Friday, April 29, 2022

Game 457: Pinball Quest (1989)

Pinball Quest
Tose Co, Ltd. (developer), Jaleco Ltd. (Japanese publisher), Jaleco USA, Inc. (U.S. publisher)
Released 1989 in Japan and 1990 in U.S. for NES
Date Started: 24 April 2022
Date Ended: 26 April 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5), but I suck at pinball
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 57/460 (12%)
Pinball has always slightly mystified me. I've seen the tables in bars and arcades all my life; I've played them a few times; and I've always suspected I was missing something. The machines are so complicated, full of bumpers, holes, flags, tunnels, and targets, each of which offers an inscrutable number of points. There are a seizure-inducing number of lights, music clips, and digitized voices on some of the machines. And to control all of this sound and fury, you have . . . two buttons. And while I know there's some skill to timing the buttons just right so you angle the ball in a certain direction or whatever, you have to admit that much of what happens on a pinball table is random. I've never scored 20,000 points by hitting some target and felt it was because I did something particularly skillful. I'm sure some people are more skilled than others, but even the most skilled pinball players don't have any more recourse than I do when the ball shoots cleanly between the flippers, or goes in the gutter. Do they? Are there secret additional buttons?
Pinball Quest suggests no. The only controls are the left and right flappers and the plunger, plus a button to nudge the table that never seems to do anything productive. I understand that nudging the table in real-life is an actual strategy, but it just seems wrong to me. Try that with any other game and see how quickly you get thrown out of the bar.
Only one mode of Pinball Quest is an "RPG." The other modes offer regular games of pinball on different backdrops.
I saw Pinball Quest on my console list when I drew Dragon Ball, and I thought it would be fun to check out. I didn't expect it would be a real RPG, and of course it's not, but this is one of those situations in which you just roll with it. It's a clever idea. The game is really a pinball simulator, offering three types of machines for up to four players. But then it also has an "RPG mode" in which a series of fantasy-themed pinball backdrops are integrated into a story about rescuing a princess. It reminds me of how I used to invent epic stories to go along with my otherwise-boring games of Space Invaders or Solitaire.
The Pinball Quest main menu, designed by Magnitude.
RPG mode starts with a cute cinematic of three goons bursting into a castle throne room and kidnapping the princess from her chair. Two of the goons rush off with the princess while one tangles with a castle guard. The "guard" is a round silver ball with a face on it--your "character" for the rest of the adventure. The ball hurries out of the castle after the kidnappers.
The princess is kidnapped while the ball protagonist fights a guard in the northeast.
Six scenarios follow, each with multiple screens. Your goal on the bottom screen is generally to knock the ball into the path upward (this usually involves smashing a door first). As you kick the ball to the next screen up, you can move your flippers up to a new base; if the ball falls downward past the flippers, you can move the flippers back down to the old location. But if the ball goes into the gutter on the bottom screen, it falls back to the previous scenario and you have to play it over again.
There are a couple of "RPG elements." As you destroy monsters, you increase the power of your ball, as depicted in a series of ovals on the bottom of the screen. But if you lose the ball to the previous level, that power is cut in half. Second, as you defeat enemies and scenarios, you gain points that can be spent in between scenarios like gold. After every scenario, you can stop in a shop and purchase different types of stoppers, which under certain circumstances can stop the ball from being lost, and more powerful flippers. There's even an option to steal from the shop if you don't have enough money. I didn't try it.
Purchasing flippers in the final store.
Scenario 1 begins in a graveyard, with grass, trees, and headstones. Two fenced-in areas serve as bumpers. A ghost comes out of the first headstone knocked down and offers some unnecessary instructions. Ultimately, the player must knock the ball through a gate to the next screen upward. There, amid more headstones and trees, skeletons appear. Once they're pinballed out of existence, their bones coalesce into a giant armored skeleton with 18 hit points. It takes a few hits to kill him and then launch the ball through the final gate to the next scenario.
I was doing that already.
Scenario 2 takes place on a gray, paved surface with concrete blocks and posts. A witch named Ziffroo (according to the manual) patrols the northernmost of two screens with a bunch of cats. Hitting them enough times opens the door to the next shop and then Scenario 3.
