Saturday, April 15, 2023

BRIEF: Ackroyd's Saga (1988)

Ackroyd's Saga
United Kingdom
Published as type-in code in the January 1988 issue of Your Commodore magazine from Argus Press
Released 1988 for Commodore 64
Rejected for: No RPG elements
Tagging this game as an RPG, as GameBase64 does, is absurd, but I thought I'd blog about it anyway, because as I started the game, I thought, "This is the first attempt that I know to fuse educational material with even pseudo-RPG elements." Then, after I got this entry mostly written, I remembered Bugs and Drugs (1978), which was an actual RPG. You're getting this entry anyway, because I wrote a bunch and I don't want to waste the material.
Written by Allen and Margaret Webb and published in the January 1989 edition of Your Commodore (a British magazine), the game takes the player on a journey to defeat the King Ackroyd ("the usual evil king") by finding four parts of a key and taking them to the entrance of Ackroyd's castle.
You begin by setting a difficulty on a scale of 1 ("Easy") to 5 ("Hard"). You then select a primary and secondary weapon from a short list.
This is a meaningless choice.
The game begins with your Goofy Cartoonish Little Man (a rare example of a GCLM in a Western game) in a forest in what turns out to be the upper-left corner of a 9 x 12 game world. That means the game has 108 screens. You might as well get used to that kind of math.
Starting out. No matter what you chose, your character icon has an axe.
As you explore the game world, you encounter 11 monsters in fixed locations: ghost, soldier, blob, snake, zombie, whirlwind, eagle, phoenix, enchanted fire, gnome, and mystic cloud. "Combat" with each of them involves correctly answering either three or five multiplication problems from 0 x 0 to 12 x 12. There are thus 91 potential pairs and 169 potential problems. You have a limited time to type in the answer to each problem, which is the only thing affected by your choice of difficulty level. If you get the majority of the answers correct, the enemy pops out of existence.
There is no "answer." Just more questions.
I know my multiplication tables, but rating this "very easy" isn't some kind of flex. The consequence for getting the majority wrong, or timing out, is getting knocked back a square, from which you can immediately try again.
You may be wondering what roles the chosen weapons play in the game. The answer is that your choice affects what graphics show up in the upper-left corner.
Key parts are scattered across the map, but in fixed locations (everything in the game is fixed except the specific problems you get). I had trouble finding the fourth, so I took the time to make a map of the game.
The authors really should have added a few more columns for thematic symmetry.
Once you find all four key parts, you take them to the entrance to the castle in the southeast. They automatically come together and you get your final score. It's a little disappointing that there isn't a climactic, seven-problem battle with Ackroyd himself. 
Why wouldn't you make the number of monsters an even 12?
So Acroyd's Saga is not an RPG and not a terribly enjoyable game, but it does raise some interesting thoughts. The entire action RPG genre is made up of games for which success is a combination of RPG-style probabilities and the player's manual dexterity. Why is there no genre for which success is a combination of RPG-style probabilities and the player's mental dexterity? The problem with Ackroyd's Saga is not that combat includes multiplication tables; it's that it only includes multiplication tables. The way to improve it, and make the game a bit more of an RPG, is to make it so the player's answers improve the probability of combat success instead of making it inevitable. Then make the rest come down to the usual RPG variables.
The counterargument is that RPGs already have a mental component in that the player has to juggle a bunch of different statistics. After all, figuring out if you want a weapon that does 3d6 damage or a weapon that does 2d8 damage requires multiplication. Determining success in a standard D&D battle requires a bit of algebra. But the game does most of the heavy lifting for you in either event.
A good RPG could make the math problems organic. Mixing potions, balancing spell reagents, targeting a trebuchet, crossbow, or sniper rifle, building a tower, and feeding an army all involve loads of math. Are there any games that require it? I'm honestly asking.
This piece of the key looks like someone praying in the sand.
Math isn't the only skill that could be taught in an RPG environment. There are plenty of opportunities to organically involve language, geography, history, literature, psychology, and hard sciences like chemistry, biology, and physics. If I say nothing else, readers will flood the comments section with plenty of examples of games that do seem to require such knowledge; indeed, we had a recent discussion of this topic in the context of having to know a little Latin in Antepenult. We have also seen plenty of examples of things we've all learned as a side-effect from playing RPGs. What I'm talking about is different: an RPG that's designed to explicitly teach a skill as part of the regular mechanics. 
