Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Return of Werdna: Won!

Goddamned right.
One of the more obscure films that I enjoy is The Emperor's New Clothes (2001). Napoleon Bonaparte, exiled to Saint Helena, manages to replace himself with a double and return to France in secrecy. Once there, he marches up to the Palace of Fontainebleau and declares himself only to meet stony silence from the bemused guard. It's a funny moment that reminds us how authority is illusory, dependent on a mass of people believing and accepting it as much as it depends upon laws and rules.
I was reminded of the film as Werdna emerged from the dungeon and beheld the castle he's always felt he deserves. I don't know what his intentions are, but centuries have passed. I can imagine a similar conversation with some bureaucrat. "You're who now? 'Weirdo'? What kind of a name is that? All right, have a seat and I'll see if I can find someone to 'kneel to your power.' There's a pandemic going on, you know, and a lot of people are working from home."
Before continuing, I MALORed down to Level 5 and spun around until the Holy Rollers attacked. The combat was embarrassingly easy, and when it was over, I had a Magician's Hat again. I then zoomed up to Level 1 and prepared to park next to the pentagram for as long as it took to find someone with a "Blade Cusinart [sic]." (I had been using the proper spelling in previous entries.) I found it on my first combat, with a fighter named Bloodmetal. I guess a lot of enemies on "Cosmic Cube" levels carry it, but it's only shown as "Weapon" in the post-combat loot screen. (Thanks to BronzeBob for supplying a clue about this.) Anything else plot-important, the game highlights with a special name.
I don't like the sound of that.
From there, it was back to the Level 4 witch. After confirming I had all the ingredients, she said she'd give me the Blue Blood Special for free, in exchange for a later favor. I accepted, and my reward was a "dark glob" that resolved as a Dab of Puce in my inventory. I don't think puce is a noun, but there you have it. I was more delighted at suddenly having five empty inventory slots in the Black Box.
After a stop at the Level 1 pentagram to refresh my MALORs and party members, it was time to explore and map the castle. I mapped the outer perimeter first. The only way to the interior was through a single opening on the south side, where a "hoplite" (a Greek soldier) demands the password. This is a famously aggravating part of this game, as it requires you to have not only won Wizardry but also have taken notes as to miscellaneous scribblings found in the dungeon. The so-called password, TREBOR SUX, is found at the bottom of a warning plaque as you enter Werdna's domain. There are Oracle hints that point you to it: "Password is your ancient battlecry" and "Seek amongst the historical writings of Trebor's foes for the password." Only the latter is really helpful, as TREBOR SUX is hardly a "battlecry."
What is bad Attic Latin? [Ed. As commenter tetrapod figured out, Attic in this example means "from Attica, the region of Greece that includes Athens. It goes with the guard being a "hoplite."]
If I hadn't replayed Wizardry in 2013 in anticipation of The Knight of Diamonds, I wouldn't have had a chance of getting the password. If you've been reading me that long, you may recall that in my coverage of Wizardry, I was able to skip much of the final level. My thief tripped a teleport trap on an early chest, and the teleportation managed to put me directly in front of Werdna. I skipped the part of the map with the plaque.
In my replay, though, I didn't get so lucky, and my maps of the level do show the phrase. I like to think I would have figured it out, but nothing else in this game absolutely requires knowledge from outside the game (although, as we've noted, many things are hard to figure out without previous Wizardry experience and experience with nerd culture in general). In any event, the need for the password was spoiled for me a long time ago, and unlike most of the other spoilers I saw in 2010, this one stuck in my head.

