Thursday, March 16, 2023

Antepenult: Worlds of Labyrinths

Ctesios sets me on a three-hour quest to map the entire level.
Any old school CRPG player has had this experience in one game or another. You start creating a map of a dungeon, and before long you have something like this:
By this time, you're nodding smugly as you make the map. "A classic 20 x 20 layout," you think. "I'll be done with this in time for--." Your thoughts cut off as you frown. There's an open corridor heading east. But it seemed so clear that you were going up the eastern border! Five minutes later, you have this:
"Wow!' You think. "That was unexpected. But clearly now, I've got the basic dimensions established. Wait . . ." You notice an unexpected gap in the south wall. And so on. Before you know it, it's three o'clock in the morning and you have this:
That is the actual map of the appropriately-named labyrinth in the city of Cnossos. We'll talk in a bit about how it's even more frustrating than it looks. For now, it's a good metaphor for Antepenult itself. I started the game thinking it would be a quick Ultima clone, probably confined to one continent, winnable in a few hours. Then I heard about other worlds, but I thought they might just be other continents on the same map. Then it became clear that they really were other worlds entirely--and there are more than just three of them. In every world, I learned about new game mechanics--writs, runes, marks, a four-part key. Every time I get to a point that I think I can put a fence around Antepenult, it turns out that what I thought was a border is actually a frontier. I still like it, but man is it making me work.
To recap: the game begins on the continent of Havilah, which is ruled by King Hypnos. Hypnos's brother, Sylvan, ruled the western part of the continent, but his castle (Pergamum) was recently destroyed by a daemon that now threatens the entire world. Learning how to defeat the daemon has taken me from Havilah to the underworld of Tartarus and the lost kingdom of Atlantis, and will soon take me to the realms of Aetheria and Gehenna. Each realm has multiple castles, towns, villages, and dungeons, each with NPCs that offer a bit more assistance and lore. 
NPCs include seahorses sometimes.
This long session started with revisiting all the locations I'd already visited. Thinking that the game was short and likely to be over quickly, I hadn't taken very good notes. But I had assembled a list of keywords that seemed vital to plot progression: MARK, KEY, WRIT, COIN, DAGGER, GOLD, SILVER, AIR, EARTH, FIRE, WATER, MAGIC, DAEMON. Running through all these prompts with every NPC probably got me some information before I was supposed to have it, but as I reported last time, the game keeps you honest by having a lot of NPCs ask, "Who sent you?" Still, sometimes I could skip a step. For instance, Tertullian tells you to ask Astyanax about the Writ of Cure. I can't find Astyanax. But I'm prompting every NPC with those keywords, and one of them suddenly says, "Who told you to come to me?" I try ASTYANAX. This works, and I'm able to skip a step in the chain. In this case, I eventually found Astyanax anyway.
From what I can tell, the following items are necessary to win the game, although I don't know why some of them are necessary:
  • Four runes: gold, silver, copper, platinum.
  • Four marks: air, earth, fire, and water.
  • Four parts of a key: also air, earth, fire, and water.
Another Ultima parallel.
  • A silver coin to pay Charon to cross the River Styx.
  • A golden dagger to kill the demon.
  • The wheel of the H.M.S. Cape to reach Atlantis.
  • Writs of Cure, Heal, Kill, Open, and Unstone. Some of these might not be strictly necessary, just helpful.
For each of these items, generally one NPC introduces the quest and then sets you along a long path towards solving it. For instance, here's the chain of contacts necessary for the Mark of Water:
  • Atlantis: King Neptune introduces the topic and says to ask Cythera.
  • Atlantis: Cythera the seahorse in Castle Poseidon says to ask Iolcos
  • Atlantis: Iolcos in the Castle Poseidon mess hall says to ask for Thon in the Sidon pub.
  • Atlantis: Bartender in Sidos warns you not to say MARK to Thon; instead, just tell him who sent you.
  • Atlantis: Thon in Sidos attacks when you ask of the MARK. If you instead say IOLCOS, Thon tells you to ask Ctesios in the Imperial Dungeon.
  • Tartarus: Ctesios in the dungeon of Imperium tells you that it's through a door in another cell but doesn't tell you which.
  • Tartarus: You eventually find a secret door in the troll cell that takes you to the dungeon Hydor.
  • Hydor: In a fire patch on the ninth level, you find the Mark of Water.