The witch and her cats. I knocked the ball up here from the lower screen but haven't moved my flippers up to the next station yet.
Scenario 3 has, I guess, a nautical theme. The action starts at the stern of a ship, with the player's goal to move the ball past walls and posts to the helm. A little "buggy" on the left-hand wall helps in that regard, pushing the ball forward every time it enters its "lane." Little goblins roam the map (until you kill them). If they can grab the ball, some will hurl it back to you and some will take it to the buggy. Nine goblins and a large goblin king guard the bow end of the ship and must be knocked away .
The boss of this level. I'm not sure why my ball is red.
Scenario 4 is the most abstract of the lot, and I'm not sure if it really has a theme. Tusked turtles roam around, if that helps. The ball must be knocked into a hole, which starts it on an automated journey from hole to hole, down a passage, around a spiral, and into a boat, which ferries it to the top of the map. Getting it knocked down to the bottom of the level is a huge pain because you have to watch the whole sequence every time you kick it back up. At the top of the level are six "dark knights" that attack one at a time and must be hit several times to destroy. They can attack the flippers and paralyze them for a few moments. Once they're gone, the ball automatically escapes out of the northwest exit.
They don't look all that "dark" to me.
Scenario 5 depicts the kidnapped princess's bedchamber. You must maneuver the ball up and down a couple of corridors full of flippers and stoppers to the northwest section. There, the princess jumps off her chair and periodically (and inexplicably) turns into a vampire. (I don't know, maybe the vampire is just disguising herself as a princess.) It must be killed. Then, the chair must be hit to reveal a secret door beneath it, leading to the final scenario.
Except for the manual, I wouldn't have known that was a vampire.
Scenario 6 uses the same kind of backdrop as Scenario 2. The ball is knocked north past a pit of skulls to the upper area, where Beezelbub holds the princess hostage. You have to hit him repeatedly with the ball. He spews skulls periodically, and if the ball takes enough damage from the skulls, it and the flippers turn red and get knocked down to the previous scenario. I think if you hit the candles on the edges of the screen, it increases your own damage.
I had a lot of trouble with the interface. By default, the left and right flippers are mapped to the left arrow on the control pad and the A button, respectively. At first, I thought that was crazy. Why not just map them to the left and right arrows? But after I tried that, I understood. I couldn't get anywhere with the game unless I was controlling the two flippers with separate hands. There must be some Psychology 101 reason for that. I ultimately mapped them to the two SHIFT keys, and I was all set.
Winning the "quest" takes maybe 30 minutes if you're any good and infinity if you're me. The problem is getting kicked back to the previous level every time you lose the ball. I put up with that about twice and then started using save states a lot more liberally. Even then, it took me a couple of hours. The final scenario is particularly fiendish because you can "lose" and have to replay the previous scenario even if you don't actually lose the ball.
Nailing "Beezlebub."
Once you defeat the big boss, the smiling ball triumphantly circles the princess a few times and leads her around the room before both escape through a floor hatch. Then, for some reason, the ball and princess encounter a giant magnet, half-grey, half-red. The ball hits the red side, which causes the entire thing to crack apart and collapse.
I have no idea what's happening here.
The final screen depicts an idyllic castle and what looks like the ball introducing the princess to his ball family. I could be misinterpreting.
The pinball appears to have a little Band-Aid.
I can't say I found it "fun," but it was much more a pinball game than an RPG. It was cute. I give it 13 on the GIMLET, nothing exceeding 2. There's really no point in analyzing the GIMLET for a game like this.
Thus concludes one of the more bizarre hybrids we've seen. Surprisingly, it's apparently not the only pinball-RPG hybrid. MobyGames lists two more, but Barbaric: The Golden Hero (2016) is only for iOS. Brave Pinball (2020) had a Windows release, but I won't be getting to it any time soon.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Multiverse of Mongbats

A new side is lit up on the blackrock teleporter.
As much as I was enjoying aspects of Lands of Lore, I was somewhat eager to wrap up my last Lore session so I could get to my next Ultima Underworld II session. After all, I had left the game on the threshold of another world. Exciting stuff. Unlike every other Ultima game I've covered for this blog, I don't remember how this one played out. And since I never played Ultima VIII or Ultima IX, I've never had the satisfaction (or opposite) of finding out exactly what the Guardian is all about. Any new lore truly is new for me.
