Sunday, June 30, 2024

Game 520: Dismal Passages (1992)

There are no passages in this game, dismal or otherwise, except for the opening screens.
Dismal Passages
United States
Independently developed and published as shareware
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 24 June 2024
Date Ended: 25 June 2024
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at time of posting: 199/521 (38%)   
Dismal Passages opens with one of the more gruesome backstories that we've seen in RPG history, all told on screens of red text. You awaken in the middle of the night to find that wraiths have invaded your house and are literally tearing your family apart. Your father, unable to accomplish anything with his shovel, goes first. Then your mother: "Blood spatters up against the sickened walls while your mother is being dissected before your eyes." You try to flee but one of the wraiths emits a miasma that makes you dizzy but "does not shield your vision from a white creature stabbing your sister through the abdomen and ripping her into two separate pieces." You are saved by the unexplained appearance of a wolf, who wounds one of the wraiths before becoming mortally wounded himself. The wraiths flee as the wolf beseeches you to avenge him and your family by killing the head wraith, whose name is apparently Vaargerold.
"Covered in your family's blood, you cower in the corner" appears in the backstories of so few RPGs.
Character creation consists of only a name. You then enter the realm--apparently called Drelg Artarvia, although you don't discover this until the end--standing outside the house of horror. The game uses a side-view interface in which you move right and left across the screen. I thought it might have been inspired by Ali Atabek's Rings of Zilfin (1986), but apparently by the author's own account, he based his early work on Below the Root (1984). [Ed. Mr. Kintz reported to me by email that he had played The Bard's Tale, Ultima, Phantasie, Moebius, Questron, and Gateway to Apshai, but he didn't remember ever playing Zilfin. It was a long shot.] Other than moving, there are only a few commands. E)nter transitions you between outdoor and indoor locations as long as you're standing next to a door. T)alk opens a conversation with any NPC in the area; S)earch will search the piece of furniture that you're adjacent to for objects. Some buildings have internal staircases, which you can C)limb and D)escend. You can check I)nventory or U)se an object at any time.
Walking through a town.
There are some mysteries to the interface. The bottom-central part of the screen would seem to be devoted to a close-up view of the character's immediate surroundings. Except that I don't think that it zooms the graphics at all, so you're left with an "isolated" view of the character's immediate surroundings, the equivalent of looking at an object through a paper tube instead of a proper magnifying lens. There is no place in the game where this interface element is necessary or even helpful. In the lower right, the character's health is given numerically beneath a heart, and his current gold is given numerically beneath a . . . what? The stylized "cg" at the top of the region means "current gold," an abbreviation the game uses elsewhere. But what is the little graphic supposed to be? I have no idea. It doesn't change or anything. [Ed. According to an email from Mr. Kintz, it's supposed to be the symbol that this world uses to represent currency, like a dollar sign or Euro sign. Also, "CG" doesn't stand for "current gold" but rather "crown gelds."]
Reaching the western end of the world.
You move between the game's areas by walking off the screen to the right or left. The game has about 100 such screens, not counting internal ones, with about 80% going east from the character's house and 20% going west. It would have been helpful if they had wrapped, but the western screens end at an ocean and the eastern ones end at a desert that you die in if you try to cross. Most screens just have landscape features, like mountains, trees, and grass, but some have houses, towers, or temples to enter.
Outside a gypsy wagon.
The player's goal is to visit each screen, talk to NPCs, and search for objects, all with the goal of putting together the items needed to enter the NetherRealm and kill the wraith. These clues are not in a linear order, so you have to do a fair amount of backtracking to assemble them all. In between civilized areas, you fight battles with a few types of monsters, collect gold, and use it to buy weapon and armor upgrades. This last bit is probably why MobyGames classifies it as an RPG, but the character never improves, and the overall focus of Dismal Passages is far more adventure-oriented. I finished it because it was short and I thought aspects of it spoke of hidden potential.
An important clue from the "gypsy prophetess."
You get most of the game's clues by talking and most of its objects by searching. Once NPC dialogue is initiated, you can ask (with  numbers) about the NPC, the Wraith, the plague (just hearing about that now!), runes, weapons, objects, and the NetherRealm. The first NPC you're likely to meet is Hornak, your "step-cousin" living next door. I had a chuckle about the unnecessary specificity of that relationship. Anyway, his answers are:
Who are you: I'm your step cousin, Hornak.
Wraith: Do not seek him, he will destroy you.
Plague: It has threatened our land's existence.
Runes: The runes speak of evil, they are dangerous.
Weapons: Get a coat of chained armour, quickly.
Objects: You'll need the Book of Nhurgle to get into the NetherRealm.
NetherRealm: I've heard there are 3 things you need to use to get there.
So, did my aunt or uncle remarry, or did my mother have a step-brother who had children?
Cousin Hornak is one of the more useful NPCs. A lot of them are a waste of time, such as this "false seer":
Who are you: A false seer. [Nice that she's honest.]
Wraith: I see that you will soon be destroyed by him.
Plague: AND you will contract the plague.
Runes: AND the runes will turn against you.
Weapons: AND your weapons will rust and become useless.
Objects: AND your objects will hold unspeakable horrors.
NetherRealm: And you will die in the nether realm by the Spirits of HIM.
Hornak wasn't kidding about getting some chainmail. Surviving the combats is the hardest part of the game, and in a longer game, it would affect the overall difficulty rating. Enemies whack away your hit points shockingly fast, and the only way to recover them is to spend the night in the inn, which is maybe 16 screens to the east of the starting screen. It's the only one. (One of the towns has a brothel, but if you try to use its services, you get knocked unconscious and robbed of all your money.) Staying one night costs 2 gold and restores 2 hit points. Although you start with 100 hit points, you can get up to 130 by staying at the inn. It's worth grinding to get to this point every time you pass through the town, although until you get some armor, it's hard to make any progress. You end up spending everything you earn on healing.
Weapons are sold in a shop near the inn, armor not for many more screens to the east. You can loot a suit of leather from a house, though. Weapons, in order of expense, are a dagger (you find one of these in your own house), a flesh hook, a bow, an axe, a Tkachi Blade, a crossbow, and a blunderbuss. The blunderbuss is far more expensive than the other weapons, but NPCs will tell you that it has a chance of blowing up in your hands, and the Tkachi Blade is in fact the best weapon.
NOTHING is free?! What a deal!
There isn't much to combat. There are four enemy types: something that looks like a bear, something that looks like a monk, something that looks like a bandit, and something that looks like a dinosaur (the hardest). Options are to attack, flee, change weapons, and talk. Flee occasionally works. If you attack, you and the enemy simply trade blows until one of you is dead. If you talk, the monk and bandit will give you a line, but they'll also just keep on attacking.
The game's four foes.
And fighting one of them.
Monsters can give you plague, which depletes your health every step. There's a guy in one of the towns that will cure it, but good luck getting to him in time. Plague is generally a death sentence.

