before, but it looked like a small corridor leading to a rounded apse with an altar and a single combat with "headhunters."
Entering the temple.
It turns out there is a secret door on the east side that opens into a sprawling labyrinth (suitable for a minotaur god, I guess) of corridors and rooms, and plenty of fixed combats with headhunters, apes, gargoyles, giant spiders, ghouls, and wights.
Wights are so keen to cast "Protection" on themselves and "Unprotect" on us that they sometimes forget to actually attack.
I've gotten mostly used to combat. It still takes far too many commands to make a simple attack, but it's amazing how fast you can get used to typing something like UP ARROW-UP ARROW-N-N-T-UP ARROW-A-R if you do it enough times. I've been waiting for a more detailed combat posting for when I have more advanced spells.
I should mention that reloading is still fairly common. My warriors are pretty hardy, but all it takes is two lucky hits in a row to knock someone's head or torso hit points down to 0. Having to return all the way to town when something like that happens feels like too much of a penalty. There are also plenty of times in which I enter a fixed battle, find 8 foes, die amidst their swarms of attacks, reload, re-enter the same battle, and find only 1 foe.
You'd think that giant spiders would poison you, but I never got poisoned.
We soon get lost in the huge dungeon, but we continue following the right wall. As if the size isn't enough, the temple introduces a new navigation element: teleporter pads. There are occasional emergency exits to the wilderness with no way back in. At times, the dungeon seems to be pranking me; one long spiraling corridor, full of multiple combats, ends in nothing more than a single square with a sign that says, "Have a nice day!"
One for you, minotaur god.
There are some nice treasures. I find a long sword +2, a chain mail +1, two Wands of Lightning, and an "Increase Dexterity" potion. There are several "Great Heal" potions with at least two uses, which helps restore hit points after my "Healing 1" spells run out. Scrolls give me the "Flame Touch" and "Aid Travel" spells.
Finally, we make it to an inner area marked by a sign that reads: "Ahead lie the chambers of the god Alor. Woe to those who enter unbidden." A room full of teleporter puzzles led to a couple of large minotaur battles. Minotaurs attack with throwing axes, which they can do from three squares away, but otherwise they die faster than you'd expect given their fearsome reputation.
Two minotaur packs guard the minotaur god. The pads of the teleporter puzzle lie behind me.
The minotaur god, Alor, stands alone on a podium next to an altar. He attacks alone, too. He has a war hammer +3, and he hits hard, but as with the Ogre King, there's only so much damage a single enemy can do before four characters are able to kill him. On his body, I find the WarWizard's Boots, the second of the nine artifacts.
2/9 of the way there!
Now that the water finally seems to be flowing with this one, it's probably time to think about my party composition. I've been running with three (unnamed) warriors, which worked out well in the early game, but it would be nice to have more diversity. It's probably time to enlist a cleric and wizard before I waste too much character development on characters I'll probably abandon. On the other hand, with spellcasters only getting five spell slots before they have to find an inn to rest, maybe it makes sense to just stick with warriors. This is where I'd normally ask for opinions, but I seem to be the only documented person to have played the game this far.
Time so far: 27 hours

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Towers: Summary and Rating

Attacking a goblin with an axe.
United States
JV Enterprises (developer); published as shareware
Released 1993 for Atari ST, 1994 for DOS, 1999 for Game Boy Color
Date Started: 12 January 2022
Date Ended: 26 January 2022
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5) except for the part that has me blocked
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 128/444 (29%)
In my first entry on Towers, I explored the first two levels. For this one, I explored the next three. Enemies got harder as I went up, and I found myself having to rest and heal more frequently, although fortunately food has still been plentiful. Hit points and mana points regenerate slowly, but exploration is also slow, so unless I face more than two enemies in a row, there usually isn't much danger.
Non-combat puzzles remain easy. You just have to find the right sequence of buttons and keys to make your way through the level. If you get stuck and can't find any way to progress, it usually means that you've missed a secret door, and it's time to go walking headlong into walls. On the first two levels, secret doors only led to optional areas, but that changed starting on Level 3.
Level 3 was a typical maze of corridors, and like Level 2, it left a 48-square "hole" in the southern portion. This repeated on Level 4.