I had gone through most of these steps before, though I thought the "imperial dungeon" must be in Atlantis because that's where I got the hint. I spent forever trying to find a dungeon in Castle Poseidon, even mapping the damned thing. As a byproduct of this search, I found a secret exit out the back door, which led to a ship that I could sail along the island's inland lake to another town called Cove. That's where I found both Astyanax and a bunch of force fields in concentric squares that led to a single fire square in the middle. I naturally searched this square and found one of the parts of the four-part key, which was the first time I'd heard anything about a "four-part key."
As for the runes, I'd found three of them last time. This time, I followed the trail to the fourth. The beggar Axylos said it was hidden in the mayor's chamber in Laodicea. I had to find my way into the chamber via a secret door in the town jail. When I spoke to the mayor, he confirmed that the rune was underneath where he was sitting, but he refused to budge.
We can work with that.
I knew if I killed him, I'd have guards all over me, so I did the only logical thing: I picked off the guards one by one from the safety of my boat, then killed the mayor, got the rune, and looted his treasury. It wouldn't be an Ultima clone if the character had any regard for the lives of guards.
Ultima clone guards are always weak to ranged weapons.
A few other notes from my re-explorations. 
  • There was some talk in my first entry that the author may have a Christian bent. A lot of the place and person names are biblical, and when you use the Writs, the game offers a passage from scripture. This isn't a criticism or anything; it's not like the game beats you over the head with it. It does have a potentially-interesting implication for the magic system, though. See below.
Matthew 10:1.
  • In re-exploring Atlantis, I found a second unnamed village that I'd overlooked the first time. Like the first village, it had a lot of unnamed clerics meditating. Also like the first village, it had a secret door leading to a cleric selling a writ--this time the Writ of Heal.
  • About the Writs: They appear to be multi-use spells. The Writ of Cure cures poison and the Writ of Heal heals around 600 hit points. The latter, in particular, would seem to make the game too easy, but frankly combat has been pretty trivial for a while now. It's possible that the author intended combat to only be an early-game challenge, and for the game to become more of a pure adventure game in the latter stages. But it's also possible that the writs disappear after a certain number of uses.
Again, this seems like a bargain.
  • The green sea in Tartarus is actually poisonous. I didn't notice it last time because I had arrived on the continent already poisoned.
  • I finished this session at Level 23. My stats maxed out at 99 by Level 18, but my maximum hit points have continued to increase.
I re-explored Havilah first and Atlantis second. By the time I left Atlantis, I was particularly eager to go to Tartarus again. In re-reading the dialogue with the seahorse named Cythera, I realized that she said: "If thou hadst the mark, thou wouldst not need that ship!" This suggested two things: first, having the Mark of Water would let me travel on water without a ship, which would let me visit places unreachable by ship in shallow waters; second, the corresponding Mark of Air is probably the solution to traveling through the clouds (which I had misidentified as ice) in Aetheria.
When I entered Castle Imperium with 99 keys--its dungeon has about 60 locked doors--I only had clues about the Mark of Water. It turns out that all four marks are found in dungeons accessible from the lower level of Imperium. Each is behind a secret door, and it took forever to find all of them. I had to map the entire level, and even then they were hard to find because two of them jut off into space that doesn't look like it should be part of the level. Fortunately, there are NPCs who offer some hints.
My map of the Imperium prison.
There was one oddity, though. Two of my hints had directed me to the cell of the prisoner Aloeus. I never found a prisoner by that name. When I used his name with the guards, they directed me to a particular cell--but the cell was occupied by an eight-pack of the toughest monsters in the game (dragon, balron, gazer, etc.).
Maybe this was supposed to be a joke on the part of the guards, but one of my Aloeus hints was that he would teach me "Magic Missile." I had speculated last time that it might work like one of the writs, as a (Y)oose-able object. However, a bard in Atlantis lectured me that "magic and witchcraft are evil things used only by evil creatures," that my quest would be doomed if I didn't believe him, and that I should use holy writs instead. So maybe it was always intended to be a dead-end to reinforce this lesson. Those who go seeking magic are attacked by demons or whatever.
