Monday, January 30, 2023

Game 482: Knight's Quest (1991)

Knight's Quest
United States
Independently developed; published by Softdisk (via Loadstar 128 magazine)
Released 1991 for Commodore 128
Date Started: 24 January 2023 
Date Ended: 2 February 2023
Total Hours: 6 (not won)
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 8
Ranking at Time of Posting: 14/508 (3%)
In my reviews of Spirit of Excalibur (1990) and Vengeance of Excalibur (1991), I talked a bit about my experience with Arthurian romance. It was a passion of mine while I was in college, although it had nothing to do with my degree. I probably spent more time researching the development of Arthurian legends than I spent on the studies I was paying for. 
In many ways, the typical Arthurian story is tailor-made for an RPG. Whether you're reading the romances of Chr├ętien de Troyes, like Lancelot or Yvain, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal, or the middle sections of the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate Cycles, Sir Thomas Malory, or Edmund Spenser, the stories follow a predictable pattern. There's an inciting event that causes a renowned knight to head off on a "main quest." Said quest is resolved in the end, but along the way, the knight has innumerable random adventures, often with mystical elements. Yvain meets a lion that becomes his companion. Lancelot finds a mysterious pavilion in the forest, intercedes in an act of domestic violence, or escapes a murderous woman who kills knights in their sleep. A temptress tries to get Sir Bors to break his vows of chastity. Pellinore is always after the enigmatic Questing Beast. Even Arthur gets distracted by a hunt for a giant on the way to the Roman War. And in addition to copious tournaments, knights joust with each other just about every time they meet in the field.
This game has a Questing Beast, too.
Many RPGs evoke the spirit of such legends, but Knight's Quest is perhaps the first to do it literally, with random encounters and side quests drawn directly from Arthurian sources. It appears that author Jon Mattson (a prolific Loadstar contributor who wrote Labyrinth the same year) was as much of a fan of the Arthurian stories as I was. He doesn't set the game explicitly in Arthurian Britain, but the names and themes are familiar. Quest is an independent game, and a diskmag one at that, and there are times that it can't quite meet its goals, but I love the setup and had a great time for a few hours.
This is not an option you get in a lot of CRPGs.
The game world and content are highly randomized: Mattson wanted to create something that he could enjoy playing himself, alone or with his wife--something with "indefinite replay value." Your first step in loading the game is to create a game world and name it. The setup program randomizes the terrain and the locations of cities. You then start a new game within the game world; you can have multiple games going within each world. The algorithm used to create terrain could have been more sophisticated. You mostly get a completely random allocation of grass, forest, swamp, hill, and mountain tiles. I've never written such an algorithm, but I think you'd want to give a higher probability of identical terrain occurring in adjacent squares to create larger forests, mountain ranges, and so forth.
Exploring the new land.
Character creation has you specify a name and then allocate points to seven attributes: prowess, speed, strength, health, wit, will, and charm. You start with everything at "average" ability, but you have 18 bonus points to raise the attributes to "high," "excellent," or even "prodigious." You can get more bonus points by lowering any attribute to "low," "poor," or "dismal." The role of these attributes in the game is a little ambiguous, particularly since the manual doesn't mention any of them and you don't see them once the game begins.
The fictional Chester, like the real one, gets by on wit, will, and charm.
Two players can play at once, each with a joystick and half the screen. A single player game wastes half the screen, in fact. Characters start on top of a random city with a sword, platemail, a normal shield, and between one and two dozen gold pieces. Two new attributes appear on the screen: honour and valour. Honour starts at an average level and valour at a bottom level. You must seek to improve both. Honour is like a karma meter and affects how people treat you, while valour is more like an experience level and affects your combat prowess. Each is depicted by color, with lighter colors indicating higher values.
Starting out at the city of Jagent.
Every step the character takes has a small chance of triggering an encounter. Some of the encounters I experienced include:
  • Combats with goblins, trolls, ogres, druids, duergars, brigands, wyverns, hydras, and other creatures.
  • A "crone" who turned out to be a white witch. She gave me a healing potion. But on another occasion, a crone put me to sleep for 24 hours and stole all my gold.
  • A hermit who wanted me to accompany him on a pilgrimage.
  • A dwarf who gave me 10 gold to "aid my quest."
  • Peasants who enjoyed hearing my tales.
  • A wood nymph who seduced me. I lost a couple of days.
  • A crystal pool that tempted me to drink. When I did, a water spirit attacked. In the ensuing combat, she dissolved my armor and sword and then cast a spell that made me flee. But on another occasion, a crystal pool healed all my wounds.