A message scroll offered:
To ask, is to question
    what is known
Some may be hidden,
    and some may be shown
That's probably just a hint to search for secret areas. Another scroll gave me the "Poison" spell (XAS KI KE), and a third reiterated "Heal" (MEM SIR PAB) while also offering "Protection" (XAS ME). Casting spells is really annoying in this game. There's too much clicking involved in getting the syllables into the spell slot--clicking on tiny words where it's easy to mis-click a different word--and then the spell fails half the time. It would be nice if there were a way to simply re-cast the spell you cast (or tried to cast) previously. That way, healing 10 hit points wouldn't take five minutes of clicking and swearing.
I found a longsword, and I spent some time trying to figure out whether the longsword, axe,  or the Gauntlets of Strength killed enemies faster. I couldn't discern a difference. New enemies on the level included a new kind of goblinesque creature with a club. 
Level 4 introduced trap doors that dump you back to the previous level minus a few hit points. I can't determine any way to detect them before you've triggered them. I found two new spells: "Iceball" (KELE HA RA) and "Identify Item" (LAL KUB), the latter of which has not worked once. A new enemy defies an easy name. It looks like it has a snake's tail and a cobra's hood, but it also has a monstrous face in the middle of the hood and two little arms off to the sides. I annotated them as "hooded demons."
They come in a couple of colors, but I'm not sure why.
Level 5 offered a couple of slightly new surprises. It was the first level with a stairway back down (after the initial ascension). This led to a small area of Level 5 in which I fought a zombie and got the "Spark" spell (SIR RA KI). Elsewhere, I got "Levitate" (EN RA ME) and "Feather Fall" (RA KE). Zombies became relatively common enemies on Level 5. A message scroll said, "Our master just won an intellectual battle and now shapes our home accordingly." Okay.
This appears to be some kind of zombie.
In the south, above where all the blank spaces had been on the previous three levels, there was a secret area with a bridge across a chasm. Some kind of polyhedron was spinning in the air in the middle of the bridge. The best I can figure, it was just a trap, as walking through it did 10 damage to me and caused it to disappear. On the other side was a key that I needed for later in the level.
If this is anything other than a trap, I don't know what.
If I dropped off the sides of the bridge into the chasm, I could explore an isolated 8 x 4 area of Level 4. This rectangle had three hooded demons and a pile of treasure that included a Club of Throwing, a jeweled necklace, and a blue potion. The problem was that I couldn't figure a way out of this area--there were no secret doors and no way back up. "Levitate" only stops you from falling; it doesn't raise you. Maybe there's a spell that I'll find later that would help. For now, I had to reload and leave the treasure. [Ed. I later watched a Game Boy Color LP of the game, and it turns out the necklace is a Healing Necklace and the blue potion is a "Levitate Up" potion, which of course is the key to getting out.] The bigger mystery is that there was no way down from this area. I rather expected to find a stairway or pit that would take me down and fill in the unmapped parts of Levels 2 and 3. There's only a slight amount of room, in the bottom row, for a stairway from an upper level to still head back down to Level 3.
"Levitate" did allow me to make a pointless excursion back to Level 2, where I'd left half a room unmapped because it was bisected by a trench, plus three locked doors for which I never found the keys. I used "Levitate" to get over the trench and found a jeweled wooden key, which opened one of the locked doors. Inside that room was a stone key, which opened the second locked door. Inside that room was a jeweled stone key, which opened the door to a room that had nothing at all. I ran around and hit every wall to be sure. I guess the whole point was to make me waste food or something.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I found a Bag of Holding at some point. I didn't realize it was different from a regular bag when I found it. Items placed in it have no weight.
  • I have one gold ring, one red ring, and four silver rings, none of which seem to do anything as far as I can tell. No amount of casting of LAL KUB ("Identify") seems to tell me anything about them. I have no idea what they're for. None of them have any effect on my statistics.
  • Some of the windows in the walls let you look outside. That's cute. 
Looking out.
  • When you have plenty of food and rest, you are "Alert" and "Full," which makes sense. When you're low on both, you're "Hungry" and "Tired," which also makes sense, but in between are "Meager" and "Jaded." I wasted time trying to see if I could get to whatever the German words for "Peckish" and "Weary" are to "Meager" and "Jaded" only to remember that the developers were American. So I don't know how to explain it.
