Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Game 500: Out Live (1989)

If you enjoy that tagline, note that the 1997 remake is subtitled Be Eliminate Yesterday.
Out Live
Sunsoft (developer and publisher)
Released 1989 for the TurboGrafx-16 console
Date Started: 25 January 2024
This entry is going to disappoint a lot of commenters who were looking for a more "significant" or "meaningful" game to mark the 500th title covered on my blog. Sorry about that. I wasn't interested in reaching forward in time, and while there are some landmark games remaining for 1993, none is so obviously vital to the history of the genre that artificially elevating it to this position would have done anything but draw attention to the inadequacy of the choice. Instead, I decided that the most on-blog thing to do for my 500th game was just let the next game come up organically, using the same process that I've been using for years. In this case, it was time for a random selection (which includes the possibility of console games), and the random roll produced Out Live. If it makes you feel better, maybe you could read some hidden meaning in the title.
Naming your mecha is the only "character creation" the game offers.
This is the first time I've played a game released for the TurboGrafx-16 console, known as the PC Engine outside North America (a term that makes no sense to me). It and its cousin, the TurboGrafx CD, hosted over 100 RPGs between 1988 and 1995, including many games previously released for the PC-88, PC-98, or MSX. There are, in contrast, comparably few crossovers with competing consoles of the period, like the NES and the Sega Genesis. The first TurboGrafx RPG was probably Jaseiken Necromancer (1988), for which I have not found a full English translation. Out Live is one of several 1989 releases, still quite early in the console's existence.
From the backstory.
The game was released only in Japanese; I'm playing an English translation courtesy of Nebulous Translations. But the game's title is rendered in English even in the Japanese release, as is the mysterious statement on the title screen: "It's Far a Future on PLANET." According to a "Readme" file provided by Nebulous, "your goal is basically to become the champion of Duelists on Lafura, and solve the conspiracy involving your lost friend." The opening titles establish the setting as the planet Lafura, whose ancient ruins are being excavated by the Empire for "advanced science and technology." The Empire is opposed by "a local organization that calls itself Mars." An Imperial Scout--presumably the player's friend--has been lost investigating the ruins, and the player is tapped to follow up by his commander, Markus Booker.
The player controls a mecha called Braudis by default, but you can rename it after the opening screens. In the game, all Mecha names are preceded by the letters "FW," but I'm not sure why. Booker gives the player two specific goals: "Infiltrate the FW dueling scene in Lafura as one of the duelists" and "find the whereabouts of the legendary FW Braudix," which I gather is different from Braudis.
The opening screen.
The game begins in a maintenance shop on Lafura. The player has 1,000 credits. It appears each town in the game (at least so far) is a menu town, with options to repair and restock the mecha at the maintenance bay, buy and sell items at the gun, armor, or item shops, or visit the saloon to talk to NPCs. On my first visit to the saloon, someone named Ermak told me to "go and register as a duelist" but provided no information on how to do so.
Wonder of wonders . . . a Japanese game in which an NPC looks like a plausible adult.
The towns on the planet are all connected by twisty mazes. The first maze connects Lafura with Torinton City. As you maneuver your mecha through the futuristic passages, you're randomly attacked by a variety of enemies. 
At least so far, the game is quite simple and boring. The tiled 3D mazes are large and featureless, with no treasures or special encounters, and only the occasional "boss" enemy. Combat itself is boring. It's all turn-based, even though a more action-oriented approach would fit the game better, and there isn't much to do but attack round after round and watch as the enemy attacks you. In the early game, you have only one gun and thus only one action to take, except replenishing your shields with energy packs when they get too low. You can buy a number of usable items, like missiles and bombs, as well as armor upgrades, so it gets a little more interesting later, but not much.
You spend a lot of the game just looking at walls like this.
Enemies have a chance of appearing every time you make a move, including turning, so if you want to grind, you can just spin around near a city. I'd guess you get an encounter roughly every 8-10 moves. You don't see them until they're upon you. I guess they're all supposed to be mechas, although some of them look like animals or just pieces of random artillery.
This is a mecha, right? Not a monster?
