Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Whale's Voyage: Forbidden Seas and Barbarous Coasts

The game prevents me from returning to my ship, and thus saving.
The game begins with the crew of the Whale still on Castra, a little less broke than last time. We returned a missing child, foiled the mugging of a resident, foiled our mugging, and got a mission to bring a heart to a shady-sounding guy named "Jack Nock" on Lapis. But other parties are apparently interested in the heart, and at the end of the last session, they slaughtered us, forcing us to do most of the above a second time. I later ended up doing it a third time because all my money disappeared for reasons I can't explain.
The secret to winning the battle is to run away. The attackers' party of four breaks up, with its members wandering off individually, allowing us to engage and kill them one at a time. For some reason, my soldier (Mapple) turns out to be terrible with the shotgun, but either he or Starbuck (bounty hunter) does fine with their bare hands, particularly since we can just wait and heal between battles. Slowly, we kill them all. They don't leave any visible items behind, but fortunately I think to search the area anyway, as each one of them drops a small-bore gun. 
Divide and conquer.
The combat system shows how bonkers this interface is. As we discussed last time, only one character can fight at a time. If that character isn't the "targeter," you have to enter the bottom interface (SPACE-DOWN ARROW), arrow to the character's name, hit SPACE, arrow to the "Select" icon, and hit SPACE. If there's only one person in front of the party, he'll be automatically selected. Then you have to back out of this menu with the LEFT ARROW to the main screen, then arrow to the little button to the right of the character's name (which shows a symbols specific to his class), then hit SPACE, then arrow to the "Attack" button, then pound away at it with SPACE until the enemy is dead. Woe the character who doesn't already have his preferred weapon equipped, as this is another whole deal. It's hard to believe that anyone designed this purposefully. My two biggest problems are:
  • Identifying what's "selected" on the interface panel. The only indication you get is a thin border around the button, that kind of "blinks" by changing colors, but I can barely see it.
  • Because I can't see the selection border easily, I'm always going to the arrow keys so I can see it moving and thus get a lock on it. But if you accidentally hit the UP ARROW while in the top row of the interface, you end up leaving it (arrow keys now move the party), so you have to get back into it again.
Which of these three guns is currently selected? Easy for you, not so much for me.
I'm sure the excuse for all of this is wanting the player to be able to use the joystick exclusively, but that doesn't justify a lack of keyboard backups for these commands. And why, in the name of all holy, would you not put a target selection button on the combat screen? I don't advocate or applaud physical violence lightly, but someone honestly deserves to be slapped for this.
After we've killed the four assassins, we return to the shop counter. Their guns are worth over $13,000, so I sell one and buy a compass, a toolkit, and a room scanner, just because they all sound useful. We then beam up to the Whale.
One gun buys enough fuel to make it to another planet and back. What a weird economy.
As I mentioned last, the interface on the ship lets you buy or sell goods, buy equipment and fuel for the ship, plot a destination, and make a phone call. At first, I thought the first options were for personal items for the party because the options include "Light Weapons" and "Ammunition." I see now that these options are trade goods. I note the prices for Castra, but I'm not sure if they change from time to time. Amusingly, one of the trade goods is "computergames," and the icon shows the box cover for Whale's Voyage.
It's nice to see that computer games haven't experienced much inflation in 300 years.
The star chart shows six planets in this system: Lapis, Arboris, Castra, Sky Boulevard, Nedas, and Inoid. Lapis is closest to the sun and requires 728 fuel units. I buy 5,000.
Purchasing fuel.
Before I leave, I note the phone panel and decide to try to call George McGil now. Maybe one of the "high tech tools" is something I can use to shrink Greg Morgan, although that still sounds like an unnecessarily complicated way to smuggle someone off-planet. Sure enough, McGil offers to send us a Shrinking Device via "3D fax." He advises us to "use it with care and keep the CD safe!" What CD?
I guess the developers anticipated 3D printing.
I don't know if that means we have the Shrinking Device or just the means to print it somewhere. I return to the surface and go speak with Greg Morgan, who has nothing new to say. But then I notice a new icon over in the left scroll wheel, the same place that the missing girl stored herself. This seems to be a "quest items" part of the interface.
