Friday, September 30, 2022

Revisiting: Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary (1988)

I'm not sure why this game puts its chapter number on the other side of the colon. It would make so much more sense as Star Saga One: Beyond the Boundary.
Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary
United States
Masterplay Publishing Corporation (developer and publisher)
Released 1988 for Apple II, Apple IIGS, and DOS
Date Started: 25 January 2011 (19 July 2022 for the restart)
Date Ended: 25 September 2022
Total Hours: 25 (including 6 in 2011)
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
The first decade and half of CRPGs saw many attempts to blend the virtual with the physical. One of the earliest commercial RPG series, Dunjonquest, provided a book of textual descriptions to accompany the player's investigations of rooms, monsters, and treasures. The Gold Box series would famously adapt this idea in its "Adventurer's Journals." But even games without numbered paragraphs often featured physical maps and physical manuals, usually with original artwork, to complete the gameplay experience. Some editions of Ultima shipped with ankhs and moonstones.
There's an extent to which these physical supplements were necessitated by technology rather than any desire to provide the player with something tactile. And certainly, when issues of storage space were all but eliminated in the mid-1990s, the tendency was to abandon anything physical--a tendency that only accelerated when players started to download their games. But I think it's a mistake to regard physical maps and manuals as something that solely existed because developers wanted to save floppy disk space for graphics and mechanics. I can't think of any game for which having a physical map to reference off-screen does not enhance the experience. As for journals and other texts, I have long been of the opinion that the computer is a better place for them since they can be informed by in-game variables (e.g., player name, sex, and choices) without requiring the publisher to have printed multiple paragraphs with only slight variations. I still feel that way, and yet I recognize that there is something exciting about the screen telling you to read Paragraph #360 in Book #6, and the player excitedly shuffling through the pages.
The Star Saga games came in boxes weighing several pounds. [Photo by Ernst Krogtoft.]
Perhaps no game offers this experience to a more intense degree than Star Saga, whose accompanying books of text run to nearly 800 pages. In a truncated 2011 review, I rejected it as a CRPG not because of the "RPG" part but because of the "C" part. While I'm not sure I entirely agree with that opinion today, I get where it came from. When 80% of your playing time is spent reading text from a book, it's hard to argue that you're really "playing." In any event, because I did play it, and numbered it, I've been carrying it as a loss for 11 years. I decided recently to remedy that. After all, I thought, how hard can it be to just read a book and report on its conclusion?
Most of the "gameplay" is reading paragraphs like this.
Star Saga was the creation of three Harvard University students: Rick Dutton, Walt Freitag, and Mike Massimilla. The trio started a live-action role-playing game called "Rekon" that they played once a year over long weekends. Massimilla met Andrew Greenberg, co-author of Wizardry, at a bridge tournament and invited him to join the group at their second "Rekon" weekend. Greenberg apparently felt the plot of the game had enough marketability that the group should turn it into a computer game. All four of them are credited with "game concept, design, and execution," with no separate credits for writing and programming, so I'm not sure who did what. Masterplay was created specifically for this game and its sequel, with Greenberg as president. Greenberg's old Wizardry colleagues, Roe Adams and Robert Woodhead, were two of the game's playtesters.
If you played all six characters and started in 1988, I imagine you might be finishing just now.
The broad plot of the series has elements that we've seen before in Starflight (1986) and would again in games like Star Control (1992), Planet's Edge (1992), and Mass Effect (2007), and in television like Babylon 5. Humanity is one of the galaxy's younger races. Technology may have progressed, but people are still the same. There are stories of godlike creator races who assisted the evolution of younger species. Shadows are gathering, and an ancient enemy is coming out of its slumber. But if you've heard the broad strokes before, Star Saga still does a reasonably good job with the specifics. I'm not much of a science fiction buff, so I can't say with authority that the details of the planets and races you encounter are "original," but they were original to me--and highly imaginative. The texts are reasonably well-written (bad or annoying text would absolutely destroy a game like this), and in the rare times the game strays into humor, it's situational rather than slapstick.
The game takes place in 2815, nearly 600 years after the invention of a hyperdrive made it possible to travel between stars. Humanity has colonized a local cluster called the Nine Worlds (which include "Harvard, a university planet") and other colonies throughout the galaxy. In 2490, explorers brought a "Space Plague" back to the Nine Worlds, which so decimated the home planets that humans created a great Boundary around them. Anyone can leave via the Boundary, but no one can return. A Space Patrol shoots down anyone who tries. The solution worked, but cut off from the rest of the universe, humanity has grown stagnant. Meanwhile, colonies outside the Boundary have become "Ghost Worlds," fighting for their survival while enjoying a black market smuggling trade with the Nine Worlds.
My quest is laid out in a character booklet.
Six characters have various reasons for traveling Beyond the Boundary:
  • Laran Darkwatch, a disciple of the Final Church of Man, seeks a holy relic that will reveal the Final Truth
  • Jean G. Clerc wants to build the Ultimate Spaceship, which will require alien technology.
  • Valentine Stewart, scion of a mafia family from Wellmet, just wants to have some adventures before being chained to a desk forever.
  • Corin Stoneseeker is a member of a clan that seeks the Core Stone, an artifact lost twenty generations ago.
