Sunday, May 22, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Test Anxiety

The Avatar starts to regret his life choices.
I begin this session by returning to the (now) deserted prison tower I first visited. Altara said to use her rod at places where the Guardian has touched the world. In this world, the only place I can think of is the magic prison cell at the top of the tower. I reach it and pound the staff against the floor. There's no textual confirmation that anything has happened, but the screen shakes and there are some freaky theremin effects, so I suppose that's enough.
Next stop: Killorn Keep. It's time to get into that secret basement. I head down through the barracks. The guard at the door tries to stop me, but I tell him to go pound sand. He reacts predictably. The combat that follows is easily the hardest in the game so far, though rendered a bit easier by the fact that I can just go back upstairs to rest and heal. Still, I have to reload about four times. The guard is supernaturally hard, and the reason for this becomes clear after I hit him about half a dozen times and he sheds his human body for the form of a demon. I spend a lot of time and a few wands killing him.
There are going to be a lot of demon shots in this one. I don't know if any of them are supposed to be gargoyles.
The massive door behind him is locked, but I'm surprised to find that I have the key on my keyring. I must have found it on a previous trip. The diamond-shaped room beyond has brass walls and a lava pit in the center of the floor. "Spacey twinkles" float in the air, as do two large "brain creatures." This is clearly the Guardian's place of power in this world, which I confirm by whacking the ground with the rod and getting the same audio-visual experience as last time. 
The weird guts of Killorn Keep.
I suspect that the brain creatures are what's keeping the keep flying. I wonder what would happen if I killed them. But I don't go beyond wondering; the creatures are "peaceful," and I have some friends and unfinished quests in the rest of the keep. If I think the Guardian's forces need to die, I can take them out more selectively.
On the way back to the exit, I run into an NPC I haven't met before: Relk, captain of the guards. He says that he's heard I am "wise in the way of virtue" and asks me to see him in his quarters sometime. After I pay Merzen to identify some items (I decide afterwards that I've sunk enough money in that money sink), I go looking for Relk, but I can't find him in any of the keep's chambers. I hope that wasn't important.
This could be interpreted a couple of ways.
The ice world is next. The fountain plaza in the old city's ruins seems to be the only place of importance in the entire area, and indeed the staff works here. Afterwards, I speak to the ghost of Beatrice, who says I've brought her peace. In the Talorid world, the place of power is in the chamber where new Talorids are made.
The welcoming committee as I return to the Talorid world.
It's time now for an unexplored world! I enter the south-southwest facet of the gem and find myself in a stone corridor. It dead-ends in a secret door, which opens into a large room. I find a robed man in a corner. He introduces himself as Elster, a student of the Scintillus Academy of Magic. He seems to think that I'm a professor, but I disabuse him of that. It transpires that we're in the staging area for the final exam, "a series of mazes and deathtraps [that] has claimed some of even the best students." Elster, he admits, is far from one of the best students, and thus he has been delaying taking the test--for 63 years. He says he keeps hitting the button on the wall that's supposed to summon a faculty member, but no one has shown up. "I fear some disaster may have befallen the Academy up there on the surface."
I open an eastern door, which takes me to another large room. There are three pressure plates on the floor and a gold coffer nearby, which I can use to weigh down the plates. Each plate opens a different portcullis. The middle one leads to a room with a couple of mongbats, and I soon determine that this area is the game's first respawning and grinding opportunity. Every time I cross the threshold of the room, another couple of mongbats appear. 
A teleporter in a different corridor brings me to an icy, frozen area. The moment I step off the arrival platform, I go sliding across the ice and am dumped into a chilly river. Remembering the jumping trick (jump until you stop, after which you move really slowly but can control your movement), I make it through the large, empty area. A button opens a door, which leads to a moving bridge across some lava, which leads to the exit.
Why does it always have to be lava?
The next area is smaller but far more difficult. A Wand of Telekinesis lies near the entrance corridor, which opens up to a deep room full of lava. A 5 x 3 grid of stone columns of varying heights seems to be the only way across the lava to the exit on the other side. It takes me a lot of practice (and reloading), but I train myself to jump the right distance to get from pillar to pillar. The extra twist is that each of the six pillars against the east and west walls have buttons next to them that raise and lower various pillars. Weirdly, though, it only takes the two buttons at the end of the first row (the first two you would encounter) to create a path that works. I don't know what the Wand of Telekinesis was for. You can't possibly see the buttons from far enough away to use it.
The next area is easy again--a maze of staircases in a large room full of easy enemies like rats, skeletons, and giant spiders. I have to find two keys and then the exit door. There's lots of jumping, but otherwise nothing special. 
Fighting a giant spider in a maze of staircases.
I notice some writing on the wall as I enter the next area: "Section Five: Effects and Constraints." This suggests that I missed similar titles in the previous four sections. I also notice that if I go to sleep, my mana does not recharge. Presumably this is to make the students pass all the tests on one mana pool. Since I have used no mana at all, except for "Night Vision" and healing, I start to wonder if I'm doing these tests wrong. All the alternate spells that I think might help, such as "Levitate" and "Fly," require runes I don't have.
This area takes me a while, and I get a bit confused. There are two doors out of the main chamber. One leads to a portcullis which blocks the exit. Near the portcullis is a chain. Pulling it just seems to release skeletons (another grinding opportunity). There are three corridors that dead-end in switches and a pole manifestly meant to flip the switches. At first, I don't understand why the pole is necessary because you can just walk right up to them. Later, I notice pressure plates on the floors, so I guess the plates probably negate the switches. Instead, you have to use the pole to flip them without crossing the plates.
Skeletons look pretty cool with "Night Vision."
Anyway, through some combination of things, I open the south door, jump across a pit, and get a key that opens the portcullis (again, how?). I kill a couple of skeletons for good measure on the way out.
This test is starting to get kind of long, I think as I enter the next area. And it doesn't seem to involve much magic--or, at least, the creators left non-magical alternatives for what might otherwise be magical solutions. The next area, according to the etched stone I am now primed to look for, is called "Risk Avoidance." The first room is large, with four pillars in the center creating a small area shaped like a "plus," strewn with bones. I figure out the puzzle after I bungle it. Stepping on any of the plates between the pillars causes a friendly, motionless headless to spawn in a different opening. These headless are clearly meant to soak up the damage from crossbow bolts that fire at you when you step on the central platform to collect a key. But I just suck up the damage and continue.