MobyGames has cataloged 4,567 games in the "educational" genre, including:
  • 396 educational/action combinations
  • 480 educational/adventure combinations
  • 492 educational/simulation combinations
  • 221 educational/strategy combinations
There are only 22 educational/RPG combinations. The oldest is the lost Educational Dungeon (1979). The next is a Japanese-only game called 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinkaron (1990), which seems to teach natural selection. The next chance I'll have is Dare, Bluff, or Die (1994), which purports to teach the history and culture of various peoples to populate the American West. After that, it's eight years until the next one. (I allow, of course, that MobyGames may have missed or mis-categorized some games.) What is it about RPGs that makes them so underserved as educational hybrids?
A couple further thoughts on Ackroyd. First, it seems to me that it would have been a trivial matter of programming to allow the player to enter the minimum and maximum values for the digits used in the problems. I've always been annoyed that they stopped us at 12 in grade school. (I didn't know until playing this game that 12 was the standard in the U.K., too.) I worked my way through college as a security guard. This was well before mobile phones, and I wasn't allowed to have a book or any other entertainment at some of my posts. To take the edge off the boredom, I decided to memorize more multiples. I got up to around 20 x 20, and I think squares up to 50 x 50, but never to the same level of instantaneous recall as those first 12. Anyway, such customization would have expanded my enjoyment of the game.
I wish I knew why the authors called it Ackroyd's Saga. I can only imagine they named it after someone they knew. I'm not sure why they wouldn't have chosen a title that better reflects the nature of the gameplay, like Sword of Pythagoras or Medieval Times. In any event, I'm not going to give the game a number or GIMLET even though I won. There really isn't a single RPG element evident in it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Serpent Isle: Charmed, I'm Sure

She even looks a bit like Irene.
The last update ended with the party emerging from Furnace, back on the main island for the first time in a couple dozen hours. My first goal is to head to Monitor, just to the east, and use the training points my characters have accumulated. Alas, I soon run out of money. The pikemen's bodies I return to the crematorium get me some cash, but only enough to train two characters. I put the only money changer in town in jail on my previous visit.
Up at the Sleeping Bull, I can't remember who changed my money before, but he's no longer there. So to get enough monetari to train, I'm going to need to return to Moonshade or find whoever changes money in Fawn.
"But you still have to pay me, of course."
No one in Monitor or the Sleeping Bull has much new to say. Ensorcio is willing to sell me some spells, but I don't have the money to pay him, either (most of my wealth is tied up in gems). There's a gleeman in the inn named Byrin; either I missed him during my previous visit or he didn't show up until recently. He has a bunch of songs to sing and tales to tell, most of which he requests a tip after telling. I learn a few things from him:
  • He speaks of the Gwani, the "northern savages," who look like men but are covered in fur. Everyone has described them as fierce and vicious, but a verse in Xenka's prophecy said that I'd doom the world if I attacked them. I should probably stop wearing cloaks made out of their skin before I encounter them.
  • He tells the tale of the three serpents. The fire (chaos) and ice (order) serpents continually warred but were held in check by the serpent of earth (balance). But when something happened to the serpent of earth, the war waged out of control and the land was destroyed. We've had hints of all of this before. My working thesis is that the whole thing started when Exodus somehow yanked the Serpent of Balance from its realm and forced it to guard the entrance to his castle.
  • He speaks of the land having once been ruled by two kings, one old, one young. When the young king abandoned his people, the old king went insane, killed his people, and threw himself from White Dragon Tower.
The greater revelation concerns the "young king" who abandoned his people and his lover, who I gather was the White Dragon King's daughter. Shamino is shaken by the story and demands to know the missing king's name. Byrin confirms that it was Lord Shamino. This isn't much of a revelation if you've played Ultima, where Shamino is one of the two rulers of the Lands of Danger and Despair. Shamino's reaction is odd, as if the events are so long ago that he himself doesn't really remember who he was or what he did. The reactions of Dupre and Iolo ("It can't be!"; "There must be some mistake!") suggest that they didn't know this aspect of Shamino's history. I remind you that while the Ultima materials explicitly state that Dupre and Iolo came from Earth originally, Shamino is supposed to be a native Sosarian, and nothing so far has accounted for his unnaturally long life.
Did you wear that hat while you were king, Shamino?
I'm sure we'll hear more about all of these subjects later. For now, we decide it's time to explore Fawn. Actually, we first figure out the destination of the serpent's tooth that we found in Monitor. It takes us to . . . Monitor. While messing around with the portals, I am reminded that we never found a way to open the locked door between the Furnace teleportal pad and the dungeon itself, so I'll be making another pass through the dungeon after Fawn.
My excitement about a new teleport pad lasted a few seconds.
As we head towards Fawn, I set a goal to try to find a use for all of the spells in the spellbook. Here's a quick report on Level 1 spells:
  • "Create Food": I've used it several times already. It creates about 4 food items on the ground. Useful.
