Thursday, February 22, 2024

NetHack [3.1]: Blessed and Cursed

Random increases in attributes for no discernible reason were characteristic of this oddly "blessed" session--at least for a while.
Aamanz the Caveman didn't get very far. I overestimated the strength of the caveman's stomach, and he died of poison after eating a rotting kobold corpse. But I did pretty well with the next character, Aanzim the Archaeologist (god: Quetzalcoatl). The archaeologist is modeled on Indiana Jones, starting each life with a bullwhip, leather jacket and fedora. But he also has some useful tools, including a pick-axe, which chops through walls and obstacles, and a tinning kit, which lets you turn corpses into stored food for (usually safe) consumption later.
On Level 1, I noticed two features that I don't remember from previous NetHack versions:
  • The game occasionally gives you messages that "you feel strong!" or "you feel wise!" and raises your attributes accordingly. I'm not sure what actions prompt these messages, but I think I got stronger from kicking down a door.
  • You occasionally run into hints scribbled on the floor, sometimes with missing letters. The first time, I got: "They say a floatin? eye can defeat M?dusa." I think it refers to the ability to see monsters but not to become petrified while blindfolded with the "Telepathy" intrinsic, which you get from eating a floating eye. Later, I got (without the missing letters): "They say that a xorn knows of no obstacles when pursuing you," referring to the ability of the creature to tunnel through stone.
I assume they get harder to interpret as you move downward.
On Level 2, I found a fountain and drank from it. It spawned a demon, who offered me a wish. That was quite a bit of fortune. I spent a long time thinking about the wish. I nearly wished for a Wand of Wishing, but I figured the game wouldn't allow the loophole. I looked at some of my entries from my previous wins and decided to try a "blessed +2 Silver Dragon Scale Mail." The game said it didn't know what I was talking about. I tried again with gray dragon scale mail and it worked. So I have a high-AC item that resists magic. That should help a lot in the early levels. I'm sure many of you will have opinions about better items to wish for this early in the game, and I look forward to hearing them.
I don't know if this would have worked, but I deleted it before it was too late.
Level 2 also had a "delicatessen" offering piles and piles of food. I didn't buy any yet, as I was "satiated" and still had a few rations and tinned items, but it's nice to know it's there. I probably won't starve to death in the first 10 levels.
On Level 3, I managed to eat a floating eye and gain telepathy. I also got a random point of strength and constitution. More importantly, I found my first level in this version with two staircases going down. I took the first, and it led me to the first level of the Gnomish Mines. I confess I didn't expect the gnomes to be hostile, but they were. Although they're pretty easy, a rope golem nearly killed me (I couldn't get away because there was an NPC on the other side of me), and I had to pray to Quetzacoatl to get my health back after it got too low. 
Arriving in the Gnomish Mines for the first time.
On Level 6, I found a bunch of stores: Luds' Lightning Store, Sarangan's Delicatessen, Budereyri's General Store, and Nosnehpets' Hardware Store. The level was patrolled by non-hostile guards. I don't know if they're gnomes. They got upset when I drank from the fountains or tried to get into locked doors, so I didn't agitate them. 
A couple of awesome things happened on the level. First, enemies--including well-equipped gnome wizards and uruk-hai--kept spawning, so I kept killing them, taking their equipment to the general store, and getting paid. Eventually, I had enough to buy almost everything in the general store. I took a chance on a wand, and it turned out to be--I kid you not--a Wand of Wishing. At this point, I made the rookie mistake of not immediately wishing for a Scroll of Recharging and instead went with my second option from earlier, +2 Speed Boots. But I still have the wand, so I'll hold onto it until I get a Scroll of Recharging.

Second, a room on the level had an altar. When I entered the room, the game said that I felt at peace, so I guess it was probably lawful. I then sacrificed a gnome wizard on it, and my "pleased" god gave me a samurai sword named Snickersee, which I assume is better than my whip.
Nothing about what happens next is, alas, "wise."
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I've met a few friendly creatures. You can talk to them, but they just give one line canned responses. Hobbits always "ask about the One Ring." Dwarves always "talk about mining."
If you don't know, it's already too late.
  • I'm on the road this week and I forgot to bring my external numberpad. I had to play all my sessions with the on-screen keyboard to move diagonally. (There's a way to change the settings to allow diagonal movement with regular keys, but it's a weird cluster and I didn't want to screw up my muscle memory that way.)
Sigh. Go ahead. I'm ready. Explain why that cluster makes perfect sense somehow.
  • Enemies do indeed pick things up and use them against you in this version. They can also suffer effects from using cursed items.
Should've identified it first!
  • At one point, I killed an orc inside a store, and when I went to claim his stuff, the store owner told me I'd have to buy it. I guess that makes a certain amount of sense.
I was feeling pretty good about Aanzim's prospects, but it was time to head down for another conference session. I left the game running on my laptop in my hotel room. I had failed to note that the power cord had come loose from the transformer. I returned three hours later to find my computer had died, taking my DOSBox session and my character with it.
I'm going to need to take a few days.
Time so far: 5 hours