Defeating enemies gives you both "attack experience" and "defense experience," though the latter only if you took damage during the battle. You also get "target points" for each kill, which are converted to credits if you reach a city. 
These are the options each combat round.
I leveled up a few times on my way to Torinton City. Leveling up occurs automatically, with no player choices or input, which will hurt it on the GIMLET. Attack levels increase your damage and also increase your maximum shield value. Defense levels just seem to reduce damage taken. Combat really isn't very deadly. You can carry a decent supply of energy packs, which are cheap, and if you die, you just get sent back to your last city, having lost nothing except any money you accumulated since you left. This is good because the game is incapable of saving your progress, instead requiring you to write down a 40-character password.
My mecha's stats about mid-session.
In Torinton, I found a duelist at the bar named Nachi. He challenged me to a duel. When this happens, when you leave the city you have an option to go to "dueling." You're taken to a small circular arena with the enemy on the other side. You cannot move; you just exchange shots until one of you is dead. In this case, it was Nachi. He bemoaned his fall from the dueling ranks. I earned 1,000 credits.
What can I say? You suck.
Back in the bar, Nachi said he knew someone who knew one of my friends. This turned out to be a suited guy named Mikuta. He said that the agent who came before me spoke to a female duelist named Chris. He also thought Mars might be behind my friend's disappearance. Chris was also available in the bar, and she said she'd tell me what she knew if I could defeat her.
"Otherwise, I'll keep information about the safety of a fellow duelist secret just for the giggles."
I defeated her in another easy duel, winning 2,000 credits, at which point she said she'd "lend me her help" but told me absolutely nothing. Nachi suggested my next dueling opponent should be Joe in Green City.
I bought a "Titan Shield," a "Hawk Missile," and as many energy packs (which restore 1,000 shield units) as I could carry before heading out.
Leaving a city gives you a choice of directions.
Instead of mapping, I just followed the right wall until I reached Green City, then followed the right wall back to Torinton, then went back to Green City again, rising a few levels en route. I suppose I should probably map lest I miss something important in an "island." 
Chris was at the bar in Green City along with an older man named Lesley. Lesley wanted me to kill a monster in the labyrinth near the city, "near the three doors that led to the next city." This one took me a while. I kept leaving the city, following the right wall, but I'd run out of shield strength as well as energy packs before reaching either the monster or the next city, White Hill City. For a while, it was touch and go. I kept zipping back to Green City with a "Back Walker," which returns you to the last city automatically. I'd replenish my shield and items, including buying a new Back Walker, and end up with 400 credits less than when I left. But as I rose a couple of levels, improving my ability to deal and resist damage, the situation slowly turned around.
The "weird monster" is probably native to the planet, and sapient besides.
I eventually made it to the beast, a large, tentacled enemy hanging out behind a door deep within the level. I unloaded my remaining missiles at him, then finished him off with my guns (which never run out of ammo).
I can't quite tell what "the monster" is.
The game took me back to Green City automatically. At the bar, I found a duelist named Joe taking credit for my kill. Lesley didn't know who to believe.
I'm not sure how that proves anything, but okay.
Joe challenged me to duel, so I entered the arena and defeated him without much trouble. As his mecha collapsed, he apologized and said that he "just wanted some fame" as he hasn't been doing well in the dueling rankings lately. Lesley apologized for not believing me ("I thought that only the legendary Braudix could defeat that monster").
Meanwhile, a slick blond guy named Kam recognized me as "the pilot sent by the Reconnaissance Office." He also challenged me to a duel. I fought him, again without too much trouble. Between all the duels and other rewards, I had over 12,000 credits by the end. I bought some titanium armor and upgraded my guns to what I assume are better ones. Guns are one of the many things that I don't quite understand. I started off with "N1 Vulcan" guns, and the shop in Lafura sold "B1 Blaster" and "I1 Cold" guns. I forgot what was for sale in Torinton City, but in Green City, I can buy "N2 Thunder," "B2 Mega Blaster," "I2 Freeze" and "L2 Excimer" guns. I assume the number is the rough "level" of the gun, but I don't otherwise know if different types of guns do more or less damage against different types of enemies. I'd have to have enough money to buy multiple guns and compare them.