My new option does suggest some kind of shrinking, so I try it. As Morgan disappears, he says, "Take care of this heart and bring it to Jack Nock. Bring me on that CD to Jack Nock. He knows what to do." A CD (compact disk) is barely visible in the corner after he disappears. I pick it up. How does he know Jack Nock? How does he know about the heart? How did McGIl know about the CD? Is everyone just into each others' business on this planet? Looking at the CD tells us that: "This is the compact disc which you used to shrink Greg Morgan. He is still stored on this disc." So I guess it isn't so much a Shrinking Device as one that turns a person into data?
We beam back to the ship and finally prepare to leave Castra for Lapis. The profile in our computer tells me that the planet is very poor and only exists because of its wealthy titanium mines. 
That's one hell of a planetary alignment.
No sooner have we left orbit than the game informs me: "Whale under attack and ambushed by avaricious buccaneers!" Given that I have no weapons, I don't like my chances in this battle. Space combat takes place on a large grid, and the manual assures me that if I can reach the edges of the grid, I can flee. Worst case, I can surrender and I'll lose all my cargo, which is empty. I try to flee, since I can't even see the enemy. I choose the "Turn Left" button, and the game responds, "Whale destroyed!"
I guess I committed one of the classic blunders: turning left in space combat.
On a reload, we don't encounter the pirates this time, and we make it safely to Lapis. Before beaming down, I note the sale prices of their goods. They don't have a lot of overlap with what Castra was selling, but of course they might be willing to buy Castran goods. I need to track buying and selling prices separately, I guess.
We beam down to Lapis. The planet is reported to have no oxygen and to have an average temperature of 400 degrees (F). None of this is reflected in the characters' experience in the town. Maybe it's in a dome or something. Overall, the area is 25 x 10, a little smaller than Castra, but with just as many locked doors. I keep annotating them even though I suspect they're just for flavor and there's no way to open them.
The interiors of the buildings that aren't locked all look like morgues, with compartments in the walls and long tables. Stones are everywhere, indoors and outdoors. I wonder if I can sell them.
This probably has some mining explanation, but I can't figure it out.
There are a few NPCs wandering the town. John Sac tells us that it's hard working the mines; Baumann says he's collecting taxes; Kruger tells us about a new disease called Hypo-Coco; G.J. Styx just keeps asking us for money (there's no way to give money that I can discover). A guy named Ferdinand runs a shop selling tools and explosives.
We find Jack Nock in a building in the north-center part of town. He takes the heart and gives us 100,000 credits. When we give him the disk, he says he can reverse the shrinking. Once he does so, he shouts, "This man is a traitor!" Greg Morgan starts blasting us from behind and has soon killed three party members. I really hate how the game keeps surprising us with combat.
"Reshrink" isn't the word I was looking for.
It takes a few reloads before I can kill Morgan, and even then, it's with one character dead. I take the party to the healing/resurrection chamber in town, which consumes about a third of the credits that I just earned. I return to Jack Nock, who tells me that Morgan was a spy and I "saved the heart," which is intended for an "important man." We try to ask him other things, but he keeps telling us he's busy and will be back in an hour. We make a couple loops around town. I verify Ferdinand won't buy rocks. I buy a machete. Nock still keeps telling us to come back in an hour. Does he mean real time? Time doesn't actually pass in this game.
You can't "be back" if you never leave.
I try to beam up to the ship to save, but the game says that I can't because the beam is being disturbed by a "beam-blocker." 
Eventually, we return to find Jack Nock not just dead on the floor, but comically positioned with his legs straight up in the air. Krueger is wandering around the building, but I don't know if that means anything. We examine the body and find a piece of paper, which causes my leader to level up. I take the "Disarm Selected Opponent" skill.
Or he's got one bastard of a yoga routine.
The piece of paper has a number on it, but I still can't beam up to the ship to call it. Eventually, I have to quit the session. I'll have to re-do it all again next time. That seems like the theme for this game.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I like that you can get a textual description of all your inventory items. I enjoy reading these so much that I made it a point on the GIMLET, but hardly any game ever gets to claim it. Might and Magic VI through VIII remain my favorite games for these descriptions.
I wouldn't mind if it had exact damage statistics along with the description, but one thing at a time, I guess.
  • I have no idea what the image on the right side of the interface is showing me. I think it might just be some generic view of the current planet. I also don't know what the (empty) bars in the upper-right are for.