  • "Cure": Also already used a few times, though I favor red potions if I have them. It cures poison delivered by snakes, swamps, and other sources. Important but not vital, since you can wait out poison.
Reviewing Level 1 spells.
  • "Detect Trap": I used it in the Mountains of Freedom and will probably continue to use it sporadically on chests, but chest traps are survivable and reagents are expensive and rare. Useful.
  • "Great Ignite": I use it for the first time as we enter Fawn. It automatically lights two lamps at the end of the bridge. I could have just double-clicked on them. Honestly, I can't think of a single reason to ever use this spell. I'm going to rate this "Worthless" unless some specific circumstance comes along.
Well, that was a waste of good reagents.
  • "Light": Saves you from having to carry torches. Vital until you have "Great Light," then worthless.
  • "Locate": I would have thought it would duplicate the sextant, but it's worse than that. It just tells you where you are. Worthless, unless there's some circumstance later where I'll be confused about that.
  • "Telekinesis": Activates switches and such from a distance. Vital for solving at least one puzzle in the Mountains of Freedom; slightly useful in other situations.
I should note that I don't have one Level 1 spell--probably something Mortegro sold.
As we've previously learned, Fawn is dedicated to the "virtue" of Beauty. Is ruled by Lady Yelinda, said to be the most beautiful woman. Three Great Captains (Garth, Joth, and Voldin) serve as her advisors, and the Priestess of Beauty, Kylista, reports on the "revelations" of the Oracle in the temple. The city's economy is based on fishing--an odd pairing with Beauty--and thus has been suffering from the devastating storms. All of the ships have been destroyed, as has the city's lighthouse.
Fawn's palace . . . where no one is ever found, and nothing ever happens.
A group of emissaries from the Fellowship arrived shortly before we did, but their teachings grated with the city's dogma, and they were soon blamed for the storms and exiled. As we arrive, a storm is blasting the central square with lightning. People slowly return after it disappears.
Geographically, the city is probably meant to evoke Venice. It is built atop the water, with buildings situated on platforms connected by white brick walkways. The building interiors are tidy and richly-furnished. 
I'd pay a lot for this view.
It takes us two days to make an initial circuit of the city, talking to the various townsfolk. Findings:
  • Jorvin, Captain of the Guard, thanks us for liberating Fawn Tower and gives us a lot of background on the city. He carries the Wand of Detainment.
  • Olon, a fisherman, asks Iolo for a song. (We meet him outside, but all his dialogue suggests that he thinks we're in a tavern.) He tells us more about the fate of the King of the White Dragon. Olon says he drove away the other king (Shamino) and was thus left without allies when a goblin horde invaded his lands. Anticipating defeat, his mind broke. He invited all his people to a party and murdered them. Now the castle is haunted and the goblins won't go near it. Iolo sings him a sad ballad about the missing Gwenno.
  • Delin runs the provisions shop. He has been cripplingly absent-minded since he lost his wife, Elissa, and the magister of Moonshade kidnapped his son, Freli. He says that he lost a stack of filari during a teleport storm, and the amount we have is exactly what he lost. But the meat that replaced it is long gone.  
I give Delin his filari back, but . . .
  • Alyssand is Delin's daughter. We've already met her in the Fellowship outcasts' camp. Her fiancĂ©, a fisherman named Keth, disappeared during a storm. Lacking direction, she has fallen into the clutches of the Fellowship. She reminds us here that she's with a rebel group called the Cause, which seeks to free Fawn from the orthodoxy of Beauty.
  • Delphynia sells reagents and vegetables. I met her previously when she sold me the herbs that cured my poison. She thinks she's responsible for the storms because she fell in love with Ruggs. She won't sell us reagents unless we catch her in her gardens, but she never seems to be there.
  • Zulith is the chancellor. I've apparently met him before, but I don't remember. He assists Lady Yelinda and arranges her schedule. He also exchanges money. I delay on this because I don't know how much I'm actually going to buy in Fawn. He intimates that it might be a while before we can get an audience with Yelinda, but our work at Fawn Tower should speed up the process. He thought the city might be overrun with goblins until we saved the tower.
  • Great Captain Voldin is in charge of city security. He thanks us for dealing with the goblins, who killed the town's healer, Seth. He thinks the storms have been sent by the gods because they allowed the Fellowship emissaries to enter the city. He thinks the solution is to return to Beauty's Truth: "All good people are beautiful." He seems to be a bit of a misogynist; he makes a couple of asides suggesting that he thinks women can't be trusted.
That question is a bit difficult to parse, Voldin.