Note that my action is rendered in the third-person but the enemy's is rendered in the second-person.
  • A hermit who invited me to join in his prayers and healed my wounds when I did so.
  • A unicorn who healed me and inspired courage.
  • A wizard who gave me a magic sword.
  • An ogre menacing a lady. I rescued her and she agreed to be my paramour. 
Hasten this way, Aileen.
  • A beautiful lady who seduced me when I was already in a relationship with the woman above. This caused me to lose honor. 
Some random encounters lead to quests. You can also get quests in taverns in cities. These are as varied as the encounters above. They often involve combat--ogres or basilisks are menacing a town, for instance. But I also had quests to waken a sleeping maiden and find a hidden treasure in a ruin.
And this is a problem? You know how much I'd give to do nothing but sleep?
In addition to all these fun Arthurian-style encounters, the game offers another surprise: a jousting simulator. You can engage in jousting when you meet another knight or when you come to a city holding a tournament. In tournaments, you compete against 10 other knights of various experience levels. There are multiple rounds of jousting at tournaments. Sometimes, you get to select your opponents and sometimes they select you. You and your opponent charge at each other across a field, and you have to select a position to aim your lance and a complementary defensive posture. As you win jousts, you gain experience that makes future jousts easier.
I'm not sure I ever figured how to interpret those diagrams properly . . .
. . . but I didn't do so badly with the defaults.
On paper, this all sounds wonderful, and I did enjoy my time with the game, but there are a few ways in which Knight's Quest doesn't fully work. First, combat is a bit simplistic and at the same time too hard. When you encounter a potential foe, the game tells you the creature type and disposition; for instance, a goblin who looks hostile, or a mercenary who looks unsure. You have options to attack, threaten, chat, bribe, yield, flee, quaff a potion, or sheath your sword. I found that threaten, chat, and bribe almost always lead to combat with neutral or hostile foes, though friendly ones often stop for a talk, even "monsters" occasionally.
Initial encounter options.
When combat begins, each round you have options to charge, attack, defend, parley, yield, flee, quaff a potion, or sheath your sword. As in many RPGs, "Charge" is supposed to favor offense over defense; "Attack" is a balanced attack; and "Defend" favors defense. In practice, I hardly noticed any difference. Even simple foes take multiple rounds to kill, and the messages come slowly. A modern player can't really crank up the emulator because then it over-reads inputs. 
Trading blows with a wyvern.
Second, I was not fond of the all-joystick control. I understand why it was necessary, as it's hard to use a keyboard in a simultaneous two-player game, but it was still a little torturous. Everything in the game is quite slow, but increasing emulation speed just causes problems when you have to run the joystick up and down the menus and land on the right command.
The jousting simulator is a nice idea, but I couldn't make it work for me. If I didn't touch anything and just let my character charge at his foes with the default offensive and defensive posture, I had greater success than when I took control and tried to aim the lance. 
But the worst problem has to do with exploration. The game has a day/night cycle like the Ultima titles it clearly draws on for graphics. At 17:00, darkness starts closing in. By 19:00, it's pitch dark, and you can't even see the square you're standing in. You don't really want to keep traveling at that point anyway because you and your horse need to rest for 8-12 hours a day to avoid collapsing from fatigue. It starts to get light again at 06:00 and is fully light at 09:00.
Some combats have multiple foes.
Every step takes one hour. Traveling through anything but easy terrain (like grass) takes multiple steps. In practice, this means that you have to stop and sleep every dozen or so moves, which translates to roughly every 20 seconds if you don't have an encounter. That's way too often to have to go through the process of activating the menu, selecting "Rest," choosing the number of hours, and waiting for those hours to pass.

While I love the variety of encounters, they are essentially random. Whether the hermit you meet turns out to be an actual hermit or a bandit, whether the wizard is good or bad, whether the pool of water is refreshing or poisonous, comes down entirely to luck. Building your honor means doing the right thing, though, so you have to deontologically approach every non-hostile creature with open arms and then roll with the punches when they inevitably punch.
More could have been done with the map features. Cities only have three options: visit a tavern, visit a temple, and visit a shop. Shops sell replacement arms, armor, and horses for when they break, get stolen, or get destroyed. They also sell healing potions and buy excess equipment. They pretend to sell magic items but never have any in stock when you ask. Taverns cost 1 gold piece to visit and often have rumors or quests. Temples are a crapshoot: sometimes they provide healing, but other times they just ask you for a donation. 
Visiting a shop.
I'm not expecting Darklands in a diskmag game, but it would be nice if there were a few other options, like visiting the governor or king (you can't even proactively do that in the capital, although some quests lead you there), resting at an inn, and so forth. Ruins are similarly wasted. Though they dot the landscape, there's no reason to visit them unless you have a specific quest directing you there.
