Saturday, July 13, 2024

Game 522: Local Area Dungeon (1993)

       
Local Area Dungeon
United States
BCS Software (developer); published as shareware
Released 1993 for Windows 3
Date Started: 3 July 2024
Date Ended: 10 July 2024
Total Hours: 16
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)   
          
Local Area Dungeon is a fiendish little graphical "roguelite" from author Mike Berro. If you're not familiar with roguelikes or roguelites, go ahead and look at those entries in my glossary. It gets the latter designation because it allows for some limited saving, but it's still pretty hard. It took me about a week to win, playing a few hours a day and a lot on the final days.
         
With little explanation, the game starts you on Level 0 (a town level) of "The Dungeon of CompuServe" (the game was originally distributed there). You play a fighter/wizard on a nebulous quest to recover something from the 13-level dungeon below. You don't know at the outset of the game what "it" is, just that every time you try to go home (to the house icon on the town level), your family calls you a "deadbeat" and tells you not to return until you have found "it."
         
The "backstory."
      
The existence of a town level suggests that Berro might have been influenced by Moria (1983) rather than Rogue directly; it also has a full set of statistics like Moria, but the similarities mostly end there. The only choice you get during character creation is whether to play on "Easy," "Normal," or "Hard" difficulty levels. There isn't a huge difference. "Normal" starts you with 12 points in all statistics, a walking stick for a weapon, and leather armor. "Easy" bumps your luck statistic to 14 points, gives you a leather armor +1, and has more inventory slots. "Hard" starts you with all your attributes at 10 (luck at 8), a walking stick but no armor, less inventory space, and no automatic map of the town level. Apparently, monsters are more aggressive, too.
    
The town level randomly distributes a selection of services, a few items, and a few easy monsters. Monsters occasionally respawn. Services are:
    
  • Your house, where you will find no succor.
     
The town level. My family is ruthless.
      
  • A hospital, where you can pay to heal hit points.
  • A Wizard's Rest, where you can pay to restore spell points.
  • A bank, where you can deposit and withdraw gold and sell gems. You get 2% interest per cycle, which doesn't sound like a lot, but actually adds up very fast. 
     
Late in the game, I was grateful for the interest.
      
  • A Dungeon College, where you can pay escalating amounts of money for "courses" that increase attributes and maximum spell points. The cost doubles each time you take a class, starting at 250 gold pieces. It's worth taking a few, I think.
  • A Dungeon Shop where you can buy items. It has the weirdest selection. There is no basic starting gear here. Everything is relatively expensive, up to the 1.3 million gold piece Vorpal Blade +1. I don't know how you'd ever legitimately buy that.
      
One wonders who the Dungeon Shop's regular customers are.
      
  • A Pawns Shop, where you can sell unwanted items.
  • Training Grounds, where you level up if you have enough experience. This is unusual; in most roguelikes, leveling happens automatically, when you cross the threshold. 
  • The Wizard of What, who identifies unidentified items. I wish every roguelike had one of these.
    
Stairs go down to the first level of the 13-level dungeon (not counting the town level). In a departure from roguelike norms, the levels are mostly fixed. Specifically, the layouts are fixed and some of the enemies, treasures, and special encounters are fixed. There is room for some randomization, particularly in enemy respawning and the treasures that enemies drop. Like Moria, but not Rogue, treasures are gated by level.  You're not going to find a Long Sword +9 on Level 1. 
       
A lot of times you die, you have no idea why.
     
A lot of the mechanics in the game will be familiar to roguelike players. You fight enemies by bashing into them, although you can use missile weapons and spells to nail them from afar. When you find items, they're unidentified the first time, but once you identify one by using or paying to identify it, all future items of that type are identified automatically. The game does away with assigning them random colors or materials; potions just appear in your inventory as "Potion" until identified.
 
As you explore, you slowly get more powerful via weapons, armor, spellbooks, and rings. Rings generally add points directly to your attributes. Spellbooks add to your inventory of available spells, which are generally far more powerful than your melee weapons, but spell points recharge exceedingly slowly.  
     
Assembling, and losing, an inventory on the first level.
     
Other aspects will not be familiar. Roguelikes are typically fair. Players can be horrendously unlucky and end up with unviable characters, but generally a cautious player who knows the rules can find a path forward most of the time. Local Area Dungeon depends much more on dying horribly, learning not to do that thing again, and reloading from the town (the only place you can save). For instance, on Level 2, right next to the stairway, is a room with two insanely difficult foes called giant banana slugs. They guard a powerful weapon called a Sunsword. They cannot be hurt by weapons; the only way to kill them is with powerful spells that you don't have until the end of the game. When you encounter them early on, you're dead the moment you open the door. You have to just die and then not open it again.
      