  • I've gotten to Level 5, which has conferred 4 extra maximum hit points, 3 extra maximum mana points, and 2 extra weight units per level. I don't know whether leveling up improves attacks.
  • Armor upgrades have gone from leather to light mail to mail.
  • The chess move notices continued. The full list through Level 5 is E2-E4, E7-E5, F1-C4, D7-D6, G1-F3. I'm really curious where the game is going with this.
As I was wrapping up this entry, I decided to take a peek at Level 6. The moment I emerged from the stairwell, I was attacked by some kind of rock creature that seemed impervious to any of my weapons. I tried some spells against him but ran out of mana before they killed him, if even they were doing any damage at all. [Ed. I was later going through my first entry on the game, and I realized the rock "monster" is in fact just a pile of rocks, the same that blocked the entryway in the first square. Something must be on the other side of it shooting something at me. Either way, I can't progress past it.]
The point at which I'm stuck.
In my square was a scroll, so I grabbed it to see if it would offer a new spell. Instead, it said, "It looks like a password. GMJI? Hmmm, I wish I had that manual!"
I don't know if that has anything to do with the rock creature, but the scroll suggests that the manual is necessary somehow to interpret a password. This corresponds with the "Readme" file in the version I have, which says, "You can play several levels of the game without the manual." ("GMJI" doesn't correspond to the spell syllables, so it's not a spell.) I looked at the manual for the Game Boy Color version but didn't see anything that could help. I watched an LP of the Game Boy Color version, but the player didn't encounter anything in this location. Thus, it looks like we're stuck here unless anyone else has an idea or JV Games responds to my e-mails. In case we don't solve it, I'll give the game a preliminary GIMLET of:
  • 3 points for the game world. It's just a framing story, so far not referenced in actual gameplay, but it's still slightly more interesting than the typical framing story.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There is no character creation process, and leveling is slow and predictable.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are nothing special and the puzzles don't have Dungeon Master's complexity, but I'll assume that chess puzzle was shaping up to something interesting and include some extra consideration.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. The derivative systems for both magic and combat don't work as well here as in the source games. The interface involves too much clicking on tiny things; spells fail too often and take too long to line up; and the "cooldown" system is boring with a single character.
A scroll offers some more spells.
  • 3 points for equipment. You get regular upgrades, though with the weakness common to this lineage of seeing no statistics except changes to armor class.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics and sound effects are serviceable but nothing special; the interface is troublesome to me when the mouse is required. It doesn't move smoothly and the buttons are too small.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It has a little replayability (with different characters) and the levels last about as long as you'd want levels to last, but it it's otherwise very linear, a little too easy,  and at 15 levels (something I read on another site), too long.
That gives us a total of 21, which is where I would leave it as a single-player game. If you could get multiplayer to work, it might be worth about 4 more points spread across characters, combat, and equipment. Mostly, though--at least for the first five levels--there's nothing special that would lead you to play this game instead of any number of better dungeon crawlers.
I'll give Towers II a try when I get to 1995. Screenshots suggest that they managed to replicate Ultima Underworld gameplay, not just parts of its screen. After that, JV Enterprises moves away from RPGs and we won't encounter them again.
Now some personal news: I have COVID! Yes, despite being vaccinated (but not boosted). It hasn't required hospitalization so far, but it's sure kicked my butt. In addition to fatigue, headaches, coughing, fever, and chills, it's made me incredibly nauseous, which I didn't even know was a symptom. Having this illness is really screwing up my class schedule and my ability to prepare for classes, and I was hardly ahead of the curve before I got it. This is all to say that I apologize if updates are slow for the next few weeks. Health first, then job, then RPGs.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

BRIEF: Fire King (1989)

I did not get far enough into the game to find out who either of these people are.
Fire King
Micro Forté (developer); Strategic Studies Group (publisher)
Released 1989 for Commodore 64, 1990 for DOS
In my youth, I had a lot of fantasies about what I would do when I made enough money to afford it. I would have all the Star Wars figures and Lego sets that I wanted. I would buy the all-access wristband to the local zoo and amusement park every weekend. And I would take a literal bucketful of quarters to the arcade and stand in front of the Gauntlet cabinet until I won it. (Life would be so much simpler if those were the things I still wanted. But nooooo: once you get to the point that you can afford those things, suddenly what you want instead is a boat.) If I close my eyes, I can still hear the narrator. "Elf needs food, badly"; "Warrior is about to die."