  • NPCs frequently block your passage. It takes them a long time to move out of the way.
  • Several times this session, I had to reload because all my money disappeared for no reason. I had to make one of my characters the "merchant" so I can keep an eye on it.
The game makes me think of what you would get if you crossed MegaTraveller with the weird cyberpunk aesthetic and combat system of B.A.T. There's an economy of dialogue and storytelling here that borders on the surreal. I honestly don't know whether to regard it as intentional. I'm certainly not going to get very far if I keep experiencing problems like disappearing money and inability to return to the ship.
Time so far: 5 hours
Playing out of: Confusion

Monday, June 10, 2024

Centauri Alliance: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The Medal of Honor looks a bit like a coaster.
Centauri Alliance
United States
Brøderbund Software, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for Apple II and Commodore 64
Date Started: 2 May 2024 
Date Ended: 4 June 2024
Total Hours: 32
Difficulty: Hard (4/-/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)   
From the creator of The Bard's Tale comes the same sort of game in a science fiction setting (although not always). A party of up to 8 operatives of an interstellar alliance try to foil an invasion by exploring a series of about 50 indoor maps of 16 x 16 tiles each, spread across a dozen planets. You fight a huge variety of unmemorable foes on a hex map, but the map is largely an abstraction, and combat in general uses a Wizardry or Bard's Tale system of defining your actions and then watching them execute, threaded with the enemies' in a hidden order of initiative. "Psionics" replace spells, which are otherwise nearly identical to The Bard's Tale. Storytelling never rises to the level of competence that the game's plot twists are interesting.
When I wrapped up last time, I had recognized I had pushed too far too fast and had settled in for a period of grinding. I did that for about two hours. A few factors made me lose interest. First, I was trying to get my metamorph to the point that he could turn into a "Zon Dragon," which would have made him much more effective at ranged attacks. But when he achieved the level when he could have cast it, he didn't have enough psi points. This continued for two levels beyond that, too. 
The other thing I was trying to do was to get my spellcasters to the level that they could learn "Matter" and "Energy" school spells. I assumed this would happen when the characters hit Level 10 in "Mind" and "Body." Nope. I have no idea how you get offered those spell classes. Neither Shay Addams nor Andrew Schultz was any help with that one.
I did my grinding mostly on Kevner's World, the medieval planet, and I kept finding myself amazed at how Michael Cranford essentially programmed an entire medieval game--to include monsters and equipment--for a single planet. For hours, I fought red dragons, beholders, ogres, sorcerers, and balrogs and was rewarded with halberds, platemail, and rings of health. Unfortunately, these items help highlight a basically-broken equipment system. There's no way to identify what items actually do unless they have a direct effect on your protection or shield. A lot of them are throwing items, and I admittedly underemphasized those. 
What does an "Auramaker Ring" do? Your guess is as good as mine.
When I got bored and frustrated with grinding, I decided to see how close I could get to the end without being able to win any battles. I returned to Keppa Var via the alien transporter on Epsilon Indi and entered the Daynab base with the password CASTLE-FIST.
I had already been here, of course, and I knew there were some fixed combats, and I knew that I couldn't beat them. That doesn't mean I had to. If you successfully flee a combat, the enemies disappear as if they were never there. This strategy worked on the first enemy group I encountered. Beyond them, I found a cache of Daynab uniforms, and after that, the guards mostly left me alone. From this moment on, every time I encountered a random combat, unless it was with a single enemy in melee range, I tried to flee and reloaded if it failed. This is one of those things that would have taken so long on a real Apple II that it wouldn't have been a viable strategy. 
The fact that those Daynab commanders include a lizard and a chicken apparently doesn't bother them.
The Daynab base was four levels with a lot of up and down, but three of the levels were only partial ones, not using all of the 16 x 16 space. Our goal was to find the Alliance "traitor," a Donsai. We found him in a cell on the fourth level, but he protested that he wasn't a traitor. Instead, he said that he had been sent to investigate the Daynabs and got caught. The real traitor, he said, is Councilman Renfrew. Renfrew is mentioned in the game manual as the councilor who sent our party after the Donsai in the first place. 