I guess he doesn't like the Reconnaissance Office?
Out in the corridors, I haven't noticed that whatever guns I have do different damage to different types of enemies, but they do seem to do different damage based on the color of the walls in the area that I'm in at the time. I don't know how many colored areas there are. I've been through areas that I'd describe as yellow, blue, and red, but I suspect that there are more and I'm just not seeing the differences, since there are more than three different types of guns.
Armor items sold in Green City were Ceramic Armor, Titanium Armor, Titan Shield, Graph Shield, and Replica Shield. There's no indication of their protective values until after you buy and equip them. I gather you can have one item of armor and one shield at any given time. I assume the more expensive ones are better, but that doesn't always hold true in other games.
Every city has shops.
I got to White Hill City without much trouble. In the bar, a duelist named Mirau Amandara challenged me. Like all individual combats in the game so far, he was relatively easy. "Be careful of Kam," he warned me after I defeated him, which earned me another 6,000 credits. Back in the bar, he offered, "I heard that woman you were hanging out with has been kidnapped." Another duelist named Nachi Murakami remarked that he hadn't seen Chris in a while.
Enemy duelists like to smack talk you in the middle of combat.
I used my extra funds to explore some of the other items sold in shops. In addition to your guns, you can carry 8 missiles at a time. The item shop:

  • Anti-Fire. No idea what it does. Every time I use it, it just says "Option had no effect."
  • Vacuum Breath. No idea what it does because it costs too much (8,000 credits).
  • Acid Bombs and Net Bombs. Damage enemy armor, softening them up for other attacks. Like missiles, you can only carry 8 at a time. Unlike missiles, you can't use them in arena battles. 
Hitting an enemy with an acid bomb.
  • Magnetic Wire. From the message that comes up ("reduced enemy evasion"), I guess it makes your attacks more likely to hit.
  • EN Packs. Restore 1,000 energy. You can only carry 8.
  • Back Walker. Automatically return to the last town you visited.
  • Repair Unit. Remove the effects of acid, a weapon some enemies use, which causes you to take damage every step.
  • Nitro Charge. Not sure. You use it in combat. I think it gives you extra attacks.
  • Esquit. Lets you automatically escape any combat.
I was feeling good as I left White Hill City for Skala City, but of course the enemies also leveled up a notch. Particularly difficult were "Deeply Burners," capable of destroying my entire shield in one hit. I learned to blast these guys with missiles the moment I saw them. Like the trip to White Hill, the journey required a few false starts and retreats. By the time I made it to Skala City, I had gained two levels each in attack and defense and earned another 4,000 credits.
I'll wrap up here. Out Live seems to be a rather boring, linear game with minimal player input. It's a testament to the fact that kids will buy any damned thing as long as it has robots on the cover. I'll probably finish it, though. It seems wrong to abandon the 500th game.
Time so far: 3 hours

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Bloodstone: Island of the Gods

None of those axes, alas, is the one I seek.
I had hoped to win Bloodstone for this entry, but I'm just a little shy, and I want to have something to post at midnight. I've collected all the artifacts, given them to my chosen dwarf leader, and breached the dwarf god's castle at Entemar. I still have at least a few dungeon levels to go, though.
To recap, the plot involves a young, orphaned dwarf warrior (my lead character, Danat) trying to unite the dwarves to counter the threat of the Taldor, although frankly the Taldor don't seem like much of a threat since the first hour or two of the game. The mechanism for doing this seems to be to throw his lot behind one of the two remaining clan leaders--Chief Torongo of the Tamar or Chief Rakan of the Morin. They agree with Danat that the artifact is Khamalkhad, the magic axe that the dwarf god, Rohrkhad, forged for his son, Dahlkhad. But they also want a series of lesser artifacts, including the Scarab of Dablak, the Brooch of Aquilla, the Golden Bowl, a Magic Orb, the Iron Crown, a whistle, a mitre, and the Death Mask of Rohrkhad.