Monday, February 19, 2024

The Shadow of Yserbius: And Maps Have Made All the Difference

Thanks. I'll keep that in mind when I play a completely different game.
At some point in the last five hours, it became clear that continuing with this game was a somewhat ridiculous idea, but I continued anyway. I kept making loops through the various levels of Yserbius, getting as far as I could, dying frequently, respawning outside the mountain, leveling up, and buying inventory upgrades when I could afford them. There is a certain pleasure in getting killed repeatedly by certain enemies, improving, and watching your odds against them even out and then tilt in your favor. I suppose that's the only thing that kept me going.
I started writing up my experiences for this entry, toying with the idea of ending it here, when I got confused about where I had encountered certain NPCs and how certain dungeon levels connected to others. I started making my own maps and, as I should have come to expect by now, my experience with the game completely changed. Manually mapping changes everything. It becomes a goal in itself. It relieves the experience of somewhat boring dungeon slogs by frequently diverting you to a parallel activity. It makes you feel like you're making progress even when nothing particularly interesting is happening in the game. And it helps to keep better track of puzzles and problems. As I mapped, it occurred to me that the experience of mapping a tiled game is one that I should cherish, as the number of games that allow it (let alone require it) is swiftly diminishing.
Making maps gave my gaming a shot in the arm.
Combat got easier with my character leveling, with my equipment upgrades, and as I experimented with spells. In any battle that poses any danger, I typically cast "Shield" during the first round, reducing the damage I take from physical attacks. After that, I've learned that "Poison Cloud" does a great job softening up stacks of enemies. It only does modest damage per round, but if I can survive four or five rounds, the cloud will often wipe out half a dozen enemies at once. My physical attacks, which originally killed maybe one enemy per round, started to rack up a lot more critical hits. One thing I like about this game is that if you swing at a stack of enemies and you kill one, any excess damage is transferred to the next enemy. Some critical hits let me slay an entire stack at one time.
I win the battle after my "Poison Cloud" takes care of 4 troll rangers at once.
Keeping enough spell points to support a long expedition would be a problem if I didn't find mana potions everywhere. I typically start each expedition with my inventory full of mana potions, purchased in the shop. Each potion has half a dozen doses. After each combat, I fully heal, then chug enough of a potion to get my mana back up to maximum. Even with so much use, I often leave potions lying in the rubble because my inventory is full.
Incidentally, inventory might become a real problem at some point. By the end of this session, I had acquired two unique lockpicks and two unique keys. That's 40% of my inventory space right there. I assume they won't be the last picks and keys I encounter. I don't know when it will be safe to get rid of them. 

Some miscellaneous notes on exploration and character development:
  • I don't know if the game has secret doors. I haven't found one so far.  
  • I'm not sure what the "Detect" skill is supposed to do. It hasn't worked in any place that I've employed it.
I try "Detect" at every dead end, but nothing ever happens.
  • Levels are interconnected with teleporters, which look like doors.
  • Aside from keyed doors, teleporters, and trap doors, there have been no navigational obstacles so far--no traps, spinners, hidden doors, puzzle doors, levers, plates, dark squares, and so forth.
  • There's a "Leadership" skill that supposedly "increases strength, defense, and initiative of all party members." I hope that includes the one who possesses it, too, or I've been wasting points in it.
  • I have a high "Fencing" skill. Because of that, when I equip a sword, the game says, "Fencing skill will be helpful!" It does not say this when I equip a katana, supposedly the best sword, so I guess a katana isn't drawing from that skill.
As so.
  • While exploring, I found a Sword of Ice. I got excited, thinking that it was a magic sword that I could use, but the game said that it wasn't allowed by my guild. Later, though, when I found a Sword of the Flames, I was able to equip it with no problem. 
  • I started to find medallions. I'm currently equipping a "Carnivorous Medallion." I have no idea what it does.
  • The game decided that my maximum agility is 8. It won't let me increase it beyond that when I level up.

The Dungeon Entrance to Yserbius is 11 x 10. There are no encounters in its squares. Doors lead south to the Soldiers' Quarters, east to the Hall of Doors, and north to the Mines. The only thing of interest on the level is a locked door in the northwest corner. "Only heroes of the twentieth level or higher may venture beyond this door," a message says. I still have seven levels to go.
He's such a cuddly-looking cave bear.
For no other reason that it's right from the entrance and I tend to follow the right wall, I spent most of the initial hours exploring the Soldiers' Quarters. An early NPC, a human barbarian, questions why it's called that, as there don't seem to be any quarters or soldiers. A gremlin wizard offers some backstory, indicating that Yserbius is on an island, and its population is cut off from the rest of the world since the volcano makes the seas too rough for ships to approach. Other NPCs on the level say that I can acquire skills in the dungeon, and another says there are polar bears and ice lions deeper in the dungeon. A final one, a troll knight, tells me of a maze under Cleowyn's Palace that only thieves seem to be able to get through.