The Donsai, Commander Varion, went on to say that Keppa Var is also the site of an ancient Fractyrian fortress with who-knows-what technology waiting to be plundered. He said the passcard to the fortress was in a vault on the second level of the current base, which he could open.

We had no choice but to bring him with us, dismissing our "VII Man" mech. He was a pretty good fighter, skilled in melee, sidearm, and throwing weapons, and I put him in the second position. With Varion in tow, we were able to get into the vault on the second level, which allowed us to grab a "technocard" necessary to access the Fractyr ruins on the same planet.
Michael Cranford ruins every boy's Leia fantasies in one graphic.
We escaped from Daynab, leveled up a couple of characters (I'd won a few easy fights), then returned to the planet to enter the Fractyr ruins. This was a challenging dungeon. It's four levels (though none of them use the full 16 x 16 space) with numerous staircases up and down and numerous teleporters on each level. From the moment you enter the dungeon, you can't use any psionic abilities. Spells cast outside the dungeon will remain in effect, but once you enter, it's not easy to get back out. So there was some cursing and reloading the first time I found out that psionics didn't work and I was stuck in the dark.
Fortunately, I had "Astral Sight" by now, a "light" spell that lasts damn near indefinitely. Before entering the second time, I cast that, "Spatial Sense," "Seventh Sense," and "Slow Regeneration." I saved just before entering the dungeon, and for the next few hours, I mapped as much as I could and reloaded if I got killed--which was almost every time I encountered any foe. 
A trap just about kills me.
There are three exceptions to that last statement: three fixed combats that occur in the dungeon, all of them against single enemies, all of them requiring that only one of your characters participate in the fight. Each one of them starts with a face appearing in the air demanding that I "choose one to step forward." In all cases, I chose Morella, because she does devastating melee damage with the Fractyr Fist. Later, looking at Quest for Clues, I got the impression that you're supposed to have the character with the Fractyr equipment fight the battles.
The enemies were named Big Jim, Gingerbread Man, and Blizzard. All of them lasted exactly one round, and all of them died in one hit. A couple of them went first and hit me first, but I had a shield pumped up to 100, and they didn't do that much damage.
If you send everyone forward, the enemy disappears and you have to leave the level and return.
I don't know precisely what the purpose of the battles was. I got a weapon from one called a Krelslayer which I never equipped or used. Another gave me a Mauve Sphere, which did turn out to be important, but it wouldn't have been necessary with higher-level characters. And yet one of the messages below suggests these combats were necessary, so I can only imagine my progress would have been blocked in some way if I hadn't fought them.
That was pretty easy.
Multiple squares in the dungeon gave me a message that I set off an alarm, and then drained all my health and psi points to 1. "Slow Regeneration" did its job after those drainages. They weren't as crippling as they could have been because I was avoiding almost all combat anyway.
There were five places in the dungeon where I came upon a weird inscription on a wall and "the Fractyr First begins to glow." It took me a few visits to realize that I could A)ctivate the Fist at these times to translate the messages:
  • "Of eons past and far below / A tale to tell of dread and woe / A secret said, a truth to know / A power great to yet bestow."
  • "The four small corner rooms above are not PSI-damped." I translated this very late in the session. There was a lot more cursing.
  • "To pass, break during the take-off."
  • "Fight the three, wear the fist, a focal power must exist to bring you to the point of change--activate it in that range."
  • "ENERGY NEXUS." This last one was accompanied by a little map.
Before translation.
A final message was found on the first floor at the end of a long corridor: "Come here with a Shapemaster."
I found the area indicated by the little map and activated the Fist. It asked me for a keyword. It took a while to figure out what it wanted, as I had gotten the SHAPEMASTER keyword some time earlier and didn't think anything special of it. When I fed that keyword, I learned that a "Shapemaster" is a type of metamorph that I guess anyone can learn, not just Praktors. In fact, Praktors can't learn it because they can't equip the Fractyr Fist. Anyway, the message didn't tell me anything about how you learn the ability, and none of my characters had it.
I spent damn near an hour wandering around trying to figure out what to do next before I went to Quest for Clues and found that the "Shapemaster" ability is given automatically to the character wearing the Fist when he asks about it, if he's standing in the Energy Nexus. Except the Energy Nexus is one step to the west of where I had been standing. The stupid in-game map had led me astray.
If you saw this, which square would you think was important. The odd one to the east, right? Well, apparently it's the one next to it.