Once inside the gates, the castle opens up into an area with several buildings and encounters. None of the corner towers are accessible except for a single set of stairs in the northwest one. There are two buildings inaccessible on this level (MALOR works from the castle, but not to it), although they become available on the second and third levels. Note that the overall pattern of the walls unsubtly spells out "RRA III" for Roe R. Adams III. Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg did the same thing in the original game.
The main level.
I've only achieved one ending so far, but my feeling from the experience is that the ending you get has a lot to do with the order in which you choose to do things. I don't see how any role-playing or forethought could have led me to one ending over another. I'll relate the particular order in which I experienced the endgame encounters and why it led to my particular endgame, then analyze what I needed to do differently later.
There are no random encounters in the three castle levels, only fixed ones. The Oracle flits around, but every time I encountered him, he just said, "**ERR**." Either he doesn't work on the castle level, or I've run out of clues.
Or this is a really obscure clue.
While exploring the outlines of the buildings, I found two fountains in the northern part of the map. One was broken, "closed for repairs." The other said that it was "open for public bathing" but a "lifeguard must be on duty." The game noted there was no lifeguard and gave me the option to swim in it. I did: "As you bathe in this pool, you are enveloped by a feeling of foreboding. Suddenly the weight of your past evil deeds descends upon your stooped shoulders again!" I checked the character sheet, and my alignment had turned evil. I didn't want that yet, and as I'd accomplished nothing else worth saving, I reloaded and kept myself neutral.
I then explored the buildings to the south, which you can enter only from the west. "The edge of town," the game alerted me as I entered, showing me a graphic. I moved on to the next building, "the Training Grounds." I was attacked as I entered by Von Halstern Squires, Squad #3. Their motto, amusing, was: "Wrong end! It's a basket hilt, not a mace, you dummy!" The squad was pathetic, a samurai and five fighters, most with single-digit hit points. I let my allies defeat them.
The battle is followed with fights against Squad #2 ("Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork!") and Squad #1 ("Bite 'em, Vlad!"). Both squads are all fighters, and no one with a hit point total higher than 26. They were trivial. I tried Googling the significance of "Von Halstern," and it seems to be another Society for Creative Anachronisms figure. I think we can just assume that's true of all references unless we find otherwise.
The next building held Boltac's Trading post, only, as the messages related, Boltac wouldn't sell to me, "even if you paid in Mythril!" I was looking for a lych-gate at Boltac's, as the Oracle had said, "Look to the lych-gate!" and a blimp advertised them for sale. Sure enough, the game noted that I saw "the legendary lych-gate of the Archmage Phred" and that "it has been rumored capable of razing castles when in the hands of one who is truly evil." The game asked if I wanted to steal it. I said yes.
I was attacked by Boltac's Anti-Shoplifting Unit ("Gotcha, senile delinquent!"). The "squad" consists of a ninja, fighter, priest, and mage named Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. The mage has 330 hit points and the fighter has 600. I decided to let my allies cast mass-damage spells while I hoped for critical hits with my sword. I was lucky enough to lop off Air's head in the first round and Fire's in the second, which meant that Fire could only get off one TILTOWAIT. 
All four elements respond to NUKE.
But after the battle, there was no lych-gate in my inventory, and apparently no way to get it. I later thought that maybe it's because I wasn't evil, so I'll go back and check that later.
I tried the northeast building, but upon entry, it said, "The door to the inn is locked. Without the large brass key, you cannot gain admittance." Moving on, I decided to explore the small tower in the north. "The tall donjon rises before you," the game said. "It is the citadel of the castle." I thought Adams was being cute with the word dungeon, but I looked it up, and damned if donjon isn't actually a word for a fortified tower. (It of course has the same roots as dungeon.) 
Awfully small for a citadel.
The tower consisted of three levels. On the base level, I met a group called the Captain's Council, consisting of a ninja, a thief, two mages, and two priests of modest ability. The names were drawn from foes I'd already faced in the dungeon. I cast a LAHALITO or two, but mostly my allies finished them off.

On the second floor was the Council of Barons: a ninja, a lord, a samurai, a fighter, a priest, and a mage. They were capable of some relatively high-level spells, but again they were less difficult than the typical Level 1 party in the dungeon.
Are those crowns or a bunch of guys around a table?
Finally, on Level 3, I met the Great Dukes of the Realm. A message specifically named them Duke Akbar ibn Murad al-Ben Muhammad ibm Hakim ("Ibm" is probably a deliberate misspelling to make a play on IBM); Duke Siegfried von Halstern; Duke Cariadoc of the Bow; Duke Vissevald Selkriksson; Barak Duke Hasdrubal; and Duke Sigmund the Wingfooted. These are all SCA figures, which is fine, but as usual I wish the game had bothered to do some actual world-building. It just gets worse from here.

The dukes attacked me. Each is a good lord with at least 570 hit points, but oddly they were only capable of lower-level spells. Success came down to whether more than one or two per round targeted me in physical combat. It took two reloads, but my allies and I eventually carried the day.
I love this message.
Triumphant after the battle, I stepped forward--and plummeted two stories to the ground. The upper levels of the castle are all meant to be understood as small walkways or rooftops. Unfortunately, there's no indication of where they end, so you have to figure it out from context or do a lot of reloading. The Winged Boots don't keep you aloft.