Through a slow but painfully easy process of just talking to everyone about everything and searching every piece of furniture, you piece together the following:
1. To enter the NetherRealm, you need to stand on top of a mountain amid a field of mushrooms, then use, in order, the Box of Mystic Sands, the Book of Nhurgle, and the Staff of Void. The Box of Mystic Sands is found in a house. The Book of Nhurgle is in a madman's attic.
2. The Staff of Void is a composition of the five runes (Winter, 9 Hells, Oblivion, Pain, and the Abyss) and an Astral Compass. The compass is found in an old sailor's house at the western end of the row of screens.

3. The runes are each held by five temples, which dot the landscape in between cities. Each priest asks you a question about the game's lore; you learn the answer from other NPCs.

  • Who leads the damned to light? (LOZOR.)
  • What is the seventh planet from Eltorm? (ELAM DIRGE.)
  • What are the sacred words of Elgram? (YELT BRAM TOBOR.) 
  • Who is the god of the seas? (SALMARIA.)
  • A nonsense string of words. (KLLEYN.)

Getting the final rune.
4. To even get to the top of the mountain, you need to buy a set of climbing gear from a mountaineer west of the starting village.

5. To survive in the NetherRealm, you need to wear a Shroud of the Dead. You can loot one from a mausoleum, but you have to find a special key in a tower first.
This quest is getting kind of gross.
6. Vaargerold can only be killed with a "shaft of light." To get this, you have to use the Orb of Flight in a specific desert screen in which no cacti are visible. You find the Orb of Flight in the house of a merchant-trader.
That's not how it works!
7. After Vaargerold is destroyed, you have to use a gate to return to the real world. This came from a ghost in a ruined town. I nearly missed the clue because I didn't see the ghost standing there.