Character development is mostly lacking. As I mentioned above, you never see your skills again once you set them, and it's unclear if they actually play a role in the game. Increases in honour and valour are supposed to improve your combat abilities, but if this is true, the effect is very subtle.
And finally, while the game's use of color might work for some people, it's not a good interface for a colorblind player. Color tells you where you stand in honour, valour, injury, and fatigue, and there are a lot of variations here that I just can't interpret. 
I tried the two-player game for a little while. In some ways, it's an impressive bit of programming. Each player uses one joystick, and while players are moving, it really is like playing two separate games side-by-side. It even handles resting well. When one player rests, the other player can keep moving as the first player remains immobile. The problem comes when either player hits the joystick button to bring up the command list, or when either player triggers an encounter. At that point, the inactive player has to sit and twiddle his thumbs while the active one makes his decisions, fights his combat, or whatever. The manual doesn't suggest that players can meet, help each other in combat, fight, or trade equipment, so I'm not sure what the point is. (I suspect that if they both show up in the same city on tournament day, they can participate in the same jousting tournament, but it would have taken a long time, trying to control two characters at once, to confirm it.) I think I'd rather just play a regular CRPG and trade turns. When I was a kid, my friend and I used to play "until someone dies," which really added some consequence to death that I haven't experienced since except in permadeath games.
Two players can move simultaneously, but they can't do anything else simultaneously.
Some other notes:
  • Sound is limited to looping musical tracks consisting of medieval-ish public-domain tunes like "Greensleeves." It's well done, but it gets (to me) repetitive.
  • You never kill foes; you "incapacitate" them.
  • Some of the quests seem to be broken and do not trigger events when you arrive at the given destination. For instance, someone might tell you that ogres are menacing Durham, but when you get to Durham, nothing happens.
Nothing, in fact, was found in Milestone.
  • You can only have one active quest at a time. If you forfeit a quest to take another one, you lose honor.
  • Every randomly-generated map randomly chooses a city as the capital. City names are drawn from real English (or European) places and some Arthurian characters: Arden, Sherbrook, Bedigraine, Durham, Bristol, Newcastle, Stafford, Brandegoris.
You can get a featureless "map" that shows the relative positions of the character and the cities.
  • The economy is pretty tight. You can loot enemies post-combat, but hardly anyone ever has anything. Potions go quickly, and some encounters strip you of gold. If nothing else, you can build honor by donating to temples.
  • If a lady agrees to be your paramour, she'll tell you what city she lives in, and you can visit her there. She occasionally will then have news of an upcoming tournament or quest.
The latter option is only available if you have a "lady."
There is a "main quest" in the game. It's supposed to be triggered when your honour and valour rise so high that both icons are white. You then visit the ailing King Morgan and get a quest that leads you to become his heir. Unfortunately, I can't seem to reach this point because of a final problem, probably having to do with emulation rather than the original game. You can save at any point outside of combat, but I find that after a certain amount of time playing a character, the game freezes when you try to save. Even if you could avoid that, it also occasionally crashes from random keypresses.
Normally, I'd use emulator save states, but I can't get save states to work for the Commodore 128 in VICE. I couldn't get them to work for Labyrinth, either. They seem to save all right, but when I load them, nothing happens. I've tried both regular and "quick" save states, and I've tried the options that have you embed the disk and ROM with the save state, but nothing seems to work. I'm not sorry that there aren't more Commodore 128 exclusives, as I almost always have trouble with the emulation. But thanks to commenter Tristan Miller for alerting me to this game and helping me with the configuration; without him, I wouldn't have gotten this far. I'm still a little fuzzy on the distinction between PAL and NTSC and why some games only work when I have "true drive emulation" enabled, some only work when I don't, and some only work when I have it enabled on autostart but not regularly, or vice versa.
I have some options that I'm going to experiment with. (Please, I am explicitly not asking for help from anyone at this point). This is really a one-entry game, but it has enough original ideas that I want to try a bit harder and experience more of it before rating it. 


Edit from 2 February 2023: I continued playing for a few hours and tried some different versions of the disk dump, but they all had the same problems above, plus some new ones, such as quests being given for cities that did not exist on the game map. I'm going to have to call it "not winnable" except by a lucky player who never has to save and doesn't encounter any of the quest bugs. It get a relatively high 27 on the GIMLET, with 2s, 3s, and 4s in most categories except for "Graphics, Sound, and Interface," where I gave it a 1 for only modest graphics, no sound except music, and a horrid joystick interface.