This headless is supposed to take an arrow for me, but that just seems mean.
The key opens a door to a teleporter maze. Some of the teleporters promise to return me to the beginning of the world, not just the level, so I have to watch out for them. (They're all marked with some nearby etching.) Some sketched notes help me figure out what teleporters lead to what destinations, and before long I'm out of the area and on to Level 7, "Nonreversible Processes."
This level has another pillar puzzle. To get to the exit, I have to jump from one stone pillar to another arranged in a 5 x 5 grid. I find that if I stand just at the edge of one, I can make it to another with SHIFT-JUMP, but it's easy to accidentally walk off the edge. The more difficult twist is that each pillar has an arrow on it, and stepping on the top of that pillar causes a different pillar to disappear in the direction that the arrow is pointing. Since I can't see the directions the arrows are pointing until I'm standing on top of them, I functionally end up having to map the entire area. I finally make it to the exit, then realize I don't have a key to the locked door or any more spell points left to cast "Open Door." I have to start the entire level over.
The trick is to never jump on a pillar that points to another pillar that you need later in the sequence.
I finally make it to Level 8, which is just called "Section Eight." It starts with a teleporter puzzle that I don't understand. A nearby message on the wall says: "3, 5, 2, 9." The rest of the maze has four rings of teleporters, and every time I step in the wrong one, I'm taken back to the beginning and an enemy spawns. Every time I find the right one, I advance to the next ring. I can't figure out what the numbers mean, so I just find my way through via trial and error.
I finally exit the test. The long-decayed bones of some academy instructor lie under a nearby table which has exam scores from previous students. There are several rooms off the exam area, and one of them has a note from a mage named Devrow who has noted "something monstrously powerful" approaching the planet. 
This suggests that some of Devrow's own colleagues were responsible for summoning the Guardian.
There's an exit back to Level 1, but I decline to take it. A large room has a pentagram on the floor with more bones strewn around it. I determine that this is the Guardian's place of power and successfully use the rod. There are some runes on the floor, and I finally get HUR and UUS. I nearly miss the blackrock gem in the middle of the pentagram, but fortunately I find it.
Yet another door leads to yet some other kind of series of tests. I'm all tested out, but I do my best. An initial door requires EX YLEM to open. Next is a door with a faraway button that requires ORT POR YLEM ("Telekinesis") to open. I fall into a pit with a monolith which takes me to a lake of fire with three doors. There are a few safe places to get out of the fire, and I end up resting there a lot, passing days and days in this one small area. An imp in one chamber guards a chain; a demon in another guards a key. I need both to get through the doors on the far side of the chamber, in between which is yet another demon. To defeat him, I have to unload virtually all of my remaining wands and scrolls and swallow my remaining healing potions.
Fortunately, he's trapped himself at the end of the room.
Once out of this area, the corridor just takes me back to the beginning. This doesn't seem right, so I start testing walls, and I find an illusory door in one of them. It opens into a small room with a single treasure chest. The chest contains a bunch of gold, a black pearl, and, at last, a FLAM rune. An illusory wall in this room leads to a corridor that ends in some of those light bars that imprisoned Bishop in the first world I explored. And of course I don't have the Fraznium gauntlets with me to get through it. 
This is not cool, Ultima Underworld II.
I return to the entrance to the world exhausted, starving, and badly poisoned from the last demon I fought. Elster is gone; he must have tried to enter the test. I search around, but there doesn't seem to be any shortcut back to the top, meaning that whatever's behind those bars better not be that important. Did I miss a clue somewhere that I would need those gauntlets?
As I return to Lord British's castle, I see that I reached Level 13 at some point and I have 18 skill points to spend. Nystul is the first person I run into, so I learn "Mana" and "Casting" from him and have him do whatever he does to the blackrock gem. I pick up another level in "Attack" and "Defense" from Geoffrey, then go study "Lore" from Nelson until I'm out of skill points and still can't identify everything in my pack (I get up to 28 points). 
I guess I'm going to be taking piles of gold to Killorn Keep for a while longer.
Nobody has anything new on Tory's murder. Feridwyn mentions a river I found in another world, noting that it has saved the castle from thirst. I don't know whether the game assumes I'm ferrying back water on the side or if other people are using the teleporter. Lord British is useless. Patterson says he's heard of the world peacefully ruled by the Guardian and wonders if living under the Guardian's control is necessarily all that bad. 
You can take the man out of the Fellowship . . .
A couple of people tell me Charles is excited about something, so I track him down after going down to the cellar to stuff some food into my backpack. He's excited about having found an old key next to a document about a battle with a sorcerer. I take it from him. 
Charles's discovery resonates with another of my priorities: finish exploring the Britannian sewers. Even before Charles discovered his key, I was planning to use the old "cast EX YLEM in another world" trick to try the still-locked door in the south of Level 3. Equally important, the HUR and UUS stones should let me reach at least one place I couldn't before: the top of the waterfall on Level 3. I go there, walking on water, and cast "Jump," which allows me to leap to the top of the falls. Down the river and around a bend, I find a ghost guarding a small chest. He dies in a few blows. The chest has a Chain Cowl of Valor and an unidentified magic scroll. Not everything I was hoping for, but not bad.
I finally make the leap.
At least Charles's key works. It opens into a large room in which an upset ghost flies around over a locked chest. I use my Wand of Smite Undead to kill the haunt, then open the chest with the key he drops. The chest has some gold, a gem, a scepter, a magic scroll, a NOX rune (finally!), a key, and a moonstone. That reminds me that I found a moonstone somewhere else, so now I have two. I can use them for the "Gate Travel" spell if I ever get the VAS stone.
A red ghost! Does that mean something?
Speaking of VAS, it and TYM are the only runes I'm missing now. I can live without TYM; it's only use is the "Freeze Time" and "Speed" spells. But VAS is used in four spells I really want--"Daylight," "Gate Travel," "Greater Heal," and "Fly"--and several others that will be very useful. Still, with what I have, I should start experimenting a lot more with spells. I'll report on that next time.
I didn't like this session much. The mage's academy section dragged on way too long and then really screwed me at the top (assuming I need to get behind those bars). I recognize that it's my fault--I suspect I was meant to leave it for when I was stronger or had more spell options. Knowing that it's my fault just annoys me more. I'm also really annoyed that I spent so many skill points on "Lore" and still can't identify half the scrolls in my pack. Still, I feel like I made a bit of progress, and I can't imagine there are more than two or three more worlds to go before the Guardian's threat is (for now) neutralized.
Time so far: 32 hours