  • Great Captain Garth, the youngest of the Great Captains, comes from a family of wealthy traders. He's actually never been to sea. Described by the others as a skirt-chaser, he nonetheless comes across as intelligent and compassionate when we talk to him. Yelinda has tasked him with finding some way for the city to prosper without its ships, a task he worries is hopeless. He says that Joth, Voldin, and Kylista are the real power in town. He thinks that Voldin and Kylista have somehow corrupted the Oracle to say what they want it to say. He's not particularly obsessed with Beauty and thinks that Ruggs is a good man.
  • Great Captain Joth suffered an injury while heroically protecting the town one night after a storm zapped away the lighthouse, replacing it with a "strange haunted building." He ordered his ship to anchor at the mouth of the bay and flash its own lights, but his ship ran aground and injured his back. He was pulled from sea duty and given a place on the great council. I hear about him before the events below but never actually run into him.
  • Jendon runs the Broken Oar, the town's inn and tavern. His business has been suffering since there are no more sailors. Like Harnna in Monitor and Bucia in Moonshade, he has dialogue options on all the people in town and local places, but only a certain number before he won't talk again for a while.
  • Kylista, Priestess of Beauty, I find hanging out in the tavern. She interprets the divine words of the Oracle, which was created by the mages of Old Sosaria. We won't hear one of these revelations, as she's closed the Oracle to outsiders. She agrees that the storms are a punishment from the heavens for hanging out with the Fellowship group, and she advocates wiping them out to return to the gods' favor. She thinks Voldin should be Yelinda's only advisor. I have no options to ask her about the breastplate that appeared in my inventory, but I find a suit of magic armor in a chest of drawers in her house and replace it with the plate that Dupre has been carrying.
One of the best recoveries so far.
  • Yelinda is the ruler of Fawn. The first time we talk with her, we catch her sleeping in her home at 10:00 in the morning. She doesn't have anything new to say about the city, and she comes across as a bit of an airhead. 
"It somehow doesn't bother me that you're in my bedchamber."
  • Some guy named Kalen, dressed like a sailor, starts attacking us while we're exploring. We hit him a few times and he dies, but not before indicating that he works for Batlin. 
At some point during our explorations, Jorvin approaches and says that Lady Yelinda wishes to hear the songs of the honored bard, Iolo, and we should attend her in the throne room after noon. I'm not really sure what building he means, as there are two buildings labeled PALACE, each with their own thrones. It turns out to be the northern one. We arrive shortly after noon. Yelinda has somehow heard about the ballad that Iolo sang to Olon. She gives Iolo a white diamond necklace to give to Gwenno when he finds her.
250 years old, and Dupre still hasn't learned how to "read the room."
She then--despite the lack of any obvious source of drinks--calls for a toast to Beauty. We drink. She  toasts to Love and to Queen Fawn, "who founded our fine society." We drink again. Then Dupre has to be an idiot and propose a toast to Lord British. She immediately orders Jorvan to "lock that criminal away and call for a speedy trial" and execution. Before we know it, Jorvan has blasted us with the Wand of Detainment, and we all fall unconscious. 
I awake at the inn, with everyone but Dupre next to me. A scroll on my bedside table reads: "Thou art required at the temple for trial." We hustle up there, and the trial begins as soon as we double-click on the doors. Somehow, we end up in the accused's box along with Dupre. A huge Oracle statue watches the proceedings from the front of the room. Kylista pronounces the charges as "inciting rebellion against Lady Yelinda" and "allegiance to that archfiend, Beast British."
Yelinda declines to conduct the questioning herself ("I fear the witnesses might be tempted to spare my sensibilities"), so Voldin agrees to do it. Jorvin announces that for the purposes of the trial, "unsavory characters"--namely, the representatives of the Fellowship--have been allowed to enter the city. I'm sure this will go well.
These two are supposed to be the most beautiful women in Fawn? Yikes.
Delphynia is the first witness. She relates how we consulted her for a leaf to counteract poison, to which Voldin ties the most tenuous thread to "Beast British" and dismisses her. Leon, the Fellowship leader, is next. He only manages to get out that he met with Dupre in the Fellowship camp before Voldin dismisses him for trying to proselytize. The addled Delin is third, but he doesn't even remember meeting Dupre.
Voldin then calls on Yelinda to relate what happened. She lies outright, recalling Dupre as saying: "Curse you all, and Beast British shall drink thy blood." Dupre protests. Yelinda suggests they spare him "further embarrassment" since the conclusion is foregone, and Voldin agrees. Dupre asks what I recommend. I tell him to continue. Next, Ruggs is called, admits to having met Dupre, and is immediately dismissed. He shouts his love for Delphynia on the way out, while she sits still and mutters, "I can't."
"And he did pry into everybody's NAME and JOB."