Time so far: 4 hours

Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Mystic Well: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

I wonder if they have Berenstein Bears books on that plane of "existance."
The Mystic Well
United States
Jing Gameware (developer); published as shareware
Released 1990 for Atari ST
Original version c. 1990 titled Mystic Mirror
Re-released as Daymare for DOS in 1992
Date Started: 3 January 2023
Date Ended: 23 January 2023
Total Hours: 19
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 26
Ranking at Time of Posting: 243/483 (50%)
This has happened so often that it should no longer come as a surprise: An independent or low-budget developer creates a simple game with simple graphics and yet enough innovation and spirit to earn a certain amount of good will. I enjoy it for what it is for about a dozen hours, not worrying about what I could be playing instead. And then, instead of continuing along that vein to a swift and satisfying conclusion, the developer decides to become a total knob for the game's last act. Finishing the game involves impossible creatures, new and confusing mechanics, and punishment for not doing everything perfectly along the way.
The road to this inevitability picks up where I left off last time. I had explored the bottom three levels of the dungeon, which seem to exist solely to help the player grind and find new equipment--with one key exception that I nearly missed. When I wrapped up last time, I had not yet used the teleporter found next to the mystic well in the underground temple (G-3). Fortunately, I decided to clear that up before moving on. It brought me to a small area in the southeast corner of G-2 where, after dealing with the enemies, I found a "strange key." I also found a special mace called The Iron Saint. Its special ability is to heal the user. I failed to notice a slot on the floor that would have delivered some vital equipment--more in a bit.
The strange key was necessary to reach the endgame; it opens all of the doors on G+5. But it also opened the final unlocked door on the ground floor, behind which was a pair of sylvan slippers (agility +3, plus resistances), a piece of "twisted mythral," and a cornucopia, which provides unlimited food. (If it ever runs dry, I didn't experience it.) 
At this point, I could have moved forward, as I had already found the necessary ruby key on the fighter's level. But at this time, I was still committed to mapping the entire game, and even if I wasn't, I figured that as a priest, I should experience the priest's level (G+2). It was pretty easy. Unlike the other levels, it didn't really rely much on the priest's unique abilities, although it did have a certain "clerical" theme. The western half of the level was organized into small cloisters with evil clerics occupying them and treasures strewn on the floor.
An evil cleric attacks me with some kind of fire spell.
The eastern half was presented as an outdoor area, just like the starting area, with a group of four mystic wells in a central courtyard. I found a second copy of the ruby key in just about the same square as on the fighter's level.
I started to explore the rogue and wizard levels, but my interest in the game was beginning to flag. The rogue level has numerous places where the rogue needs to jump over pits or teleporters using his special ability. Other players can mimic this with the "Enchantress" dagger, which casts the "Two-Step" spell, but at the time, I was under the impression that a weapon's magical charges were limited, like in Dungeon Master. Commenters had alerted me that the "Two-Step" ability was needed on one of the upper levels, and I didn't want to run out of charges.
The rogue's level had lots of pits to jump over.
Before I move on, let me cover a number of things I discovered, either on my own or from a video I watched later:
  • Illusory walls, which are always dark, sometimes have items hidden within them. You have to pay attention to the automap and the various colors it shows.
  • Turning in gems, gold, and other valuables to the wells (it doesn't matter which one) definitely does give you experience. I leveled up a couple of times while doing so. I guess certain items offer more experience and the mythral items offer the most.
  • Some of the vials you find are special healing vials which not only fill your water meter but heal your wounds. These do not look any different than regular vials and are not named any differently. I must have left them strewn on the dungeon floors.
  • Early on Level G+5, I found a "skeleton key." I don't believe it opens a single door in the game.
  • I'd been taking up an inventory slot carrying the compass. It turns out that once you use it and the compass icon appears on the screen, you no longer need it.
  • I guess magical items never run out of "charges." They deplete your food and water meters instead. I was thus probably a bit too conservative through most of the game.
  • Some wells apparently deliver items when you click on them, including valuables that you can just feed back into the well. 
  • Those green pools that cast poison fields are beatable--they're basically green versions of the water elementals--but it takes so many hits to kill them, and their poison fields kill you so fast, that it's almost impossible. Except for one other enemy I'll mention in a bit, I think they're the hardest regular enemies in the game.
  • Vampires seem to come out of nowhere because some bats turn into vampires. That might be the coolest aspect of the game.
Moving on to G+5. It ramped up the difficulty so much that it was like playing a completely different game. The level was full of green slimes, blue dragons, blue probes, red balls of fire, and ghosts, and every one of them was capable of ranged attacks, often from so far away that I couldn't even see them. Any time I stepped into an open area, I got buzzed and blasted from four different directions and died nearly instantly.  