I went back and activated it again, and Morella got the "Shape" ability, which allowed her to shapeshift to a Fractyr at Level 1. The Fist suggested the ability could be trained; I don't know what shapes might be available at higher levels since I never got there.
Is it talking to me? Am I reading this somewhere?
Thus shapeshifted, I returned to the square that said "Come here with a Shapemaster." I was teleported to the fourth level of the dungeon. I wandered down a hallway to a room where the game showed a cinematic recapping the story of the Fractyrs:
Our quest in search of a greater Being took us far from our home system, which lies near the center of the galaxy. It has now been abandoned for countless millennia. The first stage of our journey took us to the far reaches of the galaxy. While standard propulsion served adequately for local exploration, interstellar travel necessitated a new technology. As we began our search, we noted many primitive civilizations, and purposefully left such outposts as this one as a means to help them reach beyond their petty barbarities. The final part of our quest took us beyond the edge of the galaxy, out to a nearby quasar, and the system of Kindratus. It lies over 200,000 light years from the edge of the galaxy, yet we reached it instantly . . .
We might need some more detail here.
There was nowhere else to go from this room, and the sequence repeated indefinitely. An on-screen message said to "Press ESC to break concentration." I realized this went with the message to "break during take-off." Specifically, I had to hit the ESC key while the cinematic showed the Fractyr's rocket taking off for the "far reaches of the galaxy." That opened a secret door to the west. Clever.
Moving on, we found a "mattermission" platform at the end of a hallway. With nothing else to do, we stood upon it and were warped to what I guess was the Fractyrs' current home world.
How nice. They give burglars a free ride home.
It was a two-level map. As usual, we reloaded when we met enemies, but there weren't many. A holographic message intercepted us at one point and called us intruders, but using the Fractyr Fist disabled the security devices.
A message told us to "avoid the cyber room," but of course we didn't. We touched a panel, and Turhan was turned into a robot or something. I reloaded.
Lesson: don't touch strange alien panels.
On the second level, we found our way to the chamber of the High Citizens of Fractyr:
"Greetings, oh voyagers of the Alliance. You have come very far in search of the secret left behind in ancient fortresses. Fractyrians still exist and have seeded the galaxy with clues of our civilization. Your enemies have invaded Alliance space with the intention of grabbing the power of the Fractyr homeworld. They were unable to make the journey, however, as they lacked sufficient virtue. One of our people will accompany you to help you in your task. We would not have aided them, in any case, as we serve a higher and more noble cause than the mere possession of destructive power. Prepare to leave for Earth."

I love that those two dudes in the back are completely uninterested in these aliens that have broken into their meeting.
I had to replay this because I didn't have a space available for The Fracyrian who wanted to join the party. I had to kick out my faithful Fractyr Mech. The Fractyrian had no combat skills, so it's a good thing we didn't need him for that.
The game teleported us automatically to "Earth," which was just another 16 x 16 map. I guess we were in the headquarters of the Alliance. As we explored, we got attacked by huge parties of ridiculous enemies: experimechs, assassins, rock stars, attorneys, paper-pushers, bodyguards, friends of Renfrew, evil soldiers, janitors, and so forth. We didn't have the faintest hope against any of them. Again, we kept mapping, fleeing, and reloading when fleeing didn't work.
There were only three things of interest to find on the map. First was a shuttle back to Lunabase, but if we tried to take it, the Fractyrian left. Second was the Alliance prison, where if we accidentally wandered into a cell, we got stuck and had to reload.
Third was the entrance to the Alliance council chamber. Every time we tried to enter, the game told us, "A solid wall of force blocks further progress. The Council is always guarded when in session." I went around and tested all the walls for secret doors. Nothing.
The Council hasn't planned for alien artifacts!
Fortunately, I had fiddled around with the "Mauve Sphere" that I received in one of the battles in the Fractyr fortress. It cast the "Teleport" spell. It hadn't worked on the Fractyr world, but it worked fine here, and I was able to reach the Council chamber and the endgame. I should note that Quest for Clues tells you to cast "Passwall" or "Teleport," two high-level "Matter" spells, and doesn't even suggest the Mauve Sphere. If I hadn't figured it out, this would be a very different sort of entry.