Dungeon offers two features that I haven't seen in other roguelikes:
      
  • Inevitable Weapon breakage. Every turn of the timer brings a chance that something you have equipped will break. Everything breaks eventually. Before I learned to carry backup items--and even sometimes after that--I routinely found myself with no weapons and armor. You go from having 5 rings, a sword +5, ring mail +3, and feeling pretty damned powerful, to having every one of these items broken, without even a single battle in between, in as little as five minutes. Late in the game, you get a "Repair Items" spell that mostly deals with the problem. Until then, it's pretty infuriating. At one point, I paid a lot of money for a Long Sword +9 only to have it break before I'd fought a single combat with it.
     
I really thought I had prepared with excess armor.
       
  • Time limit. You have to win the game within a certain number of turns, or you drop dead. The counter at the outset (on all three difficulty levels) is set to 320 cycles. Each cycle represents about 120 moves. Some magic items and special encounters can add or subtract from the number of cycles. I thought this would be a bigger issue than it was. I ended up winning the game with 129 cycles to spare.
      
I had to work hard to get this screen.
       
  • Trap doors. They cannot be detected unless something I haven't yet found detects them. They send you plummeting to your doom with absolutely no warning or recourse (sometimes you "land gently," but you have no control over this). There's even one of them on the town level.
      
The interface is annoying but not infuriating. As an early Windows game, it's a bit too in love with . . . well, windows. The exploration screen, the inventory list, the list of current spells in effect ("Powers & Curses"), your list of available spells to cast, and a "History" window showing what items you've identified are all separate windows that can be minimized, maximized, resized, and moved around. This sounds great, but there's no configuration that works perfectly, particularly when the dungeon levels start taking up more than one screen and you need access to the scrollbars that the other windows always seem to be on top of. However, the individual windows can be called and dismissed with function keys, so I found the best way to mimic the interface of, say, NetHack, is to dismiss all but the exploration window and then bring up the others when you need them with the appropriate function key. I just wish the author had tied inventory to "I" rather than F5. 
         
I juggle various windows while trying to see the action on the main screen and get to the scrollbar.
       
The regular keyboard keys aren't really used. To cast a spell, for instance, you bring up the spell list and double-click on it instead of hitting "C." You can move with the numberpad. This is thus the second game I've played recently, after Shadows of Yserbius, for which I've been grateful for the ability to move my external numberpad to the left side of the keyboard so I can move with my left hand and use the mouse with my right hand. In short, I was able to come up with an accommodation, but that still doesn't excuse a game in the Rogue tradition requiring the use of a mouse at all.
   
The graphics are a bit too small and complex for their size. It's so difficult to differentiate the hero from enemies that the game has a "Where Am I?" command that makes the hero icon wave his little arms. I appreciated the "What Is It?" menu option, which identifies other icons on the screen. It would have been better just to make them bigger in the first place.
      
The game identifies an icon.
      
The game's bestiary is mostly familiar to any fantasy RPG player. Early game enemies include bats, goblins, and orcs, all of which come in small, medium, and large varieties. You mostly fight them by bashing into them with your melee weapon. There are bows in the game, but arrows are so rare, you'd think they were made of rhodium. There are also occasional throwing weapons like throwing stars. Spells do most of the heavy lifting towards the end of the game, and some enemies (e.g., gelatinous cubes, living dead) can only be killed with spells.
   
There are a few roguelike staples in the beast list, including leprechauns who try to steal your things before teleporting away, rust monsters who ruin your equipment, and dragons who breathe at you from a distance. One original monster is a "tongue snatcher," whose unique ability leaves you unable to transact at shops. I'm not sure if there's a way to heal from it. On the higher levels, enemies like invisible daemons, metal-eating grogs, and golden dragons are basically impossible to defeat in melee combat.
       
I don't remember what level this was, but it was easy to explore.
      
Around the 2/3 mark, the game shifts from being primarily about physical combat to being primarily about your use of magic. At first, spells are at best supplements to melee combat. "Magic Missile" is a good substitute for a couple melee attacks; "Protection +1" adds a point to your armor class; "Teleport" is worth a try as a means of getting back to a lower level from the town (you can always reload if you end up in an unfortunate place). Things start to change when you get "Fireball," which is worth ten melee attacks, and "Magic Fire," which does the same thing as "Fireball" but to everyone in a radius. "Repair Items" deals with the breakage issue and gives you a stable inventory. "Annihilate Monsters" straight up kills everything nearby, no matter how powerful, no saving.
   