Exploring the Tower of Kireini.
Through a long process of finding keys, finding passwords, collecting hints, and dungeon delving, I started this session with all the artifacts in my possession except the Death Mask, the Mite, and Khamalkhad. Getting the axe involved building a boat to sail to Rohrkhad's castle, and that in turn required a Golden Needle (to go with the canvas, hammer, and wood I'd already collected). I had just entered the Tower of Kireini, where I was supposed to find the needle and mitre.
Kireini was, I think, the largest dungeon in the game so far, with six levels. The path through the levels was very linear, involving the need to visit some levels multiple times. This path introduced navigational elements seen in the previous Magic Candle games but not Bloodstone until now, including one-way doors, rooms whose exits don't take you in the direction that you expected, pressure plates that open walls, and teleporter pads. The Candle games had teleporters that would come upon you in random squares, so that you had to step into just about every one, but the ones here were all marked with pads. I think. There may have been a couple that didn't have any markings.
Heading for a couple of pressure plates that open a wall.
Perhaps to compensate for navigational complexity, the monsters in the tower were mostly easy, many of them unable to even pierce my armor. Even the few ambushes didn't really cause any troubles. Treasure chests generally contained loads of mushrooms--which would have been nice if I hadn't just loaded up on all the mushrooms I could carry.
Oh no! What am I going to do against enemies that have no magic, no armor, and whose physical attacks don't even penetrate my armor?
On Level 3, I found a locked door for which I didn't have the key. Above it, a sign read, "Some doors are better left unopenable -- Doroma." I had just encountered that name in the previous session: He was the childhood friend (or more) of Gregor, the Rulaanese warrior who secretly loved flowers. Doroma's father had sent him to school to become a wizard, and Gregor never saw him again. He apparently took over this tower at some point.
The Golden Needle came out of a treasure chest on Level 5. On Level 6, in a chest in the hallway, I found a magic sword named Kastapha. I had to wield it and attack a few enemies before a skill increase told me that it was a sword. I gave it to my only sword-wielding character, Maxon the Mage.  
Another one of these damned things.
The top level had a central room whose door didn't reveal itself until I cleared out all the other rooms in the area. Inside, I found Doroma, his head buried in a book. He yelled at us for disturbing him, made some half-hearted threats, and wouldn't engage in any dialogue options. But when I gave him the Book of Flowers that I had received from Gregor, his tune changed: "This is so cool! I always wanted to work with flowers, but pop wouldn't let me. He said I had to be an evil wizard like he was. How can I ever thank you?" Before we had a chance to respond, he came up with the idea on his own: he'd tell us the location of the mitre, buried just outside the chamber.
He seems to be drawing a doodle on that page. And who holds a pen like that?
A few moments later, we had the last object. I should mention that the mitre is the only object for which I never saw any dialogue giving it a more extensive name or history. I'm not even sure what it's supposed to be. In modern parlance, it would describe a bishop's hat (which might be hard to wear with a crown), but historically it has described a waistband or various types of headbands.
The top level had a teleporter, which we took back to the surface and then walked to the camp of Denatrius, the shipbuilder. It took me a while to figure out how to enlist him to build the ship. You have to just give him the gold, and the rest of the items follow automatically. A cut scene described how he taught us his skills and put us to work.
I'm not sure how sawing that particular stack of wood that particular way contributes to a ship.
Soon, we had a ship to board. Sailing it is just a matter of walking aboard and heading off. You move where you want to go. There's no consideration of wind, no waiting or resting during the voyage, and no indication that the dwarves are getting seasick (as in the Candle) games. 
I spent some time sailing around the continent and islands. I verified that the coordinates go from (0,0) in the northwest corner to (255,241) in the southeast. Because of the coordinate system, I already knew the relative positions of the islands I'd already visited by teleporter. The largest "open" area was to the northeast, and I correctly guessed that the island with Castle Entemar, Ilakasek, would be there. I spent some time in the other corners and around the perimeter of Tarq, and I found nothing I hadn't already visited except a couple of mushroom patches.
Reaching the ends of the world.