Friday, May 20, 2022

Lands of Lore: Alien Logic

Conrad tries to be reasonable. It didn't work out.
We open with a bit of a mystery. I had closed the last session with Scotia appearing in the forest, disguised as Dawn, trying to trick us into giving her Dawn's key. She turned into a dinosaur when I refused her. I was having trouble defeating her, so I just decided to wrap it up and figure it out next time. "Next time" turned out to be two weeks later. When I reloaded my last save, the party was in the city of Yvel. I went out into the forest and couldn't find Scotia anywhere. Does she only show up sometimes? Did I defeat her and not remember? I spent the rest of the game worried that I wouldn't be able to win because of something I was supposed to get at that battle. Fortunately, it wasn't a problem, but the last few hours were angstier than usual.
I couldn't figure out anything else to do, so I returned to the chamberlain's little headquarters at the north end of Yvel. As I arrived, Geron shouted that "Yvel must not fall!" and said the city's fate was in my hands. I had just come through the entire city, so that it was in any danger was news to me.
Nonetheless, as I started circling the city again, I encountered parties of giant orcs and armored figures called "cabal warriors." They were a little easier than the ones I'd killed in the forest, or else I was just feeling the effects of my leveling up. I slowly made my way around the city, resting in buildings when necessary, and cleared out the orcs. Eventually, Conrad said that he could hear the "retreat horns" and thus "the battle has been won!"
Someone should have told the 200 orcs that were still crawling around the city after this.
We returned to Geron's building only to find it abandoned. He'd left a note on the door that someone had stolen his key during the attack. "I suspect the thief sought refuge in the Catwalk Caverns!" he wrote, adding that, "A passage may exist near Bruno's Lodge." I wasted a bunch of time looking for a passage "near" the tavern when it turns out that the passage is in the tavern, behind a door that had been closed before.
I always wondered where that door went in the show.
The caverns were full of cabal warriors. The manual says that they "continue fighting after death," but fortunately that doesn't seem to be true. 
Cabal warriors . . .
I had only been in the caverns a short time before I walked into a room in which a group of Scotia's generals was meeting around a table. The leader, in gold armor, introduced himself as Frendor. His associate, "First Envoy of the Dark Path," was named Mylek. Victor, the king's blacksmith, had apparently joined the enemies.
. . . and the cabal.
Frendor suggested that we had passed a test. "Join us now and we shall rule eternal," Mylek said. Victor even chimed in: "Dark Army too powerful to beat." The game didn't even give me the chance, though. All three characters rejected the offer, expressing allegiance to Richard.