Perhaps the most useful spell is "Etherealness," which lets you walk through walls but doesn't affect your ability to fight, pick up items, or use stairs. It's the key to getting through the last few levels as efficiently as possible, but it's great on any level because if you're standing in a wall, enemies can't target you. You can kill them with impunity, unless they're capable of walking through walls themselves. You get the spell very late in the game, but it can be conferred at random by fountains or pools, and I think it's worth the risk. It lasts a long time, too.
        
I fight a "Dumb Ass."
     
The problem, of course, is that these high-level spells require a lot of spell points, and spell points regenerate so slowly that they might as well not regenerate at all, about 1 in every 50 moves. If you're lucky, you'll find a Ring of Spell Rejuvenation, which increases the number of points regained at each interval. But even with my +6 ring, it's about 200 moves to regenerate enough points to cast "Annihilate Monsters." Potions of Spell Healing (an awkward name) help somewhat, and you do occasionally find scrolls that do the same things as spells.
    
The game does a reasonably good job with its level design, varying the challenges as you descend. Levels 1-2 are small introductory levels. Level 3 is the first one that extends across multiple screens, requiring the scrollbar. It also is the first to feature secret doors, which you must find (you just bash into walls) to reach the stairway down. Level 4 introduces the need to find keys to open locked doors.
        
Finding keyed doors on Level 4.
       
Level 5 is kind of a break--a small, completely open area with a Training Ground, so you don't have to return to the surface to level up. 
       
The easy Level 5 and its welcome Training Grounds.
       
Level 6 has more keys, and you actually have to descend to Level 7 to find enough keys to open the doors on Level 6 that allow you to access the stairways up. Level 8 introduces invisible walls and, even worse, invisible stalkers. It also has a bank, a Dungeon College, and a pawn shop, again helping you avoid a trip all the way back to the surface.
      
Dealing with an invisible stalker while trying to find my way around invisible walls.
      
Levels 9-11 are all very large and maze-like, with increasingly tough monsters. Level 12 is open like Level 5, but with a lot of invisible walls. Finally, Level 13 is enormous, with a very linear maze of interconnected rooms populated by the game's toughest foes. If you spend any time here at all, you basically have to spam "Annihilate Monster." I got through it with a Scroll of Magic Mapping and "Etherealize"; I'm not sure what I would have done without either of these.
   
As you explore, a key question is how often to retrace your steps to the surface. The Training Ground on Level 5 and the bank, Dungeon College, and pawn shop on Level 8 help a little, but every once in a while, you need the Wizard's Rest to fully restore magic points and the Wizard of What to identify iffy objects. Finally, there's no point in accumulating all of that interest unless you use it to buy items at the Dungeon Shop. I never accumulated enough money for the Vorpal Blade, but I did get enough for a Light Saber, which is an unbelievably powerful melee weapon (although even it has limited utility on the lower levels). A Light Saber +1 has three times the weapon class as a Long Sword +10. There are also scrolls and rings worth saving for, such as a Ring of Protection +10 and a Ring of Spell Rejuvenation +3 (if you don't find one). One unique item to this game is a Scroll of Gem Improvement, which increases the value of any gems in your possession. You find some extremely valuable artifact gems late in the game, and I can only imagine that these scrolls are the keys to being able to afford that Vorpal Blade.
      
"Annihilate Monster" does its job.
      
Anyway, I worried about running out of time if I kept going to the surface, but I worried in vain. To get back to the depths of the dungeon, after you save on the surface, it's worth casting "Teleport" to see if it gets you close to where you left off, then reloading if you don't like where it takes you.
   
Some miscellaneous notes:
   
  • The shareware version has an annoying feature where the "About this Game" box pops up every few dozen steps. You have to click "OK," to close it--you can't do it with the keyboard--but there are three "OK" buttons, and only one of them works, randomized each time the box comes up. Fortunately, author Mike Berro publicized a user name (TOMBONNOMA) and registration key (28426126) that allows you to register it. 
  • The game has fountains and pools that seem to have an equal chance of doing something good (e.g., increasing an attribute, healing you) or bad (e.g., decreasing an attribute, making you sick).
      
I step into a pool and get a point of dexterity.
       
  • There are objects that you repeatedly encounter in the dungeon that I could find no way to interact with. The game simply doesn't have enough commands. These include large treasure chests, statutes, and mirrors. 
  • If you hold down one of the keys on the numberpad to move consistently in that direction (e.g., to get down a long corridor), the character instead moves erratically. I don't know whether this is a bug or whether the author just didn't want people holding down a movement key. 
  • There are altars in the dungeon, sometimes blocking passageways. When you encounter them, you're asked if you want to donate, which takes half of your gold. If you have enough gold, you get a message that the gods are pleased, but I never noticed what this did for materially. Oddly, sometimes I said, "No," and I still got a benefit, such as increased attributes.
       