Random enemies, it turns out, do not scale with the strength of the character. I kept meeting individual wolves, goblins, spiders, imps, and other denizens well beyond my ability to just swat them away. As I reported last time, fixed encounters are a lot harder, but by Level 8, I was handling them with ease. Both the Soldiers' Quarters and the Maze have a fetish for combinations of halfling clerics and troll rangers, the former dangerous for their spells and the latter for their ability to paralyze. "Shield" stops them from doing much damage and "Poison Cloud" kills them both within a few rounds.
Chester reaches an unlucky level.
So far, I haven't solved a few mysteries and puzzles in the Soldiers' Quarters:
  • Four locked doors, two of which seem to go into the same room in the northeast. I've tried all four keys and picks that I found in the Mines.
Nothing opens this door.
  • A troll ranger NPC says: "Unless you have especially sharp eyes for traps, you should heed the sign at the end of the corridor. This bum leg of mine is proof of that sign's warning." The problem is, there's no sign at the end of the corridor, and I haven't encountered a single trap in the game so far.
  • At the end of one corridor, the game says, "You stumble upon an almost-empty nesting area." This sounds like text that would precede an encounter with some monster nesting there, but nothing happens.
The only exit from the Soldiers' Quarters was to the east, through a door marked "STAY OUT!" It led to the Treasury, Level 1, and specifically to an area so full of floor traps that I can barely move without falling down to the Basement beneath. The Basement, meanwhile, is hard to map fully because of a lot of one-way doors. I'm still in the process of mapping both. The basement has several NPCs, including an orc knight who says there's a "strange elfin race" deeper in the dungeon; a human barbarian who gives useless (for a single-player game) advice on party composition; a gnome thief who says there's more to the basement than meets the eye; and a human thief who says there's an area called the Wizard's Challenge on Level 3.
The Basement has a fountain that healed me once and then never again.
The Basement has the only location that I currently cannot pass because of a battle. In the southeast corner, in a 3 x 3 room, I meet a group of enemies that includes at least one king hobgoblin. He always goes before me, blasts through my defenses, and kills me in a single attack. The only luck I've had is to cast "Petrify" the first round on the king, but one of his allies just dispels it immediately.
The only battle I cannot get past so far.
East of the Dungeon Entrance is the Hall of Doors, which is only 16 x 8 unless a teleporter or secret door takes me to another half. Its NPCs mostly recap the backstory, except for a troll cleric who says that he saw a message on the floor that said if you want to reach the King's Apartments, you must "take a turn for the worse." He thinks it means that you have to get sick. There are two doors in the Hall of Doors that I cannot open and a northern exit to The Vestibule, which I've only begun to explore.
The north exit from the Dungeon Entrance goes to The Mines. I've almost completely explored its first level, but I haven't mapped it. I found two keys and a lockpick on the level, all of which were instrumental on some of the doors. An eastern exit leads to the Vestibule. I want to go through the Mines again and see if the lockpicks and keys reappear if you discard them, so I'll know if I can get them back if I discard them too early to save inventory space.
A lot of the NPC dialogue in The Mines has to do with locks and lockpicks.
Just as I was closing this entry, I found another lockpick in the Treasury. Lockpicks are differentiated by color; I've found green and red in addition to Cleowyn's Lockpick. I also just realized that I can manually put stuff in my "Quest Items" pouch, leaving more free spaces in my backpack. I assume that in a multi-player game, quest items are shared among all characters. 
I don't know what to do with all the money I've been accumulating. I've bought every equipment upgrade. I'll have to try some of the expensive scrolls and see if they're worth it. 
The 40,000-gold piece "helmet" was the last thing I bought worth saving for.
I'm inclined to continue with this single-character experience for at least a little while longer. It's a competent enough dungeon crawler, not terribly far from Wizardry or The Bard's Tale in quality, except for the baffling decision not to allow the single player to create a full party.
Time so far: 9 hours

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Game 504: NetHack [3.1 Series] (1993)