The blackrock gem brings me into a short hallway that ends in a locked door. A face of blackrock blocks the corridor behind me; it will take me back to the Britannian sewers. This sets up a mystery that we'll have to cover later. In the meantime, I bash through the door and enter a messy storeroom full of spoiled food and broken weapons. Investigating a barrel just leads to a fight with three bloodworms.
The new universe's welcoming committee.
A door leads to a hallway and a stairway to Level 2. The staircase brings me to a large common room full of goblin guards. I tense, but they don't attack. Cautiously, I approach one and initiate dialogue. He demands a password, suspecting me of being some kind of rebel. I manage to fool him by saying I am delivering supplies to the kitchen and handing him a delivery voucher that I found in the storeroom.
In subsequent conversations, it transpires that I am in some kind of prison tower. The specific land or world is never named, but it contains a kingdom called Fyrna. It seems that humans and goblins used to populate the world in an uneasy equality, but the Guardian contacted the goblins and either offered his favor (goblin perspective) or enslaved them (human perspective) and thus caused a war between goblins and humans. The goblins, led by a regent, seem to be winning the war. They have former human royalty working in the tower's kitchens and the leader of the human resistance, Bishop, imprisoned at the top of the tower. They see me as another servant, and I manage to walk through the tower without setting off any alarms.
A goblin provides some information about this world.
(The goblins refer to the Guardian several times as "the Red Titan." I find that interesting. I've made some joking comparisons between the Guardian and Thanos in the past, but now I wonder if there actually might have been some influence. I believe the Infinity Saga in Marvel Comics reached its peak in 1991, the year before the Guardian debuted in Ultima VII.)

What the map designates "Level 2" appears to be the main level of the tower (i.e., I arrived in the basement). A pair of double metal doors lead presumably to the outdoors, but I never find a way to open them.
To get from Level 2 to Level 3, I have to pass through a security corridor. A sign says that "standard protocols" are in effect. A nearby guard offers to tell me what that means for a bribe. I give him 10 gold pieces, and he relays that in the security corridor, the far door won't open until the near door is closed. I probably could have figured that out, but it's not like I'm finding lots of other places to spend money.
Level 3 has nothing but goblin guards. On Level 4, I encounter the first humans in the tower, working in the kitchens. These include a former prince of Fyrna named Felix and a man with his tongue cut out, Marcus. The kitchen has a hostile rat in a cage, for some reason (maybe goblins eat them), which I kill. 
Finally, a human!
On Level 5, I find an irate goblin smith trying to make gauntlets out of something called "fraznium," which is apparently too soft to effectively mold into something as complex as gauntlets. I suggest to him that he just make regular gauntlets with a fraznium coating, and he's so grateful that he gives me a pair. A door labeled "armory" is both locked and too strong to bash.
My character hits Level 8 as I reach the top of the stairs to tower Level 6. Behind a door with the Guardian's visage on it, I find the guard captain, Borne. Fortunately, all humans look alike to him, and he takes me for someone named Lorca Batan. I gather that Lorca Batan is a human traitor working for the Guardian. I play along with the conversation. Borne complains that Bishop is resisting all efforts at interrogation. I say that I'll break him, and he gives me the password ("Quicksilver") and another pair of fraznium gauntlets. Clearly, these are necessary somehow. The password gets me past the guard at the door to Level 7 and a separate guard on that level.
Captain Borne has some banners and the visage of the Guardian on his door.
I finally make it to Level 8, the top level. There are several cells here. One of them is blocked by "bars" of light, through which I am able to pass thanks to the gauntlets. 
Bishop initially also takes me for an interrogator, but I introduce myself as the Avatar of the Eight Virtues. Surprisingly, he's heard of me: "Thy name is known and honored among those who battle the Guardian on the many planes of reality." This surprises me, as I didn't do that much to hurt the Guardian in the last game. I just stopped him from entering Britannia, which is apparently one of many worlds that he's trying to conquer. There's something of an alliance forming among anti-Guardian factions on each of these alternate planes. Bishop says he has a way to contact them but won't tell me their names. Instead, he simply suggests that I look for "a sorcerous lady in a fortress high above a desert," and that I should also look for a "strange black jewel" that recently appeared in Bishop's chambers. It was stolen by guards. "I sensed the Guardian's sorcery in it," he says, "though I know not what part it plays in his designs."