Saying "no" still gets you some benefits sometimes.
       
  • One enemy, not unique, is "Gollum." He always drops a ring when you kill him.
       
Gollum dies and drops a ring.
        
  • A "boss key" command opens up a facsimile of the Windows Notepad application in front of the game window.
  • When you first go down to a new level, the game doesn't put you on the staircase going back up. It puts you on a blank square. You have to find the staircase to return to any upper level. Once you find it, the next time you descend to the level, you appear on the staircase.
    
It took me about 13 hours of play, often losing all my progress and having to reload from the town, to make it to the final level. I actually never finished exploring Levels 11 and 12. Towards the end of the game, I adopted a strategy of casting "Teleport" from the town, exploring for only a few minutes, and then risking "Teleport" to return to an earlier level. One of these expeditions landed me on Level 13. I had been saving a Scroll of Magic Mapping for this purpose and revealed the entire dungeon when I arrived. Fortunately, the scroll also reveals treasures, so I could see items scattered all over the place. "Etherealize" helped me go right to those treasures instead of wending my way through the maze.
        
Blasting a bunch of nearby foes on Level 12 with "Annihilate Monster."
       
A message on Level 1 had said, "The item you seek does what bells do," so I was already primed to look for a ring. Pretty soon I found something called a Ring of Winning. Figuring this must be it, I took a chance on "Teleport" to get out, wound up on Level 4, and walked the rest of the way. Unfortunately, my family still wanted nothing to do with me.
       
What the hell, fam?
      
I returned to Level 13, again via "Teleport," which got me to Level 11. I walked the rest of the way. This time, I ran around picking up every single item I could see, blasting collections of enemies with "Annihilate Monster." I got very low on spell points but was ultimately able to grab everything. There were a lot of rings on the level, including Rings of Intelligence, Charisma, Agility, and Strength, plus two more Rings of Winning. In the end, it turned out that my family wanted a random Ring of Strength. I verified this by dropping everything else. I'm thus not sure what the Rings of Winning were about.
       
Collecting everything on the final level.
        
Once you step on your house with the artifact, a screen pops up and recaps your mission, assigning a final score based on the difficulty level, time remaining, and number of saves that you made. You can keep playing after this.
       
I could have been more conservative about saving. I didn't know it was being counted.
       
Except for the interface, I enjoyed this one. It was a solid challenge, and despite the Moria base, it had a lot of original elements. This entry is getting very long--I probably should have split it--so I'll just summarize the GIMLET rather than stepping it out. I give it a score of 33. It does best in "equipment" and "economy" (both 6s), worst for not having any NPCs, not much of a backstory, and not much to recommend in the "graphics, sound, and interface" category. The author spent a lot of time on graphics that you really can't see.
    
Local Area Dungeon was a side project for author Mike Berro, who started his career in video and computer effects for television and films. About the time this game was published, he was in his late 30s and was making a career change to computer games. He took a job at Mass Media, which under both its own name and Philips P.O.V. Entertainment Group, specialized in games with embedded videos. Berro's credited titles at the company include Voyeur (1993), Thunder in Paradise Interactive (1995, starring Hulk Hogan), The Game of Life (1998), and Jim Henson's Muppets Party Cruise (2003). None of his games are RPGs or show any RPG influence, but clearly he had been exposed to roguelikes at some point and enjoyed them. 
    
From information on his web site, this version of Local Area Dungeon is actually the second one released. I couldn't find any evidence of an earlier one. (His web site, confusingly, calls this game "the original" from 1990, but notes in the readme file clearly say it's the second edition from 1993.) He also offers a modern Windows game on his site called Simple Dungeon (2021), which offers a number of easy, medium, and hard roguelike scenarios using the same dungeon engine.
       
A screenshot from the "A Simple Dungeon" module of Simple Dungeon (2021).
           
I tried to contact Mr. Berro through his web site but had not heard from him at press time. Mike, if you find your way here, you earned the shareware fee for this one.
   

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Game 521: Circuit's Edge (1990)

 
       
Circuit's Edge
United States
Westwood Associates (developer); Infocom (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 11 September 2022 
Date Ended: 3 July 2024
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
    
Circuit's Edge started as a BRIEF but spun out of control. I began it almost two years ago now, probably in response to yet another person writing to me claiming it was an RPG. Once I started it, I was intrigued enough that I put about eight hours into it, but I ended up having so many questions about the characters and settings that I set it aside until I could read the novel on which it was based, George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails (1986). I didn't get around to doing that until this spring, right about the time Whale's Voyage disappointed me with its own take on cyberpunk. I decided it was time to finish the game and, having finished it, I decided to turn it into a full entry despite its lack of CRPG credentials. 
        