"Then you shall die!" Frendor snarled, and the game took us out of the cut scene and into combat. Frendor was the only unique enemy in the ensuing battle. I'm not sure if the other two cabal warriors were supposed to be Mylek and Victor or if they fled. Frendor was quite hard to hit, and he used a deadly long-bladed claw. But there was a pillar in the room, so I just did the trick where I backpedaled around it, attacking when he came into range and not giving him a chance to turn and strike me. He didn't last long.
He was a little too easy to kill. Perhaps he was just someone posing as Frendor--a "Frendor faux," if you will.
Frendor had Geron's key, a statuette (which opened a nearby wall), and a gauntlet. When I tried to wear it, it didn't erupt into long claws like it did for Frendor, but it did cast the "Hand of Fate" spell, which slaps some enemies back a square. I didn't find this very useful at the time. However, the gauntlet was also the key to opening several doors on this level.
How do people get around if they're not Frendor?
Throughout the rest of the level, I faced extremely weird and annoying enemies that presented as small balls of electricity--so small that I could barely see them, let alone discern their exact position. They made a buzzing sound when they were near. If they got close, they were capable of sapping a character's entire mana bar with a single hit, after which they did damage to his health. They were completely immune to normal weapons. The only thing that seemed to damage them was the "Spark" spell, which of course I could only cast if they didn't neutralize my magical ability first. I ended up fleeing and sleeping a lot on the level.
Believe it or not, there is an enemy in front of me.
The rest of the level was a maze of teleporters, spinners, one-way doors, secret doors, and secret one-way doors. The corridors had the effect of repeatedly funneling me to a room with two locked doors and two keyholes, so I had to find the two keys during my explorations. 
One notable area had some kind of item-replicator. It was offline when I found it. Three nearby corridors dead-ended in squares with electrical nodes on both walls. I eventually realized that what I needed to do was use the gauntlet to force the little electric wisps down the corridors, where they would get trapped between the nodes and thus charge the device. Unfortunately, I killed the damned things before I realized I needed them. I kept returning to the area throughout the level, and one wisp did respawn once, allowing me to confirm my theory, but I was never able to get the other two. Fortunately, it was unnecessary, but I can imagine it would have been useful to create copies of some powerful items.
A partial map of the area.
As it happened, I was overflowing with inventory at the time, so I'm not sure I would have welcomed yet another item, even a powerful one. Part of the problem was the same issue we all have with all RPGs--I was hoarding potentially-useful equipment for some hypothetical final battle where I "really needed them." These included about eight "Bannon's Reserve" potions, which fully replenish magic, a Wand of Death, and a handful of "Guardians"--globes that you can use once to summon a phantom sword that immediately kills or nearly-kills any enemy. I also had four magic playing cards, each of which cast a different spell, although at the time I wasn't sure that they weren't quest items.
I kept finding new weapons and armor, and I continue to simply evaluate them by their effects on my offense and defense statistics. I had to discard most of the others, even though I thought some of them had special abilities. I mostly gave up on missile weapons and throwing weapons; it just became too annoying to pick up the latter, and my thief skills were hardly increasing.
On this level, I found the sixth (and, as it turned out, last) spell: "Mist of Doom." The spell does the same thing as a Wand of Death, casting a mass-damage spell that causes specters to erupt from the ground and damage multiple enemies. The animation for this is perhaps the best animation we've had in RPG history up to this point. 
Despite my hyperbole, I forgot to take a video of the animation. Here it is in progress, though.
"Mist of Doom" helped a little in subsequent areas, but I never got to the point that I was able to cast it at Level 3, let alone the highest levels. I'm not sure I even ever made it to Level 4 with "Fireball." I wonder, does starting the game with the defined "mage" character make a huge difference? If not, I'm not sure how you really play the game as a mage. (This is also an issue I'm having with Ultima Underworld II.) The spells simply deplete your mana too fast. If you wanted to try to kill most of your enemies with spells, you'd have to spend an awful lot of time resting--which I feel I already did anyway. Moreover, I think you'd either have to try to play all the characters as mages or all (as I did) primarily as fighters. Since all characters refresh at the same rate as one character when you rest, it would be a waste of time to do all that resting just to replenish a single character.
I finally found the two keys to the final doors and exited the area. What followed was a relatively senseless diversion in a game that was already a bit too long. It didn't even make sense thematically. The final chamber had two creatures, a giant tentacled snail with a single eye (Xeobs) and a blue bearded face with a huge exposed brain (Knowles). (Some of my commenters have suggested that these creatures are aliens, but I don't think there was anything in the game that suggested that. They're not much weirder than the regular monsters you face in some areas. But I agree that it doesn't make sense that they are where they are.) They both said that their people had selected Conrad as their champion, and they both offered untold riches should we choose to fight for their side. Conrad naturally objected that he didn't have any reason to choose either side.
My general rule is: when someone forces you to choose something, choose against the person who's forcing you to choose. In this case, that's both of them.
My inclination was opposite: kill all of them. Unfortunately, I didn't have that option. I had to pick one of the two by going through a particular teleporter. I decided that the Knowles were slightly more obnoxious than the Xeobs, plus I once knew a guy whose last name was Knowles that I didn't like.
The teleporter took me to a new level titled simply "Dungeons." It was full of Knowles, horribly annoying foes. Their attacks could destroy my armor, so I had to take that off early (after reloading the first time). They also had a "tremor" attack that caused my characters to drop all their weapons. After lots of frustration and some experimentation, I settled in with a system of trying to kill them with weapons if they attacked individually and using "Mist of Doom" when they were collective. I could only cast three of those spells, so I retreated through secret doors to rest (enemies don't follow through secret doors) when my mana or health was down.
Misting the Knowles.
The dungeon had two important items. The first was Nathanial's key, found in a niche on the wall. It looked like all the other keys I needed to open Richard's shield, but a) I have no idea what it was doing among these weirdos; and b) I have no idea who "Nathanial" is. If his name has been mentioned before, I can't find it in the screen shots. The best I can figure is that he was the royal herbalist. The second important item was a diamond.
I kept making my way through the dungeon, opening chests, fighting with my inventory, committing genocide against Knowles for no reason. I found the headquarters of the Xeobs at one point and had the option to turn my attacks on them, but I didn't.
I don't suppose that means you'll fight with me against Scotia?
I kept fighting Knowles until I couldn't find any more, then returned to the Xeobs. They rewarded us by advancing everyone a fighter level (bringing them to Levels 8, 8, and 7) and giving us 50 gold, a weapon I don't remember, another Vaelan's Cube, and a key out of this place.
The key opened a door that led to a stairway that brought us to the main level of Castle Cimmeria, Scotia's castle. So somehow Scotia allowed those two weird races to live in her basement and wage their private war in the middle of her takeover of the world.
Disembodied axes attack in Scotia's ornate halls.
Vaelan's Cube was immediately useful, as Castle Cimmeria was swarming with phantom cabal warriors (ah, I get it now). I hadn't known how to use the cube in the White Tower, but I knew how to use it here, and it makes such a difference that most of my complaints about the White Tower have to be dismissed. It not only kills the phantoms; it turns their life essence into mana that can be transferred to a character. You can keep up an unending cycle of enemy damage and self-healing when facing undead foes. The Cube did not, alas, work against disembodied phantom axes, but those responded to physical attacks and "Spark."
In an early room, I found Dawn imprisoned in a glass globe. The diamond shattered it and freed her. She said she'd "gather our forces" and zipped off.
"Baccata! Go @#$* yourself!"
Elsewhere on the level, I found two figurines--cobra and dragon--that turned out to be important. To get to the second level, I had to solve a long puzzle that I want to highlight here. It was probably the most complex puzzle of the game (although, admittedly, there were some optional ones that I never solved). It took place in a 7 x 7 room, as below. As I entered the room, the game stripped away my automap and made the compass go wonky so I could never be sure if it was pointing in the right direction.