What is this, Thedas?
Exploring the dungeons took a while. Dungeons in this game aren't very interesting, just long. Each level consists of multiple unconnected segments with up and down ladders. You could map them, but it would be a waste of time. You just have to keep trying different ladders until you eventually get where you want to go, which is almost always the bottom level of the dungeon. Getting from Level 1 to Level 9 might look like this: down, down, up, down, down, up, up, up, down, up, down, down, up, down, up, up, down, down, down, up, down, down. Then you find what you're searching for and you have to retrace your way back to the surface.
The gem view shows the same level repeating the same way that Ultima IV does.
Doing this four times from a single base map sucked because every time I returned to the Imperium prison, all of the doors were locked again and all of the enemies were alive again. Generally, the game doesn't remember what you do in city and town maps. I found one exception, though: a ladder from the Imperium prison goes directly into the treasure chambers of King Minos. If you steal all the treasure and head down into the prison, then go back up to the castle, the guards remember what you've done. This isn't survivable.
To be fair, they warned us.
An NPC in the aforementioned treasure chamber told me that one of the parts of the four-part key was in the dungeon Typhlon. I'd explored it before and found nothing, but he told me where I could find a hidden door. So I grabbed that while I was in Tartarus.
It's nice to have explicit instructions.
A resistance fighter in Imperium had suggested that I'd do the world a favor by killing King Minos. I tried that, but all it did was get me attacked by guards. The fighter didn't acknowledge the assassination, and Minos was alive again when I returned to the castle.
I finished my time in Tartarus by trying again to find Theseus and the Minotaur in Cnossos. I had explored the Labyrinth last session and found nothing, but it turns out I had only explored a tiny part of it on one side of a secret door. This time, I decided to map the maze, and I found two secret doors that led to the hugely expansive map that you saw earlier in the entry. Unfortunately, I still couldn't find the Minotaur despite hitting every wall that could possibly have a secret door. There must be some other trick that I'm missing. When I fed the DAGGER keyword to Ariadne, she told me that the Minotaur guards the golden dagger that I need to kill the daemon. This was the first I'd heard of that, so I assume I'll get more hints about the Labyrinth somewhere else.
But I'm burying the lede: with the four marks in my possession, I can do a bunch of cool new things. I can stand in fire without taking any damage. I can travel effortlessly over water with no boat. I can sail through the clouds that block my entrance to Aetheria. And I can move through certain fields that were obstacles before. This includes lava, though the Mark of Fire doesn't stop me from taking damage from it. Slowly removing fetters on movement is an important mechanic for any Ultima clone, and Antepenult hits the right beats in this regard.
With my new marks, I can cross lava and water--on a horse.
The first thing I did with my new powers was to visit the air demon in Castle Chryse. His name was Kindynos, and like all the others, he just threatened me. 
I hope the game eventually explains what these demons are doing in the castle in the first place.
Second, I went up the river of lava into the volcano near Pergamum and found an entrance to a dungeon called Skotos. I explored it for a while and couldn't find anything, but I suspect I'll get a hint somewhere about what to do there.
Back in Atlantis, my Mark of Water let me explore an area of shallow water to the southeast, but I just found a bunch of shipwrecked boats, not the entrance to the underworld that I expected. So I took the only option left to me: the moongate to Aetheria. It appears this land will be a bunch of clouds interconnected by moongates. 
A walk in the clouds.
Antepenult is edging towards "too long," and I hope to win it next time. I got a little annoyed this session as to how much progress came down to finding secret doors--in a game that discourages you from searching for them by making you wait five seconds every time you bump into a wall. On the other hand, when there is a secret door, you almost always have a clue, if you're patient enough to wait for it. I look forward to seeing how it wraps up.
Time so far: 25 hours