Once I had all the "ingredients" for the staff, I took them to Mitheral Enchanted Object Shop in the easternmost town and paid quite a bit of money to turn the items into the Staff of Void, though curiously I don't lose the individual items from my inventory.
"Combined with other magical objects" makes this sound like a scam.
I found the mountain surrounded by mushrooms after a few false tries, climbed to the top with the mountain gear, and then went through the Box, Book, Staff ritual.
"Mushrooms" could have been clearer.
A portal brought me to the NetherRealm, which was about a dozen screens of twisted, shadowy trees, stars, and an enormous crescent moon. One of the screens had a tower.
A star shines through what ought to be the solid part of the moon. This must be an Islamic land.
I entered and climbed several flights of stairs. At the top, Vaalgerold (sporting a new spelling of his name) appeared and said:
I have heard [that] you sought me. But I did not deem you bold enough to finish your quest. Since you have come so far, as others have, I will let you make the first move. To attack me with whatever means you have thought would destroy me. Some archaic weapon or outdated potion. Go ahead [and] make your move before I destroy you.
For fun, I tried to just attack him with a regular weapon. He laughed and killed me.
Man, why do you always have to rip bodies into two pieces? Do you not know how weird that is?
Reloading, I tried again with the Shaft of Light. It killed him immediately. 
Family avenged.
A magic gate appeared and the game asked if I wanted to enter. I chose "no" and got a grisly end.
In some ways, I like this better than the real ending.
I reloaded and chose yes and got a quick epilogue:
A new day arrives in Drelg Artarvia. The plague lifts itself from the land. And the world is reborn again. You return a famous adventurer. And a new age begins, an age of hope and prosperity. Thy Adventure has ended.
Maybe as a symbol of the new age, we could rename the land?
Dismal Passages took me about 3 hours, a lot of it spent backtracking across screens. You can't put the emulator in warp mode to speed this up because combats are on a timer. It gets only a 21 on my GIMLET, and I originally was going to offer it as a BRIEF, but something about it pulled me in. I think that x factor is embodied in the 4 that I gave to "game world." Primed by its brutal backstory, the game manages to establish a remarkably bleak atmosphere. The world really feels like it's ending. Houses exist in huddled clusters against seas of lethal wilderness. NPCs all talk as if they've gone mad. Stores hardly have anything in stock. Everyone is just sitting around waiting to get the plague. Most people openly scoff at your quest. The limitations of both game and author work to (unintentionally?) enhance this atmosphere. The black screens convey hopelessness and darkness even when they depict the sun shining. The empty houses feel like places where people have burned their furniture rather than places that the developer didn't have the time or ability to sketch in with greater graphical detail. Even the amateurish monster portraits look amateurish in a freaky way.
The developer in this case is Jeffrey P. Kintz. This was his first game. A few years ago, I played his second: Shape Shifter from the same year. Although I didn't think it was much of an RPG, it does show a growth in programming ability. Shape Shifter had the same side-view approach to individual screens (with the same commands), but it had a top-down world map and more detailed graphics in general. In 1995, Kintz remade Dismal Passages with a Sierra-style point-and-click interface as Dismal Passages: Part I - The Wicked Curse. That might have just been the freeware name. Kintz's usual habit was to publish a "Part 1" of his game as freeware and then send you the whole thing when you paid your shareware fee. In any event, I can't find any evidence of Dismal Passages: Part II.
A screenshot from the remake.

Kintz's brief autobiography (archived in 2001) traces the development of his other games. He made several adventures in the Sierra style, including The Dark Convergence (1993), The Dark Convergence II (1994), and Elkinloor (1995). In Borderworld (1996), he created a text adventure supplemented with photographs and original graphics. He shifts fully into RPG territory with Vor Terra (1996), which has the appearance and simplicity of a hydlike console game.
Kintz appears in the game but doesn't tell you anything useful.
Having played two of his games at this point and watched several others on YouTube, I'd say his primary limitation as a developer is a lack of scope. He published short stories as if they were novels. "Longplays" of his adventure games on YouTube routinely clock in at less than half an hour. He also (again, judging from  YouTube videos) never developed any real facility with sound. Passages is full of beeps and bloops during movement and combat, and I turned it off pretty fast. He definitely improved his graphical abilities, however, and the introductions to his games show his talent as a writer.
We'll see Kintz again for Vor Terra and perhaps for his final game, Lost Infinity (2000), depending on my assessment of its RPG status. I assume more of his games will be covered at The Adventurers Guild, where Morpheus Kitami wrote about Dismal Passages last October. I corresponded briefly with Kintz during the week before this entry was posted, but he hadn't responded to my questions by the time I needed to get this out. If he does, I will update in the comments and then in the entry as appropriate. [Ed. I heard from him the same day this posted. It was my fault: I didn't tell him I was working on a deadline. He reports that he is still working on games, and is now "putting finishing touches" on his first mobile game. He's focusing on adventure games but he has been "working on and off" on an RPG. I hope he notifies us when it's ready.]