Cimmeria's Level 1 puzzle area.
The objective was to first get into the southeast corridor, where I found the dragon figurine. I then had to get into the middle-south corridor and its stairway upward. The difficulty is that the room was full of teleporters (both 1* squares bring you to *1), spinners (@), and pits (white circles). There were four pressure plates (black squares) that I had to weigh down; together, they closed the pits on the squares marked in gray.
This isn't a bad puzzle. I always think of this kind of puzzle like a maze. You try a variety of paths, many of which lead to dead ends, before you figure out the right sequence. Of course, you have to map to make sure you've stepped on each square and noted the consequences. The teleporter maze in the final dungeon of Crusaders of the Dark Savant is the same type of puzzle. With enough time and a pen and paper, you can figure it out. It's not unsatisfying when you do, but it doesn't call to mind any creativity, or lateral thinking. Something like a riddle or word puzzle is the exact opposite of this.
Dungeon Master, in my memory, excelled at a rare type of puzzle--mechanical puzzles that do call into play creativity and lateral thinking. (There is an extent to which I may be conflating Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back.) The closest that Lore ever comes is in that optional puzzle where you force the electric wisps into servitude as power sources, and even that one I think was cribbed from a similar one in Chaos. One of my frequent complaints about Dungeon Master clones is that they never seem to rise above purely mechanical puzzles. Then again, I've thought that so often that perhaps I have a tendency to forget the exceptions.
Well, this is getting pretty long, so I'll wrap up here and cover the endgame (with summary and rating) next time. There's definitely some good stuff in these final hours, even if the alien business was a bit unnecessary.
Time so far: 30 hours

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Game 458: The Fountain of the Gods (1988)