  1. "Guards are always weak to ranged weapons." - Perhaps you could say it's their Achilles' knee.

    1. Perhaps they were used to be adventurers before they took an arrow in the knee?

    2. It's Achilles heel, by the way, get your Greek together ;)

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I thought "Achilles' knee" was done on purpose to evoke the meme Vickers refers to.

  2. I know earlier Ultima games also do this, but I find it rather funny how often this game displays SLOW PROGRESS! in all caps as if this was a HIGHLY IMPORTANT WARNING!

  3. Wow... this game IS long and has a lot of neat mechanics, such as the four marks allowing passage over their corresponding element. No wonder it was touted as the webmaster's favourite game on that one website you found it on. I especially like how the water travel is in "tiers" - first a ship, then being able to just walk on it.

    You know, speaking of Christianity, I wonder if that walking on water thing is gonna be tied into it.

    1. I'm getting a more old testament vibe from the "holy writ" theme.

  4. The bard's job is singing of magic even though he then tells you magic is an evil thing?

    And yes, this mapping experience sounds familiar, even if maybe not always to that extreme. Though mapping 'Secret of the Silver Blades' felt a bit like this after having been used to the 16x16 maps of PoR and CotAB.

  5. Thon is the name of a well-known former German football ('soccer') player who was active when DM was still the country's currency. When you say 'Mark' to him, he probably thinks you want money and that's why he reacts aggressively ;-).

    1. Oh, good lead there! Thon was a sweeper, a defenisve position notable for not requiring one to ‘mark’ specific opposing players. Maybe that’s why he gets mad at you for asking him to mark :p

    2. Or he thinks you're mistaking him for Mark Hughes (who just left the Bayern team when he arrived - not too much of a physical resemblance there, though) and that annoys him: "It's Olaf!"

  6. I read an interview with the indie musician Sufjan Steven's a few years ago regarding his thoughts on contemporary Christian pop culture and why so much of it is lousy (Stevens is a Christian, but he doesn't make 'Christian music'). The gist of his response was that it's more concerned with message than medium, so what you tend to get is an imitation of something that's already popular with all of the joy sucked out of it. It looks Lord Hypnos's little creation, while derivative of something that was already popular, at least remembers that a game actually needs to be fun. This has been an interesting series of posts.

  7. Very few games keep surprising you by generating more content or depth when you feel you have seen everything, even among recent releases. Kudos to the designer !

    1. It's a great and interesting game to read about, but I think if I had played and mapped my way through that labyrinth myself, my impressions would have been less favourable.

    2. As you'll see next time, you don't have to. It's just one of many ways that the game screws with players who get ahead of themselves.

  8. Dunno if that's a coincidence, but in the screenshot where you got the healing Writ, the layout of the room resembles a cross.

  9. This game is quite a find. Clearly a lot of thought was put into it.

  10. What a fascinating little... ehm, large gem.

  11. Sorry for being a nitpicker but your combination of ups and downs brings you only 4 levels lower, not 8, if my math is correct. ;)


I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters. I will delete comments containing profanity on a case-by-case basis.

3. NO ANONYMOUS COMMENTS. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. If you don't want to log in to Google to comment, either a) choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank, or b) sign your anonymous comment with a preferred user name in the text of the comment itself.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

5. Comments on my blog are not a place for slurs against any race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or mental or physical disability. I will delete these on a case-by-case basis depending on my interpretation of what constitutes a "slur."

Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

I read all comments, no matter how old the entry. So do many of my subscribers. Reader comments on "old" games continue to supplement our understanding of them. As such, all comment threads on this blog are live and active unless I specifically turn them off. There is no such thing as "necro-posting" on this blog, and thus no need to use that term.

I will delete any comments that simply point out typos. If you want to use the commenting system to alert me to them, great, I appreciate it, but there's no reason to leave such comments preserved for posterity.

I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.