Moving east from the battle with the dukes led to a similar drop-off, and that was all there was. Sure there must be some purpose to the room, I tested the walls and found a secret door just north of the entrance. It brought me to a "wizened old scholar" who introduced himself as Master Bertram, curator of the treasure room. "I have an item that you dearly require," he said. "Tell me what it is, and it shall be yours!"
Or I just kill you and take everything.
This was my moment! I confidently answered AMULET. "Wrong!" he said. Confused, I tried AMULET OF YENDOR, forgetting momentarily what game I was playing. "Wrong!" LYCH-GATE? "Wrong!" I went through the Oracle's hints: ILIAD, QABALAH, ROOTS OF THE WORLD, BOTTLE. All "wrong!" BRASS KEY got me nowhere.
I nearly moved on, but I wanted to solve this thing. I grabbed the manual to see if the amulet is ever called anything except The Amulet. I tried MYSTICAL AMULET, but no deal. As I was reading, this paragraph caught my eye, referring to Werdna's research into the amulet:
The scroll appeared to be written by the apprentice to the wizard who opened the gate that night so long ago. His mind seemed to have been blasted by what he had seen, for only stray bits and snatches of thought were scribbled on the scroll. He kept repeating over and over again something about the glowing eye of THE GOD, which I took to mean the amulet. He also ranted about losing the Mythril Gauntlets entrusted to his care, and groveling for forgiveness from someone or something. The last part of the scroll was filled with dire prophecies and fears for his own eternal torment.
Thinking I had it, I tried EYE OF THE GOD and GLOWING EYE OF THE GOD and EYE and GLOWING EYE, all with negative results. It was almost as an afterthought that I tried MYTHRIL GAUNTLETS, and damned if that didn't work. I assume they're necessary to touch the amulet, but as we'll see, that's not the ending I got this time.
I left the tower the quick way (rather than fight the barons and captains again) and tried the stairs to the tower in the northwest. The second level is ringed by what I suppose is the castle ramparts. In each corner is a one-square walkway surrounding a 1 x 2 tower. Each of the corners of the tower has an encounter with a single "sentry," a fighter with 76 hit points. Along the ramparts, you meet heralds--bishops with 91 hit points. As the heralds die, they call for help with their trumpets, and you have to fight an "honor guard" of six mid-level fighters. All of these combats are trivial.
Level 2 of the castle. The blue area is open air.
Next to each of the towers is a stairway up, leading to the 1 x 2 top of the towers. If you step anywhere else, you fall two stories. Three of those tower tops have a battle with a group of crossbowmen, again trivial. But the fourth has you fight The Innkeeper, a high-level ninja who drops a brass key. I suppose there's a danger of decapitation in this battle, but I won in one try.
The third level, or most of it. I didn't get through the door at (4,12).
With the key in hand, I entered the Adventurer's [sic] Inn. In the foyer, I met the Walking Wounded ("Oh, groan! Not you again! Man the crutches!"), a hapless party composed of pre-wounded characters I met on lower levels. I brushed past them. The inn had a few rooms with nothing in them and two ways up: a staircase and an elevator.
What a badass name.
I took the staircase first. It led to a second floor with four rooms, each the meeting place of some chivalric order or guild--and it turned out that they were all happy to see me. The Tyger's Cubs introduced themselves as Cormac Kyle, Patri ibn Cariadoc, Krisha von Halstern, Alison von Halstern, Mitchell of Clan Mitchell, and Luke Maximillian. They took the Pennonceaux from my inventory and thanked me for returning their banner. In return, they gave me a ball called the Orb of Dreams.

I tried using the Orb of Dreams and had a nonsense dream drawn from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in which a large white rabbit complained, "I'm late! I'm late! For the life of me, where is the opening?" Or is that some kind of hint?
This game sure has a thing about rabbits.
Across the hall, I met the Order of the Laurel: Baroness Kathryn Goodwyn, Sigismund Vasa Care, Johannes von Nurenstein, Gabriella Maddelena Pisano, Arwen Evaine Merch Gwynth, and Salaamallah the Corpulent. They took the Daub of Puce from me, planning to use it to "touch up the old painting of Trebor." In return, they gave me the Arrow of Truth. I tried using it. "The fickle finger of fate spins . . . and points at you!!!'
The next room had the Order of the Pelican: Master El of the Two Knives, Aravis Katheryn Delclare, Jaella of Armida, Alisoun MacCoul of Elphane, Steffan ap Cenydd of Silverwing, and Anne of Hatfield. They thanked me for restoring the Temple of the Dreampainter and gave me a Maintenance Hat. It just said "Clap! Clap!" when I invoked it, but I knew immediately what it was for.
This is just getting embarrassing.
Finally, I crossed the hall and interrupted a meeting of the Ladies of the Rose: Khadijah of House Hakim, Wanda von Halstern, Diana Alene, Kunegunda Henschel von Schattenberg, Ecaterina Amber of Tospenwood, and Mara Tudora Kolarova. The game even makes a distinction that some are "their graces" and some "their excellencies," which are of course SCA castes.