I think I'd rather stick around this world and fight goblins than do any more chores for Lord British.
(Incidentally, I know from external sources that Bishop is the "author" of the Ultima Underworld II cluebook and that the world we're in is apparently called "Tarna." I think if the creators were going to use that name, they should have gone all-in and used liontaurs instead of goblins.)
I give Bishop one of the pairs of gauntlets, and he strides out of the cell to freedom. Another cell on the level is locked (but I can look through a grate and see a goblin in there); a third is full of mongbats, which I kill, distressed to find that mongbats, of all things, exist in other dimensions.
I suppose if I'm going to put them in the subtitle, I ought to have one screenshot.
As I head down to the previous level, I face a moral quandary (which, speaking of alternate universes, I swear to the gods was spelled quandry until they re-started the Large Hadron Collider yesterday). It appears that no one has yet noticed that Bishop is missing, so I can probably sneak out of this place without spilling any blood. On the other hand, any damage I can do to the forces of the Guardian is probably good for the multiverse in the long run. If I'm being honest, though, I mostly want to kill all the goblins for the experience points. Figuring I'm crossing no moral boundaries if they attack me first, I bump into one of the guards and speak rudely to him. Thus provoked, he attacks me and I am consequently morally justified in killing him.
i.e., I "Rittenhoused" him.
Word of my hostility spread quickly. I kill about five guards on Level 7 and several more on Level 6, including Borne and his lieutenant. Borne has a key ring with several keys. I head back up and open the locked cell and find a goblin named Milenius. He is the former military advisor for the Regent, caught spying for the Resistance. He is cynical about the Guardian's supposed benevolence: "Someday soon they shall seek to disobey the Guardian in some matter, and that day they shall know the nature of their 'alliance.'" He thanks me and heads off.
"Who's first?!"
In Borne's quarters, one of his keys opens a chest. It has a note from the Guardian (adorably signed "G.") ordering him to find and keep safe "a gem of hard black material." I find this on Borne's corpse and pocket it.
A massive, sturdy door next to Borne's office opens with one of his keys. Inside, I find a troll named Garg. After a brief conversation, he charges out the door and starts bashing goblin heads. Unfortunately for my experience-earning plans, the massive troll kills every other goblin in the tower. As I move downward, I just find their pulped bodies and discarded equipment. I gather a lot of gold--more than 100 pieces--and have to discard some excess weight to carry it all. The armory has nothing good. In the foundry, I find REL, YLEM, and SANCT stones, all of which I already have. The human servants in the kitchens pack up and flee. I get drunk on some wine, pass out, and wake up the next morning. (I was primarily testing to see what alcohol does to you in this game.)
There go my experience points.
Nothing I can do will open the double doors on Level 2. There isn't even a keyhole. The game is called Ultima Underworld, so it's not like I was expecting to be able to freely explore the landscapes of Tarna, but I do think it's too bad that my explorations are so limited. I'm also a bit confused as to the blackrock wall in the tower's basement. It looks like the one in Britannia that prevents us from leaving the castle. In Britannia, it's the result of the dome, but what is it doing here in Tarna?
These questions are on my mind as I warp home. No new facets are available on the gem, so I can't think of anything to do but return to the castle and report my adventures. Miranda is waiting eagerly as I enter the Great Hall; after she records my story, she says that Nystul wants to see me and Nanna is fomenting some kind of unrest among the servants (yesterday, that word was formenting). I go around talking to everyone.
Something weird is going on with Patterson. Iolo says that he caught the former mayor in the basement being attacked by a giant spider. Iolo saved him, but what was he doing in the basement? Patterson claims he was trying to find some wine for Dupre, but Dupre says that Patterson refused to drink with him. Meanwhile, despite Patterson's claims that his marriage is better than ever, Lady Tory says that he's been hitting on her. Maddeningly, I have no dialogue options with Patterson that explore any of this drama.
Lady Tory files a sexual harassment claim.
I finally find Syria, hanging around the throne room, and I get some points in "Sword." I also have Nelson teach me "Lore." My current stats are:
  • 13 points in "Mana."