The endgame:
You have burst into the meeting chambers of the High Council. The Council is in session. "What is the meaning of this!" the Donsai councilor cries.
None of them look like a Valkyryn, Praktor, or Arcturian.
"We have information concerning treachery--from inside this very council," Vir shouts.

Councilor Renfrew stands and points to your group, including the Fractyrian. "They are the traitors! They are wanted on charges of counter-espionage and high treason. I demand that they be placed under arrest! Guards, throw them in the Alliance prison!" 
What other prison could the guards have thrown us in?
"Stop," the Fractyrian commands. A stasis field envelops the room. "These courageous adventurers have come too far to plead their case."

"Renfrew is the traitor," Varion says.
"Where is your proof?" the Council demands.
"Allow me to explain," Varion says, stepping forward. "I was on a special mission to investigate rumors of a Daynab invasion through Keppa Var, an Alliance fringe world. My reports went to Councilor Renfrew, who urged me to secrecy. I found that Keppa Var was the site of a Fractyrian base, with a potential connection to the Fractyrian homeworld. The Daynab invasion was merely a cover for a plot to exploit this base. I knew that the invasion had to have resulted from treachery within the High Council; our enemies had access to all our information. All of the sudden, my cover was blown, and I was taken captive. Councilor Renfrew knew of my location, and the reason for the invasion, but told you nothing. It was HE who was supplying our enemies with information. HE is the traitor!"
Won't Varion be embarrassed if it turns out to be Renfrew's aide.
"I also bear witness to this," the Fractyrian says. "Our people can produce evidence to substantiate a charge of treason." The Fractyrian then points at Renfrew. "Speak truth."
Renfrew, under truth-compulsion, nods. "It's true." 
The Fractyrian then took off, and the party members all got the Medal of Honor, as per the screen up top. "This scenario is completed," the game says, "but greater adventure awaits you on your second mission . . ."
The game then took the party to Lunabase and alliance headquarters, where the officer told us "INVASION ALERT! You are ordered to report to the Headquarters on Epsilon Indi immediately." I didn't know whether this was just a repeat of the previous quest or whether it was something new. We jumped a shuttle to Epsilon Indi--and got attacked and boarded by the pirate dreadnought on the way. The pirate dreadnought seemed to be playing out as it had before, so I quit the game, but let me know if you know anything different and this really is a second mission.
This feels familiar.
FYI, if you go into the Council chambers without either the Fractyrian or Varion in the party, you get arrested and tossed into prison.
You think they'd want to hear at least a little more.
So, in the end, my horribly under-leveled party managed to win the game because there was no "final battle," and the only fixed battles were special encounters that just required one person to fight. I didn't like fleeing all of those combats, but I would have liked grinding less.
This is already pretty long, but let's do a quick GIMLET:
  • 4 points for the game world. The story is okay. The biggest problem is that there isn't enough of it. Renfrew is the only person who could possibly be the traitor, because he's the only named character in the backstory. None of the alien races that make up the Alliance make a significant appearance in the game; none of the worlds feel anything like alien worlds.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. You definitely feel the party getting stronger as they level, and I appreciate that the skill system allows for extensive customization of the characters. The problem is that not enough matters other than combat and psi abilities. I don't think my technical character used his abilities even once (unless something happened that was passive). All of the alien races were wasted; my characters might as well have all been human.
  • 1 point for NPCs. I give this for those who will join the party. Everything else is an encounter.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The Bard's Tale series, including Centauri Alliance, epitomizes what some RPG Codexian once coined "trash mob." You just get piles of originally-named but otherwise unmemorable enemies that you have to mow down. You don't even get portraits here. So most of the points in this category goes to the many non-combat encounters, including navigational and linguistic puzzles in some of the dungeons, which were the highlight of the game. As usual, I found that if I mapped a session, I enjoyed it a lot more than when I used the automaps.
This trash mob even has a janitor.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. The Bard's Tale system was showing its age when The Bard's Tale was new, but it works okay. There are a fair number of tactical considerations dealing with distance and the best attack, and there are a lot of spell options even among the two classes that I played. The problem, of course, is that enemy difficulty outpaces the party quickly unless you grind a lot, but I'll save those deductions for later.