Kylista testifies that she found our lack of understanding of Beauty "appalling." She thinks the Fellowship is "an invention of Beast British, by which he means to destroy us!" Jorvin testifies that he's been following us around, and we've been entering buildings where we don't belong and opening drawers and barrels without permission. I wonder if that's just an assumption as to how most players will play or if it really is tailored to our actions. Voldin idiotically interprets this as us searching for our souls, which we sold to "Beast British." Jendon testifies that we asked a bunch of questions about the people in town. Alyssand testifies that we mysteriously had her missing engagement ring. Voldin naturally interprets all these things in the worst possible way.
Scots, the cartographer, is called, but he gets no further than defending the beliefs of the Fellowship and the nobility of Lord British than he's expelled. I'm not sure why he's not put on trial, since he said as much in favor of Lord British as Dupre did. This whole island just sucks.
As often as Sosaria/Britannia is reconfigured by some calamity, I'm surprised Scots isn't on the Fortune 500 list.
Kylista calls a recess until tomorrow before we hear Dupre's defense. Dupre names me as his counsel. A guard takes Dupre away. I'm tempted to let him go to the headsman's block for being such a moron. I suddenly wonder what would have happened if Dupre hadn't been in the party. I reloaded an earlier save, kicked him out, and visited Yelinda without him. All that happens is Shamino has his lines instead. If you kick out Shamino, it's Iolo--and you can't visit Yelinda without Iolo, so there's no way to stop the offense from occurring. 
Acquitted of being an idiot? I'm not that good.
I decide to start heading around town to see what support I can muster, but I'm no more than a couple blocks away when Alyssand runs up and hands me a key. It's to Dupre's cell, beneath the temple. "One of the temple guards is sympathetic to our Cause," she explains. "If thou dost explore the temple tonight, I can arrange for the guards to be absent." 
For fun, I tried to screw up this part of the game, and I don't think it's possible. No matter how many days pass, the trial won't re-commence until you've used the key. 
I forget about the "tonight" part and head down during the day, but there are no guards either way. Dupre is in a cell, but the key doesn't open the cell--just the door to the stairs. I can't interact with Dupre. I note with some amusement they've left him a bucket of water and a pile of food, but also a corpse on his bedding.
Have you been sleeping with the charred, twisted body or the skull?
A switch opens a door leading to a stairway up. Here, we find Voldin meddling with a row of five levers. "The levers have been set," he says, "and the traitor's fate is sealed." Suddenly realizing we're not Kylista, he attacks us. I don't know why so many evil-doers in this game think they'll prevail with one-on-four odds, but Voldin doesn't even come close.
Says the man conspiring with the Priestess.
I start fiddling with the levers myself. Each one is trapped and damages me when I pull it. When I pull the fifth lever, the Oracle comes to life: "What does thou wish, Master?" I ask for a revelation. The Oracle says that at the end of the trial, she has been told to say that Dupre is guilty of consorting with daemons, that the Avatar is also guilty, and that both need to be executed. "Change revelation," I say, and have three options: "He is innocent"; "The trial is corrupted"; and "Make no change."
I go with "The trial is corrupted." The Oracle is thrilled: "I have waited many years for this moment. I thank thee, Master!" Upon further inquiry, she relates that the Great Captains have been controlling her for a long time. "At last, I can speak the Truth."
But . . . you're still speaking what I told you to speak.
I crash in a random bed--no one actually seems to use their houses in this town--and return to the temple. As the second day commences, Yelinda questions where Voldin and Kylista are. Zuilth says he doesn't know, and that Captain Jorvin is also missing. Yelinda kicks things off in Kylista's place. I'm told I can call anyone in Dupre's defense, but Zulith clarifies that doesn't include the Fellowship members, who haven't been allowed back in the city after their performance yesterday.
My options are Delphynia, Joth, Delin, Garth, Jendon, Zulith, Olon, and Yelinda herself. I go through the list. Delphynia testifies that Dupre drinks too much, is a braggart, and fancies himself a ladies' man. "Dupre doth have an evil heart," she concludes. Not a good beginning. Joth testifies that he's never even met Dupre, which is fair. Delin does a pretty good job. He points out that we returned the engagement ring, and the storms are probably why it disappeared in the first place. He also wants Dupre to marry Alyssand, but Dupre remarks that she's not "lively enough," whatever that means.
I call Garth, expecting his support, but he testifies that Iolo is the most disagreeable man he ever met. At first, I think the game is glitching, but Olon points out that the trial is about Dupre, not Iolo. Garth nonetheless "stands by his statement." He has worse things to say about Lord British, and he concludes by saying that Kylista is "too beautiful to be wrong." What a hypocrite.
Are you sure you're talking about Iolo?