  • M. J. Turner is a Space Patrol enforcer, sent outside the Boundary as punishment.
  • Professor Lee Dambroke wants to learn about alien civilizations and abilities.
Note that all of the names could be male or female, and the game goes out of its way to avoid specifying sex for many of its NPCs as well.
Once the game begins, each character has one turn to accomplish as much as possible. A turn has seven "phases," and each action takes up a certain number of phases. Moving between "trisectors" in the galaxy takes one phase. Landing on a new planet takes seven phases. Trading at the commodities market may take three or four. Learning an alien language might take 10. It's rare that you can line up exactly seven phases' worth of actions in a single turn; more likely, you go over that amount and end up borrowing phases from the next turn.
In one turn, I take off from one planet, travel across four sectors, and land on another. This gives me a paragraph to read.
You don't find out the results of each action immediately. Instead, after you've lined up everything you want to do in a turn, you execute them all at once. This is so like the approach to combat in Wizardry that I can't believe there isn't some influence. The approach creates some weird situations. For instance, you might say you want to visit the market, then blast off for another planet and maybe even travel a couple of sectors. Then, during the execution phase, something happens during your visit to the market that gives you a new option on the planet. Now you have to turn around and go back.
The computer portion of the game keeps decent track of where you are, what you've done, and what you have. (When you revisit a planet, you get a different paragraph than when you first visited.) Most of your options are usually right there on the screen. Occasionally, however, the book gives you a code for you to type in when you've met certain conditions; for instance, when you have the items necessary to assemble a particular piece of technology. Some of these codes require you to be at a particular location, but others allow you to type anywhere. 
Typing in the special code to build the Super Space Suit.
The map is clever, and I would admire it more if it weren't for my colorblindness. The galaxy is divided into 400 triangular, numbered "trisectors," each of them blue, yellow, orange, red, green, or violet. No two triangles of the same color are ever adjacent. Each trisector is touched by a maximum of three other trisectors, and they all have different colors. Thus, traveling a path through the galaxy is a simple matter of choosing a sequence of colors to move from each trisector to the next. This works great if you're not constantly confusing yellow with orange, orange with red, red with green, and blue with violet. Fortunately, the game also tells you the number of each trisector you select, and you can back out of an option if you choose the wrong one. The map that comes with the game has all the planets in the galaxy marked (and all of the Ghost Worlds named); if there's ever an unmarked planet, I never found it. Thus, unlike some space exploration games, it's relatively clear which travel paths will bear fruit.
A section of the map. To get from Bugeye to Wellmet, I would go yellow, orange, violet, blue, red, orange, blue (you have to go around the "Space Wall").
For me, by far the weirdest thing about Star Saga is the idea that it could be a group game. Up to six players can play the game at the same time, each taking a turn at the computer, but they're supposed to keep secret their experiences and the nature of their quests. The paragraphs are not read aloud. I can't imagine anything more excruciating than trying to play this game with even one other player, just sitting there as she silently reads her pages before taking my turn to do the same thing. Characters can't interact during the game except to exchange cargo, and many of the plot points don't make sense if you imagine there are multiple characters visiting each planet.
Various options on the planet Fiara.
For the most part, the characters don't have unique paragraphs. Each character's visit to each planet goes about the same as any other's. Thus, one of the game's weaknesses is that you can't really "role-play" your character. The text speaks frequently in the character's voice, and the character often makes decisions within the text with no input from the player.
I played to the end with Corin Stoneseeker, only saving and reloading when I was ready to quit the game for the session. I rolled with a number of punches, including repeatedly losing my entire cargo hold to Silverbeard the Pirate, but I never died. The manual says death is possible, but I never experienced it. When I lost combats, the only penalties were getting kicked back to the previous stage and, occasionally, losing some cargo. The game is otherwise quite forgiving. Food and fuel exist, but only as cargo items for trade. You never have to worry about starvation, running out of fuel, or permanently damaging any of your ship's systems. Neither your character nor your ship has any hit points or damage status. Combat is entirely binary: you win or you lose.
Silverbeard is a constant menace.
When I started playing, I kept a detailed log of each turn and a summary of everything the paragraph book said. I assumed it would take a few dozen turns at most. After I crossed 100 turns, my notes became more abbreviated, and I stopped entirely after 200. I won at 378 turns. A lot of those turns simply involve flying from one place to another.
The main quests aren't all that complicated in the number of steps they require. I only experienced Corin's directly, but I got a sense of how the others would fare based on what I discovered while playing Corin. To win the game, Corin just needs to:
1. Visit Director Colmaris on Bugeye. He gives you items that belonged to your aunt, the last Core Stone seeker. They include a Flexion Glove for actually handling the stone. A note suggests that you check out the Frog Leg Nebula in Sector 133. Colmaris also gives a vague warning about something strange happening in the galaxy.
2. Fly to Wellmet, a Ghost World. Visit the tavern, where you meet a mysterious figure who gives you the "lost maps of Vanessa Chang," a famous traveler of three centuries ago. This gives you the ability to use the second, large map that comes with the game rather than the small initial one.
The results of my visit with Colmaris.
(These first steps are controlled by the computer. You don't get freedom to make your own choices until after the Wellmet meeting.)