They congratulated me for "chivalrous action towards [my] most bitter enemy, Trebor." I feel like I'm getting credit for a lot of things I did for the sake of survival, namely restoring the temple and putting Trebor to rest. I'm also getting credit for hoarding items that sounded like they might be needed for solving a puzzle.
It wasn't chivalry. I would have sent him to Hell if it were an option.
Anyway, the ladies couldn't stand my "foul stench" and attacked. I failed to take a screenshot of the battle, so I don't know what their classes were. It couldn't have been hard. 
I dropped back down to the courtyard and headed for the broken fountain. Sure enough, the maintenance cap "instilled in [me] the knowledge you need to repair" it. When it was fixed, I bathed in it, and as I suspected it turned me good. My allies took one look at me and fled in terror. Fortunately, that wasn't a permanent effect, and I was able to head back to the Level 1 pentagram and get more.
If only it were this easy.
Squeaky clean, I returned to the Ladies of the Rose, and they were satisfied: "Receive our token of grace. Keep it on thy person at all times, for it is a royal pardon for thy crimes, and none shall bother thee whilst thee wear it!"
What were my crimes, really? I set up shop in a dungeon and fought off adventurers until I died.
Here, I'll just pause and say that it's cool that Werdna can change alignments, but it ought to have been harder than just bathing in a couple of pools. Roe Adams worked on Ultima IV, for heaven's sake. There was a real opportunity here for some role-playing choices. What if I'd had the power to either save Trebor's soul at a cost of some of my attributes or consign him to hell for even more power? What if I'd had a choice as to whether to fight or greet the castle denizens? I know, blah blah blah, that's not what this game is about. I can still lament why it wasn't better.
I returned to the inn and took the elevator. On the way, the Von Halstern Chivalry stood aside for "the noble Werdna," so that was a battle I didn't have to fight. The elevator led to Gilgamesh's Tavern, but there was nothing to do there. I stopped before a west exit from the tavern. "Halt!" a message read. "No further may thee travel unless thou hast decided to seek thy destiny in the Amulet!" 
I just realized I switched off CGA graphics at some point, and no one bothered to mention it.
I said yes, and entered battle with the Softalk All-Stars Less One ("For Margot and Al, one more time!") A little Googling later told me that the Softalk All-Stars refers to a group of heroes discussed in the March 1982 issue of Softline magazine as examples of a Wizardry adventuring party. Each was contributed by a different reader; for instance, Sezmar the Samurai was the alter ego of John Hanny of Avon, Connecticut, and Sarah the Priest was created by Deborah Conover of Brookline, Massachusetts. The "minus one" refers to the fact that Roe Adams's own hero, Hawkwind the Ninja, is absent.
This was the hardest fight in the game for me. It took me nine reloads. Just like Applet's Angels on Level 1, two of them are capable of TILTOWAIT, and unlike the Angels, they have insane hit points. My strategy was to target Tuck the first round, hoping for a decapitation before he could cast, and equally hope that my allies softened the rest enough that by the third round, I'd be able to take my sword to Prospero. Another part of my strategy, I suppose, was hoping they chose something other than TILTOWAIT. On the tenth try, I got lucky.
What is their symbol? A peppermint Life Saver?
I saved the game inside the door beyond, but then I spent some time exploring the edges of the rooftop outside, taking lots of falls and having to reload. In one corner, I found a pack rat's nest, and searching it rewarded me with "the Nyin," which appears in my inventory as a Void Transducer. I couldn't figure out how to use it for anything. Because I had reloaded from falling, I would have had to fight the battle with the Softalk All-Stars again if I wanted to keep it, so instead I just marked where it was and reloaded from inside the temple.
Inside, I got a message indicating I was in the Temple of Cant, where "we support the fundamental freedom to worship the god of OUR choice." There was an immediate throw-away battle with five priests and a bishop of moderate levels. The game got a chuckle out of me with the character names.
Additional characters could have been "Touch Of," "Resident," and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and."
Moving forward, I reached a final door, which was guarded by "Lord Hawkwind of Skara Brae, elfin ninja--the last member of the Softalk All-Stars." I knew that Adams was responsible for "Skara Brae" appearing in both The Bard's Tale and Ultima, but I didn't know there was a reference in the Wizardry universe, too--nor that Hawkwind the Seer from Britannia had an alter-ego in Wizardry.
Careful, buddy. We're not on thou terms.
"Thou shalt not pass this way, this day or ever!" he announced, and I suspected he was right. The entire session, I'd been awaiting the battle for which I'd need the Level 10 dink, and this is clearly it. "You are about to battle a living legend," the game announced before the combat, but "battle" turned out to be generous. Hawkwind has 1,000 hit points and an armor class of "VL," which I assume means "very low." He didn't even "noticeth" my allies' MADALTOs and TILTOWAITs, and every attack I made against him missed. Meanwhile, he parried every round, and the game offered an escalating series of things that he did instead of fighting. "Lord Hawkwind laughs!" it began, followed in the next round by, "Lord Hawkwind chuckles!"
This battle would go faster if I hadn't brought all these demons.
In succession from there, round after round, he snickered, read Pikestaff (an SCA magazine), answered his mail, filed his nails, sent out for sushi, ignored me, pet his dragons, paid for the sushi, fed sushi to his dragons, pretended to take a nap, really fell asleep "(from boredom)," woke up, brushed his teeth, brewed tea, oiled his blade, and said his morning prayers.
Where could you get sushi delivered in the 1980s?
After that, things took a dark turn. He petitioned to offer me up as a sacrifice, filled out the sacrificial order form in triplicate, got approval for my sacrifice, bound and gagged me (I could participate no more in combat from this point), anointed me with sacrificial oils, and at last sacrificed me to Kadorto. "Kadorto is pleased," the game said, "but considers you to be a very poor substitute for a goat!"
I mean--for dinner, sure.
Anyway, I am 100% sure the answer to winning this combat is to have a dink with me, and my first thought was to reload and go grab one. But the post-pardon reaction by the Von Halstern Chivalry intrigued me, and I wondered whether the Captain's Council, Baron's Council, and Duke's Council similarly had alternate messages if I carried the pardon. Deciding to check this out instead of getting the dink turned out to be a fateful decision.
Inside the tower, the Captain's Council announced they would bend their knees to me if I paid one million gold pieces as a "weregild." I had nearly two million by this point, so I said sure. They gave me a Rallying Horn. Upstairs, the Baron's Council asked me to sign a parchment that "pledges [me] to reinstate the traditional rights and privileges stolen by Trebor!" I agreed and got a Signet Ring.
Sure. I'll never take it off.
Finally, the Duke's Council noted my "god-given sword" (I guess it was important to get that), the support I'd achieved from the various groups, and my having lain Lord Trebor to rest. They asked if I was "willing to prove [my] courage and nobility by accepting single combat" from each of them, using no allies nor spells. I said why not.
There's going to be six severed heads here soon.
It turned out I didn't need to fight the combats. "By thy willingness to accept the challenge, in conditions most unfavorable to thyself," Duke Akbar said, I had proven my chivalry.
Looking around at his fellow dukes, Akbar continues: "Because of all that thou hast become, and for the many fine deeds thou hast done for the good of the realm, we have decided to offer to thee rulership of all of our lands and estates in the hope that thou wilt govern justly, and reunite our strife-torn dominions. We would have an end to this constant warring between our people and the many monsters that dwell in the planes adjoining ours.