[Ed. Forgot to include this originally, but while sailing around, I stopped by the SeaTemple in the southeast part of Tarq and grabbed the Death Mask. Since I had already cleared out the dungeon, it just took a few minutes.]

At this point, I had all the items on my "to do" list cleared except for finding the chamber of the sleeping god Tito, giving the artifacts to my chosen dwarf leader, and breaching Castle Entemar. I got the impression from a previous commenter that there are three endings to the game, one each for choosing a different chieftain, and one if you get Khamalkhad without giving the artifacts to either of them. I took a save and headed over to Castle Entemar to explore the third possibility first. 
Approaching Castle Entemar.
Entemar was on an island in the middle of a lake on Ilakasek. My "Swimming" skill was sufficient to get me there, though I could have used "Teleport' otherwise.
The castle's gate was magically locked but I had the password (TOGARNAK) from the loremaster way back in Tulara or something. As we entered, Maka offered: "We are now in the home of Rohrkhad, the god of the Dwarves. Out of respect, please do not speak unless absolutely necessary." The vast, ornate halls were full of displayed weapons and odd furniture. As previously reported, there's really no way to interact with environmental objects except to look at them. The only way you can even pick up treasure is to U)se a shovel and dig for it or U)se a pick and loot it from a chest. 
Four of us are dwarves, Maka.
I had intended to try to find the axe as fast as possible, see the ending, then reload from outside. As such, I wasn't interested in wasting a lot of time with rooms, though I did clear a few while looking for stairways. The first few fights were relatively easy, against firelords, windhir, and bazards. They all have lots of hit points and high armor, but a full load of mushrooms and the extra round offered by "Timestop" were enough to defeat them. 
Even fueled by a Mirget and with his armor stripped away, it's going to take me three more hits to kill him.
Then I wandered into a room with some new enemy called "dokari." There were 13 of them. They have 680 hit points, armor of 60, shields of 99, and they hit multiple times per round for 70-80 hit points each. They were hard. Even with "Timestop," I couldn't kill more than a few of them in two rounds, and they blew through my party and wiped out my Nifts within a couple of rounds after that. Three times, I suffered full-party deaths at their hands while experimenting with different spells. 
On my fourth try, I used this strategy: Everyone entered full of Nifts, Gonshis, Mirgets, Luffins, and Turpins. First round, I had one mage "Jump" the fighters into range. The second mage cast "Weaken" on the dokari, one by one, removing their armor before the fighters attacked them. I had the fighters swallow Mirgets before every attack.
I would give anything for a mass "Weaken."
Second round, both mages continued to "Weaken" the rest of the enemies while the fighters continued to attack. The dokari came alive, decimated the Nifts on the fighters, and killed one of them. During the Third round, one of the mages cast "Crumble," removing all enemies' shields. The other cast "Wherrigan" summoning a powerful ally to the battlefield. Then they hit the dokari with "Firedeath" and "Firestorm," softening them a little for future attacks.
The dokari mostly ignored the wherrigan and had killed all my fighters by the end of the third round. One of them ran up and quickly killed one of my mages. But with one mage left, I adopted the strategy of using "Jump" to move between corners of the battlefield round after round. The dokari would only just get into melee range during their turns, and then I'd jump away to the other corner. In the meantime, I was using the rest of my actions each round to continue blasting them with spells, as was the wherrigan.
Maxon prepares to jump away just as the dokari reach him.
After seven rounds, I killed the last one and proceeded to "Resurrect" the other five party members. My reward for the most difficult battle in the entire Candle series? A fountain with 13 "Glamour" spells. After that, I avoided rooms if I could.
Another hard-won victory.
Fortunately, most of the stairways in the castle didn't require me to pass through rooms. On Level 3, in a large hall, Maka spoke up again: This must be the tomb of the first dwarven king. As a child, I was told that the first king of the dwarves was placed in a tomb near the world windows so that he could watch them until the end of time itself." Sure enough, a large sarcophagus in the room, surrounded by weapons, was near a couple of portals in the floor that seemed to gaze out on the cosmos. Again, there was no way to interact with any of this, but it was fun graphically.  