3. Fly to Sector 133. There, you find an asteroid in the middle of a nebula. The asteroid hosts the wreckage of a crashed ship broadcasting a distress signal.
Trading in the Commodity Market on Wellmet.
4. Blow the hatch to get into the ship. This is resolved as a combat.
5. Find the room from which the signal is broadcasting. You get a warning that you'll die of radiation poisoning unless you have a Super Space Suit.
Fortunately, a tractor beam was enough.
6. Fly to the planet Firthe, which has an underwater civilization. Get the plans for the Super Space Suit from the aliens.
7. Collect the materials necessary to build the Super Space Suit.
8. Enter the captain's cabin in the crashed ship on the asteroid. You find the large, green, scaly, reptilian alien who stole the Core Stone from your ancestor. The stone is keeping him alive, but he's so weak with age that he can't move. You take the stone from him.
9. Return to the Nine Worlds, cross the Boundary, and fight off the Space Patrol.
It took me a long time to get the upgrades I needed to win this encounter.
10. Return to your homeworld of Atlantis. Your clan celebrates the return of the stone, but then you learn that your quest isn't over. You need to Save Humanity with the stone by visiting the place where your ancestor found it in the first place: a place called Outpost on the Arm of the galaxy. Visiting this location requires you to install a Tri-Axis Drive. Your clan gives you a key component for it.
11. Find the "recipe" for the Tri-Axis Drive on the abandoned planet of Corbis. Assemble the necessary components and build the drive.
12. Fly to Outpost, which turns out to be the pirate Silverbeard's headquarters. Defeat his defenses in a series of battles, then land at Outpost and learn the secrets of the galaxy.
The game's conclusion has about seven battles in a row, each requiring different offensive and defensive equipment.
I assume the quests for the other characters are identical starting with Step 9. This sequence may seem easy, but there are several difficult parts. First, finding the recipes for the Tri-Axis Drive and (in my case) the Super Space Suit could be difficult. I found them while randomly exploring planets. I didn't get any hints about them, but perhaps those hints exist somewhere.

Second is the problem of assembling the items that you need for your technology upgrades. Some of them are common and traded in numerous spaceports; some can be mined for free on various planets; some are extremely rare. Again, you have to visit pretty much every planet and note what resources you can find and trade there. You also have to deal with limits in your cargo hold (you get 10 bays by default) and either work within those limits or spend resources upgrading your storage space. One of the ingredients I needed for the Super Space Suit was Primordial Soup, which I found for trade on one planet, but it required like five items to trade for it.
I build the Tri-Axis Booster from several items, including the unique Flame Jewel.
While you're assembling all your items, you have the occasional problem of Silverbeard coming along and forcing you to surrender three cargo units or fight him and risk losing everything (he's very difficult to beat). There's a space station you can conquer to store excess items, but even that requires winning some difficult combats against its defenses first.
Finally, you have to win at least one personal combat and multiple ship combats. Both personal and ship combats are "fought" the same way. You don't really do any fighting: there are no options. Instead, you have a fixed threshold that you have to achieve for either an offensive score, a defensive score, or both. Much of the game is spent acquiring upgrades and special abilities to bolster both scores. Again, many of the upgrades require certain cargo items. You pretty much have to get all of them to win. I was repeatedly repelled by the Space Patrol while trying to revisit the Nine Worlds in Step 9, and then again repeatedly defeated by Silverbeard's defenses in Step 12, until I'd visited most of the worlds and found or purchased most of the upgrades.
A personal combat that I lost because my offensive score wasn't high enough.

A ship combat towards the end of the game that I won.
To take an example, on the planet Crater, you can purchase Boarding Robots (an offensive resource) for 1 unit of radioactives, 1 unit of medicine, and 1 unit of iron. You can mine unlimited radioactives on the asteroid in the Frog Leg Nebula and you can mine unlimited iron on Yrebe (if you've found them). Flying to both from Crater takes about eight turns. As for medicine, I never found a place where you could find unlimited amounts, but you can trade for it on Firthe if you have crystals, and you can get crystals on Jacquar for radioactives. Now I know what to do: fly to Yrebe and mine iron, then fly to the Frog Leg Nebula and mine two units of radioactives, then fly to Jacquar and trade one unit of radioactives for crystals, then fly to Firthe and trade one unit of crystals for medicine, then fly to Crater to get the upgrade. If at any time, Silverbeard appears, I have to start over. I dare say that most of the game involves flying around to assemble the right materials for one upgrade or another. The game lets you buy drone ships to do some of the trading for you (functionally allowing you to visit multiple planets' markets without having to fly there), but they themselves cost precious goods.
I prepare to trade four cargo items for a Turbo Navigation system.
The game meets my definitions of an RPG, but in weird ways. You develop your character not through regular experience or leveling but by acquiring special abilities like Telekinesis, Whurffle (a precognitive ability), Confuse Enemy Computers, and Levitation. Some of these abilities help in encounters; others help in combat. You also develop by acquiring the aforementioned offensive and defensive items. Combat does depend upon these abilities and items, and there's otherwise no randomness to combat or gameplay at all. I don't think a single moment in Star Saga depends upon the roll of a die. 
Some of the abilities my character had by the end of the game.