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Die Quelle von Naroth: Gone Trolling

I hate these guys.
As this session began, my party had solved the quests in two of the six cities of Naroth--Dandall and the Kloster--and had found a note indicating that the destruction of the titular well had been accomplished by someone named "Gonzales," using three magic items, working at the direction of an unknown master. The three magic items were hidden after being used, and I have no idea where they are.
The party had moved on to the city of Kospan, and we were in the middle of exploring the dungeon, trying to find a Book of Life, which, along with the Book of Time that we already found, we could trade for the Book of Poetry. No one had given us a quest to find the Book of Poetry, though, so it was kind of a half-hearted quest.
The dungeon has at least three levels, with lots of pressure plates and keys. We fought our way through hobgoblins, ogres, orcs, druids, and even a few medusas. My combat "tactics" these days mostly consist of sending my knight and barbarian forward while my cleric tries to keep up with healing them and my mage casts offensive spells. Occasionally, my cleric has nothing to do (when no one has lost any significant health), so I was thinking of giving her a missile weapon. Fortunately, I found a crossbow after one battle. Axon (the mage) has a longbow, so even when we're out of magic points, everyone can attack.
The battles I dislike the most are when enemies have bows or magic, as I have to cross the entire battlefield going after them instead of just waiting for them to come to me. 
It takes a long time to get to this side of the screen.
In a treasure chest on the second level, we found a page from the Book of Death.
It is a page from the Book of Death, which has been considered lost for decades. The page can hardly be read anymore, the years have eaten away at it so much. The only information that can be gleaned from it is that the three magical items--the Black Diamond, the Crystal Orb, and the Book of Death--when used in the right place, fuse together to form the most powerful magical weapon ever developed. It also describes how and where you can change dimensions using a magic wand.
In case you want to double-check the translation.
So I guess I'm looking for those three items to repair the well. The bit about changing dimensions is interesting, as I have a magic wand--I believe it was a quest reward--but I haven't figured out how to use it. It doesn't seem to do anything in combat.
Two groups of four trolls blocked my progress, so I returned to the surface, where everyone could level up. My cleric got "Group Healing III" and my mage got "Firestorm," the first offensive spell that damages all enemies in a 3 x 3 area. Unfortunately, even with them, I couldn't get past the two groups of trolls. I couldn't even defeat the party of two trolls back in the first dungeon. So I did what I did last time and headed off in a different direction, this time to the city of Arpolis.
I keep finding copper and gold rings I can't do anything with. Maybe they're just meant to be sold.
Arpolis has an interesting cross configuration with 10 total doors. The first one I opened led to a tavern, where I got an earful about Gonzales:
I'd like to know how you know someone like Gonzales. Gonzales and his men belong to a circle of conspirators whose declared goal is, or was, the dethronement of the king. His power has since become corrupt, and he can be hired by anyone who knows where to look for them. I've heard a rumor that Gonzales had something to do with the destruction of the well, but I don't think he's capable of such a big deal. I assume he was acting on someone's behalf. You can ask him if you meet him.
I would have liked to know where to meet him, but that's still a lot more than I had. The city otherwise had the usual selection of services: weapons, bows, healing, potions, and training. The southernmost door to the city was opened by a woman who asked us to try to find her daughter Rosalia, who went missing one day. People say she's probably being held captive beneath the city. 
I'm not sure why the game asks if you want to take a quest.
An eastern door opened to the house of a sage, who said he could identify rare items. He didn't have anything to say about most of my stuff, but he lit up when I handed him the page from the Book of Death:
The piece of paper the poet gave you contains the notes of a magician who lived many decades ago. Under the village of Lapolin there are numerous vaults and corridors that date back to the times of the orcs. I discovered a magical place in one of the vaults that would make it possible to create an extremely mighty magical weapon, but unfortunately I haven't figured out all the ingredients yet. The spot is usually covered by a stone block, but this can be removed. Otherwise it's actually easy to spot.
This turned out to be a bug.
I don't know what he meant about "the poet gave you," as I found the paper in a chest, but this gives me some more information about how to re-create the weapon that destroyed the well, and then--what?--somehow undo it with the same weapon? That's not really how weapons usually work.
Later, I realized the whole purpose of the sage is to read things for you in case you didn't create a character intelligent enough to read the various books and notes. He doesn't impart additional information. When I handed him the page from the Book of Death, he was supposed to just read the bit I already quoted above. Somehow, the text he read got mixed up with that of a "blurred note" that I didn't find until later. Thus, I had all of this information prematurely.
Across the way from the sage, I met the member of the Writing Guild who wants the Book of Poetry. 
There were two dungeon entrances, one on the east side of the city and one on the west. The dungeon was three levels, and I was surprised that I was able to complete it, wiping out all monsters, in a single visit. There were numerous battles with goblins, hobgoblins, soldiers, ogres, giant spiders, giant rats, and orcs. The most difficult was the final battle, with just two soldiers, but wearing platemail. Platemail is the common denominator among the enemies I haven't been able to defeat so far.
Facing multiple druids.
The second level introduced teleporter pads in addition to the wall-opening and door-unlocking pads that existed previously. At the end of a corridor, I found an old woman who said she was in the dungeon collecting moss for her brother, who runs the potion shop. She said she heard the screams of the kidnapped girl below. I found the girl, Rosalia, in the final cell. She named her kidnapper as Gonzales, but said she didn't know what he wanted with her. 
Back in town, Rosalia's mother rewarded us with a key to a door in "the old castle up in the mountains." She said that Mirag in Kospan could tell us more.