The sequel will take place on another planet.
On Level 4, we came to a room with an enormous throne and a weapon case behind it. As we approached the case, we were teleported to a new, icy-cold dungeon called "Caverns 1." There didn't seem to be any way back.
I forgot who is speaking here.
At this point, I decided that my interest in seeing multiple endings wasn't strong enough that I wanted to complete a multi-level "Caverns" dungeon, then have to reload and do the whole thing again. I instead reloaded from within Entemar and made my way to the exit.
The final dungeon?
When it comes to giving artifacts to the dwarf chiefs, I don't know if you have to give them all to one, or if your "favor" is simply determined by who you give more to. Either way, to make the choice, I decided to look up what the two chiefs had to say when I first approached them.
Torongo (Tamar chief): "Greetings, adventurers. Since you are in need of aid, I have a proposition for you. Scattered throughout the land of Tarq and the surrounding islands are many lost relics. The evil and hated Morin, weak dwarves living to the south of here, covet these treasures. But as chief of the greatest tribe in the land, they are rightfully mine. Unfortunately, I can spare no troops to secure these treasures, as I must protect my people against the depredations of the Taldor. With the treasures in my possession, I will be hailed as the most powerful Dwarf of our time. Return these treasures to me and I shall reward you appropriately."
Using the "Notes" option to look back on the previous dialogue.
Rakan (Morin chief): "Brave warriors! I commend your skills in battle! Come, join me in my feast and let us talk of things great and small. In the days of yore, the gods gave treasures to those powerful in mind and body. As the ages passed, these treasures were lost to marauding tribes and monster hordes. Now, many lifetimes later, the treasures are but a memory recorded in the tablets of the loremasters. I have no right to ask you to find any of these treasures, but please give them to me. With the treasures in my possession, all the Dwarves in Tarq will recognize my superiority and flock to my banner. United. We Dwarves can defeat the Taldor and other evil creatures. But separated, as we are now, we shall fall, tribe by tribe. In return for your help, I will do what I can to aid you in your adventures."
Who would you pick? Between the two, Rakan seems a bit less entitled and obnoxious. He speaks of unity instead of how much he hates the other tribe. He seems focused on defeating the Taldor, whereas Torongo dreams of personal glory. I ended up giving everything to Rakan. He didn't have anything special to say once he had the full set.
He just says this after you give him each object.
But I still don't know why I couldn't be the one to unite the tribes. Because I'm not chief? Or is that what happens if I don't give the artifacts to anyone? I thought I remembered someone saying that collecting Khamalkhad without divesting the axe first was a lesser ending, perhaps a bug, but if I'm wrong, let me know and I'll reload before making the final push through Entemar.
Time so far: 47 hours

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Worlds of Legend: Paying to Win

Three-quarters done!
Before continuing on to the next dungeon and the third of four amulet shards, I decided to fully explore the overworld and catalog its various locations. It turns out to consist of 22 locations. Fifteen of them are relatively generic cities, with some combination of apothecaries, temples, blacksmiths, and artificers. Each apothecary has a different selection of herbs and at different prices, so I took note of those for when I needed to stock up.
The "artificer" of each town sells magic items.
Five of the locations are cities with "Vaults" (dungeons). Each of these also sells horses, but none of the cities with vaults have any other services. Each vault except the first, in Imperia, is gated by a key that you have to get from Sushiana when you turn in an amulet shard. The order of exploration is thus quite linear, with the only "side" dungeon being the Mad Monks--more on them at the end. The Mad Monks are the 21st location, and the last is the "odd shrine" in the center of the map, where I suspect the endgame is going to take place.
I need the reunited amulet to "call forth the eternal champion."
I was going to list all the locations here with their rough coordinates, but I guess that would just take up space for no reason. Suffice to say that they all have vaguely oriental names (e.g., Sengrosiah, Tokiama, Insomyai, Guidato, Goshiata) that don't follow the linguistic rules of any real nation. No problem there; it's a fantasy world, after all.