The best part of playing the game is probably landing on each planet for the first time and learning what it has in store. Some of the vignettes on these planets are highly evocative and, again, original to me, though I suspect you'll tell me that some of them are drawn from famous sci-fi plots. A few choice examples:
  • The planet Gironde is an industrial world populated by machines. They were put in place centuries ago by the Installer, who gave them a directive not to attempt space travel. The machines tell you that if they, or you, try to leave the planet, something called the Supervisors will attack. Sure enough, if you try to leave, you're swarmed by enemy vessels and forced to land. Through investigation, you determine that the Supervisors aren't real. Instead, every computer on the planet (including your ship's, from the moment you made contact) is infected by a virus that makes them hallucinate Supervisor ships, including mimicking the damage they would take if the Supervisors fired upon them. You have to wipe and reboot your computer to get away. You can have a discussion about all of this with the leader of the planet, called the Core, but it just raises questions about whether the fact that the Supervisors are code makes them any less "real" and whether the Core's inability to override its own programming makes it any less "sentient."
A few options while fighting the Supervisors on Gironde. "Shutting down" causes the Supervisor ships to disappear, leading you to realize that they were only in the computer's imagination.
  • A planet of purple aliens called the Alkonese. Centuries ago, a race of visiting gods gave them a precognitive ability that lets them sense and avoid danger. But as "progress involves risks and sacrifices," this ability has made them lazy and self-indulgent.
  • A planet with two continents, one pristine and undeveloped, the other an industrial hellscape. The latter is the home of a race of cyborgs who love where they live and regard the residents of the untouched paradise as "barbarians." I visit the barbarians and find a group of unmodified aliens who are desperate to get to the industrial continent. Apparently, an advanced race visited the planet long ago and gave them a machine called the Constructor, which can replace any biological body part with a bionic one. The machine created a caste society in which the wealthy residents partly or completely replaced their bodies and the poor ones had to remain mortal. The need to keep using the Constructor has suppressed their development of space travel. A space station orbiting the planet turns out to be the "enhanced" body of the planet's former leader.
  • A human colony called Drofflic where the economy is driven by a live-action role-playing game called "Trundling." Players go through taverns, fight "monsters," and collect "treasure" under the guidance of a "cavern master." This is a clear reference to the authors and their annual "Rekon" game.
  • The planet Para-Para has an underground research facility run by a shadowy military contractor whose personnel routinely sneak across the Boundary and back. There, you catch a glimpse of the man who mysteriously gave you Vanessa Chang's maps. You can have a romance here with a scientist named Dr. Peterson (no first name or sex is given). You learn that the Space Plague was bio-engineered and it was never cured; it just mysteriously stopped killing people. (It creeps me out a bit to think that in a six-player game, Dr. Peterson sleeps with every character.)
Not every planet worked for me. There's one in which the "planet" is actually the contorted body of a single creature who comes from a planet of random mutations. His mutation was to keep growing and growing beyond the ability of any planet to contain him. But even when the game shoots and misses, it never does so in a goofy way. There are moments of situational comedy, but nothing outright slapstick. Either Greenberg wasn't responsible for some of the Wizardry series' excesses or his co-authors curbed them for this project.
The game rarely offers images in the booklets. Here, you're supposed to figure out which spaceport is safe to land at based on the visible condition of the port.
There's a Big Story going on behind each character's individual quests, and I gather that it was meant to be told in a trilogy. Most of the game's exposition happens in the winning paragraphs, once you've fought your way onto Outpost, but a lot of it is hinted on individual planets, especially if you end up following the trail of Vanessa Chang.
You find Chang's ship, the Lockerbait, on Outpost. Her journal indicates that she achieved Tri-Axis technology centuries ago and used it to explore areas outside the known galaxy called the Fringe. There, they encountered a hostile race of reptilian aliens called the Clathrans. (They are clearly the same type of alien as the one who stole the Core Stone.) The Clathrans defeated, captured, and imprisoned the Lockerbait crew. The Clathrans were inexplicably repulsed by the humans, so much so that some of them had to be ordered to touch the humans even to take them prisoner. Because they were clearly out to destroy humanity, Chang's crew refused to reveal the coordinates of the Nine Worlds, even under torture. The crew eventually escaped, but was forced to leave their helmsman, John Silverbeard, behind. (He apparently escaped later, set up the defenses at Outpost to keep the Clathrans from finding Chang's ship, and then went insane and became a pirate.) The ship they stole wasn't capable of hyperspace, so they had to enter hibernation while they returned to the Nine Worlds. When they woke up and made their way slowly back home, they learned that the Space Plague--clearly the work of the Clathrans--had already devastated the home worlds. Chang came up with the plan to create the Boundary, less to prevent another Space Plague than to keep the Clathrans from finding the home worlds. She hoped that humanity would use the intervening centuries to improve its technology and be ready to face The Clathran Menace, which became the subtitle of Star Saga: Two.