G+5, the last level I fully mapped.
Nonetheless, I mapped the entire thing. It took me three times as long as a normal level, and I had to make multiple trips back to the well on the ground level just to catch my breath. Upgrades included an elvin cap and a "Shield of Khan." There are a lot of items "of Khan" in the dungeon, but for the most part, they seemed to offer lesser upgrades than the "elvin" equipment. This might vary by class.
I'm getting hit by three things at once here.
The purpose of the level seemed to be to activate a pressure plate that opened the way to G+6. I have no idea where the plate was, but I must have crossed it at some point, because on one of my return trips, I noticed an open wall where there hadn't been an open wall before.
Lots of teleporters on the final level.
G+5 took so much out of me that I was no longer interested in the game. I knew from commenters that G+6 would be the last level, and I refused to even map it. I just said, "I'm going to follow the rightmost wall until I find the damned golden skull." This turned out to be a lot harder than expected, and frankly it probably would have been easier if I had mapped. In addition to teleporters, sliders, and pits, the game introduced three new elements:
  • The need to use "Two-Step" (or the Enchantress dagger) to avoid pits and teleporters and, in some places, to jump through walls.
  • Illusory walls blocked by enemies that you have to kill before you can go through them, only until you kill them, you don't know that it's not a regular wall unless you're checking the automap frequently.
  • Enemies somehow embedded in regular walls. Again, you have to study the automap to find them. You then run up to the wall and attack what looks like a wall to kill them, but you never see what kind of enemy you're fighting, you can't actually tell when they die, and I don't think you can kill them at range.
There's some enemy attacking me inside this pillar.
The level also introduced a couple of new enemies. One, a flying blob with spikes, was capable of massive damage but at least had the decency to die in a couple of hits. The worst enemy--the worst in the game by far--was this blue guy capable of casting the same poison fields as the slime puddles on the levels below. Killing these guys took multiple reloads, 10 minutes of waltzing, and every resource I could muster. 
I was exploring the final level with several weapons: the mythral sword, which I think is the most powerful weapon I had; the Iron Saint for healing; The Enchantress for the "Two-Step" ability; and Flametongue to cast fireballs. I was also carrying the cornucopia and a water skin, as the use of these magic items depleted my food and water meters fast.
The worst enemy in the game.
Slowly--hatefully slowly--I made it to the final area of the game, which was a huge twisty maze full of the worst enemies the game could muster, including a bunch of those blue jackasses. I must have reloaded 30 times trying to find the final chamber. I eventually found it across from a pillar that read: "DEATH CAN WEAR A GOLDEN SMILE." I spent a long time and another dozen reloads clearing the enemies in the area around the chamber so I could have some breathing room.
I opened the chamber. In the doorway was "Khan's Ashes"---I guess the remains of the person who'd dropped all that equipment for me. I wish the backstory had said anything about him. There was a well in the center of the chamber. In the back, flying around, was the golden skull.
Looking into the final chamber. We now know what happened to Khan. We just don't know who he was.
It took me another half dozen deaths and reloads to figure out how to even approach battle with him. Sliders kept pushing me to the south side of the room, making waltzing impossible, and he was too fast anyway. He started blasting me with spells the moment he saw me and didn't let up until I was dead. I tried hitting him with various weapons and spells, but since the game gives you no indication of enemy health or the amount of damage you're doing, I had no idea what was successful.
After a series of failures, I turned to the Internet for help. I found it in only one place: a pair of videos by a YouTuber named Stuart Lloyd. Together, they were less than 90 minutes, driving home exactly how much of my own time had been spent mapping.
The fat blue dragons are worse than the fat red ones.
I watched the entirety of the videos because Stuart was clearly an expert on the game. I learned a lot from him, including some of the bullet points above. Stuart's experience was a bit different from mine, as he was playing a fighter. But he reached the final level at about the same experience level as me. The only major thing different about his character was that he had found a sword in that little room where I found the strange key and the Iron Saint. It was hidden in a slot on the floor. The sword is simply called "Iron Sword," looking no different from a regular iron sword, but it's apparently the best weapon in the game. Enemies that were taking me a dozen hits to kill he was killing in four or five. 
I didn't feel like going back and getting that sword, even if it would have helped a priest. His video showed him defeating the skull in about a dozen hits, but he had found one of the vials that acted as a healing potion, and he stood next to the mystic well, healing when necessary in between attacks. 
The Golden Skull blasts me as I attack.