Legend had a mechanic by which cities could change hands through conquest and such, and you had to defend your own faction's cities by paying for defenses or defeating the enemy armies yourself. This game removes those elements and just has the enemy armies roaming the maps. Sometimes, they're hard to avoid. If you stand still, they'll pass by without incident, but if you encounter one on the move, your only options are to show a pass, which you lose, or fight--which I, at least, almost always lose. I think I fought eight banner encounters this session and only won three of them.
Cities do change hands, but I don't think it has the same consequences as in Legend.
I don't think I've made one thing clear about combat in earlier entries. The game only allows a certain number of enemies on the screen at once. As you kill each foe, he's replaced with someone "waiting in the wings." There's no way to tell how many enemies are waiting to join the battle, so you just have to keep killing and hope for the best. In dungeons, the number of off-screen enemies is rarely more than double the number on-screen, but in banner encounters, it could be five or seven times the number you initially encounter. No matter how well you seem to be doing at first, the bastards just don't stop coming.
The difficulty of the battles gave me an excuse to try out some more spells and spell-related tactics. Most of them didn't work out well. The first thing I tried was "Surround-Thrall." "Thrall" is the only offensive spell that has no effect on allies, so you don't have to be careful about where you cast it. The results were mixed. When I cast it, I definitely saw an immediate change in enemy behavior, but it didn't last long. The spell might be short-lived, but also I don't think the party recognizes the change in monster status from enemy to ally, so they just keep pounding away at whoever is closest. This seems to dispel the "Thrall" status. Overall, the game provides so little feedback that it's hard to tell what's happening. At best, the spell provided a momentary respite.
Preparing to cast "Surround-Thrall" during a banner encounter.
I also experimented with more "Continuous" fields, but the impossibility of navigating characters--getting them to take certain paths, getting them to stay in place, getting them to follow orders at all--doomed the effort. Enemies would inevitably end up in "Healing" fields and allies would inevitably stumble into "Paralysis" and "Thrall" fields. Someone last session suggested that if the Runemaster was the only character, it might be easier, and there's something to that, but even in a later battle when I decided to focus on the Runemaster exclusively, I couldn't get her to stay where I wanted.
I did discover, however, that I can win just about any battle with three spells. The first is 16 instances of "Healing" strung together. Each one absorbs 16 units of hedjog venom, but each one restores about a quarter of the Runemaster's health. The second is "Forward-Disrupt-Disrupt-Disrupt" which kills most enemies in one hit and any enemy in two hits. With these two spells, I can keep my Runemaster alive and blast enemies one by one until they're all gone. The third spell is "Missile-Vivify" for resurrecting the other party members after the Runemaster saves the day.
I think this is just a random battle shot. It's hard to capture spellcasting in screenshots for this game.
Now, this strategy costs a fortune, so I was careful not to use it in every battle. But with those spells, winning combats becomes an economic problem rather than a strategic one. That's not a complaint. I like that the game gives an expensive "out" for players like me who have trouble with other tactics.
That's mostly how I won the three banner encounters, all of which provided new passes and very nice equipment upgrades like Ethereal Swords and Crystal Plate. 
When I was done with my overworld explorations, I headed for the city of Tokiama and the next dungeon. It turned out to be two more levels, the first quite large. It had the usual linear progression of keys and doors, but it also introduced some levers that rotated a central room, changing the configuration of corridors every time you pulled one of them. It took a few minutes to figure out.
The room beneath the three at the top rotates, causing different corridor configurations to appear depending on what levers are pulled.
I found the enemies easier in this dungeon than in the last, but there were more of them. They respawned faster than the previous dungeons and didn't give me much peace when I tried to linger in a room to let "Regeneration" do its job. The number of enemies was good for my finances.
The puzzles were a little bit harder. This room required me to have someone standing on each of the teleporter destination pads on the east side while another character walked onto the teleporter in the water. The problem is there are five pads (including the one in the water) and only four characters. I wasted all kinds of time trying to paralyze an enemy on one of the pads (a spell that wears off quickly) before I managed to get one to just keep attacking me from one of the squares. 
As long as that little kobold stays where he is, I'm good. (There's an invisible character on what looks like an unoccupied teleporter.)