The Fountain of the Gods
United States
Independently developed and published
Released 1988 for Atari 800
Date Started: 14 May 2022
Date Ended: 15 May 2022
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
The Fountain of the Gods is an independent creation by a West Virginia developer named Joe Butner. He sold it for $14.50 via magazine ads. In the ads, he says that it's a "tribute to the classic TELLENGARD [sic]," which at the time was only six years old. How quickly things used to become "old" or "classic" back then. Imagine someone calling Grand Theft Auto V or Assassin's Creed: Origins a "classic."
Fountain does evoke a bit of Telengard (1982) and the entire DND line that came before it. In some ways, it's simplified, but it also has its own surprises. What isn't lost in the adaptation is Telengard's insane roller-coaster ride from rags to riches to death. I remember standing at the bottom of the entry stairs in Telengard and immediately finding jewelry worth 25,000 gold pieces, then just as immediately getting fried by a Level 8 dragon. In Fountain, three of my initial four characters died in the first or second rooms; the fourth found a chest with 5,000 gold pieces and immediately went to Level 3. Fountain lets you save anywhere, unlike Telengard, but in 1988, saving and reloading took so long that I would have given up on the entire game quickly.
A typical Fountain screen. I'm Level 2, and I have 2 potions. There's a key on the other side of this room (I have a red key anyway), but potentially a couple encounters before I get there.
The documentation for the game has been lost, so I'm not sure if there's a backstory. [Ed. See the end for more about this.] At the beginning, in lieu of any real "character creation," you're asked to choose from among four defined characters: Varzak, Baaloff, Abrasai, and Celestial. Each has a different balance of health and magic points and a different starting weapon. No explicit classes are given, but Varzak is clearly more of a "fighter" type, Celestial more of a "mage," and the other two in between.
Gameplay starts in a large room with an altar where you can turn in accumulated gold for experience points. From here, you branch out to explore a large dungeon full of enemies, treasures, and secret doors.
Late in the game, I return to the altar to donate my gold. I have explored 43.5% of the dungeon.
Movement is a bit odd in that once you specify a direction, you keep moving in that direction indefinitely until you hit an obstacle, change directions, or hit the space bar to stop. Everything else is pretty easy to pick up. Your small selection of commands includes O)pen (a chest), E)xamine rooms or chests for traps, D)isarm, and take a P)otion. T)eleport has a chance of returning you safely to the starting room, but an equal chance of putting you in the middle of a wall. L)isten and S)mell are a bit mysterious, as I never found a use for either.
E)xamination identifies a line of traps between me and that chest. I'll have to thread a narrow path if I'm going to make it.
Exploration strikes a good balance between fixed things, room-level randomness, and immediate randomness. The layouts of the rooms and the positions of doors and secret doors are fixed. So I think are the positions of some traps. Whether a room has a treasure chest or a key is rolled every time you enter. Encounters with monsters, NPCs, or small treasures (usually healing potions or handfuls of gold) are rolled with every step, which means enemies never become apparent until you're right on top of them.
I encounter a fighter in a room with white and red doors.
Enemies are the standard Dungeons & Dragons list--goblins, trolls, orcs, ogres, minotaurs, skeletons, wraiths, demons, dragons, and so forth--with some misspellings like "knoll" and "kobald." They don't have explicit levels as in Telengard, but since all action in Fountain takes place on a single floor, they can't increase in level as you descend. Instead, their difficulty is tied to your own character level, meaning they never really get easier.

In combat, your only options are to fight, cast a spell, or try to evade by walking away. The latter almost never works. Just as in the original DND for PLATO (1975), survival almost entirely depends upon casting the right spell at the right time. There are 18 spells in the game; you acquire them two at a time as you achieve each level. Each costs as many "spell units" as its level. These spell units are spent fast, and even worse only replenish when you gain a new level or find rare magic scrolls. Careful management of these spell points is vital, which makes you reluctant to spend them on otherwise-useful navigation spells like "Detect Passages," "Teleport Safely," and "Deposit," which automatically sends your accumulated gold to the altar without you having to trek all the way back with it. "Turn Undead," fortunately a low-level spell, is absolutely essential. It reliably works on all undead of all levels, turning them before they can drain your levels. (In a mechanic that I wish every game featured, you still get experience points for turned undead.) "Sleep" and "Web" are as useful here as in D&D. Once you hit Level 9, you get "Death Word," which reliably kills anything at a high cost. You have a couple of healing spells, but healing is best accomplished with potions.
About to cast "Turn Undead" on a specter.
Fortunately, leveling occurs fast. I was already Level 7 with 8 kills, plus some undead-turning and a lot of treasure turned in to the altar. Healing potions are also relatively plentiful. The real danger is encountering a single monster like a dragon or demon that just eviscerates you.
I level up after a successful combat.
There are a few friendly denizens like elves and dwarves who may give you items, and traders often appear to sell you weapons and potions (though gold is almost always better saved for experience). The game otherwise lacks the variety of Telengard's random encounters: fountains and thrones and chests-with-buttons and inventory upgrades. In Fountain, you only have a weapon for which you occasionally gain an additional "+." There are no suits of armor, shields, boots, rings, scrolls, or potions other than healing.
Looking over a trader's inventory.
The ostensible goal of the game is to explore 100% of the rooms. Every room gives you an average of about 0.3%. This is clearly rounded, as occasionally I had total completion values not evenly divisible by 0.3 (nor is 100 evenly divisible by 0.3), but it's close enough that I'm sure the game has around 330-340 rooms. If the game enforced permadeath, this would be functionally impossible. With era technology, you'd have to reload dozens of times. With modern quick save states, it's a lot less challenging but still challenging.
Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to 100% anyway because the game is a bit broken. I don't know whether it was always broken or it's just that the disk images that have survived are bad copies. I tried several versions. The basic problem is that the game often gets confused when you move from one room to another and load the next screen. Sometimes, it loads the wrong room, but you can otherwise navigate it. Sometimes, it loads the wrong room and puts you in the middle of a wall. Sometimes, it just crashes on a blank screen.
Related oddities include rooms that load with configurations that don't make any sense, such as areas that have no way to reach them. When you find a secret door in the game, it causes the entire room to reload, only sometimes it reloads a different room completely, often leaving you (again) embedded in a wall.
Blame the contractor.
These problems become particularly acute during the game's water sequences. There's a large underground lake in the south of the map that requires a boat to cross. I found a boat in a random hallway; I don't know whether its location is fixed or by design. Either way, having a boat in your inventory makes you automatically transition to a little sailboat when you enter a body of water. But the game almost always crashed if I tried to sail the boat off the screen. I only got up to around 50% of rooms, and I'm sure the other 50% are on the other side of that lake.
In the underground lake. If I try to sail off the screen to the east, it will crash.
As to what happens when you hit 100%, I couldn't find any congratulatory text or graphics in the file package, so perhaps nothing. I was hoping it would at least give a hint as to the game's title, as I never found a fountain, of the gods or otherwise. I give the game 18 on the GIMLET; it does best in "Economy" and overall "Gameplay" (3s), worst in "Game World" (0) unless a manual is discovered that offers one, and 1s and 2s in everything else. It has a main quest, which Telengard lacks, but otherwise this is an homage that doesn't quite rise to the level of the original. 