Facing two options--obstinately beat my head against the golden skull, or reload an earlier save and go get that sword and find one of those vials--I naturally chose the former. I figured if he could kill the skull in 12 hits, I could do it in 30. It took me perhaps another dozen deaths and reloads to get to 30. I had to attack him until my health was low, then waltz out of the way and use the Iron Saint to heal myself, then re-engage--and I had to do all of this using the mouse instead of a proper set of key commands. Nonetheless, I eventually succeeded and got the anticlimactic winning screen, then managed to click off of it before taking a screenshot. So the shot at the beginning of this entry is from Mr. Lloyd's video. You'll just have to trust me.
You can keep playing the game after killing the skull. Lloyd does for another 10 minutes, using a "Teleport" spell (which I never found) to return to the opening area. I was surrounded by hostile enemies whose leader I just killed, so I decided to shut it down there.
  • 1 point for a bare-bones game world. This game definitely needed more of a backstory. It wouldn't have been hard to write one. I have no idea why the documentation is so sparse.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. There isn't anything original to the attributes and classes, but the author does a good job giving the classes different strengths and weaknesses (and fundamentally different games), and character development is well-paced and rewarding.

  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. I can't complain that the game's bestiary isn't varied or challenging. I just wish the enemies had names and there were some non-combat encounters. I gave a point for a few Dungeon Master-like puzzles, but Well's approach to puzzles is pretty shallow compared to Dungeon Master.
I think the button count in this game was three: two on the first level and one on the last.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I can't give much to what amounts to just swinging away, although I allot some credit for the magic items inherent in items and in the wizard class.
  • 4 points for equipment. The equipment system is a relatively strong part of the game (excepting the limited inventory). Statistics make it easy to determine what armor items are best, and I like that you have to experiment with some items to find their uses. On the other hand, the game is a bit too obtuse in the areas of relative weapon damage, and I don't like that items with the same names have different powers.
It's possible that I found rubescent pants on a previous level, not "pubescent" ones.
  • 2 points for the economy. It's not a classic game economy, but scrounging treasure does offer an opportunity for some character development.
  • 3 points for a main quest with some additional credit for the class-based floors that offer multiple paths to the mid-game.
Can't argue with that logic!
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are at least functional, and there are some basic sound effects. The automap deserves a little credit. But I can never countenance an all-mouse interface, and the game skimps too much in some other areas. For instance, you can't see missiles or ranged attacks in transit (except, oddly, for fireballs).
  • 4 points for gameplay. I give it credit for nonlinearity and some replayability (with the different classes), but the levels are too big, the game is too long, and the difficulty ramps up too much towards the end.
That gives us a final score of 26. When I first started playing, I thought it might make my "recommended" threshold, but the only way a game of such limited content could do that is to offer a more detailed story and balance itself better in the "gameplay" categories. Still, there's more to recommend here than the game suggested at first glance.
I spent a little time with the Daymare DOS remake. The changes are mostly unwelcome. The different experiences of the different classes is one of the few things Well had going for it, so it's a mystery why the author decided to do away with the classes and make every character a generic adventurer. Spells are cast by stringing together combinations of eight runes like in Dungeon Master. You don't have to have the spellbooks in hand to do so, making the books themselves more like Dungeon Master's instruction scrolls. The maps seem to be the same, although some of the objects have been replaced. In particular, blank scrolls now have specific spells on them.
The runes for the "Softens" spell (the use of which I never figured out) are shown with its name.
The signs leading up to the first four levels are unchanged. I'm curious how the rogue level works since the ability to jump doesn't seem to exist (I could be wrong; the version I downloaded comes with no instructions of any kind), but I wasn't willing to play long enough to find the necessary keys. The one good addition is a "Strike" statistic that tells you how much damage your attack has done. There also seems to be an encumbrance statistic; it's possible this played a role in Well and I just didn't realize it. There were times my food and water meters seemed to deplete faster than others.
Author Jim Todd followed up with Daymare 2 in 1993, which I've added to the list. His web site shows that his latest game is a multiplayer dungeon crawler called Myriad Maze (2022) which "features a unique loot and inventory system combined with a real POW cryptocurrency backed commodity" (his other major project is a cryptocurrency called Myriadcoin). Suddenly 2022 seems too close.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Dungeons of the Unforgiven: Won! (One Module; with Summary and Rating)

The closest thing we get to a "winning screen" in Module I.