This room had a similar theme. Standing in front of the button and pressing it caused the character to teleport to each of the pads on the other side of the "gap" and then back to the original pad. I needed the character to stay over on the other side of the gap. The only way to do that was to have a second character rush in and stand in front of the button just after the first character teleported away, but there wasn't time to select the second character and move him before the first ended up back where she started. Instead, I had to start the second character moving towards the location from several squares away and time it perfectly so she arrived just as the first character left. Then I had to cast "Damage" on those floor runes, but I mistook them for "Dispel" runes and wasted a lot of time hitting them with the wrong spells.
Carefully lining up my characters on teleport pads.
I couldn't solve the final room--the one with the amulet shard--and I had to get an online hint. (I tried for about 20 minutes.) This room has four pillars that constantly shoot area "Damage" spells. If you stand in them, you die quickly. Pressing the button on the pillar causes a "Teleport" spell to launch from the western pillar, perpendicular to the "Damage" spells. The "Teleport" spell hits any character in its path (along the "R" runes), teleporting him to the next "pier" to the west. You have to do this four times before the character can get to the chest. The problem is that standing in the right location means standing in the middle of a "Damage" inferno. I tried casting "Anti-Magic," but that kept getting stripped away. I eventually sent my Runemaster across, as she could heal herself, and it took about eight multi-"Healing" spells.
Try to notice a single spell shooting west-to-east in all of that.
The reason I couldn't figure it out on my own is that with the constant bounding of "Damage" from the northern pillars, I couldn't even see the "Teleport" spell firing from the western pillar. I thought the "R" runes were telling me to cast "Teleport" on them, not to wait on them to be teleported. 
Anyway, I got the shard and left the dungeon. I don't want to suggest it was quick--it took me about 5 hours--but there just isn't much new to say about the experience. There were a couple of odd encounters, though:
  • One room had a sign that read: "The grave contains the charred remains of a Mantric. How could one so powerful meet with such a gruesome fate?" I don't know what a "Mantric" is, but I was sure these were going to be the "bones of an ancient mage" that the artificer wanted. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything in the room no matter what I searched.
  • A second room had a glowing stone on a pedestal. "The power of the stone should not be played with, foolish mortals!," a sign read. I couldn't figure out any way to interact with it.
Good thing I never found a way to "play" with it.
Once I was out, I made the usual rounds, selling my excess stuff, replenishing my luck, and replenishing my reagents. I had enough money to get almost 999 (the maximum) of each reagent.
But when I then visited the Mad Monks to level up, I was short of the amount I needed to train all of my characters. I tried attacking them again and swiftly died at their hands. Determined to beat them, I tried a third time, parking my Runemaster in a corner square where she could only be approached by one enemy at a time, and blasting them with "Forward-Disrupt-Disrupt-Disrupt" the moment they did. I healed myself with the 16x "Healing" spell when necessary. By the time the battle was over, the Runemaster was the only one alive, and she'd mixed and cast so many spells that some of my reagents had gone from 999 to the low 200s--but I had won.
My Runemaster stands alone, shredding enemy after enemy with "Disrupt."
In previous attempts to beat the monks, I thought the battle was like a banner encounter, but it turns out that it's the opening room of a small dungeon. More monks attacked as I explored, but thankfully not as many as the initial room.
The dubious reward of a difficult dungeon.
I found my way to a door that was unlocked with one of the "lost keys" that I've been collecting. It led to a room with a treasure chest, which had a sword called "Occam's Razor" in it. It's a decent sword, but I don't think it's as good as what my characters were already carrying (two Ethereal Blades and a Wraith Blade). I didn't find any other doors for the other two keys.
I killed hundreds of monks to get their respect.
The one good outcome from the experience is that the monks will train us for free--which is good because I needed every penny to replenish my reagents from that one battle. I headed to the next dungeon city, Guidato, dead broke. There's all kinds of good-looking stuff in the blacksmiths' shops and artificers' shops that I haven't been able to afford, too. You know I like a tight economy.

Time so far: 26 hours