It surprises me how rarely I've had to refer to Gauntlet during my 12 years of blogging about RPGs. It's not an RPG, lacking the character development so core to the genre, but it's certainly adjacent enough that I would have thought we'd feel its influences on action RPGs. (Gauntlet, it must be said, is not the first game to do what it did, but it is arguably the most popular.) Yet any RPG that seems remotely similar, like Origin's Times of Lore (1988) can trace its lineage to earlier action games (some RPGs, some not) without passing through Gauntlet. I'm curious whether Diablo (1996) has any acknowledged Gauntlet debt. I'll research that when I get to it, but I imagine commenters will fill me in now.
A shot from Fire King. Ghosts swam me as two wizards at cauldrons continue to make more. There are several treasure chests in this room, but a lot of them will turn out to be monsters in disguise.
But let's differentiate a game that we might call "gauntlesque" from simple action games in which the player attacks swarms of enemies, like Hydlide (1984). I would suggest that there are four key elements to this sub-genre:
  • Action gameplay in which players swing and fire with a single button against essentially unending streams of foes.
  • Multiple character archetypes to choose from. Each has strengths and weaknesses, but they do not develop during the game.
  • Cooperative multiplayer, with each player choosing a different character type.
Right outside my house, I start encountering enemies.
  • A large initial pool of hit points that is meant to sustain the player through the game. You may find potions or other mechanisms of bumping your hit point total during the game, but the overall trend is consistently downward. In the arcade Gauntlet, your hit points dropped over time even if you didn't get hit. I wouldn't consider this an essential feature, but it is an extreme version of this theme.
Fire King is this kind of gauntlesque game, developed by the Australian studio Micro Forté, now known as Wargaming Australia. If it were an RPG, it would be the first commercial title from the country. I still get questions about it because MobyGames lists it as an RPG, but oddly not its predecessor, Demon Stalkers (1987), which features almost exactly the same game mechanics.
The difference is probably in some of the external trappings that Fire King develops. Demon Stalkers had no story, just 99 levels to fight through. Fire King tries to be less linear--its world consists of multiple interconnected areas with a variety of transitional portals and stairways. It also has a detailed framing story, shops and gold, and NPCs. But all the slaughtering you do never gets you any stronger except as you improve inventory. This isn't just a pedantic distinction for me; it makes a huge difference in my enjoyment of a game, and it's why I'm a CRPG addict and not an action game addict.
The game begins with a detailed backstory.
The titular Fire King is the head of a cabal of wizards who rule the peaceful valley in which the game is set. Monsters attacked a recent conclave of these wizards. The Fire King was killed; the wind mage was wounded; the water mage is MIA; and the earth mage went insane and fled. The wind mage brought the Fire King's body back to the city. A beast attacked the funeral, drove everyone away, and now prowls the catacombs. Monsters are suddenly flooding the streets. The city's greatest hero has been lost in an attempt to kill the beast. It's up to one or two players to save the day.
Shops and gold differentiate this game from a lot of "gauntlesque" titles.
Players choose from six heroes--Brodric Broadaxe, Hubert the Just, Sally the Slaughtermaid, Mungo the Magician, the Enchantress Emily, and The Shadow--each with different levels in the game's three "attributes": strength, armor, and magic. The manual gives a little bio of each of the characters, making it clear that they fit into common archetypes: warrior, paladin, barbarian, mage (I see little distinction between Mungo and Emily except sex), and thief. 
The manual's description of "The Shadow."
Gameplay begins in the characters' house in the center of town and continues out in the town square, from which characters may enter various shops and city buildings, and ultimately the catacombs. Gameplay requires only the numberpad for movement and two keys to fire the primary weapon and to use collected objects; it really feels like it was meant to be played on a console with a directional pad and two buttons.
The six character choices.
Enemies are already swarming the city streets as the game begins. Each batch of enemies is replenished endlessly by a wizard at a cauldron; killing this conjurer (which takes multiple hits) is the only way to permanently clear the infestation. Gameplay otherwise consists of running around and collecting gold and useful items like keys, food, armor upgrades, bombs, and various spells. These items accumulate in your little inventory belt. Books occasionally give you hints and clues or fill in parts of the story.