Effinger's When Gravity Fails is the first of a trilogy of novels using the same character and the same setting. The other two are A Fire in the Sun (1989) and The Exile Kiss (1991), neither of which I have read. Based on the first novel alone, it is one of the weirdest intellectual properties ever to be given video game form, and they did it in the weirdest way, by making Circuit's Edge a canonical story set between the first two novels. Effinger created the plot for the game and wrote three-quarters of the in-game text. I scoured the Internet but could not find an authoritative account for how it came about. Accounts from Westwood developers indicate that Infocom brought the project to them, rather than the other way around, and notes from the manual suggest that Effinger was also approached by Infocom. My best guess is that some Infocom executive (Christopher Erhardt?) loved Gravity and made the game happen, heedless of what must have seemed like dismal marketing potential. The partnership also led to Effinger writing The Zork Chronicles, a novel set in Infocom's game world, the same year.

Title cards recap the main character.
        
When I say that it's a weird IP for a video game, I'm not specifically talking about its cyberpunk aesthetic. Interplay's Neuromancer (1988) had already shown that cyberpunk could be both good and popular. It's more the specifics that get me. The novels take place in a future in which the Islamic world is the superpower and the United States and Europe have fractured into a bunch of tiny independent republics. The main character praises Allah in a decent percentage of his conversations. That's a ballsy sell to western audiences the same year that the Gulf War started. Also in 1990, President George H. W. Bush and many other political leaders were blaming video games for rising crime rates. Sounds like a perfect time for a game whose pan-sexual main character lives in the equivalent of Bourbon Street, spends nights in strip clubs, wakes up every morning with a hangover, and freely abuses drugs. Admittedly, some of those features had to be toned down for the game.
 
And the setting.
       
And finally, it's weird that we join the character in media res rather than seeing an origin story (or a game-based rehash of Gravity). Certainly, most players wouldn't have read Gravity, but I guess that didn't hurt the game any more than it hurt The Witcher series two decades later.
        
An Infocom in-joke.
       
A few years ago, I would have said that I didn't like cyberpunk, but perhaps I'm changing or I just haven't read enough of it. Either way, I was surprised how strongly the opening chapters of Gravity gripped me. It helps that the series's setting, "The Budayeen," a neighborhood of an unnamed city, is explicitly based on the French Quarter of New Orleans. The main character, Marîd Audran, visits clubs in the neighborhood, has friends among the bartenders, meets clients, deals with con artists and drunks, all things that I have done frequently in the French Quarter. He even drinks gimlets!
        
And for the same reason!
     
The game is set in 2202, the novel a few years earlier. Audran is a refugee from Algeria, the son of a prostitute. He lives in the Budayeen, where most people are nominally Muslim but have mostly fallen from the faith that surrounds them. The neighborhood is run by a political boss named Friedlander Bey. We learn about the rest of the world only in snatches. The USA and the USSR "fractured into dozens of small monarchies and police states." The Islamic world is in some way unified, but the old factional strife still exists: we see disputes between Sunni and Shia, Berbers and Arabs. The fellahin are still poor and oppressed.
      
I've got good and bad news for you, Texans. Good news: Texas is its own country in the future.
         
Audran lives in this world as a freelancer and hustler. He bounces, he collects debts, finds missing people. He occasionally does some investigative work, though he hates cops. He has a lot of friends in low places, including a transgendered girlfriend named Yasmin, but he holds himself somewhat aloof from them, in particular because he refuses to get the cybernetic modifications that would allow him to use "moddies" and "daddies." Daddies are plug-ins that grant you abilities, like speaking a foreign language, knowledge of legal or accounting practices, or the ability to avoid a hangover. Moddies change your personality completely, either into a template (e.g., a card sharp, a secret agent) or a specific person, real or fictional (Audran spends a good portion of the book moddied as Nero Wolfe). You think these sound useful, but in the book, most people just use them for entertainment and prostitution.
     
Into this setting comes a serial killer, enhanced with moddies and daddies. Audran is at first a suspect. Once cleared, he is ordered by "Papa" Friedlander Bey to work with police Lieutenant Okking (the only cop he can stand) to investigate the crimes. Audran hates the job, particularly after Bey demands that he get the cybernetic enhancements, but you don't say no to Papa.
        
Audran's "super spy" moddy makes him think like James Bond.
        
Audran solves the case, killing the second killer himself, but he does so with a defective daddy that turns him into an animal. He literally tears the killer apart with his teeth. Unfortunately, he does the same to Lieutenant Okking, who the murderer had captured just before Audran arrived. In the aftermath, the neighborhood is so horrified by his actions that he loses his girlfriend and almost all his friends. Bars and clubs refuse him service. To add insult to injury, Bey forces him to take a permanent position as the Budayeen's liaison with the police force.
     