Dungeons of the Unforgiven
United States
Moraffware (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS
Date Started: 10 January 2023
Date Ended: 20 January 2023
Total Hours: 7 (1.5 modules out of 5)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 29
Ranking at Time of Posting: 290/483 (60%)
Dungeons is halfway between a second version of Moraff's World (1991) and an actual sequel. This first-person, tiled game has you wandering a series of dungeons with town levels on top, slaying monsters, gaining experience, finding wealth, acquiring spells, and getting more powerful. "Boss" enemies occur at regular intervals, and slaying the deepest boss is the key to "winning" each of five modules. There's a certain enjoyment that comes from improving the character, but that's all the game offers. There is no story, no lore, no NPCs, no special encounters, no role-playing, and nothing to find in the randomly-generated dungeon levels except for enemies. The interface and graphics are unusual and clearly polarizing. The interface is highly customizable and the automap works quite well.
Well, I did what I set out to do, which was to "win" the first module. It took me about four hours after the first session, and most of that was spent grinding so I could make enough money to afford a room at the inn. Although I donated copiously to "save a child" at the temples--which did ultimately earn me a hefty discount--the cost of rooms continued to rise exponentially, forcing me to lower dungeon levels and their higher rewards. Fortunately, I was gaining experience at the same time I was gaining money, and when I rested, I rose multiple levels. One night took me from Level 7 to Level 12.
Leveling up is only one means of character development. As you slay enemies, you often encounter books that raise your attributes, "puff balls" that have a chance of raising or lowering your attributes, and potions that give you, say, 6 points in one attribute in exchange for 3 points of another.
A book gives me two points of strength.
Most important, you acquire spells. The problem for my mage (remember, in this game, a "mage" is a fighter/wizard) is that I never had enough spell points where I could feel comfortable casting spells regularly. Except for occasional restorations of 1 point when you find a post-combat energy ball, spell points only increase when you rest. This is in contrast to hit points, which you can pay 500 rubles to restore at temples. This amount does not increase with levels and soon becomes trivial.
Instead of writing an entry, I just want to show all the game's monster portraits. I thought this one was pretty rad.
Thus, although I found about four dozen spells, I only ever cast about eight of them. Primarily, these were healing spells ("Little Cure," "Big Cure," and ultimately "Heal All Wounds"), "Cure Disease," "Cure Poison," and a couple of combat spells. In particular, I found that "Power Weapon" (which has several levels) was the most valuable combat spell for me. It lasted 60 turns and increased the damage that I did by a factor of at least 8. I used it for all the boss battles after the second one, which probably allowed me to win them at a lower level than I otherwise should have been able to achieve.
If I had some spell points left over after slaying a boss, I might cast "Ascend" and later "Major Ascend" (sends you up 10 levels) to help get back to town. Finding your way down is relatively easy in this game, particularly with all the hidden chutes, but getting back up can be a chore. I only ever found one trap door key and then never found an associated trap door.
I hope they don't Google how to do that.
None of this is a complaint. My giant mage was a powerful fighter, and if my limited spell points forced me to conserve, that's what being a hybrid character is all about. I'm sure the pure spellcasters can let loose more with magic. One good thing about Dungeons is how different the experience is for different classes. If I liked the game more, I'd stick with it out of curiosity and see how fighters possibly get by without magic, or how monks get by without weapons and armor. I'd love some reports from the field about these things.
I defeated the shadow gargalon during the first session, on Level 5. In this one, I defeated the shadow elemental on Level 10, the shadow vulture on Level 15, and ultimately the shadow demon queen on Level 20. I don't believe there are any down ladders on Level 20, but you can still generate new random levels by using the "Descend" spell. Finding the bosses was perhaps the hardest part of the game. When you reach their levels, the automap tells you roughly what direction to go, but the levels consist of unconnected parts. You often have to move up or down to reach a new area of the level that you really want to be on. Some ladders move you more than one level at a time, though, and there are the ever-persistent hidden chutes. It can be a struggle just to remain on the boss's level, let alone find him or her.
This message was never not annoying.
The enemies continued to be memorably drawn. Whether you think the artwork style is good or bad, you have to admit it's unique. Levels 16-20 were all water levels, and many of the enemies were depicted in boats, such as the "couple from hell": a chainmail bikini-clad woman with a spear and a Charon-like figure rowing her along. A "she-demon" is a two-headed, four-armed woman. I thought the skeletal vultures of Levels 11-15 were appropriately terrifying.
I guarantee this is the only game to feature this type of enemy.
Some enemies are capable of draining levels. I persist in believing that should be a punishable crime. Walking garbage cans and giant balls have incredible numbers of hit points but do not deliver commensurate money or experience. In the last entry, I forgot to mention the walking flasks full of disease or poison.
Honestly . . .