I love these moments in which my character is new and full of possibilities.
NetHack [3.1 Series]
United States
Independently developed and released in four versions between January and July 1993
Date Started: 11 February 2024
There was nearly a two-year gap after NetHack 3.0.10, the last release in the 3.0 series, which I covered--good lord--eleven years ago, in a series of entries that took 262 total hours. (Coverage starts here.) Version 3.1.0 was released in January 1993, and three bug-fix releases followed, culminating in 3.1.3 in July 1993. After that, it would be nearly three years before the next release, 3.2.0, in April 1996. Thus, the 3.1 series occupies a clear temporal pocket.
At this point, I've won Hack 1.0.3, NetHack 2.3e, and NetHack 3.0.10, none of which felt terribly different from the others. But from what I'm reading, NetHack 3.1.0 represents the most significant update in content and mechanics since Rogue. This is the first version to feature a branching dungeon, with multiple separate worlds such as the Gnomish Mines and the Elemental Planes. My understanding is that the Wizard of Yendor, now found in "Gehennom" rather than Hell, no longer has the Amulet of Yendor, but rather a book that you need to enact a ritual to get the Amulet of Yendor. There's a stronger mythology to the game, including a backstory. Mechanically, there are changes to the lighting and encumbrance systems. There are new objects, monsters, and artifacts.
A more detailed backstory distinguishes this latest edition of the long running series.
(If you're just joining us, NetHack is a freeware "roguelike" game, meaning that it adopts the conventions of Rogue [1980], including ASCII characters for graphics, randomly-generated dungeon levels, a wide variety of inventory items to identify and find, a large number of commands called by individual keyboard letters, and--most important--permadeath. When you die in the dungeon, your character is erased and you have to start over completely.)
At the outset, I'm going to tell you that I don't know if I have the stamina to replicate my "honest" win from 2013. My greater knowledge and experience with the game should mean that it doesn't take quite as long, but then again, that experience is over a decade old now. Moreover, it simply doesn't feel like a feat that I have to replicate. Thus, my current plan is to do my best with the first 10 characters to reach Level 3. After that, assuming it comes to it, I'll allow myself to save every couple of levels.
NetHack 3.1.3 opens the same way as the previous one. The game offers you the opportunity to play an archaeologist, barbarian, caveman, elf, healer, knight, priest, rogue, samurai, tourist, valkyrie, or wizard. Each has its own starting attributes and inventory. Other than "caveman" no longer being hyphenated, nothing has changed here. The game will also choose for you, which I'm going to do for the first 10 characters, so I get a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. In this case, the game chooses a samurai.
A new game begins.
But for the first time in the series, after character creation, we get a backstory:
After the Creation, the cruel god Moloch rebelled against the authority of Marduk the Creator. Moloch stole from Marduk the most powerful of all the artifacts of the gods, the Amulet of Yendor, and he hid it in the dark cavities of Gehennom, the Under World, where he now lurks, and bides his time.
The story goes on to say that I am a newly-trained Hatamoto, heralded from birth to be the instrument of my god, Amaterasu Omikami. I am destined to recover the amulet for my god. The name of the first level of the character and the name of the god differ by class. For rogues, it's Footpad and Kos; for healers, it's Rhizotomist and Hermes; for priests, it's Aspirant and Shan Lai Ching. The game mixes a lot of mythology: Marduk was the patron god of Babylon; Moloch is a Canaanite god in the Bible; Amaterasu is the goddess of the sun in Shinto mythology; and Hermes is of course Greek. As for "Shan Lai Ching," I'm guessing it's a play on Shan Hai Ching, the classic Chinese text also known as Classic of Mountains and Seas. NetHack has always been a bit of a melting pot that way. I'll cover other characters' gods as I get to them. I understand in future versions, they differ by the character's alignment.
As usual, the character begins on Level 1 of a randomly-generated dungeon, with the character represented by an @ symbol. I'll go ahead and recount Chester the Samurai's adventures in detail. I'm playing with NetHack version 3.0.10 open in an adjacent window so I can note the differences. I start by checking the command list to refresh my memory. The only difference I can see is that the new game has a "farlook" command (;), but it just seems to duplicate the existing "whatis" command (/), identifying an object by cursor.
Like its predecessors, the game benefits from exhaustive documentation, called up with the ? key.
I'm standing on a magenta potion when I start, which I pick up. Until I identify or swallow it, I won't know exactly what it does. Ditto the nearby scroll labeled PRIRUTSENIE. I find it's usually best just to read scrolls right away, at least early in the game, since it's the only way to find a Scroll of Identification, which you need to identify most other things. In this case, it turns out to be something else: "You feel like someone is helping you." The game prompts me to give it a name (for when I find the next one), so I put "helping." Eleven years ago, I would have remembered exactly what that message meant.

For other equipment, my character started with a +0 katana, a +0 wakizashi, a +0 yumi (bow), 27 +0 ya (arrows), an uncursed +0 splint mail, and 4 fortune cookies. The yumi and ya replace shurikens from the previous version, and I got one more fortune cookie than 3.0.10 allowed. It's soon joined by a cream pie, on the floor next to the scroll. There's nothing like eating a cream pie found on a dungeon floor.
Finally, a little dog is following me. NetHack always gives you a little pet to help at the beginning. I'm aware that there are ways to make the pet awesomely useful, but it's just a little more micromanaging than I want. I'll probably abandon him when I go down to the next level, if I don't accidentally kill him first.  
The samurai is not a stealth character. That's a ninja. Get your Japanese archetypes straight, gaijin.
I exit the room and take a hallway to another room, where I find a closed door and my first enemy: a newt, represented by a colon (:). I attack him with my katana by moving into him. He dies in a couple of hits but I lose 3 hit points in the process. These will regenerate at a rate of 1 per every 15 moves at my current level. The newt leaves no corpse.
A corridor leading from this room dead-ends. I hold down the S)earch key for a few seconds, but I do not find the door I suspect is there. I loop around to the other side, picking up a magic marker and 15 gold pieces. I k)ick open a nearby door which won't open with the O)pen command. The next couple of rooms are empty except for 7 gold pieces. On the way back to an earlier area, I kill another newt in the hallway, which leaves a corpse. I don't remember that newt corpses do anything for you, but neither do I remember that they do anything negative. I e)at it. The game says it "tastes terrible" but doesn't otherwise affect me. At worst, I just staved off hunger for another few rounds.