"Thou art our best hope to stride the worlds. Wilt thee give up thy quest for the Mystical Amulet and accept the title of overlord with all its power and responsibility? Consider our offer carefully, for only once will it be offered! Wilt thee assume now the throne and take the crown?"
It's a trap!
I said yes. Everyone started shouting "Long live the overlord Werdna!" and "Vivant!" But the mood was spoiled by a whisper in my ear: "Remember--a favor owed . . . someday . . . be seeing you! Cackle Cackle." This was, of course, the hag who had made the Daub of Puce. But I couldn't have gotten here without it, so there's no way to get this ending without this ominous warning. I wonder what Adams had in mind for the payoff for this.
The endgame continued with a "future historical footnote":
Under your benign and enlightened rulership, the realm will enter a golden age of pace and plenty. The evil acts of the past will be forgiven, and your people will surely remember you fondly! But even so, as the years pass, you will always wonder . . .

"Have you forgotten something?"
That final line had me casting curses at the screen, but in kind of a good way. The game earned that one.
Go #$*@ yourself.
There were a few more congratulatory screens. I was awarded the rank of "Wizardry Master Adventurer." There was some text emphasizing that there are other potential endings ("Freedom of choice is one of the great gifts of Lord Maya!"). Then it gave me three code numbers for some reason.
What do these get for me?
Whew. Sorry these Werdna entries have been so killer long. In addition to potential alternate endings, there are lots of smaller questions I want to answer:
  • What would the guilds say if I didn't have their items?
  • What if I turned evil again after getting my pardon but before visiting the dukes?
  • What if I dropped the sword or any of the other objects before visiting the dukes?
  • What if I didn't have the objects they required when visiting the guilds?
  • What does this Void Transducer do?
  • Do HAMAN and MAHAMAN work after I've turned good?
  • Will Boltac's sell to me if I'm good?
  • Can I get the lych-gate if I'm evil?
So we're not done with the game. Expect the answers to those questions soon. In the meantime, I can finally say that I've won The Return of Werdna, and I did it with only one outright spoiler (TREBOR SUX) and having had to un-ROT-13 only one hint (to do with the Cuisinart). I feel pretty good about that.
Time so far: 64 hours

Friday, July 29, 2022

Eye of the Beholder: Resolutions and Decisions of Divers Practicall Cases of Conscience

"Wish" is the entirely wrong word here.
I handled the four levels of the mage's guild in a couple of sessions. I started in a bad mood. The foyer of the curiously pristine guild has three teleporters. I had just come off a long session with The Return of Werdna, and I was barely interested in mapping, let alone mapping something with any complexity. What also annoys me about Beholder (I think this was true of the previous two games, too) is that there are no coordinates--or, at least, no way to determine them. When you take a teleporter, you have to start the new map in a random location on the sheet and try to figure out how it all fits later. I wasn't really in the mood for that, and my maps of the guild are incomplete and sloppy. There were some small areas that I didn't bother mapping at all.
The only CRPG enemy I've seen uglier than this are the "centaurs" of Fallout 3.
Level 1 had a lot of small areas interconnected by stairs and teleporters. It's a good thing that the game makes it clear, through loading times, which stairs are proper capital-S Stairs and which are just connections on the same level. Otherwise, I would have assumed the guild was eight or nine levels deep.
Enemies on the level were ogre slugs and watchghosts, neither of which I had encountered before. Ogre slugs are rather disgusting--head, torso and arms of an ogre, tail of a slug. Watchghosts have a cold attack. But both died in one hit, so there wasn't much need for protective spells. 
A watchghost. I don't know why so many of my screenshots say, "You can't go that way." I don't feel like I spend that much time bumping into walls.
One thing that I've appreciated about the Beholder series is how it's tried to include puzzles that transcend the purely mechanical ones of its Dungeon Master roots. Level 1's single serious puzzle--there were lots of levers and buttons and such, too--exemplifies the good and bad of this approach. Early in the level, we found a book called The Elemental Seasons that talked about the influence of the seasons and weather on elemental summonses. The book said that fire elementals favor the summer, earth elementals the winter, air elementals the autumn, and water elementals the spring.
Later, a room offered four teleporters, each with a plaque tying the teleporter to one of the four seasons.
Another plaque said: "To quicken the realm, the rains of spring." I think they would have made more sense the other way.
On the other side of the teleporter, a room branched off into four passages, and each passage had another teleporter and a painting that exemplified one of the four elementals.  
This painting suggests "earth" and, thus, winter.
Getting through the area required us to enter each seasonal teleporter, then return via the teleporter next to the associated elemental painting. Upon doing so for the last season, we were teleported to Level 2.
I like the approach, but the execution makes the puzzle far too easy. The book basically tells you what to do. If you get it wrong, incidentally, a single watchghost appears back in the original room, and you have to kill it. You may think that getting attacked is fitting punishment for getting it wrong, but the problem is that if the player knows he got it wrong, he can figure it out through brute force. Maybe I've been spoiled by Werdna, but I'd like to see a little more challenge.
The game spells everything out for you.
The same is true of a puzzle early on the second level. At the same place we found the Seasons book, we also found a journal written by Archmage Trobriand. A section deals with the summoning of scaladars, which are basically giant scorpions. The journal suggests he was killed by the beasts. Somewhere along the way, we found an artifact called Trobriand's Ring in a niche.