Each boss dropped a special treasure. The shadow elemental dropped Moraff's Ring of Wisdom, which increased my wisdom by 12 points. The shadow vulture dropped a "very rare bottle of Pogerstead's Milk," which increased my strength by 12. The shadow demon queen dropped a "Wimpy Orb of Armor Enhancement," which turned my field plate into +25 magical armor.
The contrast between the graphics for the shadow vulture and walking trash can really say all that needs to be said about this game.
There was no "winning screen" after killing the shadow demon queen, just a message that I should "explore the other vast dungeons of the unforgiven" to find more treasures. After I returned to the town and stayed at the inn to get my character to Level 18, he was 66 years old (from an initial 35, I think). It was all I could do to afford the inn, let alone the "culture stock" necessary to avoid aging. (Oddly, my spell points fully restored every time I stayed, even when I didn't have as many magic  crystals as the game said I needed.) Even if I could have afforded it, the game ages you quickly while you're just exploring. Some of the dungeon expeditions lasted five years. 
If something existed in real life that prevented you from aging while you were sleeping, I'd rob banks to pay for it.
Although the game has no real story, there is a certain amount of joy in just getting more powerful, and I was feeling it after reaching Level 18. So I took a portal to Module II and started exploring those levels. I found that they were maybe 1.5 times as hard as comparable levels in Module I. In Module II, bosses were found every 10 levels instead of every 5. I defeated the shadow troggisher on Level 10 (I got +9 body armor) and the shadow giant worm on Level 20 (+12 gauntlet).
Killing the second boss of Module II.
By this point, I started wondering what I was doing with my life. I decided to see if I could get to Module V just to check it out. I took a portal to Module III. I had no spell points by this time, so I started searching for an inn. I took the stairs down to Level 2 to reach a new area of the town level, but then I fell down a chute to Level 3. It dumped me in a 3 x 3 square from which there was no exit--no ladders or secret doors. I didn't have enough spell points to cast "Ascend" or "Descend." I was stuck. I should have killed the emulator, but I dumbly hit "Quit" and saved there. So that's the ignominious end of Chester the Giant Mage. [Ed. After I typed all of this, I remembered the T)unnel option. Oh, well.]
I hate it when walls refuse to move.
In a GIMLET, I give the game:
  • 0 points for the game world. I'm not going to countenance that nonsense about "Eart."
Maybe he could have at least named the worlds instead of calling them "Module I" and "Module II"?
  • 5 points for character creation and development. There's a very interesting set of classes, creating a very different game depending on the player's choice. There are several satisfying, rewarding ways to develop.
  • 0 points for NPC interaction. There are no NPCs.
My mid-game character sheet.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The enemies are originally-named and graphically-memorable but otherwise don't behave differently enough for more credit here. There are no special encounters that involve role-playing.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. Magic gets almost all of that credit. One of the game's strengths is the large number of spells and the uniqueness of the "permanent" spell system. 
The graphic for this "squishy cube" is the most confusing thing I've ever seen in my life.
  • 2 points for equipment. For a game that's all about mechanics, the equipment system is curiously under-developed. One weapon and one armor item are really all you have. Everything else that sounds like equipment (like the gauntlets mentioned above) aren't actually visible in the game or on your character; they just add directly to your attributes.
  • 4 points for the economy. You never run out of reasons to collect money, but the system is otherwise simplistic. Having the player find "American dollars" and then having to convert them to "rubles" before spending them adds nothing to the experience.
  • 1 point for quests. There's no real "main quest," and the kill-the-shadow-bosses nature of the modules becomes repetitive.
Nothing breaks the immersion faster than having a character, in-game, refer to his world as "Module III."
  • 4 points for graphics, sound and interface. I like the graphics; sorry to those who don't. There is no sound, however. A good interface allows mouse and keyboard options and the keyboard is easy to master. Great automap.
  • 5 points for gameplay. It's highly replayable with different character choices, and pitched at the right level of difficulty for a permadeath game.
That gives us a final score of 29, which falls below my "recommended" threshold, mostly because there's no real point to the game. Given how much time he spent on a customizable interface, I don't understand why Steve Moraff didn't invest more in content. Even an Akalabeth-like king at the top of the dungeon issuing quests to kill this and that would have given the game some purpose. How hard would it have been to throw in a sensible story and maybe some wandering NPCs in the dungeon? Like Moraff's World, Dungeons is an engine in want of content.
I finally get some respect from the little snake.
This, as far as I know, was Moraff's last attempt at an RPG. He was still selling it when I wrote my review of Moraff's Revenge (1988) in 2011, but his company--which changed its name to Software Diversions in 2004--seems to have enjoyed more success with its arcade and electronic board games. His web site still sells a series of mah-jongg variants first created in 1992.