Reception to Star Saga was mostly positive. In the August 1988 Computer Gaming World, William "Biff" Kritzen loved it, calling it "the most unique and well-written role-playing experience yet to appear in a computer game." He acknowledges that it would have been nice to have some combat options, but otherwise thinks that the game "stand[s] up to any human-gamemastered role-playing game on the market today," which clearly goes a bit too far. In October of the year, the magazine gave the game a "special award for literary achievement." Reviewer Gregg Keizer in the August 1988 Compute! disagrees with me, calling the game "far more a social event than a computer game" and saying that "it's lackluster without interaction." (I obviously didn't play it that way, but I still don't get it. If you follow the rules laid out in the manual, I don't see where there's much interaction.) Dragon gave it 3.5 stars in the February 1989 issue. This is low for the magazine, but the review doesn't have anything negative to say except the lack of much computer involvement in what's ostensibly a computer game.
I end my own coverage on the same sentiment. It doesn't seem to me that the authors used a computer for what a computer is good for. That someone involved in such an amazingly tactical game as Wizardry couldn't come up with a better combat system boggles the mind. Just a little probability and a few tactical choices would have enhanced the game and, even better, made better use of the technology. It seems unlikely to me that they couldn't have done it, and more likely that it simply wasn't the kind of game they were shooting for. What's left is much more "reading" than "playing." No one has posted an LP of the game on YouTube, and it would be absurd if they did.

I adjusted some of my GIMLET scores after experiencing the full game. It does best in "Game World" (7), but I was overly generous with "Character Development," "NPCs," "Encounters," "Combat" and "Equipment" the first time and ended up lowering those by a point or two. On the other hand, I was inexplicably miserly with the score of 1 that I gave to "Gameplay," particulary since the game is very nonlinear and replayable, and both the duration and difficulty are mostly on-target. I elevated the score to 6, which ended up leaving the game with its original total score of 31.
The paragraph containing the endgame text.
I rejected the second game without playing it, assuming it had the same definition problems as the first. I might revisit that decision just to see how the story continues. Unfortunately, the authors never managed to finish the third planned game in the Star Saga trilogy, so I assume it ends on a cliffhanger. (Low sales led Masterplay to sell the rights in 1990 to Cinemaware, whose re-releases of the first two games sold worse than the originals.) The Internet tells me that the second game has a few more features than the first while offering about the same amount of text. It's impressive that the authors managed to write so much in just a year.
For some reason, I didn't think to review the comments to my original entry on Star Saga until after I'd finished most of this entry. It was there that I was reminded that CRPG contributor Zenic Reverie blogged about playing the game in a series of 2012-2013 entries starting here. His blog is worth reading if you want to learn more about the specific planets and paragraphs.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Dungeon Master II: Shut the Front Door

The door to Skullkeep is open at last.
I had a good couple of sessions this week, able to fully immerse myself in the game for the first time since August, and I found myself really enjoying it. I'm going to have to start paying close attention to the depth of my own immersion when I assess the quality of games. A game designed to be immersive can only succeed if the player allows himself to be immersed. When his mind is on a dozen other things, gameplay suffers, and not for any fault of the game. The 1980s were full of games that I could half-play, fighting a combat or two between emails, or mapping a dungeon between grading papers. Tygus Horx is a great example. But as we get deeper into the 1990s, I encounter more games that I really need to save for times when I can give my attention to them fully.
This week, I finished exploring the areas outside of Skullkeep. I had mapped about two-thirds of the surrounding wilderness last time, having traveled from the original village, in the western part of the map, in a rough clockwise circle. As this session began, I was about 4 on the clock. I continued moving west, and the area that I found completed the loop by arriving at a door that I had been unable to open from the other side.
The new area held giant worms, tornadoes, and spiked balls that looked like probe droids. The tornadoes required a special spell to damage them, so I finished my exploration of the different spell combinations. Unless I screwed something up, there are 35 of them, including the DES EW spell that damages tornadoes and ghosts. I only identified about half of them, either based on something external or changes in attributes. I have a lot of notes like "everyone blinks and sparkles" and "party dances around in the formation." There are a few I don't remember from Dungeon Master, including "Invisibility" (OH EW SAR), two spells that create my own versions of the probe droids, and one that summons some kind of cloud that goes chasing after enemies. I'll keep experimenting with the unknown ones, but between "Light" (FUL), "Healing Potion" (VI), "Fireball" (FUL IR), "Damage Noncorporeal Things" (DES EW), and "Strength" (OH EW KU), I'm keeping those mana bars pretty empty already.
I don't know what this is supposed to be, but it looks futuristic.
As I fought, I began to really understand and appreciate the enemy AI. When I started the game, I just thought that enemies agitated around randomly to foil the old "combat waltz." I realized during this session that it's more complicated than that. For one thing, they dodge missile weapons and spells. For a while, I just thought they were getting lucky with random movements, but it eventually became clear to me that enemies are noticing when I'm about to throw or cast something at them, and they deliberately hustle to the side to avoid it. Giant worms dive under the ground. You have to work harder to catch them in corridors, get closer, or time your missiles to catch them as they enter a square, not while they're already in it.
I line up a DES EW to kill a spirit.
The "probe droid" enemies can pass through you and attack from behind, and unless I'm misunderstanding, you can't attack them if they're immediately adjacent. You have to hit them with one square in between. The tornadoes roam for long distances between attacks. Worms like to plunge underground to avoid not only missiles but also regular melee attacks. Only a few enemies dumbly stand in front of you and swing, and they're the sorts of enemies that you would expect to be dumb.