On Level 2, we were swarmed by scaladars, but the monsters did no damage. I thought they were just weirdly ineffective, but it turns out (I looked this up later) that if you have Trobriand's Ring in your inventory, they just don't attack. That's nice, but maybe we should have been required to wear it or something? Or even be aware that we were solving a puzzle? This and the gem puzzle on Level 3 (see below) should have come together and reached some kind of average. Later, we had to put the ring in another niche to open a door, but again the clue ("THE WAY IS REVEALED WITH THE LURE OF THE BEASTS") was too obvious.
I wasted a "Flesh to Stone" on him before I realized he was harmless.
Early on the level, we met another joinable NPC, a sprite named Bugenius ("Bug" for short). He offered to join, but I felt my party was already well-balanced, and his innocence turned me off. He asked if we were going to make evil creatures "sleep for a very long time." I brought him into the party just to check out his attributes--he's a neutral good mage of Level 10 with decent statistics--but I reloaded afterwards. My understanding is that NPCs disappear from the game once you reject or dismiss them from the party, which is too bad. It's also amusing how a dismissed NPC dumps literally everything he's carrying on the ground before stalking away, although for mechanical reasons I suppose it's better than forcing the player to reload and dispossess the NPC manually.
You seem annoying.
The scaladars didn't attack, but they were also nigh-indestructible, taking only a few points of damage with every "All Attack." It took us a while to clear them out (even if we wanted to spare non-hostile creatures, they swarmed us and blocked our passage). Other enemies on the level were steel shadows--suits of armor inhabited by some kind of worm thing that came lashing out of the armor's visor. 
The game found a couple of ways to animate armor.
Sounds remain aggressively unpleasant, and the scaladars are the worst so far, emitting a screeching noise that ought to have gotten someone fired.
On Level 2, we first faced trapped grates. If you walk over them, spikes may come shooting out and do significant damage, plus either shove you back or shove you into the next square. In a few cases, I found switches to disable them, but in others, I just had to take the damage in order to get to the other side. More than one "Raise Dead" scroll went to healing the damage from these traps.
It's all up to you, Delmair.
Level 2 ended with a square that stripped most of our equipment, animated it, and forced us to fight it. Cute, but the process of putting everything back on again was pretty annoying.
It looks like the party consists of a judge and five people being sworn in for jury duty.
Levels 3 and 4 redeemed the game a bit, offering both puzzles and enemies that were harder than anything in the game so far. The levels are interconnected by gratings in the floor, and you first have to find keys to unlock the grates, and then pull them open with a grapple that you find early on the level. Not hard, but at least unique.
This will take me to one section of Level 4.
Level 3 starts with a puzzle that I almost needed a hint to solve. In a niche, you find a blue gem and a red gem. A nearby sign reads: "THE HAND OF THE LEARNED HOLDS THE KEY." I read too fast and misread "LEARNED" as "LEADER." The hallway has a teleporter that kept knocking me back to the beginning if I passed a certain square, and there was no other place to go. I figured the gems were the "keys," and I put one in my lead character's hand, which didn't do anything. I tried the other, and still nothing. I tried Bugsy, thinking the game might have a different interpretation as to which slot is the "lead." We still got teleported. I hunted around through the interface and manual to see if there was a way to designate a certain party member as "leader" that had nothing to do with position. Lots of other games offer this. No dice. Finally, I re-read the plaque, realized my mistake, and got through by putting the gem in the hands of the character with the highest intelligence.
As usual, there were two regular enemies on the level, a pattern I'm finding more and more ridiculous. The first were water weirds--easy creatures that popped out of some grates and went down in a single hit. Their ease was balanced by the punching power of the earth elementals. They can somehow punch through the entire party, damaging everyone. For the first time in the game, I used spells heavily. I kept my buffing spells up, particularly "Haste," tried to nail them at a distance with offensive spells, and cast "Hold Monster" when they got close. If I needed a break, I cast "Wall of Force"--a spell I had severely under-rated until now--and took my time healing while the enemies paced impatiently on the other side.  
Careful! We might get wet!
I'm running hot and cold on combat in this game. There are little aspects of timing that seem off. For instance, if a monster steps into the square in front of you, you can often execute an attack and dance away. But if you cast a spell on a monster that has just stepped into the square in front of you, he'll always be able to get in his own attack between the end of the spell animation and your backward or sideward movement. The whole thing where the entire game freezes until the spell animation finishes is also very annoying, but I survived it in the previous two games. I think maybe "All Attack" is just throwing me off. Enemies seem faster, maybe, too? I'll backpedal down a long corridor and assume I have plenty of time, but then suddenly the foe is in my face again.
On the positive side, I found throwing weapons for both Marina and Father Jon that return after they're thrown, so they can participate in combat without having to pick up a bunch of missile weapons afterwards.
An interesting thing happened the first time Delmair was injured by one of the earth elementals. He turned into a tiger. Apparently, he's a were-tiger, and he transforms at the first sign of injury. In so transforming, he renders himself useless in the second rank (his claws don't reach enemies), and he drops his pole-arm on the ground, so I'm not enamored of the revelation. It also completely contradicts his background in the novelette. Hell, maybe this isn't Delmair at all, but rather someone impersonating him. Either way, it explains his line about "certain abilities that no other can offer," so you can all get your minds out of the gutters. 
When facing a being of living rock, I'm not sure it makes sense to discard your polearm in favor of claws.
I don't know how long he stays in that form. He's only ever transformed back after we've camped. I didn't want to put him in the front rank, so I just did my best not to get actually hit by the elementals.
Journals and scraps of paper started providing some background on the lich we're here to kill. He was once an archmage named Acwellan. (Have we encountered that name before? I Googled and couldn't find anything, but it sounds so familiar.) He sensed a rising evil in the ruins of Myth Drannor, something "connected with the fall of this once-beautiful city." To counteract the evil, he tried to make himself immortal, which backfired and turned him into a lich.
In case you're starting to feel sympathetic towards the lich, he also started to go megalomaniacal.
Finding Acwellan required us to go beneath Level 3, to the water-filled Level 4. I'm not a fan of water levels, and this game was no exception. The game had prepped us by offering us plenty of Scrolls of Water Breathing and even a Helmet of Water-Breathing. One casting covers the entire party and lasts for a solid amount of time. But then the developers included an entire region in which no magic, including water breathing, works.