A kobold zombie (Z) randomly spawns as I pass through a room, and I destroy it in one hit. Another newt falls to my katana in a corridor. I miss a message and try using ALT-P to bring it back, forgetting that the appropriate command is CTRL-P. The game says that I pray to my god, who is displeased with me, probably for praying when I didn't need it. Praying can get you out of some sticky situations, but I don't remember the specifics.
Another room has a sewer rat, killed in one hit, and a "grid bug," which I don't remember from previous versions. My dog manages to get that one. I find a purple-red potion, get caught in a bear trap for a few turns, and find some more gold. One of the rooms I explore is dark, meaning I can only see a few squares around me. I have no lighting source, so I just have to deal with it. I find a gunyoki, which is what the game calls a food ration for a samurai. I don't think the previous version gave special terms for the samurai. Anyway, I'm good on food for a while, which makes me feel less worried about holding down S)earch to get the last couple of rooms.
My dog experience-jacks me.
I keep accidentally not picking up stuff because the last roguelike I played (Crypt) did it automatically. There's a way to set automatic pickups in NetHack, but I don't want to do it because at some point it becomes annoying.
As I wrap up the first level (minus an area I can't access because of a boulder blocking the corridor), I get hungry already. I e)at my cream pie.
I had hoped to find some more useful stuff on Level 1 and make it to character Level 2. It's not an auspicious beginning as I head down, leaving the dog behind me. I can always go back for him; NetHack doesn't delete the stairways like Rogue does.
Beginning Level 2.
Level 2 begins in a room with a spiked wand, some gold, and another newt, which I swiftly kill. There's also a statue of a kobold; I seem to remember that you can't really do much with statues. I get hungry again within a few minutes, so I eat a goblin corpse. Killing the goblin gets me to character Level 2, which raises my maximum hit points by 6 and my maximum power (spell energy) by 5. 
I find a bronze plate mail, which overloads me. I risk that possibility that it's cursed by trying it on. Oddly, it affords no better armor class than my splint mail (which I think means it must be -1), so I drop it. 
In further rooms on Level 2, I pick up a brown gem, a red gem, and a few more piles of gold. I kill two jackals and another newt and trip a trap that causes a rock to fall on my head. When I've finished exploring the level, I haven't found the stairs down, so I have to start searching every wall multiple times. This accelerates hunger, to alleviate which I eat the dead newt, which is rotten, which causes me to go blind for about a dozen turns. Eventually, I find the hidden room I missed, kill two more grid bugs, and pick up two spellbooks in the same room. The books turn out to have "Cause Fear" and "Detect Unseen," both of which could be useful. I typically don't rely too much on spells in NetHack, but maybe I'll try harder this time.
If something is unseen, how do I know to cast "Detect Unseen"?
Since I make it to Level 3, this first character is going to "count" against the first 10. I thus start walking more slowly and considering things more carefully. This means searching for traps occasionally, switching to my bow to shoot enemies from afar when they're more than a few squares away, and not taking unnecessary chances like kicking doors (which can injure you). Unfortunately, I still blunder into a water trap and my katana rusts; I switch it for my wakizashi. A chest has a dagger, some gold, and another wand.
Hunger reasserts itself as a problem. I blow through all of my fortune cookies, which have the following hints:
  • They say that greased objects will slip out of monsters' hands.
  • Extra staircases lead to extra levels
  • Eat your carrots. They're good for your eyes.
  • Ever tried reading while confused?
But soon I'm starving and fainting because I'm starving. In desperation, I try the two potions. One causes me to levitate; the other paralyzes me for a few rounds. I run up against a floating eye, who can paralyze, so I stand away and shoot arrows at him. Killing him gets me to Level 4, but I won't be able to enjoy it long if I can't find any food. In desperation, I eat an acid blob, which causes me to lose 10 hit points, but I don't think it does anything for my hunger. Neither does the corpse of a giant rat that I kill in the hallway. I pray to Amaterasu, but it says he's displeased.
This is always a bad message.
I manage to get from "Fainting" to just "Hungry" by eating some more rats and a floating eye corpse. I got lucky with the floating eye. They can paralyze, but I killed him in one hit. I ate his corpse, too, and the game said I felt a "strange mental acuity." This indicates that I gained the ability to detect monsters if my eyes are closed; I believe I need a bandana or another way to blind myself to activate it. Anyway, it's one of the many things on the long "ascension kit" list.
I enjoy that good fortune for about 5 seconds before I run into another floating eye, get paralyzed for about five turns, then awaken to find a giant rat on the other side of me. In desperation, I use one of my unidentified wands. It turns the floating eye into a Mordor orc, which promptly kills me when I faint again. Identifying my equipment shows that the dagger was a blessed +1 elven dagger, my ring was a cursed Ring of Polymorph, and my wands were of Cancellation and Polymorph. After I see my intrinsics, the game asks if I want an "account of foes vanquished." That's new to this version. I killed 28 creatures during my brief foray. 
A new post-game option gives you an account of your conquests.
That's Character #1. What lessons can I take from the experience? I'm not sure I did anything "wrong"; I just got unlucky with the availability of food.
I start again with Aamanz the Caveman, a Troglodyte of the god Anu (Mesopotamian god of the sky). He begins with a +1 club, a +1 bow, 15 +0 arrows, and a +0 leather armor. I seem to recall they suffer fewer penalties for eating bad things. We'll see how he turns out.
Time so far: 2 hours