And thus we come to Circuit's Edge. The opening screens tell us that Audran is not trusted by his police contact and has, in contrast to his earlier preferences, embraced his cybernetic modifications, using them to increase his aggression and strength. He has just awoken from another night of hard living and hard drinking when he receives a call from one of his few remaining friends, Saied the Half-Hajj (he had begun the journey to Mecca but got distracted halfway), asking him to help with an errand.
    
The game opens in Audran's seedy apartment.
     
The interface shows Audran's portrait in the upper-left, his surroundings in the upper-right, and a textual description of the action at the bottom. The portrait suffers wounds and other conditions as Audran does. Commands are given through a menu bar at the top of the screen. They can be clicked on or called with the first letter. "Game," "Talk," "Inventory," and "Action" all have sub-menus. A small map appears in the lower-right, and four slots for moddies and daddies appear above Audran's portrait. Audran starts with just two daddies. "Bio-Scanner" makes his attributes appear on the right hand side of the screen, and I mostly left it in for the entire game. "The Suppressor" makes him immune to any sensory input (e.g., pain). I never used it once.
     
Audran steps outside as his phone rings. His "bioscanner" daddy shows his current statistics on the right. This is apparently a world where you need technology to tell if you're hungry or tired.
      
There are multiple ways to accomplish some tasks. For instance, if you want to swap chips, you can click on the chips themselves, or go to "Inventory" and select "Chip Rack," or go to "Action" and select "Chip In/Out." You can "look at" all your inventory items to get a detailed description, making this the second cyberpunk game in a row for which I can offer such praise.
       
Walking the streets of the Budayeen. The game does better than most RPGs of the period by populating its tiled environments with people.
     
Time passes even if you do nothing, reducing your "Food" and "Rest" meters. I wish there were a single-key shortcut to pause the game. Instead, you have to go "Game" and then "Game Options" and then "Pause." You can only save the game in Audran's apartment, and there's only one save slot. 
        
If you hang out in bars without doing anything, random women come up and ask you to buy them drinks.
      
Once out on the street, you can call up an automap, but it's unlabeled and thus pretty useless without the accompanying map in the game manual. The map is given as Audran's personal one, with notes and phone numbers, including characters who were killed in the book. If you call their numbers, you just get a message that they're out of service. You get an answering machine if you call most of the other numbers before you need to for plot purposes.
       
The manual map gives you numbers and addresses. Note that the streets are numbered from right to left.
     
Which you have to translate into positions on the blank game map. It's easier than it looks.
       
Moving works differently indoors and outdoors. Indoors, hitting any of the arrow keys rotates you to see the room from different views; most have two, but some only have one and the arrows don't do anything. There's never any walking or moving to do indoors. Once outside, however, you're in a proper tiled 3D interface in which the arrows move you right, left, forward, and about-face. NPCs in Arabic garb roam the streets. You can talk to both named and unnamed NPCs. You have both stock lines (many of them insults) and the ability to ask about specific keywords. I don't think the various compliments, honorifics, and insults ever make a difference, but I could be wrong.
     
Complimentary and uncomplimentary dialogue options show up randomly. The next time I clicked on this menu, I had an option to tell him that he was looking good.
    
The Budayeen is small but thickly settled, with almost 100 visitable locations. You can even leave the neighborhood via the east exit, but you can't freely explore. Instead, you take a cab to non-Budayeen locations in the rest of the city. I occasionally had fun ignoring the linear plot and just visiting random businesses, talking to random people, and calling random numbers. You only need to call about three people during the game, but the authors programmed the numbers of dozens of businesses into the game.
       
The locations you can visit thanks to Bill, the drug-addicted cab driver.
     
As you move around, you occasionally get attacked by random punks. You need to purchase a weapon to defend yourself, although I managed to get through most of the game on a "Kung Fu Master" moddy that gave me lethal kicks and punches and also occasionally replaced my regular dialogue choices with Master Po-style aphorisms. Anyway, these random battles plus the statistics shown with the bio-scanner daddy must be why some people think this is an RPG. Combat is a very minor part of the game, however--there are only two fixed battles--and the statistics never improve.
  
A random combat against a punk.I'm relying on my kung-fu here.
          
You can initiate combat with anyone, both named and unnamed NPCs, and loot their bodies if you kill them, but eventually the police catch up with you and kill you.