Everybody but Chester leveled up, my cleric getting "Teleport" and my mage getting "Ice Storm." With these new levels, or just because I was lucky, I finally managed to defeat the two platemail-clad trolls in the Dandall dungeon. Trolls are so hard because they hardly take any damage. Even the most powerful spells routinely only hit them for 1 or 2 points. If they're wearing platemail, that's especially true. Anyway, the victory got me a modest amount of experience and 300 gold pieces. They weren't guarding anything vital.
My mage spells got to be fun.
I similarly cleared out the last of the enemies in the monastery dungeon, returned to Kospan, and got another level for my knight and mage. This gave my mage "Hailstorm," which I think damages every enemy on the map. It costs a lot of magic points, though, and I can only cast two between rests. Still, it trivialized combats with large numbers of weak creatures like kobolds, rats, and giant spiders.
In the tavern, I asked about the name Mirag. The innkeeper hustled me into a back room and to an old magician sitting at a table. Five full screens of text followed, which I will summarize. Mirag heard of our rescue of Rosalia, and he knew we were looking to fix the well, so he was inclined to trust us. Naroth's ills, he said, have been caused by a stranger named Bersakus, who crossed the mountains "many moons ago" and hired Gonzales's band. He wants to conquer the kingdom, and he thinks he can do it easily by simply waiting for it to dry up. Bersakus is invulnerable to normal weapons, plus he hangs out in a parallel dimension, so it's tough to find him. Mirag thinks we can defeat him with the same object he used to destroy the well in the first place; doing so should reverse the spell. He also suggests that the way to Bersakus's dimension is through the "old castle." This jibes with what we already knew. The quest seems to be: find the Black Diamond, Crystal Ball, and Book of Evil; reunite them in the dungeons of Lapolin; take the object to the old castle; use the magic wand to pierce the veil between worlds; and kill Bersakus.
One page of a very long exposition.
First, we needed to finish the dungeon beneath Kospan, which turned out to be four levels. There were a couple of tough battles with 4 trolls each, but other than those, we didn't have too much trouble. We had to find our way down to Level 4 to step on a pressure plate, which opened a door back on Level 2 and led to the final treasure. It was guarded by a single gargoyle, a very easy battle that feels like it should have been harder.
When we emerged from the dungeon, we had the Black Diamond and the Crystal Ball but no Book of Life or Death. That must be found somewhere else.
I'm not sure that's a "diamond."
Having completed Arpolis already, we moved on to Lapolin. The first door we knocked on was that of the mayor, who said he lost his wool coat--a symbol of his office--beneath the city. In the tavern, they'd heard of Bersakus. He had visited the town recently and "spread fear and terror with his hordes." He left some minions in the dungeon beneath the town, guarding something that could be dangerous to him.
Aside from the usual services, there were two entrances to two different dungeons. One was four levels, one five, and both relatively complicated. I think I spent as much time in the Lapolin dungeons as in the entire game up to this point. I conquered them in a long single day in which I was feeling sick (I picked up a cold or flu or COVID on my trip last week).
The first dungeon started with a long maze with multiple pressure plates that I needed to find to unlock doors in other parts of the maze. There were maybe half a dozen battles. Level 2 was mostly open, with encounters and pressure plates scattered throughout the vast interior and behind doors in the corners. 
On Level 2 of the first Lapolin dungeon.
The walls on Level 3 spelled out the phrase Der Ort ist Nah ("the place is near"). A pressure plate opened the way to a stairway, but another door remained closed. I took the stairway down to Level 4.1, where another bunch of combats and pressure plates finally got me to a treasure chest, in which I found the key to the second door on Level 3. That brought me to Level 4.2, another fairly open level in which the wall patterns created arrows pointing to a central square. The central square had a 1 x 1 block of stone on it when I first arrived, but a nearby pressure plate caused that to lift away.
From the Sheltem School of Dungeon Design.
This turned out to be the "fusion chamber" where I needed to create one powerful magic item out of the three individual ones. Since I didn't have the Book of Death yet, I had to make my way back to the surface.
I wonder if there's any special location on this level.
Lapolin's second dungeon started with another maze of pressure plates, illusory walls, and keyed doors. On Level 2, the game did something interesting with the pressure plates and having the same plates close and open more than one door. I had to fiddle with them for a while to get the right combination to open the door to the stairway. I did it through trial and error, and I'm still not sure what the logic is to the plates.
Level 3 was another regular maze, but Level 4 was a teleporter maze. The level had 11 isolated regions, interconnected by teleporters--between 1 and 3 in each area. There was only one battle, though, with I believe six gargoyles. They were very easy. I'm not sure why the game thinks gargoyles are hard and keeps using them as "bosses." Maybe they're harder for different party configurations.
They don't look much like gargoyles, either.
The gargoyles were guarding a chest with the Book of Life. Elsewhere, I found a "Battle Cloak" that gives one of my fighters extra combat movement, plus the mayor's cloak. I can't remember exactly where the mayor's cloak was, but a suit of magic armor came with it. I returned it to the mayor for 2,000 gold.
Back in Kospan, I traded the Books of Time and Life for the Book of Poetry, which I took to the guy who wanted it in Arpolis. He gave me, predictably, the Book of Death. Sighing, I trudged back through the four levels of the first dungeon in Lapolin, stood in the center of the arrows, and used the Black Diamond. "The three objects merge into an inconspicuous stone," the game said. It is called the Stone of Death. I now need to go to the SchloƟ, confront Bersakus, and use the Stone of Death on him.
It can't be that unremarkable if we're calling it the "Stone of Death."
I was pretty sick of the game's battles by the end of this session, but I can't blame the game. I chose to play for 7 hours straight. Overall, Die Quelle von Naroth does a good job keeping you right on the edge of being able to defeat the foes you face. Of every half dozen battles, one is a walk (e.g., a bunch of spiders, who die if you shout at them), four are just hard enough that you have to pay attention, and one requires a couple of reloads. These usually involve trolls. I've gotten sick about how predictably annoying trolls are, especially in platemail, and I'm looking forward to them no longer being part of my life.
Unless something goes wrong, I should be able to wrap this up in one more.
Time so far: 14 hours. 


Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Whale's Voyage: From Hell's Heart I Stab at Thee

This game has simply award-winning NPC interaction.
My crew ended the last session rich, fully equipped, and in possession of that damned heart we'd been trying to get rid of since the first mission. We had been instructed by an unknown party to return to Lapis and meet someone at a pair of coordinates.
For the first time in about 25 voyages, I was not attacked by pirates on the way to Lapis. Perhaps killing one of them scared the rest of them away. I launched the glider and flew to the indicated coordinates, at which point a button appeared on my toolbar that said "Beam to Mine." I'm curious what happens to your glider when you just beam off it. I guess it returns to the ship automatically. 
Skimming across the landscape in my glider.
The mine was a small map. Other than our contact, we met only one NPC, a miner named Gryx Gwyn who said he was mining for titanium, but then after barely any prompting let it slip that he was actually looking for gold. 
Our contact had the unfortunate name of Jenns Nippel. He was standing next to some sort of computer, which he said was a device that allowed him to bug all of the phones on Lapis. When prompted for other information, he referred us to a paragraph in the game manual. It's in an appendix, and it's the only one, so this won't become a regular thing.
I dare you to introduce yourself to Ben Affleck.
I guess I won't reprint all the dialogue--it's just a smidge too long--but in summary, Nippel said that he's an agent of a resistance group seeking to overthrow the government. "We live in a democracy," he says, "but in reality it's more like a dictatorship." His evidence for this is, alas, a bit thin. First: "Where else would you find a complete absence of political parties?" Why would anyone think that political parties are necessary to democracy? A democracy with no political parties was George Washington's dream and mine. Dictatorships have one party, not no parties. Second: opinions that differ from the government's are suppressed by the incompetence of a massive bureaucracy. Unfortunate, but not really a sign of a "dictatorship." I'd really like some more evidence. Are there elections? Is there any reason to think they're not fair? Is habeas corpus still around? That kind of thing.
See, it's this kind of thing I worry about in a dictatorship.
The heart, meanwhile, "is for an important man who has been very active in support of our organization." But the Secret Service has been trying to block the man from getting it. We gave it to Nippel for $100,000, which is pocket change to us now. "I have got another well-paid job for you," he then said. He wanted us to escort a ship to Nedax for $10,000 and some fuel, basically as much as we can make selling a single ton of perfume. But the game doesn't let you say no, so I guess we're in. Down with the bureaucrats and their paperwork in triplicate!
Back on the Whale, we got a phone call from Commander Tenz on the ship we were supposed to escort. We set a course for Nedax. Sure enough, on the way, the ship was attacked and Tenz put out a mayday.
The resulting battle was with six Federation ships, four coming in from the left and two from the right. I'm proud to say I won the battle on my first try, but my hits got down to 2 before I did. The trick was to make them come to me and save most of my movement points for firing. Some of them had longer ranges than I did, though, which was hard to gauge. Ultimately, I destroyed the two on the right and then zipped back and got the four on the left. I assume we're the most wanted people in the galaxy now, having committed multiple terrorist acts for $10,000.
Destroying the last three ships.
Commander Tenz called to thank us and said to meet someone named Kevin Grove on Nedax. 
Nedax is almost entirely covered with water. People live in small settlements built on the sea floor. The default city is called Aqua, another small enough area that there's no point mapping. We found a store and bought an infra-red scanner for no reason than I didn't already have one. The shop also sold what seemed like more advanced weapons, including a "plasmagun" and a flame thrower, but I decided to continue to see how far I could get with my machete.
That's not "growing up." That's just "getting bigger."
I found Kevin Grove wandering around somewhere, and he said that the pirates wanted to join the revolution. Their leader, Sam van Varn, wanted to meet a resistance agent, and somehow that's going to be us, despite the fact that we just heard about the organization yesterday. He gave us coordinates, which I assumed were on the same planet.