Eventually, I came to an area of walking trees, and their AI was perhaps the most sophisticated and diabolical of any enemy I've faced in an RPG so far. When you face them, particularly from a distance, they stand still and pretend to be a harmless forest. But turn your back to them, and they come hustling up behind you to wallop you with their branches. Brilliant. They were hard to fight, too. Although regular attacks damaged them, they seemed to have a resistance factor. It was enormously satisfying to finally kill each one and watch it explode into individual branches.
You guys aren't fooling me.
The walking trees were on the other side of a graveyard. There, I found a couple of squares that summoned ghosts every time I stepped on them. Like the tornadoes, they required the DES EW spell to damage.
I don't know who this guy is supposed to be, but a ghost spawns every time you step in front of his grave.
The trees guarded the way to a small tomb, which was another welcome surprise. Although the "outdoor" areas of Skullkeep don't truly feel like any outdoors, I've enjoyed their somewhat unpredictable patterns and the sense that anything could be around the corner, from the surprise village on the east side of the map to the tomb in the south to a shop in the middle of nowhere, just north of the tomb. Anyway, if we ignore the simple keys and buttons encountered previously, the tomb contained the first puzzles of the game. I'm not sure I solved them the right way. The entry room had half a dozen squares with a rug on the floor. Some of them opened pits that dumped me into the basement, but others were safe to cross. If there was a way to figure out which was which--perhaps using a nearby boulder--I never solved it. I just did it through trial and error and lots of walking back up the stairs from the basement.
The basement was a small area with only a couple of ghost enemies and a few pieces of armor to find in the corners. What made it annoying was that it had a series of doors that opened and closed on (as best as I could tell) a random schedule. I just had to stand there and wait. Because it was so annoying, I reloaded as often as I bothered to walk back up the stairs from the basement.
Waiting for the grate to open.
Back on the ground level, a button on the wall opened a niche that contained one of those "freeze time" boxes from the first Dungeon Master, plus a key. The box was manifestly meant to be used in the next room, where pits opened randomly in the floor--I can't be sure, but I think they may even deliberately follow the party. I decided to keep the box for later, and again spent a lot of time falling and trudging back up the stairs or reloading.
I insert a key just as a pit opens beneath the party.
Eventually, I opened a southern door with the key and found myself in a winding hallway with numerous coffins propped against the walls. Floor plates opened the coffins and released mummies, which only seemed to respond to fireballs. At the end of the corridor, a tapestry concealed another key, some money, some "guard minions" (which I guess is what I'd been calling "probes"), and a sword called "Fury."
It's been nice to see Brendan Fraser making a comeback.
The key opened the eastern door in the pit area, where I finally found the fourth part of the key to Skullkeep. It was on a table in the middle of the room, and every time I approached the table, the key fled to the other side, just out of reach. I tried moving the table and darting around it to no avail. The solution came to me when I left the table for a while to go check out the shop I'd found north of the tomb. The shop seems to buy and sell almost everything, and I made a lot of money selling the machetes dropped by skeletons (very easy enemies) in the area outside it.
I nearly bought this--and then found one a few minutes later.
The shop also sold a lot of intriguing-sounding weapons and magic items, but I was a bit paralyzed by indecision and didn't buy anything. I'll have to get over it eventually, but I'm still evaluating the many items I've picked up along the way, and I don't need more items to confuse the situation. Anyway, I realized that the table in the tomb might work the same way as the shopkeepers' tables, rotating when you place money on them. I returned to the tomb and put a gold coin on the table, and sure enough, a ghostly shopkeeper appeared, the table rotated, and I got the fourth part of the Skullkeep key.
I took the screenshot too late to catch the ghostly shopkeeper, alas.
Before I went to the tower, I decided to explore the underground area, accessible from five ladders in the northern part of the outdoor section. I had assumed they'd lead to one large, interconnected underground, but instead they led to three separate caves, none of them big enough to bother mapping. There were some bats flying around to kill for food or money (the tavernkeeper buys their corpses) and a few potions and gems to collect, but otherwise nothing significant. The bats can poison you, but that just gave me an excuse to build priest levels with curing potions.
A bat flies by as I contemplate some kind of wheel.
There were a couple of wheels and gears in one of the caves, and maybe there's some puzzle to solve here that involves the gear and vacuum fuse in the eastern village, but I didn't see anything obvious that needed doing. I left it alone for now.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • There was a moment during this session in which every character was Level 7 (Adept) in everything. Then I slowly started gaining Level 8 (Expert) in mage and fighter skills. Ninja skills are the only ones I have to deliberately grind, as I'd normally choose a weapon over punching and kicking.
  • There were fountains spraying blood in the area outside the shop north of the tomb. I found a red gem in one of them, but otherwise I don't know if there was something I was supposed to do here.
A skeleton attacks near the blood fountains. His machetes will get me 2 gold pieces.
  • What in the world is the stamina bar for? It never seems to budge.
  • I spent some time playing with the magic maps. There are two called "Magic Map," but one simply shows you the surrounding area while the other has buttons that toggle monsters and items on the map. Having the buttons active drains mana. A third is called "Scout Map," and with it you can summon a floating eyeball and send it around to have a look. I don't find any of them terribly useful--they don't show a large enough area, nor distinguish squares you've visited from ones you haven't. 