You still have to pay attention to the status bars, though. Audran occasionally has to sleep, stop into a restaurant, and visit the medical clinic for healing. I was delighted that the city had a New Orleans restaurant, complete with Jambalaya and oyster po boys. Taking care of these needs is harder than you might think, since your phone has a habit of waking you up from sleep with a time-sensitive mission. You're always having to meet someone at midnight or find something within 24 hours. The neighborhood's hours can be a problem, too: most businesses are open from around 18:00 to 04:00. You can't get much done during the day.
            
At 17:21, the pawn shop hasn't closed for the day. It hasn't opened yet.
     
Inventory is a constant problem. You only get 11 slots, and about half of them are taken up by things you absolutely cannot drop, like your money, chip rack, and phone. I tried to use my apartment for central storage, but you can't always get back there when you need to make room. Sometimes, you just have to guess that you won't need an item again and be willing to drop it in a random place.
   
Money plays an important role in the game, as you're always having to buy equipment and bribe people. You start out with a fair amount in your bank account, and I didn't see any reason not to just withdraw it at the beginning and ditch my bank card, freeing an inventory slot. There were a few times that I nearly went broke, but some reward usually came along at the last minute. You get money from random combats, and you can loot your slain foe's weapons and sell them. There's also a gambling den with roulette and baccarat, but since you can only save the game in your apartment, it's a risky proposition to gamble.
      
Gambling is one way to make money in the game.
       
As you go through the game, some of the puzzles are solved by having the right pieces of equipment; more are solved by having the right moddy or daddy, most of which are purchased from Laila's Mod Shop. The moddies are particularly fun because they take over your personality, and occasionally you get messages that show you're thinking like the character.
    
Most of the moddies are purchased at Laila's shop. I used five of these to win the game.
       
I'll describe the plot, but the game is far more about atmosphere than plot. The plot is completely linear, often timed, and sometimes unfair. The characters and locations, on the other hand, are excellently written. I think the writing is better than the book, even. It amazes me that more developers, even into the mid-1990s, weren't employing professional writers, especially given how much the ones that did stand out. Effinger's descriptions of the people and places in the Budayeen are written with talent and, more importantly, with love. He lived in New Orleans for most of his adult life (he died, alas, in 2002 at age 55) and clearly loved the seedy side of its streets. Every shuckster, wino, bartender, "sex-change," and prostitute feels like a real person, and if they ever earn the narrative's contempt, it's through their actions, not their positions. Again, I can't help but feel a certain affinity. I wish I were playing this exact game without the moddies and daddies.
       
The game has you do a couple of errands for friends before the main plot is introduced with an anonymous phone call. The caller tells you that "Papa" (a nickname for Friedlander Bey) wants you to pick up a notebook from someone at the Bougainvillea apartments. You get jumped and knocked unconscious when you arrive. You awake to find the resident of the apartment, Kenji Carter, dead from a thousand small cuts. "MCDIX" is scrawled across the wall in his blood. The police arrive and arrest you for the crime, but you get released on Bey's influence. Bey later summons you to his estate and tells you that Carter was his assistant. He tasks you with finding the murderer. At his orders, the police grudgingly cooperate with you, including by giving you a morgue pass to view Carter's body and by giving you a chip from Carter's answering machine. At the morgue, Carter's body has a holodisk and a pawn claim ticket.
      
It wouldn't be good noir if the hero didn't get conked over the head at least once.
    
A huge part of the game is simply listening to the answering machine chip and watching the holodisk. You need to buy an answering machine to listen to the message, but then the message is mostly in "some Oriental language," and the only part you can understand is MCDIX. You have to ask around to find out that it's in Japanese, then go looking for a daddy that will let you understand Japanese. Laila had one, but she sold it recently to the owner of Jewels of Morocco. He's recently been burglarized, meanwhile, and will only give you the daddy if you solve his burglary and recover a star sapphire. His only evidence is that the burglar had serpent tattoos on both arms.
     
One lead after another.
     
You've got to go to a tattoo shop to ask about the tattoos, which gives you two suspects, both of which have to be tracked down by tracing them through multiple businesses they supposedly worked at and apartments they supposedly lived in. In the middle of all of this, your friend Mahmoud calls you to tell you that his assistant, Abdul-Hassan, has been kidnapped, and you have less than 24 hours to find the boy or the kidnappers will kill him. The ransom note has a floral scent, which leads to a long and ridiculous sub-quest where you have to bounce around between a flower shop and a perfume shop tracking down whoever favors that specific scent, then steal a bunch of it from a warehouse at the docks to lure the person out of hiding. It really isn't worth recounting, but when you finally rescue Abdul, Mahmoud gives you a holograph viewer that you ultimately need for the disk you found in the morgue.
   