We beamed back to the ship, launched the glider, went to the coordinates, and found a city called Necth. We beamed in. Almost immediately, we got attacked by a guy in a spacesuit--a federation soldier. Like all of the game's battles, it was over in about three seconds with all party members dead. Maybe one of the shops on one of the other planets sells armor. Fortunately, the city had one of those places where you can pay for healing, and I had plenty of money, so I just had to keep at least one character alive and rush there after every battle. The planet wouldn't let us beam up until all the enemies were dead.
Every combat in this game ends this way the first time.
Complicating things, I had Mapple pick up one of the soldier's dropped plasmagun just to check it out. This apparently put him over his encumbrance limit, which the game doesn't bother to tell you. The game's solution to overencumbrance is to have the character start taking damage, with no warning, until he dies. Since I was getting attacked on the planet anyway, I didn't realize that I was also taking damage from another source. I had to resurrect Mapple about eight times.

Elsewhere, an NPC named Hermes Rue told us about an alien ship seen beyond Inoid. "The ship is visible on every map but nobody realizes it." Later, on the ship, we looked at the map, and indeed, you can move the cursor past Inoid to an object called Grfdfvxlts.
We knew there were aliens, right? Otherwise, what are those squid things during character creation?
In the northern part of town was a tavern, where the bartender said he ran out of drinks.
You know how many Bourbon Street bartenders have tried that ruse on me?
He also said that an hour ago, some Federation officers had entered and tried to arrest a man sitting at the table behind us, but he had escaped. The only thing on the table was an ashtray, but it had a number etched into its surface.  
If there's a highlight of this game, it's examining objects.
Back on the Whale, we called the number. The voice on the other end, Sam van Varn, recapped that he had to flee, but he saw us fighting federation soldiers, so he knew he could trust us. A Mr. Wostock had told him to go meet Jenns Nippel on Lapis. He said he'd wait for us there.
We returned to Lapis to find Nippel's body crumpled in the corner where his  machine had been. Sam van Varn, complete with an eyepatch, was standing nearby with a shotgun. When we demanded answers, he said he thought Nippel was a Secret Service spy. "We have to hush up this murder," he said. "Mr. Wostock will arrive very soon. [He] should think that the Secret Service killed Jenns." I couldn't think of any way to do this. Van Varn and I just stood there staring at each other for a while and nothing happened.
Why did you think that?
Rather than look up a spoiler, I decided to see if I could pick up the next thread through open exploration. I verified that each planet has coordinates between (0,0) and (50,50). They all wrap, of course. The screen is capable of showing about 5 x 10 at a time. Findings for each planet:
1. Lapis. The manual describes it as hot, dry, and "extremely inhospitable." This plus a certain distance from the center of the system give it a "wild west" vibe, with lots of associated crime. The main city is Algo. I had already explored it, but I took a tour again. An NPC named G. J. Styx begged for money; Baumann said he was collecting taxes (but didn't ask me for any); John Styx said it was hard working in the mines; Krueger told us about Hypo-Coco disease. The shopkeeper, Ferdinand, said that trade is getting more restricted and controlled. I bought some explosives from him in case we needed them later. On the surface, I found a few things that looked like they could be buildings or settlements, but none of them gave me the option to beam down.
This looks like it should be something, but it wasn't.
2. Arboris: A large and lush planet, full of vegetation. The main city is called Sando, but exploring the surface led me to find a second city called Dymy. I explored Sando first, as I hadn't already. It was a large, open town with wooden buildings, meant to evoke a frontier town. Three wandering NPCs--Bimpf, Kirm Yuk, and Franz--had nothing useful to tell us, but another, Mrs. Patterson, was looking for a lost key. Julia S. said that more and more people join the revolution. The shopkeeper, Emil Cross, sold wine, an electrical staff, and a translator device (among other things). I bought them all.
In Dymy, shopkeeper Samuel Brown had some even more advanced-sounding weapons that I didn't buy. There was a whole locked complex in the southern part of the city that I couldn't access. Otherwise, I found nothing useful here.
The aesthetics of Sando.
3. Castra: The slum planet, where of course the game had started. From the glider, the map showed a reasonably accurate depiction of urban sprawl. There were some interesting physical features on the planet's surface, but nothing that gave us beam-down options. I took another loop around Penthe, the default city, and found nothing new.