Books occasionally offer hints and lore.
Getting back to combat, there's a level of abstraction in gauntlesque games that I've never liked. The player takes on literal armies of interchangeable enemies who have no individual agency. They just "swarm." Killing them feels like stamping out insects. Games based on Hydlide or Zelda are similar in this regard, probably accounting for my inability to take to them. I see a big difference between such games and those (whether RPGs or action games) in which a realistic number of enemies are situated in realistic locations and act like realistic foes. (I realize I'm still allowing for a fairly flexible definition of "realistic" in saying this.) The enemies in Fire King feel like they would have no trouble conquering the world if they would just organize rather than blobbing around in random directions. Success strikes me as depending far more on controller acumen than anything we'd call "tactics." I understand that lots of people like that, but it's just not my cup of tea. It would be tough to blog about, too. I'd have several entries that just went: "Four hours spent today. Mowed down another 150 enemies. Dropped from 12,086 health to 10,245. Found 3 bombs." 
I realize I will eventually arrive at such gameplay with Diablo, although I'm holding out hope that it will have elements that make it a little more interesting. Between here and there, are there any "gauntlesque" games that also qualify as RPGs?

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

WarWizard: Still Priming the Pump

You have to watch for those little "chest" icons as you walk, or else you miss treasure chests.

In Hearts in Atlantis, Stephen King offers some advice about reading:
A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give . . . eventually.
This part is often quoted. What is usually left out of these quotes is the sentence that precedes it. It's the advice King's character gives to a young boy who worries that the book won't start giving: "Then don't finish it."
Games are the same way. I tend to mentally divide them into two groups: those I have to force myself to play and those I have to force myself to stop playing when it's time to go to bed. What I tend to forget is that almost all games start in the first category. The beginnings of games are always rough for me, the only exceptions being the rare occasions when I've loved a developer's previous games and its new one seems to use the same conventions. Most of the time, I dread the first few hours, but usually after that, the pump is primed the water starts flowing, and I get into that dopamine groove that we all crave. 
"At Calorman's, the friendships last long as the mountains stand."
WarWizard is, alas, one of those games that has me flailing the handle of the pump long after those initial hours. Every session is a chore. I simply cannot figure out a path through the game that makes any kind of sense. This is a danger with open-world games, but usually there's some kind of hint about where to go first, or some "introductory area" that gets the player used to the game's conventions. Here, I thought it would be the quest given by the duke in the closest city to the beginning, but if the area he sends you to is the easiest, I don't want to know what the hardest looks like.
The most frustrating part of WarWizard is the slow rate of progression. In most RPGs, even if you spend a lot of time bumbling about (the original Might and Magic comes to mind), at least you're amassing gold, equipment, and experience. This game's approach severely mutes that sense of progress. It doesn't have traditional levels, and the number of combats you need to fight to gain your next level of proficiency with a weapon is nuts. (I believe I needed 750 experience points to reach proficiency Level 1 with a sword, and every hit gives you like 3.) Things might start to improve once I can cast spells, but I've only just now gotten enough gold that I can afford a single scroll. It doesn't help that you can't keep selling looted items to shops, which would otherwise be a reliable way of making money, because their display cases fill up after three or four sales, and then they won't accept any more items. The result of this lack of development is that it's rare that I can fight two battles in a row without having to visit a temple to heal in between, and it's hard to see that situation changing soon.
I did finish outlining the continent and its road network, which is something like 100 x 140, although for all I know the seas extend farther in one or more directions, perhaps even wrapping around. There are islands with cities that I can't reach, so I assume some kind of boat transportation is later possible.
Where I stand with the game world. The game starts in the northeast. The dungeon I spent most of this session trying to explore is in the middle of the red area in the north-center.
Both the indoor and outdoor maps have two types of enemies and NPCs. The first type is fixed, and you can see their icons as you approach. The second type are random; they have no icon, but when you step into their square, an image pops up in the lower-right of the game screen, next to the compass. If you step off the square without engaging them, you've lost them. If you turn random encounters off, the only way you ever fight random enemies is if you pause long enough in movement to watch for them to pop up, then hit the "Combat" button. The notification doesn't distinguish between enemies and NPCs, so I suppose it's best to try to talk first.