  • 11 points each in "Attack," "Defense," and "Casting."
  • 9 points in "Lore."
  • 8 points in "Sword."
  • 3 points in "Charisma."
Nanna, meanwhile, has complaints. She thinks the term "servant" is demeaning, and she wants the castle staff to be called "domestic management." She says the servants want a vote in the decisions being made in the castle, and overall she wants an end to the caste system in Britannia. Commenters have warned me about the chances of a "walking dead" scenario if I do otherwise, so I smile and nod and sympathize with Nanna and agree to talk to Lord British on the servants' behalf. I then head off intending to ask Lord British for permission to slay the servants.
Lord British is surprisingly hard to find. For once, he's not in his bedroom.
"Are you under there, my liege?"
I find him fiddling around in some corner of the courtyard. I relay the servants' concerns. He says he'll think about it. Later, I speak to him again. "Hast thou come to any new conclusions about our class problems?" he asks.
"I think the servants should be beaten!" I reply, because it's the funniest dialogue option ever, and because it's honestly how I feel. You don't try to negotiate a new contract in the middle of a life-or-death emergency.
Lord British doesn't like that. He calls me a "fool" and says he's going to meditate on "the past, and the way of life I have established in Britannia, and whether or not I have been just in my actions." "I shall be in my quarters," he concludes, as if this is a time for "meditation" any more than it's a time for striking. I can't tell you how done I am with Lord British.
I didn't save before this conversation, so I didn't try #2.
Nystul, meanwhile, takes my new blackrock gem, messes with it, and suggests I take it back down to the gem in the sewers. He predicts I will find "interesting effects."
Forgetting to drop off the gold in my chambers, I head back down, but not using the shortcuts. I want to try again with the gazers on Level 3 and the headless on Level 4. The gazers take me a couple of tries and all the IN BET MANI spells I can spare, but I manage to kill them. They were guarding a chest, which takes about 5 minutes of slashing with a spare long sword before it finally gives and spills its contents: a lantern, a magic scroll, some chain gloves, 14 gold pieces, a sapphire, and an EX rune.
Your time has come, gazer.
There's still a door on Level 3 for which I can't find a key, in the south. It won't respond to bashing, and all my picks were broken ages ago. And I still have to try to get above the waterfall when I have "Levitate." On Level 4, the headless require some hit-and-run tactics, but they ultimately fall to my improved swordsmanship and bring my character to Level 9. I'm also able to clear out the two angry ghosts on Level 5, who are guarding another sapphire, a goblet, and a regular mace.
Finally, I return to the blackrock thing on Level 5. Sure enough, as Nystul predicted, it's behaving differently. Where before, only one facet was a lighter color, now the light color is jumping around the facets. Specifically, it seems to be jumping randomly roughly every 8 seconds among three of them on the east side.
The blackrock teleporter. I can enter facets 1, 2, or 3.
I spend some time circling and mapping the device and confirm that it has 8 facets, each separated by a tendril of varying length. I don't know if that means anything. Facet 1, facing north-northeast, is the one I took to Tarna. That gives me two options for the next adventure. I'll let you know what I chose next time. Hopefully, it has a store of some sort!
Time so far: 13 hours

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Lands of Lore: Almost There

"How do I know that's the real Ruby of Truth?" Later: "I hold the Emerald of Truth, and as you can see, it does not contradict me when I assert that I hold the Ruby of Truth, which does not contradict me when I assert that I am Conrad from Gladstone."
I guess my annoyance with Lands of Lore was, as I suspected, a product of my general mood at the time. When I fired it up again for this session, I had an enjoyable time with it, despite starting in a bad place. I almost never close a session in the middle of a dungeon. In this case, I had closed the last session not only in the middle of a dungeon, but in the middle of an area I was having trouble navigating and practically in the middle of a combat. This created a steep curve for getting back into the game.