Activating the scout map.
With the four key pieces in hand, I returned to the entrance to Skullkeep and assembled them in the receptacle. With a groan and a grind, the double doors to Skullkeep opened--then promptly slammed shut the moment I crossed the threshold. There's a keyhole on the inside, and apparently I'm going to have to find a key if I want to get out. Fortunately, I filled up on food and water recently, so I think I'm in good shape. It's a little distressing to think that 15 hours of exploration has all just been a prologue, but I am having fun with the game, and I look forward to what the titular keep has to offer.
Time so far: 15 hours

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Tygus Horx: Ulandar's Big Trap

Despite the message, I'd say the dungeon consisted of a series of small traps rather than one big one.
I had hoped to wrap up Horx in one more entry, but the game seems determined to linger a bit longer than its content warrants. In this session, I explored the three levels of the Temple of Ulandar, but it appears that I'll need to explore at least two more dungeons before the end.
Like the game's first dungeon, the Temple of Ulandar consisted of three 15 x 15 levels. Their geography is slightly more interesting than the three maze levels (which, to be fair, were explicitly called "mazes"). Upon entry on Level 1, a message warns: "This is the Temple of Ulandar. His big trap lies before you. Evil creatures guard the shrine. Be careful!" Early on, the first level splits into two paths. The rightmost one takes you along the south wall and up the east wall to a large room.
Ulandar's domain, Level 1.
To get into the room, you have to answer a riddle posed by an "old person" standing in the hallway. I don't know what keeps us from just pushing past him. The riddle is: "It is colourful, and the half of a circle. You can see it, but if you wanna take it, you can't reach it." It takes some analysis of the awkward English, but the answer is (RAINBOW) (repeated at the bottom of the entry for those on a mobile browser). The author is fond of "wanna" and "gonna." My iPhone is always transcribing my "want to" and "going to" to those variants, which drives me crazy. I have never said "wanna" or "gonna" in my life.
MOON kind of works, at least some days.
Beyond the old person is a room full of traps--the kind that drain health or magic points or both with every step and turn that you make. The developer is fond of these traps, too, perhaps to add more of an element of danger since you can avoid almost all combats. In the corner of the room is a "Rainbow Star." I'm not sure what it did for me--perhaps I needed it at some crucial point later in the dungeon, and the game just didn't call attention to it.
The other path through the first level leads through a long series of 2 x 2 rooms and a series of switchback corridors to the stairs down. The rest of the dungeon has you explore most of Level 2, then go down to half of Level 3, then back up to the rest of Level 2, then back down to the rest of Level 3.
Level 2.
Level 2 introduces dark squares for the first time. In most Bard's Tale variants, dark squares aren't that hard to navigate. You just follow one wall. Here, they're a bit tougher because there's always a delay of a few seconds when the game decides it's time for combat. Since dark squares give you no feedback unless you bonk into a wall, it's thus hard to tell when the game is a) allowing you to pass through an open dark area, or b) paused while it's loading combat. I'd think I'd walked for three squares only to find I never left the original square. I had to use TEPL ("Tell Place") often to figure out where I was.
I'm either moving forward or the game is loading a combat.
Level 2 has a series of 3 x 3 rooms with a one-square room in the middle of them. Each offers a clue:
  • The first is ABLE
  • The second is FRESH
  • The third is FAR
  • The fourth is IGNOBLE
  • The fifth is RUNAWAY
It was a somewhat tough puzzle until I realized that you want to substitute in for is, at which point it becomes clear that the answer is (ARROW). I'm guessing that's an intentional obfuscation rather than a bad translation, as making those words in from the outset would make the puzzle too easy. Then again, this is the game that clued FIRE with "It is hot" and "It is red and yellow."
This password gets you through the final door in a series of concentric squares, all of which have health-sucking traps on both sides of the doors. The first half of Level 3 takes you through some random rooms and corridors to the stairway in the southwest corner. Along the way, you learn that "Illusions are made of nothing" from a random message. The remainder of Level 2 has another dark area and a square where you see a message in a blue light: "You can find me in Xe-Tje's domain."
Level 3 of Ulandar's domain.
The second half of Level 3 is almost all dark squares. A long maze through them ends in a small room in which you meet an "old man." I'm not sure if he's the same "old person" from earlier or not. "Leave this room mortals," cries the old man. "You passed my problems, but you are not able to solve my last question: To kill me!" The old man is apparently the god Ulandar. He summons 18 headhunters, 16 slaughters (not "slaughterers"), and 14 gravediggers to fight alongside him.
Killing you isn't really a "question."
The first time I reached this area, I was far too weak to even come close to defeating him. The problem is that the near-100% success of fleeing from combats means that you're encouraged to flee from all of them while you map dungeons. Otherwise, you'll just weaken yourself for no reason. But it also means you don't build up the necessary experience for the rare fixed combat. I probably erred too much on the side of avoiding combat during exploration; a player who fought occasionally-but-not-always would set himself up for less grinding later.