Anyway, the outer world has two places in which enemy icons appear in the environment. One is in the northeast. There are about seven of them blocking some kind of castle. They look like giants and demons, so I assume this is where the endgame is going to take place. The second place is a single serpentine enemy guarding a bridge in the northwest. Until I can get past him, I suppose it's not impossible that the world extends a lot farther in that direction, but given the shape of everything else, it seems unlikely.
A bunch of fixed monsters guard a castle. I assume this is the endgame.
At this point, my map is complete enough that I don't feel the need to do any more mapping. I'll fill in some of the other bits when I get to a point that I need to explore for more cities or dungeons, but otherwise I got what I needed: a basic shape of the world, its road network, and its major cities.
The main quest isn't that hard in concept: you have to find nine artifacts to defeat whatever evil has taken root in Aladain (the location of the monster-guarded castle discussed above). Most of them are going to be found in one of the land's dungeons, and a hint to those locations is going to be given to the player by the different kingdoms' leaders. The duke closest to the beginning, Bendor, sends you to "the swamps to the south east," although I'm pretty sure he means southwest, as there are no swamps to the southeast. In the swamps to the southwest, there is a dungeon called the Caves of Anbari, which transitions at some point to the Caves of Kolin. The Caves of Kolin exit to an outdoor area that I'm pretty sure is within a mountain range whose outside edges I mapped. There's a third dungeon accessible from here called the Lair of the Ogre King.
An ogre blocks a tunnel in the Caves of Kolin.
My attempts to explore all three of these areas have been sporadic. The caves are full of fixed parties of lizardmen, ghouls, and ogres. While the composition of these parties is immutable, the quantity seems to be based on a random number between 1 and 8. My party can reliably defeat one ogre, three lizardmen, and or four ghouls. If I walk into one of the fixed enemies and get more than that, I almost certainly die and have to reload. On the reload, I may or may not get luckier. Even when I'm "lucky," my party is usually so wounded after the combat that I have to retreat for healing. You can see why progress has been slow. Fortunately, fixed enemies that you kill don't respawn, so I am making at least some progress.
The party got lucky here, with just one enemy.
I decided to try adding some spellcasters to the party, but that didn't really help. The spells that arcane spellcasters get in the early levels don't offer much assistance. In Levels 1-2, the sorcerer gets "Tongues" (translates languages) and "Protection 1" (works only on the spellcaster) and the magician gets "Bring Food 1" and "Poison." None of them are game-changers in combat. I can't even figure out how to use "Poison." When I cast it in combat, the game pops up with an error message that I don't understand. The spell isn't even mentioned in the manual.
I don't know what this is asking.
The combat system sounds good on paper, but small interface issues make it somewhat annoying in practice. For instance, making each body part have its own hit points isn't a bad idea, but it only really makes sense if each body part also has a different number of hit points and a different chance of hitting. Whether to go for the head, torso, or arms ought to be a tactical decision: Do I go for the critical hit that has a low chance of hitting (head), the easy hit that only leaves the enemy slightly disabled (limbs), or the center-of-mass hit which will almost surely connect but not do as much critical damage (torso)? Instead, there's essentially no reason not to go for the default (torso) since it has the same number of hit points and same chance of hitting as the head.
But even if you're going to use the default, the game still requires you to select the enemy and hit "target." The latter can be done from the keyboard but the former must be done with the mouse, unless you want to use "Next" and "Last" to cycle through enemies, which never goes in a sensible order. So if you've been moving your character with the numberpad or arrows (right hand), you have to take your hand off the keys and move it to the mouse to do targeting. The game could have made the entire thing much easier by allowing you to move into enemies and thus automatically execute the default attack, which is what you're going to do 90% of the time anyway. 
The most annoying part of combat, though, is having to acknowledge enemy attacks. When enemies attack you, a message window pops up on the screen to tell you the results, and you have to click "Okay" or hit ENTER to get it to go away. For most enemies, this will happen two or three times in succession, and when facing a party of enemies, you have to do this repeatedly every round. 
Why couldn't this just appear in the message window?
Rewards have been so meager that I rejoice at every couple dozen gold pieces or stack of food. In addition to the loot they carry, enemies are often standing on treasure chests--you have to watch for that little icon in the lower-right corner--although a lot of these are mysteriously empty. These chests might show up in random terrain, too, so it makes sense to explore the dungeon slowly and try to hit every square.