The puzzles became a bit more complex in the caves of the Draracle, to the point that I'm not sure I solved some of them and don't know how I solved others. For instance, on Level 2, near where I left off, there was a corridor ending in a wall with a button. Pressing the button opened an alcove on the west wall with a message that said: "Dagger in. Dagger out." I put a dagger into the slot and it closed. Pushing the button again caused it to re-open and offer me a better dagger. (I have so many daggers now with special names that I don't remember exactly which one I got from this slot.) Great. But when I tried again with a second dagger, I didn't get the same result; instead, a wall opened nearby and spewed out half a dozen cave men that I spent the next 20 minutes running from, hiding from, and clearing one by one, all while keeping up with the other cave men that spawned every time I crossed whatever tiles caused them to spawn. The point is, there have been plenty of other buttons that I didn't fiddle with by pushing them multiple times, so who knows how many other secret areas I've missed.
Putting a gem in a relief of a dragon.
Overall, Lore has been pretty solid with its navigational puzzles, which are always a vital element in the Dungeon Master family. So far, I've identified the following mechanics:
  • Buttons that open hidden doors or open and close pits.
  • Multiple buttons that must be pressed in a particular sequence.
  • Switches that open walls and only respond to particular keys. 
  • Buttons on the far sides of pits that must be "pressed" by throwing an object over the pit to hit them.
  • Hidden buttons that look like regular wall patterns until you click them.
  • Illusory walls that you simply walk through.
  • Pressure plates that open and close walls, some of which must be weighed down.
  • Pressure plates that cause fireballs to come roaring down the hallway. These can also be weighed down to stop the trap from triggering repeatedly. 
Instead of strafing immediately into the adjacent hallway, I pause to take a screenshot.
  • Cracked walls that require a special mallet (found in these caves) to bash down.
The first time I've seen this particular mechanic.
  • Illusory pits that can simply be walked over.
Dungeon Master veterans will find only a few original items in that list, but Lore has a couple of twists that I like. The first involves the annotation of these puzzles on the automap. Very often, these annotations are the only ways I even find out about an element (e.g., an illusory wall or hidden button), which could be seen as a negative, but I mostly like it. The automap is just annoying enough to activate (there's no keyboard shortcut and there's a relatively long pause) that there's a slight punishment for not noticing or testing things yourself. The second is that your characters sometimes comment on puzzles. It must be based on probability since they don't do it every time, but every once in a while, you'll step up to a wall and one character will say, "There's something strange about that rock!," and you'll know there's a hidden button.
The automap shows most of the navigational obstacles that the game has to offer.
On the negative side, respawning continues to be my primary annoyance. It's not so much the fact of respawning, which I normally like, as the particular way it's handled. Part of the problem, I think, is that the dungeon levels aren't really big enough for all this respawning. This is particularly felt when it comes to sound. The game does an admirable job of assigning a unique sound to each enemy and then playing that sound when an enemy is near. The problem is that with such small levels, enemies are always near, and respawning means that you can almost never fully clear them. I don't know what good it does to subject the player to constant grunting or buzzing except increase the sales of Xanax.
The rest of the dungeon was relatively quick, although owing to my choices of direction, I don't think I explored the entire thing. Lower levels introduced giant flying mosquitos or something, and their buzzing is perhaps the most annoying sound I've ever experienced in an RPG short of the "Gigglers" in the original Dungeon Master. At some point, I found a new spell--"Freeze"--which affects all enemies on screen and handled them nicely. The bottom level had some acid-spewing slugs that destroyed armor and shields. I confess that I reloaded the first time this happened and then took off those items for the rest of the dungeon. 
I cast "Freeze"--which has a needlessly long animation--on a couple of giant bugs.
I think the balance between magic and melee combat is relatively strong. Melee attacks often miss, so magic would be the obvious choice except that you can only cast three or four spells per mana bar. You have to choose carefully. You don't want to run out of mana in a place where you're suddenly swarmed with enemies. You're tempted to rest and heal after every battle, but with the game's copious use of respawning, that can be a major risk.
Finally, we wandered down a staircase and a hall and found ourselves in the chambers of the Draracle, a reptilian creature with white eyes and a single horn sticking out of his forehead. (His name is meant to be a portmanteau of "dragon oracle.") The scene that took over was mostly scripted. Conrad explained that we were looking for an elixir to cure King Richard. The Draracle's attendant--a hooded figure standing in the shadows behind him--cut us off. "Peasants! How dare you speak before placing an offering!"