Addendum from 19 May 2022: After this article was already publish, I heard from Mr. Butner. He sent along the original documentation for the game. A few additional points:

  • The "Fountain of the Gods" is what I took as an "altar" in the starting chamber.
  • The framing story is that you're in the service of King Methusa of Odessa, whose kingdom has been bankrupted by greedy gods demanding constant tributes of treasure. You've agreed to go into some ancient ruins and clear them of treasure to get the kingdom back on its feet.
  • "Smell" is supposed to help identify nearby dragons, which give off an odor of brimstone.
Mr. Butner couldn't explain the bugs I experienced but said he was trying to set up an Atari 800 development environment to figure it out. I'll report more here if we learn more.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Sex and Murder

Alas, "Blood Spatter Analysis" is not one of the game's skills.
As  I mentioned last time, I didn't think I was quite done with the ice caverns, and I wasn't. After more fiddling with the controls on the pillar, I manage to open a passage I haven't taken. It leads to a massive door that opens with the key I found last time. The room behind has a single ring to pull, an etched message above it reading "Main Floodgate Control." I pull it.
I love how this advanced civilization just chisels their messages into rocks.
I return to the previous level to find the water level raised in what had been the lower part of the level. By using "Water Walk," I'm able to cross the higher river and reach a new corridor that brings me to a brand new area in the northern part of the level. Ice blends with the remains of stone buildings and doors. Bones and debris are strewn across the frozen floor.
A new area of ruins encased in ice.
The first room I explore gives me MANI, QUAS, and IN rune stones (all of which I already had) and a scroll with four spells listed: "Resist Blows," "Lesser Heal," "Speed," and "Locate." I already knew about the first three, and the fourth didn't seem to have any effect. Another scroll said: "3 roots Mandrake, 4 clumps blood moss, 3 bunches dream-spice, 10 cloves garlic." There's a magical tower shield to replace my badly worn one. I notice that my health is mysteriously low at some point, but I don't think much of it. 
 A door opens to an "Unlock Door" spell.
I find a secret door at the back of this room. It's locked, but it yields to 13 sword blows. The other side has a tidy workshop with three more runes on a table: UUS, REL, and GRAV. The latter is one that I need. As I add them to my rune bag, I notice that my health goes down for every rune I add. Then I lose a bunch more when I pick up a scepter. The only thing I can imagine that's caused this is my new shield, and sure enough, once I drop it, I stop taking damage from inventory changes. 
A chest in the same room has 30 gold, but more important, there's a crystal ball that seems to replay my own past adventures. The first time I look into it, I see myself battling Mondain and Minax in "the lands of ancient Sosaria." The second time, I'm climbing the peak of Olympus Mons on Mars. Other scenes I don't remember: "You see yourself winding a great war horn in the throne room of Castle British"; "You see yourself sailing through majestic pillars cropping up out of the sea, on a voyage of discovery"; "You see the obscure form of an old and dear friend, as he sacrifices his life for the good of all." After that, nothing.
Odd, given that Ultima II didn't take place in Sosaria.
The next locked door, I remember that I have "Open Lock" (EX YLEM) before I spend time bashing. The room beyond has 15 gold, a ruby, and an emerald. Other rooms have nothing but debris. When I sleep to restore my mana, I have a dream in which the Guardian claims to have killed the gargoyle leader, Lord Draxunisom.
And people complained there were no gargoyles in this game.
I'm beginning to wonder what this area is for when a breeze kicks up and suddenly a ghost appears and speaks with me. She introduces herself as Beatrice, the former ruler of the city that once stood here. She says her people allied with the Guardian and he helped them win wars. But then he started to demand too much from them--supplies, weapons, slaves--and when they finally said no, he caused their entire continent to freeze over. Even now, long after the people are gone, he is drawing power from the place. She asks me to sever his connection to the place, but I can't figure out how to do that. I figure maybe Nystul or Altara can help, so I return to Britannia. When I step out of the blackrock teleporter, all of the walls in the area have ice textures. I'm not sure if this is a glitch or a sign of one world leaking into another.
The former ruler of what is now the ice caverns.
Before returning to the castle, I decide to test out an idea. The blackrock dome prevents me from casting spells above Level 4 in Britannia, but what if I cast EX YLEM ("Open Lock") in another world, and then don't target it until I reach Britannia? 