Not having water breathing while underwater only damages you when you move, for some reason. You can even sleep, memorize spells, and cast them (outside the anti-magic area) as long as you don't leave the current square. But none of that helps in the anti-magic area, which I had to explore carefully, map, and keep people alive with healing potions (thankfully, I'd been hoarding them) and, ultimately, "Raise Dead." Some previous comments lead me to believe that others have a lot of trouble with this area, but I approached it from a Return of Werdna mentality: explore, get as far as you can, map, reload, and then make a final push through the area once you have a completed map. I didn't find it to be a big deal.
The area was swarming with water elementals and amphibious creatures called slithermorphs, but they died in one hit and are hardly worth mentioning.
This place is fond of enemies with sludge for legs.
The underwater area had some "jets of water" that forced us where we didn't want to go. Usually, these could be turned off by finding a switch, though in one case we (clued by a sign) used "Wall of Force" to block it. On both this and the previous level, there were piles of scrolls with Level 8 and Level 9 mage spells ("Meteor Swarm," "Time Stop," "Energy Drain"), and my two mages loaded up.
What kind of warning did we expect? "Attention, adventurers: I am about to unleash a torrent of icy water!"
There was an okay puzzle on Level 3 that required us to fill the two cups on a classic Libra-style set of scales with eight Rings of Protection with positive and negative values, achieving a net result of 0 on both sides. Easy, but like I said, the game is trying.
At least the game didn't make me identify all of them first.
We met Acwellan upon emerging from the underwater level in the southwest section.
It still doesn't look like a lich. It looks like a vampire.
Learning his backstory had prompted me to try to be a bit charitable, so I was annoyed by the generally hostile dialogue options. The options had us spare him if he would give us his "artifact," which prompted me to re-watch the opening cinematic. Sure enough--I didn't remember this--the weird little man who hired us specified that he wanted us to kill the lich and retrieve his artifact, not just kill him. Anyway, none of the dialogue options worked. Acwellan attacked us after warning us that if we defeat him, "the price you pay will be dear."
Judging by those options, you'd think everyone in the party had a charisma of less than 6.
The battle with Acwellan involved the first use of "Mirror Image" that I've seen in a first-person game, so that was kind of cool. He was capable of both holding and paralysis spells. But he still died in a couple of hits after we hacked away his images.
The party isn't doing so well.
A cinematic started after his death, and for a minute I thought we had actually won the game. Instead, the graphic showed Acwellan's body clutching a tome--probably Rex's Codex of the Planes. A shimmering appeared next to the lich's body. The little bastard who hired us appeared, grabbed the codex, and disappeared. (Technically, he also said: "Hahahahahahahaha! The Codex is now mine. I have this city and soon the entire world will join it!") I knew he was evil. You could tell by the fingernails.
Is this little twerp the Dark God or just his minion?
With his dying breath, Acwellan said that we must "stop the Dark God from opening his gate to the Realm of Shadow and taking over this world." Seriously--a world-ending threat? For Level 11 characters? I miss the days of Tyranthraxus, who just wanted to take over the lands around Phlan. Even the evil god Bane, in Pools of Darkness, limited his effect to the Moonsea region.
Uh, I'm pretty sure it was you who attacked us.
"His lair is in the Temple of Lathander," Acwellan continued. "I will teleport you near there. Now go!" In moments, we found ourselves back outside, where a convenient earthquake had opened a passage that had been closed before, leading to the temple.
I spent the entire last session not realizing that the area I was exploring is meant to be "outside." You can tell by the sky.
We'll do a quick character check before wrapping up:
  • Starling is a Level 11 paladin. Her armor class is -6. She is dual-wielding a long sword +4 and a short sword +3 and wearing a helm +1, plate mail +3, a scrying glass, Gauntlets of Fire Giant Strength, a Ring of Sustenance, a Ring of Protection +3, and leather boots. 