At first, I wasn't sure how to make an offering. It turned out that I needed to click the gold altar in the background. This, again, is an unusual feature of Lore, where images that you initially take as cut scenes are in fact interactive.
I tried a bunch of things. Baccata rejected most of them with, "I think they want a different offering," even the gold chalice that I was sure would do the trick. I thought I'd have to return to the dungeon and hunt around for more stuff, but I realized that what they wanted was something that I had equipped, not in my inventory: a jeweled dagger. I was sorry to see it go, as it had the best "strength" rating of any weapon I've found so far. 
Really? He doesn't want some random skull?
Having received his offering, the Draracle told us that the Elixir of Tybal would cure King Richard. We have to assemble the ingredients and create the potion in "an ancient white tower." As for the four ingredients, the Draracle presented them as a riddle:

  1. Butcher the creature whose flesh has never lived.
  2. See the sweetness of our enemy.
  3. Collect it from the deadly depths.
  4. Powders taken from the heart of our mother.
Lara left the party at this point, as she was intended for service to the Draracle anyway. She took some equipment with her when she went, but nothing terribly important.  
He wouldn't be much of an "oracle" if he just told you things straight out.
Confused over what to make of the list, the party decided to return to Gladstone. The Draracle automatically dumped us into a special series of corridors winding up to the exit, so we couldn't finish exploring areas that we had left unexplored when we found his chambers in the first place. Giant rats were waiting around almost every corner. Then, as soon as we exited, we were attacked by a pack of orcs.

Once we cleared the orcs, we found Timothy lying mortally wounded at the base of a tree. He said that Castle Gladstone had fallen, and that Scotia and the Dark Army had taken King Richard's body. Before he died, he recommended that we find "the Council," whose four keys would allow access to King Richard's body and the application of the Elixir of Tybal. "Remember, you must save the king and destroy Scotia."
This death is poignant for some players. To me, he was just some guy I met in a bar.
I can't help but note at this point that our goalpost keeps moving backward. We started off on a quest to find the Ruby of Truth so we could counteract Scotia's Nether Mask. Then Scotia wounded Richard, so our quest became about healing Richard. Now our quest is about even getting access to his body in the first place. At some point, it might be time to just recognize that we've lost.
Baccata opined that the Council probably followed Dawn--whose exact position I'm still cloudy about--into some place called Opinwood. After a brief conversation with the castle blacksmith, who was hiding in the bushes, we hopped a ship for the new area.
As you're about to discover, I forgot about the "some chap in a wagon" part shortly after I read it.
The ship dumped us into a new forest map. There was a new bestial enemy for us. At some point while I was writing this entry, I remembered that one of the game manuals actually tells you the names of your foes. Apparently, these guys are called "pentrogs." The manual suggests that fire magic is the best way to fight them, which of course is one spell that I don't have. I did find "Lightning" in a chest at the end of the forest path.
Casting the new "Lightning" spell on a pentrog.
Clicking on miscellaneous stumps, nests, and bushes has produced small handfuls of coins, herbs like aloe or ginseng, and sometimes more valuable treasures like potions or magic rings. I enjoy the greater interactivity of these screens.
Only in an RPG would you hold on to such a thing.
We found the entrance to the Urbish Mines, a guy in a wagon who refused to tell us anything, and a beggar who took 5 silver crowns but had nothing to say. A longsword named "Flayer" sat at the end of  a path. A tree-stump chest gave us a new sword and a pair of bracers.
This got us nothing, but maybe it affects something later.
There was no sign of Dawn or the Council. We only had two options to continue the quest: the Urbish Mines and the Gorkha Swamp. I was closer to the swamp when I finished mapping the area, so I went that way.
Most of the swamp map.
Not long after entering the swamp, we fell into a sinkhole and died. I guess we'll have to watch more carefully for those. A few steps later, we met a Gorkha, who (in the worst voice acting of the game so far) told us that we'd be welcome as long as we didn't attack any Gorkha. Gorkha are intelligent amphibious creatures. Enemies in the swamp were animated balls of swamp muck called "boglytes" who responded well to our "Freeze" spell. Baccata (but oddly not Conrad) kept getting poisoned from the swamp.
The Gorkha display heads of orcs who have strayed into their territory.