The moment I arrive in Britannia, Miranda starts complaining about Feridwyn, Dupre, and Patterson. Then a guard runs up with the news that Lady Tory has been murdered--stabbed with a dagger in her room, her body later found by Julia. Miranda suggests I check out the crime scene.
But my "Open Lock" cursor is still active, so instead I run up to Lord British's chambers and use it on his chest. It spills out an emerald, a sapphire, and three "fresh eyeballs." What freaky stuff is Lord British up to?
I think I found the killer.
Lady Tory's room is gruesome, with blood on the walls, the floor, and the corridor outside. Her body is already gone when I arrive. Everyone around the castle has a comment on the crime, but no one has any hard evidence. I'm not sure it's solvable yet.
I start to wonder, though--what would happen if I had killed Tory (or one of the other characters) myself? Is anything really stopping me? I take a save game and take a few swings at Syria. The entire castle comes to her aid, and I'm soon knocked out. I awaken in jail. Lord British is pacing outside. He demands that when I "find the pressure too much to bear," I find a way to solve it other than "brawling."
Lord British tries his best.
"Nay, I shall spend my time how I like," I reply, but he still relents and opens the cell. Naturally, I then attack Lord British, and after a few blows find myself re-awakening in the cell. The cycle repeats itself a couple of times. Finally, Lord British gets fed up and sentences me to remain in my cell until after the Guardian's attack is over. He still hangs around outside the cell, but he shows no signs of letting me out. I don't know if anything else happens from here because I reload. I still don't know if the denizens of the castle are immortal, but my particular character can't last long enough against all of them to find out. Incidentally, while we're on the subject of jail, Fissif never returned after I suggested that he leave the jail to go turn himself in.
I have Nystul treat my new blackrock gem, and I return to the sewers and use it on the teleporter. A new facet becomes available.
I appear in mid-air in the new universe and fall into a swamp, where giant three-eyed frogs regard me with suspicion. The walls are covered with vines arranged in psychedelic patterns and colors. I ready for battle, but the frogs, apparently called "vorz," are peaceful. 
Finding nothing in the opening room, I wander down a side passage. To continue, I have to jump up to a ledge. I prepare to do it with my regular jumping ability, but as I approach the ledge, I pass over a glyph that automatically launches me upward. These "jumping runes" are scattered all over the level, it turns out.

I make my way to a northern chamber with a checkerboard pattern on the walls and floor. The squares rapidly alternate between black and red. There are "strange artifacts" and "storage crystals" all over the floor, and at the end of the chamber, an amethyst rod. This is what Altara was looking for. Hoping I'm not stealing a sacred frog artifact or something, I grab the rod.
Just what I was looking for.
No alarms go off, so I start exploring the rest of the level. It turns out to be a highly symmetrical level with two rings of interconnected corridors and a variety of chambers along the way. The specific layout of the corridors and rooms is the same no matter which cardinal direction you face the map.
The rooms are occupied by glowing balls called Talorids. At first, I confuse them for wisps, but although they share some similarities, they don't seem to be the same thing. They're an artificial intelligence, ruled by the Guardian, who they call an "extremely denze information pattern which iz lokal extenzion of ekztra-dimensonal conglomerazion." Some of the Talorids regret the day they agreed to serve the Guardian, particularly since he has mandated that the beings become more and more individual and specialized, thus steering them away from the growing unity towards which they had been evolving.
"Runekeeper's" room.
I meet Talorids with names like "Dialogician," "Runekeeper," "Historian," and "Futurian." I end up having to use all of them in a complex plot that, it turns out, I didn't even need to solve. The summary is that the Historian and Futurian want to throw off the Guardian's yoke. To do this, they need me to reconfigure their "birthing" chamber to produce Talorids that will not be loyal to the Guardian. To do that, I need to kill the "Ductosnore" who currently runs the chamber, then swap out some data crystals and pull some levers to reconfigure the chamber. The puzzle takes a lot of running around, talking to different Talorids, and honestly I'm writing this about 10 days after actually playing this section, having had to take an unexpected break in between, so I don't quite have the memory for a blow-by-blow.
Getting the blackrock gem--before I was supposed to.
At the end of the whole sequence, the Historian teleports me to a platform in the middle of a lake of lava, where I can find this world's blackrock gem. The kicker: I'd already walked across the lava--taking a lot of damage but not dying--and picked up the gem some time earlier. Still, it was fun to solve their puzzle for role-playing reasons.
A Talorid thanks me for helping his people.
A few other notes from this area:
  • A Talorid named "Runekeeper" has about a million KAL runes, but I already have that one. If there are others in the area, I missed them. I really need FLAM.
  • I get up to Level 11 during this session and invest some more points in "Mana" and "Casting."
  • The Guardian, sensing that I'm causing trouble among the Talorids, causes all the vorz to turn hostile in the middle of the level. They die in just a couple of hits, though.
A three-eyed frog turns hostile. You can tell by the tongue.
After finishing up in this world, I return to Altara in Killorn Keep and give her the rod, spider egg, and black pearl that she asked for. She does some hocus-pocus and turns it into the Rod of Altara. "On each world," she says, "you must find [the Guardian's] place of power . . . and touch the staff to the earth." This will prevent him from drawing energy from that plane.
Before leaving to return to Britannia, I cast EX YLEM, which I keep active all the way back to Nystul's chambers. I want to know what's in that locked "massive chest." I cast it on the container, and it works. The chest contains one single book: Sex by Madonna. This book was big news back in 1992, but heaven help me if I can remember why. Here, it's just more evidence that Lord British has an ongoing trade relationship with Earth, but for some reason the Avatar can't get home.
That was anticlimactic.
No one is talking about anything new at the castle, so I head back down to the teleporter. I have to decide whether to hunt around for the Guardian's "places of power" in places I've already visited or move on to other worlds.

Time so far: 23 hours