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Game 503: The Shadow of Yserbius (1992)

The Shadow of Yserbius
United States
Ybarra Productions (developer); Sierra Online (publisher)
Multiplayer online version released 1992 for DOS on the Sierra Network (later the ImagiNation Network)
Solo offline version released 1993 for DOS
Taken offline in 1996
Date Started: 9 February 2024 
I often wonder why the makers of MMOs don't try harder to ensnare MMO-shy audiences (like me) by adapting them to solo audiences. If it weren't for the simultaneous presence of other human players, I would be all over World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls Online, probably to my ruin. In fact, there are many things I find attractive about the sub-genre, including constantly-changing worlds and near-endless expansions. I would happily pay a monthly fee to experience a world like Skyrim in which there were always new quests and surprises. But you'd have to pay me to experience it with other lunatics who think it's acceptable to put digits in their character names.
I was thus initially glad to see that the fondly-remembered Shadow of Yserbius had offered an offline "solo mode" version that included the game's first expansion, The Fates of Twinion (1993). And to be clear: this game was specifically marketed for a single player; it's not just an example of a game where offline play was technically possible but not encouraged, like Neverwinter Nights (1991). Given that, it's a little disappointing that at least one of the features (the tavern) demands that you connect to the Sierra Network and you can only adventure with a single player even though the game is clearly balanced for a party.
This is a pretty cool cover. There's also no doubt that you're buying a "solo" version.
The Digital Antiquarian published a long piece in 2018 about the genesis and growth of the Sierra Network. He recounts that Ken Williams, Sierra's co-founder and president, got excited about the possibilities of online gaming in 1988, when he first signed on to Prodigy. In 1989, the company created a kind of "shell" for accessing CompuServe called "Sierra's On-Line"; shortly after, they launched a Sierra BBS. Finally, the Sierra Network went online in 1991, offering flat rate access for $12 a month to California residents and $5 per month plus $2 per hour to the rest of the nation. In 1992, the company offered three "premium" services on the Network: SierraLand, LarryLand (a casino), and MedievaLand; unlimited access to all of them cost $150 a month. Yserbius was the "centerpiece" of the latter service, the Network's better-looking answer to Neverwinter Nights. In 1993, the Sierra Network changed its name to the ImagiNation Network.
Yserbius was designed by Joe Ybarra, a former Apple and Electronic Arts employee with production credits on Starflight (1986) and The Bard's Tale (1986), among others. As a designer, we've only seen his work on Spellcraft: Aspects of Valor, which I did not finish. The design team included Karl Buiter (Sentinel Worlds, Hard Nova) and Michael E. Moore (Mars Saga, BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception). Given the unconventional choices in the developers' earlier titles, it's surprising to see here what is essentially a nice-looking Wizardry clone.
I never like to see "1.0." It suggests to me that no bugs have been fixed.
An introductory cinematic establishes the setting as Twinion, once a "prosperous port ruled by the Galabryan Kings." They made the mistake of hiring a wizard named Arnakkian Slowfoot, who killed or arranged the killing of King Leowyn. Leowyn's son, Prince Theowayen, succeeded him, but he became a puppet of the evil wizard. Seeking immortality, Arnakkian summoned the Time Elemental, En-Li-Kil, to pump him for knowledge, but En-Li-Kil escaped his bonds. With the help of some demonic friends, the elemental raised a volcano--the titular Yserbius--right next to the royal palace and buried it in lava. Presumably, Arnakkian and Theowayen were killed, but the text doesn't explicitly say. Later, King Cleowyn the Cruel forced dwarven slaves to carve a castle into Yserbius, but after he took up residency there, the king and his court mysteriously vanished. Now adventurers occasionally mount expeditions into the mountain, seeking fabled treasures.
I'm guessing a wizard is about to get involved.
Jazz hands!