Jendon says favorable things about Dupre, including that he can "out-drink any man in this town." Olon, who is drunk, says, "I love that man!" He recites a ribald song that Dupre taught him. I wonder when this all happened. My companions must get up to a lot of stuff while I'm sleeping.
Zulith is no help. I call Yelinda last and ask her about Dupre's exact words. She claims she doesn't remember, so Dupre repeats them. Distraught, Yelinda runs off the stage.
With all my "witnesses" exhausted, Yelinda proclaims the trial over. She asks for a ruling from the Oracle. "Dupre is innocent!" the Oracle proclaims. "Set him and his companions free!" She goes on to explain that the "true criminals" are Kylista and Voldin.
Yelinda, to her credit, apologizes. She gives Dupre the Crystal Rose of Love. Just then, Alyssand arrives with Jorvin. They announce that they've captured and imprisoned Kylista and that Voldin has been found dead. Kylista has already confessed to an evil conspiracy involving the levers. Yelinda praises the outcome and remarks that she has "much to learn about being a ruler." We're free to leave.
Yelinda conveniently forgets that she started this whole thing.
  • Jorvin must have already been convinced of Kylista's guilt. He clearly arrested her before the Oracle condemned her.
  • Dupre technically isn't innocent. He praised Lord British to Yelinda's face. The whole of Fawn still thinks Lord British is an evil usurper intent on destroying the city. It would have been nice if the Oracle had been clearer.
  • This whole episode seems to have been aimed at putting the Crystal Rose of Love in our hands. Its introduction here is just as clumsy as the Mirror of Truth in Moonshade.
I naturally have to know what happens with the other Oracle options. I reload and give it a try. If you "make no change," the Oracle says what Voldin told it to say, but right afterwards, Alyssand bursts in with Jorvin. They announce that they themselves entered the secret room and found Kylista operating the levers. Kylista arrives to dispute their claim, but Alyssand asks Yelinda to call on the Oracle for a new judgment. Yelinda does, and the Oracle says the same thing she says if you chose "The trial is corrupted." Everything else proceeds the same way from there.
If you choose "He is innocent," the Oracle proclaims: "Dupre is innocent! Gideon and his companions have no wish to destroy Beauty! Free them at once!" Yelinda apologizes and hands over the Rose, but there's no talk about Kylista being arrested. If you go talk to Alyssand in the Fellowship camp, she says that the Cause is doomed. "We somehow missed the last chance to expose Kylista and her minions for the hypocrites they truly are!" 
Any consequences for the rest of the game?
All in all, Fawn was the silliest of the three cities, but also the shortest. I can't find Zulith after the trial is over, so I sigh, walk back to Monitor, take the teleportal pad to Moonshade, visit Topo, sell my gems, visit Bucia, exchange all my riches for gold coins except for enough monetari to train, take the teleportal pad back to Monitor, sleep until morning, train my characters, walk to the Sleeping Bull, and pay Ensorcio every gold coin I have for his spells. It's not nearly enough, and I still need lots of reagents, so I hope my return trip to Furnace yields some more loot.
As I close out this session, Gideon and Dupre are Level 7, Shamino and Iolo are Level 6, and Boydon is Level 5. I've been training in a way that seeks to balance strength and dexterity. 
Boydon had a long way to go with dexterity when I found him. Even after 4 training sessions, there's a hefty imbalance.
I like NPC dialogue and prize it as a key part of the RPG experience, but I'm also slightly elated that--unless I'm mistaken--most of the talking is over. I'm sure there will be plenty more NPCs, but I doubt there will be entire cities of them. I'm ready for, in the words of Elvis, a little less conversation and a little more action, if you please.
Time so far: 44 hours

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Ambermoon: Waterworld

It seemed early in the game for such a foe.
This session with Ambermoon went better than my first, in no small part because commenter Fincki gave me some configuration options that made a significant difference with speed. I tried it all at once and thus don't know exactly what made the difference, but something did. Moving with the keyboard is still slow, but not as slow as before, and moving with the mouse is almost too fast.
I restarted in grandfather's house and took the time to explore it more thoroughly before continuing. I had missed a cabinet in his room with potions of healing and cure poison, a buckler, shoes, and a robe. On his bookshelf, I missed a Book of Arachnids, which turned out to be prophetic.
Gee, I wonder if I'll face one of these in the basement.
I explored the secret area through the fireplace before going to the regular basement. I found 25 rations in a barrel, a bunch of chests that had 1 gold piece each, and one chest that killed me immediately when I tried to open it. I reloaded and left that for later, when I have a party member with "Disarm Trap" abilities.