I met a Gorkha living in a treehouse who offered to decipher the riddles on the scroll for 100 silver crowns per riddle. I had over 500, so I decided to buy two hints, knowing I could return later. He said the "sweetness of our enemy" was probably nectar from giant hornets, and a "creature whose flesh has never lived" is probably some stone-based enemy.
I next ran into a Gorkha selling bows. I wasn't interested in a bow, but I was interested in selling my excess junk. My inventory by this point was chock full of excess weapons and armor. I sold what I felt comfortable selling and got up to 802 crowns. I kept five missile weapons--two throwing stars and three daggers that all had names. The two stars are called "Shining" and the daggers are "Back Biter," "Stiletto," and "Razor." I later found another dagger called "Assassin." I rarely need more than five missile weapons; enemies close the distance too fast. Later, I found another blacksmith's shop selling arms and shields, but I didn't buy anything.
One of the frog-men gives me a hint.
We started to find areas blocked by sinkholes. I soon realized that the "Freeze" spell doesn't just hurt enemies; it also temporarily freezes the surface of the swamp. We were thus able to get over the sinkholes. We found some kind of giant face looking like a monkey that healed us in exchange for any item. Later, we ran into another one that gave 60 gold pieces for any item, which made me feel stupid for selling some of my excess stuff to the bow seller for 5 gold pieces each.
We freeze a swamp monster--and the swamp.
Eventually, we found the Gorkha chief, who offered to trade us a "beautiful red stone." He didn't like what I offered him (a jeweled goblet), but he said he'd give us the stone if we would kill the "powerful living sticks [who] have stolen our beloved Brass Helmet." I had options to accept, attack him, or try to steal the gem. I appreciated the role-playing options, but I just accepted.
As I re-equipped my weapons (we had to un-equip them to approach the chief), I realized that my four-armed companion has two weapon and shield slots, and this entire time, I've only had one of each equipped. I gave him a second shield and a sledgehammer, which should increase his combat effectiveness. While we're on the subject of inventory, Conrad has two ring slots but Baccata has none. I've found two rings--a Duble Ring and a Bezel Ring--but I don't know what either of them do. 
Smacking a walking stick.
I wasn't sure where to find giant walking sticks, but I needn't have worried. When I left the chief's hut, they started appearing all over the swamps. They were pretty easy to hit, and their only special attack was to occasionally disarm Baccata. It took a while to find the one that had the "ceremonial mask" that the chief wanted. When I returned, he gave us the red stone--which turned out to be the Ruby of Truth--and a trident called "Mantis."
I might not introduce myself to everyone using that title. No offense.
I returned to the Opinwood map. The wagoner had said something like, "How do I know that you're telling the truth?," so I figured the Ruby of Truth might work. We fought through a horde of orcs and pentrogs to get back there. Fortunately, my supposition was right. When the wagoner saw the Ruby of Truth, he admitted Dawn was in the back of the wagon. She couldn't have just heard us speaking the first time?

Dawn poked her head out and we related everything we discovered. She gave us her "key," a pyramid, plus two empty flasks to help collect ingredients. When I showed her the Draracle's riddle, she suggested that "powders from the heart of our mother" must refer to a reagent called Earth Powder. She tried to order Baccata to abandon me and return to his apprenticeship, but fortunately he refused.
Maybe a little less honesty, Conrad.
There are two ways to go from here. One is to the Urbish Mines, which the manual suggests is a classic RPG dungeon full of traps, monsters, and treasure. The other is an alternate exit from the Gorkha Swamps to another forest. The mines are closer, so I'm probably going to go there next.
As I close this session, I reflect that this game is giving me what I've been asking for years: Dungeon Master with the other trappings of regular RPGs, including a detailed plot, NPCs, and an economy. The regrettable thing is that the developers simplified a lot of the mechanics of Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder. A dozen hours into the game, and I only have four spells. Most of the time, I've only had two characters. There are fewer inventory slots and fewer usable items. Character development seems slower and less rewarding. Most important, I find the maps smaller, more claustrophobic, and less interesting. Still, even if it isn't exactly what I've always wanted, it's an important step towards what I've always wanted.
Oh, incidentally, I never lowered the difficulty level. I'm just too stubborn. That should have been predictable.
Time so far: 11 hours