I reloaded from outside the dungeon and began to grind. Grinding is so mindless in this game that I began to wonder how I could write a macro to do it for me. Normally, I wouldn't countenance such a thing, but this is a somewhat minor game and I thought the puzzle posed by writing a macro was more interesting than sticking to my usual rules. I don't have macro software sophisticated enough that it can read what's on the screen--I'm not sure that even exists--so I had to find a combination of keystrokes that would: 1) produce a favorable outcome in combat no matter what enemy party composition; 2) ensure that each combat would be followed by another one; and 3) not cause anything to interrupt or otherwise screw up the sequence of combats while the party was not currently in combat.
Achieving the highest spell level.
This wouldn't be possible for some games. Imagine that inside combat, "D" defends but outside combat it opens the "Disk" menu. Using the software I have, which wouldn't be able to distinguish whether I'm in or out of combat, I wouldn't be able to use the "D" key in the macro, because once combat ended, it would just open the "Disk" menu and get stuck there (or, more likely, wreak some havoc involving the rest of the keys). Fortunately, this game didn't have any commands that posed quite that problem. With some trial and error, I discovered this sequence worked:
  • "F": If the game is on the initial encounter screen, which gives you the option to (F)ight or (R)un, this key causes you to fight. Outside of combat, or once combat is engaged, it does nothing.
  • Eight "A" keys in a row. Once combat begins, this has the first four characters (A)ttack, and then choose to attack the monsters in group A. Elsewhere, it does nothing.
  • "S" followed by "D" twice. This was a tricky one. In combat, after the first four characters have chosen to attack, I needed to cause the last two to (D)efend, since it's their only option except to cast a spell, which you can't do forever while leaving the macro running. But outside of combat, "D" loads a saved game. Thus, I had to make sure to hit "S" to save the game first (which does nothing while in combat).
  • "Y": In combat, it acknowledges your previously-selected actions and executes the combat round. Elsewhere, it does nothing.
  • <SPACE>: At the end of combat, it acknowledges the experience/gold reward screen. Elsewhere, it does nothing.
With this sequence of keys on an indefinite loop, the game automatically fought when an enemy appeared but otherwise just threw away unused keypresses when it didn't. It mostly worked. The problem is that even in the city, where enemies are weak, they get a lucky hit often enough that you still have to monitor your health. In the dungeons, you have to stop and heal often enough that it's hardly worth running the macro. Experience rewards from city combats are so low that it takes functionally hours between levels, even with the emulator and macro speed cranked. So if I wanted to get any use out of it, I had to keep it running for hours, but in a way that I could still keep half of my attention on the computer to stop characters from dying. I've been trying to spend more time on the treadmill this fall, so I had some success setting the macro running on a table next to the treadmill, but I still had to spend most of my grinding time manually grinding in dungeons.
With Level 6 in all spellcasting levels and 20 in all attributes, this character has gone as high as he can go. This screenshot is actually from a few hours after the end of this session.
Once my conjurer and magician got to Level 15, which gave them Level 6 spells, I switched them both to the other class. They rose rapidly through the first few levels of their new classes, soon significantly outclassing the rest of the characters in hit points and attributes. If you wanted to create an ultra-powerful party in this game, you'd go with all spellcasters, even though it would make the initial game difficult.

Eventually, they got to Level 15 in their new classes, at which point I rolled them over to the wizard class, which you can only do after the characters have been both conjurers and magicians. Once I had them high enough as wizards that they got Level 4 spells, I decided to try Ulandar again.
Let me pause to note that the spell list isn't terribly useful in this game. Each class only gets 11 (wizard) or 13 (conjurer and magician) spells, and a lot of them are just more powerful versions of early ones. For instance, the conjurer's 13 spells include three levels of "magic compass," three levels of "magic torch," and three levels of healing a single character. Most of the rest are simply group damage spells of varying power. Thus, once you get the highest level of spell as a conjurer, you only ever cast MATO ("Magic Torch"), MACO ("Magic Compass") and EVPO ("Evil Power"). There's supposed to be a Level 6 conjurer spell called MEAL that fully heals a character, but it doesn't work. I assume it's a typo, and the real spell is a different selection of letters, but I haven't figured it out.
The wizard's selection of 11 spells includes the game's sole resurrection spell (BALI) but is otherwise solely damage spells. The highest is MAHA ("Malu-Krli's Hammer"), which does 40-65 points of damage to a group. There are no spells that damage all opponents in all groups, unlike The Bard's Tale.
Ulandar's party. Notice I have a compass, a shield, and a torch activated.
Ulander's group still slaughtered me the first time I faced them after grinding. I had to try a few times before I realized that I needed to concentrate damage spells on one group at a time until they were gone, and that one of my two spellcasters would have to cast HEAL (heals all characters) every round. Even then, I couldn't save two of my characters. 
Worst last words ever.
At the end of the battle, the old man shouted: "Here is the second key, you fools! But you never can use it!" and died. The game then made me suffer the indignity of turning around and retracing my steps all the way back to the surface. Once there, I resurrected my dead characters, healed everyone else, restored my spell points, and sold my excess goods (even though I have millions of gold pieces now and will never run out). I then made my way to the southwest corner of the city and, in defiance of the god's dying words, used his key to go through an ornate door and gain access to a new dungeon: Xe-Tje's Domain. I assume that there I'll find another key that lets me through the door in the southeast corner of the city, where I hope I'll face the final dungeon.
Time so far: 15 hours