Down in the basement, I managed to kill the rock lizard and the giant spider without taking any damage. Perhaps the robe, which has a defense of 4 (as opposed to my clothing, which has a defense of 2) makes a difference. There was stuff on the floor that I couldn't pick up in both rooms, but I also found plenty of items that I could pick up. The game is a little inconsistent: sometimes treasure is found automatically when you get close to it; sometimes, you have to activate the "Look" action. Either way, the spider room had a lot more potions. Another room had 13 slingstones and a barrel full of torches.
I missed this cabinet on my first pass.
A larder full of rations put me at my weight limit, and I ended up dropping a bunch of rations and the slingstones to make some room. I found a short sword in what looked like a potted plant. 
Even with things moving faster, I don't really like the interface. Despite Thalion's bragging about its 3D engine, I would have preferred the tile-based movement of Amberstar. Movement with the numberpad is a bit too slow, but it's the only way to turn and strafe precisely. When you move with the mouse, the game kind of blends what you're doing based on the mouse position. For instance, on the right side of the screen, holding down the mouse when the cursor is all the way at the top mostly turns you to the right. Holding down the mouse when the cursor is at the middle-right mostly strafes you. Holding it down halfway in between turns and strafes you at the same time. Similarly, holding down the mouse halfway between top-center and top-right turns you right while simultaneously moving you forward. The problem is that it's hard to get "pure" versions of these actions with the mouse. For instance, if you've just entered a room and want to turn to the right, you're likely to have crossed most of the room by the time you turn. The numberpad, on the other hand, results in "pure" turning or strafing, but at the expense of speed. There's no good way to do it. [Ed. As commenters pointed out, using the right mouse button to turn, move, and strafe solves the problem. So there is a good way to do it, and this paragraph is largely moot.]
More items on the floor I can't pick up. They look like sacks of gold!
There are other aspects that make the interface cumbersome. For instance, the action icons in the lower right are all mapped to the numberpad, so you can theoretically play without the mouse in combat and when moving overland (or in a place with an oblique interface, like grandfather's house). The problem is that you frequently get messages that you have to acknowledge, and the only way to acknowledge messages seems to be with the mouse. 
Because of the chaos of movement, I'm constantly missing doors and other exits from rooms. This problem is partially redeemed by an excellent automap. It's large, complete, easy to read, and more detailed than probably any automap we've had to date. It annotates entrances and exits, doors, chests, special encounters, and, in towns, the different kinds of services. I'm grateful for it because I would have missed several rooms in the basement.
Like Amberstar, the game has a fantastic automap.
The basement had several locations where I had to cut through spider webs and was attacked by pairs of giant spiders. There was one web that refused to be cut, and I had to light a torch to get through it. (The Book of Arachnids had a hint about this.) On the other side was a combat with an enormous spider. It took me three reloads to win this one, even using potions liberally. He was guarding a chest that blinded me when I tried to open it. I rested for 8 hours but the blindness didn't wear off, so I reloaded and, like the chest in grandfather's secret area, saved it for later.
It was a well-described trap.
Eventually, I came to a magic mouth that, in rhyme, said he'd only let me through if I answered a clue. But he didn't give me a riddle. Confused, I left him and explored the rest of the basement before I remembered that grandfather had given me a password (WINE) in the previous session. I gave it to the mouth, and a passage opened up beyond.
Typing a keyword.
It ultimately led to a ladder down, which took me to a level titled "Old Cave - First Level." It was only a single room, though. I found Shandra's Amber in a pile of refuse.
In one corner, a message popped up telling me that the ceiling had collapsed, and I'd need a pickaxe to clear the corridor. 
Why would I want to?
I returned to grandfather's bedroom and told him about the cave-in. He said I would need "the armour" to be successful in my quest. I don't remember him mentioning armor before. He suggested I go to Spannenberg to get tools from Tolimar, the horse dealer. When I tried to give him Shandra's Amber, which he had asked for, he said I should keep it. "I never found what its purpose is but many of my friends feel it has a magic aura . . . Perhaps you must use the stone somewhere in order to make contact with Shandra."
A few minutes later, I was out the door and on the overland map, which like the interior map is in an oblique perspective and far closer to the ground than in Amberstar. This allowed the designers to get far more artistic with the terrain. I'm not sure any of it is interactive. After a while, I stopped bothering to try to pick up or look at interesting things.
Breathing in the fresh mountain air.
The outdoor map is titled "Lyramionic Isles," and sure enough, the map that came with the game indicates that the shooting stars turned what had been a single continent into a bunch of disconnected islands. Spannenberg is on an eastern island, along a road west of a small structure. I took that to be grandfather's house, and I was right.
So much debris landed on Lyramion that it caused the oceans to rise.
As I traveled west along the road, night fell just as I reached a bridge across a small inlet. I rested for the night and healed a bit, then kept going to the gates of Spannenberg.