I break into a chest and find it empty. Is it because i broke in?
Miscellaneous discoveries:
  • I appreciate that the game makes use of the keyboard, but the choice of keys is often annoying. Some screens have you leave them with ESC, some with (R)eturn, and some with (L)eave. The latter is particularly annoying because I usually have my right hand on the numberpad for movement. ESC could have easily served as the default key to back out of a screen.
  • In the Caves of Anbari, I met a warrior who said he was there searching for treasure. I abandoned a "woodsman" and got the warrior to join my party. Curiously, his icon remained behind in the caves, and I think I could have gotten three copies of this warrior if I'd tried.
  • There are several locked doors in the Caves of Kolin, and my success rate at picking locks is at 0%. Lockpicks come in various levels, and I guess I need a more advanced one. I haven't been able to bash down any doors, either, although I have been able to bash open chests. 
  • The lizardmen attack with +1 swords in combat but never seem to leave them behind when they die.
  • There is a dwarf in the Caves of Kolin and a halfling in the city of Caer Ereth that I can't talk with because I don't know their languages. I need to find a magic shop selling "Tongues" or enlist a magician with that spell.
If this dwarf is going to live in a human city, he should learn to speak human.
  • Food goes at a ridiculous rate. Every time I think I have plenty, it's only about 20 minutes before the game is warning me that I'm low. Every time I think I'm making progress financially, I have to waste it on food.
  • I ended my first session with a couple of cleric NPCs who joined me for free. I can't remember for the life of me where I got them. The only cleric I've found in this game wants 500 gold pieces to join my party.
  • An NPC in Middlegate tells me that "near Caer Ereth lies a hidden valley surrounded by impenetrable mountains." There's supposed to be a settlement in the valley. I can see the mountains that the NPC is talking about, but I don't know what mechanisms the game will later allow to cross them.
  • None of the NPCs in this game seem to have any names. You just see their class and race. If they join you, you get to name them.
A hint from an NPC. I know his race, class, and how much damage each of his body parts will take, but not his name.
In a recent comment, Rangerous raised the question of whether the game can even be won. He experienced an issue in which a wizard told him to take his key from a desk, but there was no key in the desk. I haven't found that encounter, but I faced a similar one in the city of Kaleth. There, a nomad told me that he knew who I was and that he would help me find a piece of armor. "Take the key from my chest and use it to see the Nomad Lords." I assume that he's talking about a locked door in the same city.
The nomad is standing in a room with two squares. Both have "chest" icons, indicating treasure in the room. But one of them is empty, and the other won't let me search it because you "cannot search inhabited rooms!" I guess that means that I have to kill him if I want the key. I don't know whether this is a game-breaker. It's possible that I can pick or bash the door to get to the Nomad Lords, and it's possible that I can find the piece of armor without their help.
Then how do I get the key he's offering?!
Rangerous attributed the problem to the versions of the game online having already been played, thus resulting in changes to the world state that would require a fresh copy to overwrite. I'm not sure whether that's the issue. I noticed that each saved game is actually a folder that has multiple files, with sub-folders for every place you've visited. (This is in contrast to a single saved game file containing all the character and world data within it.) This suggests that changes to the world state are saved with each saved game and not within the original files. But when it comes to programming, I don't know what I'm talking about, so take all that with a grain of salt. In any event, as nice as it would be to have an excuse to mark the game "NP" and move on, I'm not there yet.
In between forays into the Caves of Anbari and Kolin, I've been visiting the various cities in the world and taking notes on their services and NPCs. Most cities are pretty boring. They'll have some combination of services (weapons, armor, inn, pub, healer, potions, clothing, scrolls, lockpicks, stables) and maybe one or two NPCs. Capitals have a ruler hiding somewhere, though often behind a locked door. The NPCs give hints, but they don't seem as vital here as they do in the Ultima games. Maybe I'll change my mind as I meet more.
I'll keep pumping away, hoping that the game transitions into one that's tough to put down. I know I'll get some comments encouraging me to follow Stephen King's advice and quit if I don't like it, but this one is so poorly documented online that I feel it deserves some extra effort.
Time so far: 18 hours