That is an innovative form of revenge.
The game begins in the guild, where the player chooses from a slate of existing adventurers or creates his own. There are human, orc, elf, troll, gnome, halfling, and gremlin races and barbarian, knight, ranger, cleric, thief, and wizard classes. The player chooses between harmony and chaos alignments and allocates a small pool of bonus points to the established rolls for strength, defense, agility, and initiative. You also see your starting spells and skills and can add a few bonus points to those, too.
Character creation.
I created a human knight (I know--boring), who started with "Shield" and "Resist" spells and the skill of "Binding" (wounds). You can also buy and sell goods in the guild, but you start with a decent set and not much money, so that's best saved for later. Once you leave the guild, you're on a pretty view of Yserbius and its environments, but the only things you can do are re-enter the guild, enter the dungeon, or quit the game. A "tavern" option is unavailable for offline play.
The mountain has two entrances. At first, I was confused when both led to the same place. It turns out that if you save the game in the dungeon, the lower entrance takes you back to your save point while the upper entrance takes you back to the dungeon's entry hall. The top entrance also restores your health and mana while the bottom does not.
To clarify: the volcano is actively spewing lava, but we can somehow go explore its caves?
Once you enter the dungeon, the game switches to a familiar first-person view. I agree that it looks nicer than Neverwinter Nights, but it's still tiles and still textures. 
There are things to love and hate about the interface. On the "love" side, you move, turn, and strafe using the numberpad. On the hate side, none of the other actions have keyboard shortcuts, so you have to do everything but moving by clicking around with the mouse. This becomes particularly tedious in combat. But on the plus side again, the automap and paperdoll inventory system both work very well.
I guess I'll come back.
But the best part of the interface is that you can right-click on anything to get more information. Right-clicking on command icons gives you a description of what they do. Right-clicking on spells tells you about their effects. Back on the negative side, right-clicking on weapons and armor tells you nothing about them. Neither does equipping them. You have to go by relative prices, I guess.

Most of all, having only a single portrait where four are clearly intended makes the offline version feel unfinished. You start to notice the consequences almost immediately. The 11 x 9 entry hall has doorways to three dungeon levels, titled Soldiers' Quarters, Hall of Doors, and the Mines. There are no battles in the entry hall. Random encounters in the other dungeons are with one or two enemies, typically, but fixed encounters usually have multiple parties with more than half a dozen foes. I had to grind to Level 8 before I could even hope to win any battles against these fixed foes sometimes.
Battles against single snakes are winnable at this level. This one is not.
And yet the character development process was rewarding. Sometimes, I'm just embarrassingly simple. All I want is to hit orcs with sticks, pick up shiny things, and buy bigger sticks. So somehow I didn't mind the first couple of hours of the game, in which both character leveling and equipment improvements were relatively brisk. I danced back and forth in the corridors, let the enemies come to me (you don't see them in the environment; they just suddenly appear, like in The Bard's Tale), and killed them one or two at a time.