I had forgotten about the scrying glass until now. I had thought it might enable "True Seeing" or something, but it turns out it casts "Improved Identify." That means I can give my mages other Level 2 spells in those slots. Looking at Starling's inventory also reminded me that I haven't found any boots in this game so far. Before you object to the Ring of Protection, in this game, rings and bracers stack with armor, which I think is a violation of AD&D rules.
Starling carries the quest items.
  • Bugsy is a Level 10/12 fighter thief. His AC is -7. He is dual-wielding a long sword +4 and a short sword +3 "Frostbite." He wears chain mail +4, Bracers of Protection +1, a Ring of Protection +3, a Ring of Sustenance, leather boots, and a Necklace of Adornment.
I'm aware that the necklace does nothing, but it's not like there's any place to sell things in this game. On the subject of necklaces. Marina has a Necklace of Missiles, but you can't use it if you wear it like a necklace. You have to hold it in your hand. 
Bugsy's statistics.
  • Gaston is a Level 10/11 ranger/cleric with an AC of -7. He's fighting with a polearm +3 ("Zymoks") that I have to manually swap out with his blessed holy symbol when I want him to cast a spell. (It turns out the symbol gives him one extra spell per level). He wears a plate mail +3, Gauntlets of Hill Giant Strength, a Ring of Protection +2, a Ring of Protection +3, leather boots, and another Necklace of Adornment. 
Rings of Protection may stack with armor, but they don't stack with each other, so Gaston having two didn't make any sense. When this investigation was over, I switched it with Father Jon's Ring of Feather Falling.
I completely missed when Gaston leveled up to 11 and got Level 6 spells. I had him memorize "Heal" and "Heroes' Feast," a spell I'm encountering for the first time, I think. It promises to heal, bless, cure disease, and make the characters immune to fear, poison, hopelessness, and panic (are the last two even present in this game?), and it affects the whole party. That sounds like it ought to be a higher level spell.
  • Delmair is a Level 13 ranger with an AC of -9. This is due to his banded mail +3, helm +2, Bracers of Protection +2, and Ring of Protection +2. He also has a Necklace of Adornment and wields a halberd +5. 

I didn't realize until now that he was so out of balance with the front line pair. Bugsy had no helm at all, so I gave Delmair's helm to Starling and Starling's to Bugsy, leaving them both at -8 and Delmair at -6.
Delmair levels up against an earth elemental. Or maybe from using the key.
  • Marina is a Level 13 mage with an AC of -1. When I don't have a wand or scroll in her hand, she has a dagger +4 ("Ocnor"), which returns after thrown. She has a robe +3, a Helm of Underwater Breathing, a Ring of Protection +3, Bracers of Protection +5, a Ring of Wizardry, and leather boots. 
Marina learns "Time Stop" but won't be able to cast it for 6 levels.
  • Father Jon is a Level 10/11 cleric/mage with an AC of -4. His black hammer +3 returns when thrown, but it means I can only put one of his spellcasting devices (spellbook or holy symbol) in his other hand. I usually keep his holy symbol there to keep his healing spells handy. He wears elven chain mail +3, a Helm of Underwater Breathing, Bracers of Protection +4, a Ring of Fire Resistance, and a Ring of Feather Falling.
I have no idea why we have a Ring of Feather Falling. I can't think of a single situation in any of these games in which it would have done anything. If the engine did let us fall any significant distance, having a single ring probably wouldn't make much of a difference. I feel similarly about the Ring of Fire Resistance. They make sense in the Gold Box games, where everyone is an individual in combat, and you can send the character with the ring against fire-wielding enemies, but in this game everyone takes damage from fire attacks or no one does.
I also spent some time re-memorizing spells. My mages are so overloaded with scrolls and wands, and I use offensive spells so rarely besides, that I figured from now on I'd concentrate more on buffing spells. I gave up "Magic Missiles" for "Armor" and "Shield," "Melf's Acid Arrow" for "Detect Invisibility," "Blur," and "Protection from Paralysis," "Fireball" for "Haste," and so forth. The longer life of these spells makes them more viable in this game than in previous ones.
This is a well-composed, evocative image. Nicely done.
My characters have each gained basically two levels (one each for multi-classed characters) since the game began, but they have a long way to go before they get anywhere near the theoretical maximum of 20. Marina has three entire spell levels to gain. I mention this because progress towards maximum level is the only way I have to gauge the length of the game. That would suggest I'm about a quarter to a third of the way through.

Time so far: 22 hours