To make a long story short, the woman who left the message for Carter was his daughter, Tamara. She ended up in possession of the mysterious notebook and worried that someone was going to kill her. To avoid death, she got plastic surgery so extensive that she no longer even looks Asian. She also changed her name to Arissa and became a dancer at the clubs you've been visiting the entire game. When you finally talk to her and give her real name, she admits she's Kenji Carter's daughter. She says Kenji gave her a notebook for safekeeping; he was hiding it from Abu Salah, a local rug dealer. MCDIX, which everyone up to this point seems to think is the name of the killer, was just Tamara's way of reminding Kenji of the combination to her safe: 1409 in Roman numerals.
 
I figured that out early in the game by testing out the Julius Caesar moddy.
      
Abu Salah kidnaps Arissa/Tamara and invites you to meet him in a warehouse where he's tied her to a torture rack. He fills in the rest of the blanks. The notebook is Friedlander Bey's personal journal, which includes records of many crimes he has committed. "Even Papa, with all his power, could not escape conviction in the Islamic courts!" he gloats. Abu Salah and Kenji Carter conspired to steal the notebook from Bey and then ransom it back to him, but then Carter tried to cut Salah out of the deal. Salah killed Carter, his girlfriend, and some poor uninvolved bastard named Mack Dixon (Salah was trying to interpret the "MCDIX" clue). He might have killed other people, too. There was a moment in the game where a prostitute called and asked me to meet her at her apartment and was dead when I arrived. I never quite figured out what that was about.
         
It wouldn't be good noir if there wasn't at least one murder that remains unsolved.
     
Anyway, you defeat Abu Salah in single combat, but as he dies he hits a remote control that activates the torture device Arissa is tied to, threatening to tear her apart unless you can find the key within 60 minutes. You have to race to Abu Salah's rug shop, find it there, and race back with minutes to spare. You can still win the game if she's killed, but the concluding text indicates that it's not the best ending.
        
Saving Arissa at the last second.
     
The ending has you recover the notebook and return it to Bey, who's so happy with your performance that he gives you a place to live within his estate--which of course Audran hates. The game closes with a police memo indicating that Audran has become an embarrassment to the police force. The author contemplates just hiring Audran as a full police officer, speculating that once he is fully under police control, they can stuff him away in a desk job or have him quietly killed. This leads into A Fire in the Sun
      
The final conversation with Bey.
    
I played it all the way to the end, but I'm not going to pretend that I didn't look up some help several times. There are a few moments when the only way to progress is to scour the city for the next clue by talking to literally every NPC, or visiting every business of a certain type. There are times when you have to remember an NPC's offhand remark or find just the right set of equipment to piece together. It's not impossible that I would have figured it out on my own given time, but I was playing this as an exception and wanted to get it done in one entry. If you'd like more of a blow-by-blow, Zenic Reverie did an excellent series for The Adventurers' Guild starting in December 2013

After I won, I spent some time just screwing around, but I didn't get very much interesting to happen. If you kill a key NPC, the game doesn't tell you that you've put yourself in an unwinnable situation; it just stops triggering events that cause the plot to move forward. You can go directly to Abu Salah's rug shop at any point and kill him, but there's no acknowledgement of this. If you fail to solve Abdul's kidnapping by the deadline (midnight the following night), Bey summons you to his house and fires you, but the game lets you keep playing. I don't think it's possible to solve the rest of the game at that point, however, since you need a key item from Hassan, and he won't talk to you. I did confirm that you can skip a lot of stages in the main quest by going directly to people and feeding keywords that you're not supposed to know. I was able to skip an entire portion of the Abdul kidnapping quest by going directly to Mohammad's Glass and asking about the ODD WOMAN (I realize that probably doesn't make sense if you haven't played it). That doesn't always work, though, as if you ask Arissa about TAMARA too early, she claims not to know what you're talking about. If I had more time, it would be fun to figure out the minimum number of steps needed to win.
     
Bey does not take failure lightly.
       
Like many games that are simply good games, regardless of their RPG status, it does well on the GIMLET despite getting a 0 for "character creation and development," a 1 for "magic and combat," and a 2 for "equipment," the three categories that most define an RPG, I think. However, it gets a well-deserved 8 for "game world," a 6 for "NPC interaction," and between 3 and 5 on everything else, for a final score of 36. I suppose the lesson here is that the text, world, characters, and atmosphere are so good that I slightly recommend it as an RPG even though it really isn't an RPG. I liked the setting, the quest, and the Chandleresque writing. I liked having a growing list of leads to run down in an otherwise open neighborhood. I liked having to hit six clubs in a row to find a particular dancer and finding the right daddy for a particular situation. Maybe I'm more of an adventure gamer than I thought. Maybe it's just been too long since I've been in New Orleans.