Night closes in around me.
As I entered the city, a message popped up and said: "You will be able to return to this point later." I got this message several more times as I explored. This heralds another interface improvement. The map of Spannenberg is full of these "goto points." From the automap, you just have to click on them to automatically move to those points on the map, although it doesn't work if enemies are near. This is an excellent addition that removes much of the tedium from moving through cities that you've already explored.
A welcome addition to the interface.
An old man was standing in the entryway. He said, "It really is strange that people come to Spannenberg although the town is full of bandits." Sure enough, I got attacked repeatedly by bandits as I explored the town. They weren't very hard except that sometimes they attacked two at a time.
Except for a minor rearrangement of the interface, I don't think the turn-based combat system has changed much from Amberstar. It was never bad, just slow. The party occupies the bottom two rows of a 6 x 5 tactical grid. Enemies have the top three rows. Each round, each character can move, attack, cast a spell, use an item, or defend. Once you specify your actions, you hit the "OK" button and watch as your actions and the enemies' execute in some behind-the-scenes initiative order. When enemies attack, there's a corresponding animation in the forward view. The line-up-your-attacks-and-watch-them-execute system goes back to Wizardry (1981), but I wonder if there's some Phantasie (1985) DNA in the system, perhaps transmitted through Legend of Faerghail (1990).
 A bandit battle. The forward view, which occupies most of the screen, is pretty but completely unnecessary.
It's the attack animations that make combat take so long. There's no more "fast forward" option in the combat panel as there was in Amberstar; instead, you can enable "fast combat" permanently in the game options. This makes the animations faster and it moves quickly between combat messages without requiring you to click to acknowledge them. Another time-saver is that if you want to do the same thing as the last action, you just hit the "OK" button again. However, no interface innovation can ameliorate the fact that at early levels, both the character and her foes miss most of the time. It's not uncommon for half a dozen rounds to go by with no one doing any damage. 
At the end of this session, I was Level 4. Each level-up was accompanied by an increase in maximum health, maximum spell power, and an allotment of "spell learn points" and "training points." I did feel quite a bit stronger by the end.
Leveling up after a battle.
There are two types of NPCs in the game. The first type just gives you a few lines of text. The full NPC interaction interface does not open, and you therefore can't feed them keywords or give them items. The second type offers a full conversation with a separate set of action buttons. Chief among these is the "Talk" button, which allows you to choose from known keywords or type in your own. Just as in Amberstar, each keyword becomes a permanent part of your dialogue options even though most NPCs have nothing to say to most keywords. Ambermoon colors some of the keywords in yellow. At first, I thought it might be highlighting keywords specific to each NPC, but that theory was shot down when many NPCs responded to non-highlighted words. I think maybe the yellow ones are just the newer ones.
The first type of NPC.
Findings from Spannenberg:
  • A nonsensical monologue from a "rough looking and agitated boy" on the street: "I have just left my friends. Let them continue to search for treasure in the desert by themselves. I hope that a ship will come past here soon, because this town is just full of my old associates. I would not like to come across them again."
  • A tavern/inn called the Inn of the Limping Rogue. You can rent a room for 15 gold pieces.
The buildings in town generally use axonometric interfaces.
  • One NPC in the inn tells me about a band of orcs raiding from the mountains to the west, making life difficult for farmers.
  • Another NPC in the inn tells me that the park in town was built by a powerful magician.
  • A named NPC, Aman, is a member of the Guild of Thieves. The guild is troubled by the bandit invasion, which they have nothing to do with, but they're taking a lot of the blame. The guild is in the cellar below the inn. Aman will give me the password if I bring him the brooch from the gardener in the graveyard. The gardener bought a book on necromancy recently, and has been raising the dead.
I suspect this guy is going to end up joining me.
  • I find Tolimar in the stables. He'll give me the tools I need if I can return four golden horseshoes, recently stolen by bandits. (He identifies their leader as "Silverhand.") He'll sell me six horses for 100 gold. I have the money--each bandit battle gives me that much--but I don't buy them yet.
How much are peasant horses?
  • A house is occupied by a married couple named Canth and Noralael. They recently had a wine goblet stolen, but they disagree on what stole it. Canth says that she saw some kind of green creature with wings, but Noralael insists they were just regular bandits.
I didn't think kobolds had wings.
  • Wat the Fisher lives in a house with his young daughter, Sally. His wife died of swamp fever the previous year, and now Sally has it. He asks me to visit Father Anthony, the healer, and ask about an antidote.
Unfortunately, I ran out of time again before I finished Spannenberg, but I'm enjoying the exploration and the slow acquisition of wealth and power.
Time so far: 3 hours