4. Sky Boulevard, the central planet in the system, was originally called Decadence IV. Overpopulation and lax environmental laws caused an ecological collapse, and now the population lives in a huge space station orbiting the planet. Since you can't visit the planet itself, there's no glider option. Instead, you beam directly to the colorful metal corridors of the orbiting space station.

Again, I find virtually nothing. A shopkeeper, Reginald, sells a Sonic Absorber and a better electrical staff. Three guys named Wellsgoff, Spanjersberg, and Mr. Stocker stand behind counters but have nothing to say to me.
I'm definitely starting to get on board with the anti-bureaucrat movement.
5. Nedax. The water planet, which I just recently visited, has nothing new. I find no cities other than Aqua and Necth. In Necth, I do find a federation soldier that I somehow missed the first time, but he's not hostile anymore. When I try to kill him, a bunch of planetary guards show up and kill me instantly, the same way they do if you attack any innocent NPC.
6. Inoid, the frozen planet. The capital city is Glace, and I find no other cities by flying around the surface. While trying to talk to the NPCs, who have a tendency of walking away while you're trying to target them, I remember similar problems with MegaTraveller and wonder if the Paragon titles had more influence than I thought. A bunch of ski-mask clad denizens who yell at me to get out of the way. Two wandering NPCs named Ben Zock and Krycencov have nothing to contribute. There's nothing new in the hospital.
I already am.
7. Grfdfvxtls. The game treats the so-called alien spaceship as a planet, but it has no trade goods and no ship services. We beam down to alien corridors and, well, actual aliens. They speak gibberish but we have a translation device! With it, we learn that they have become "stuck in a time zone because of an engine trouble." They need a special "essence" for their engine called X-109-E. But they thank us for offering to help and say we can use their cargo bay for storage. 
40 aliens on the ship, and I meet the drunk one.
The ship is quite large, with many of the aliens, but they all seem to have the same dialogue, and I don't find anything else on the ship. When I leave, I discover I don't have enough fuel to get back to Inoid. Good thing I didn't save out here. I reload from the last place I saved, on Nedax.
My readers should know by now that I like to be challenged by games. I like it less when the challenge is purely physical (i.e., controller dexterity) and more when it's intellectual. There are a lot of intellectual challenges in games, from the logic puzzles of Dungeon Master to the observational challenges of adventure games to the statistical challenges inherent in every RPG. But there's also a kind of meta-challenge present when your sanity, patience, and credulity are up against a patently ridiculous game. Even when the game lacks anything else, there's always a bit of a thrill when I force myself through an absurd wreck of a game like Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983), Kayden Garth (1989), or The Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron (1991) and pull off an unlikely win. But I don't want that type of challenge to be my exclusive experience with RPGs, and boy does it seem like 1993 is serving up a lot of them.
In this case, I finally give in and look up spoilers. The solution to falsifying evidence in the death of Nippel is to take a damaged gun and armor we should have looted from the Federation soldiers on Nedax and put them on Nippel's body. I never saw the damaged items--not that I would have thought to take them if I did--because I didn't kill the last soldier. He's wandering around Nedax even now, but I can't kill him because he's not hostile. I thought about swearing a lot at the game at this point, but I think the sentiment I put in the subtitle is more thematically appropriate.
Time so far: 10 hours