Early game enemies would be familiar to any CRPG veteran. There are a lot of animals (wolves, snakes, mountain lions), fantasy creatures (imps, goblins, skeletons), and humanoids, including combinations of the game's races and classes (orc ranger, hobbit thief, dwarf knight). Their graphics are well-drawn and lightly animated. 
This is a nice picture of a skeleton, but I feel like we've seen it before.
Combat is okay, but again clearly meant for a multi-character party. There are six "slots" on your side of the screen and six on the enemies', but the enemies can have multiple foes in each slot. You go in order of initiative. Available actions are attack, cast a spell, use a skill, use an item, or flee. For most offensive actions, you have to choose what enemy stack to apply them to, though I suspect later there will be spells that affect all enemies. I haven't faced any parties using more than two slots so far. The combat system is identical to Wizardry or The Bard's Tale in that both sides line up their attacks and then they all execute at once, in order of initiative.
Combat can take a while in the early game.
I died in about 50% of combats when I was at Level 1, unable to even hit the foes half the time, my own hit point total easily wiped out. However, I soon learned to use the game's advantages. First, even classes that don't sound like they're spellcasters have spells. My knight started with "Shield" and "Resist." "Shield" turned out to be a life-saver; it subtracts directly from enemy damage and ensured that I often took no damage even when enemies hit. Second, my "Binding" skill could heal me to full health in the middle of combat. Third, Potions of Healing are absurdly cheap and work about 5 times before they run out. 
Looting treasure at the end of battle.
But perhaps most important of all, making the game fundamentally too easy, is the fact that death has no consequences. When you die, you appear back outside the dungeon, having lost no items, gold, or experience earned. I'd say that it's a shortcut back to town, but when you save the game in a dungeon and quit, you reload back in town anyway.
After only a few victories, I leveled up. Leveling up gives you a couple of points to allocate to your four attributes, a few points to allocate to spells, and a few points to allocate to skills. Plus, you get new spells and skills. As I went from Level 1 to 8, I got the spells of "Heal," "Lightning," "Dissipate," "Poison Cloud," "Cure," "True Seeing," "Energy Field," and "Bless," and the skills of "Detect," "Rune Reading," "Deflect Magic," and "Fencing." Some of the skills are passive; for instance, "Fencing" adds to my attack abilities when I use a sword.
My skill list by the time I reached Level 7. Note that I've right-clicked on "Detect Magic" to see how it works.
As I leveled up, I started by putting most of my points into spells I was already getting a lot of use out of, like "Shield," but in addition to improving the spell's effectiveness, it also increases the casting cost. My knight can cast maybe six "Shield" spells (if I cast no other spells) before I have to leave the dungeon and rest, or find a mana potion, so later I adopted more of an even distribution of points.
Equipment upgrades were also steady, though equipment is a little odd in this game. If you favor a sword, for instance, you can buy a short sword for 25 gold pieces, a broadsword for 125, a longsword for 1,500, or a katana for 6,000. The most expensive weapon is, oddly, a "war hammer" for 65,000. Similarly, helmets go in order of leather cap (35), head chainmail (700), war hat (4,500), and helmet (40,000). So the steps are pretty significant between upgrades, though with four primary things to upgrade (helms, armor, weapon, and shield), I managed to buy something new almost every couple of levels. I'm currently saving for a ¤40,000 helmet and a ¤125,000 breast plate.
Looking over the item list.
Eventually, I got to the point where I could at least try some of the fixed battles, so I started exploring each of the three dungeons. As I did, I started encountering NPCs. They exist in fixed squares and just have one thing to say, with no interaction.
  • In the Soldiers' quarters, a human barbarian said, "This area is called the Soldiers' Quarters. Why it is so named is beyond me. I've wandered these halls for weeks and have found nothing resembling living quarters, much less any soldiers." 
  • In the Mines, an orc ranger: "King Cleowyn had a special lockpick which opened a set of doors in the Vestibule, leading to his Palace. He was the king of thieves, or so my father told me."
  • In the Hall of Doors, a human wizard: "The lone adventurer is often at a disadvantage in this cursed dungeon. Those deeper levels . . . oh, they are very dangerous, indeed."
I'm curious if he shows up in the MMO version.
  • Also in the Hall of Doors, a gremlin wizard: "The volcano Yserbius roils the sea and makes it unnavigable. We are doomed to live out our miserable lives, unknown to other peoples. I would give my left eyetooth for a way to escape this dull island."
  • Back in the Soldiers' Quarters, an elf cleric: "You may think you are limited to only those skills you acquire through your Guild. I know there are places in this dungeon where you may acquire new and different skills."
  • And still later in the Soldiers' Quarters, a troll knight: "Under Cleowyn's palace is a strange maze. The maze is infested with thieves, and they seem to be the only ones who know how to get through the thing."
Apparently, Cleowyn somehow built a "palace" in the volcano.
I really enjoy the automap, which keeps track of your overall progress, annotates things clearly, and will stay active while you move. 
When I was strong enough, I decided to go all-in on the Soldiers' Quarters. Every level has some unskippable fixed combats eventually. Here, for instance, the first one I have to get past has three vicious orc barbarians and three ornery human thieves. With a combination of "Shield" and healing in combat, I just make it. The good and bad news is that fixed combats don't "clear," so you can keep entering the same space for grinding. But if you barely survived a battle, you'll have to face it again if you hit a dead end on the other side.
An orc barbarian pops up in a hallway to tell me that a dwarf knight told her that there were polar bears and ice lions deep in the dungeon. She wants to know how that's possible in a volcano. I agree with her confusion. Around the next bend, I'm killed by a party of troll rangers and halfling clerics.
Who ever heard of "ice lions" at all?
Battles are deadliest during the first round, when the enemies' generally-superior initiative lets them get in a bevy of attacks before my "Shield" goes up. I find that if I can survive that without losing more than half my health, the battle is usually winnable after that. Every once in a while, you get lucky with a "crippling wound" or "devastating wound" attack and clear out an entire stack of enemies in one blow.
I clear out one group with a single attack. They kill me anyway.
Now that I need thousands of experience points between levels instead of a couple of hundred, I think I might lose my enthusiasm for the game a bit. The game needed a better ramp for enemy difficulty. It's like the creators adjusted the difficulty of random battles to account for a solo player but not the fixed battles.
The graphics are better, but what we have in Yserbius is a classic Wizardry experience from 12 years earlier: A combination of fixed and random battles; enemies do not appear in the environment; threaded, turn-based combat; and no memory within the game that fixed encounters have been "cleared." To extrapolate, I suspect that progress through the dungeon is going to rely exclusively on having certain inventory items in your possession. I grant that Yserbius has more interesting character development and a much more forgiving death system. Also, some commenters have suggested that there are Dungeon Master style puzzles to come.
A slightly different character creation window--or maybe it's the same as the original Yserbius and the solo version is different.
Meanwhile, a super-fan of the game going by the handle of "ZaneDubya" has re-written the game in C++ and has made it available online for multiple users, thus replicating the original MMO experience. You can read about it, download it, and play it at the MedievaLands web site. I created an account and created a new character (the creation interface was faithful in spirit but looked a bit different). No one was around when I popped into the tavern. The dungeon graphics were a little better than the original game, and the interface was modified to put the automap and a GTFO cluster on the main screen.
Dying in the MedievaLands remake.
I got killed by a scorpion almost immediately in my first battle. I'm not sure how you join with other characters. I'm toying with asking for volunteers to meet at a specific time and check it out as a multiplayer game, but I don't know how faithfully we'd be recreating the original experience. I'll think about it. If I do, no numbers in your character names.
Time so far: 4 hours