  • 4 points for equipment. I was a little generous here because there's so damned much of it that I can only assume I would have gotten more out of it if I had taken the time to explore what everything did. Since I didn't, I ended the game with most of the equipment that I had at the halfway mark.
  • 2 points for the economy. It was useful to the extent that I kept buying shield belts and they kept me alive.
  • 3 points for a main quest and a couple of side-dungeons if not exactly side quests. There are no choices or alternate endings.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are just functional and the sound is almost completely absent. The interface works well enough.
  • 2 points for gameplay. It's way too linear, not replayable, grindy, and unbalanced. You could defend the ridiculous endgame combat difficulty by arguing that combat isn't necessary in the first place, but that's like multiplying zeroes.
That gives us a final score of 33. That makes sense. I can't recommend it, but I would have been able to recommend it with a few changes. In comparison, I gave The Bard's Tale 37. Dragon Wars, another Bard's Tale descendant from 1990, got 51. The biggest problem with Alliance is that it doesn't fill any niche. Many other games were doing science fiction better, and many other games had taken the basic Bard's Tale template and evolved it into something better.
The Commodore 64 and Apple II were essentially dead as popular platforms by 1990, which meant that Alliance made almost no splash in American magazines. Computer Gaming World mentioned that it existed in the March 1990 issue (with Ultima VI on the cover) but never reviewed it. The C64 had a little life left in Europe, so there were reviews in a selection of English (Zzap!64) and German (Power Play, Aktueller Software Markt) magazines. Although rating between 72% and 80%, the reviews (at least, the parts I translated) were relatively positive, with some shade cast on the primitive graphics and more on the disk loading times.
A 2013 interview with Cranford on RPG Codex goes into some of the game's development problems. Cranford chalks them up to delays for graphics artists to do all the animations that the various cinematics required. Because of these delays, the release occurred well after the heyday of its native platforms ("the decline happened quickly"), and Cranford didn't have any experience with the PC. Reading between the lines, the larger issue is that Cranford was working on his own at a time when a single developer couldn't compete with the diverse teams of specialists at places like Origin and Interplay. If Brøderbund had really prioritized the game, they would have hooked up Cranford with programmers to handle graphics, sound, and a DOS port at the beginning.
I had thought that this was Cranford's last game: When Alliance finally hit the shelves, he was getting a master's degree in Theological Studies and beginning a teaching career at Biola University. But he appears in the credits of Cyberdreams' Dark Seed (1992) as one of the two designers. An adventure game, it looks completely unlike anything else he ever worked on, and yet I can't find any interview in which anyone asked him about it. In 2018, he provided some assistance with InExile's The Bard's Tale IV, which I imagined involved some hatchet-burying with Brian Fargo.

Friday, June 7, 2024

Game 517: Whale's Voyage (1993)

I'm pretty sure that's not supposed to be the Whale.
Whale's Voyage
Neo Software Producktions (developer); Flair Software Ltd. (European publisher); Pro One Software (U.S. publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, Amiga, and Amiga CD32
Re-released in 1994 on same platforms on CD with extra cinematics/dialogue
Date Started: 2 June 2024
Whale's Voyage is an odd 3D "blobber" with horrible controls from Neo Software. It is the first game from the developer, which still exists today as Rockstar Vienna. I knew nothing about the game before firing it up, and thus went into this session completely blind.

I believe I am playing the DOS version distributed on floppy disk to the United Kingdom in 1993. I am aware of the CD version released a year later. I had a look at it, and like most CD versions of earlier games in the mid-1990s, it seems to add nothing but unnecessary music and horrible voiced dialogue. The floppy version ran faster and with fewer emulation problems, and I decided to stick with it. Let me know if you're aware of any major differences, though. The manual is pretty awful no matter what version you use. It leaves out obvious questions from the backstory (How many alien races did we meet? What were they like?), character creation (What is that alien doing in there?) and especially combat.
From the CD version intro. That looks more like a whale.
The game is set in the late 2300s. Humanity has developed interstellar flight capabilities and has met alien races. In 2291, Earth won a war against the Iradian Empire, freeing a slave race called the Sanxons in the process, and was instrumental in the creation of a Cosmic League to regulate interstellar trade. Over time, this League has grown into a de facto interstellar government, headquartered on a planet called Z-1.

Within this universe, you play a party of four characters who recently scraped together enough money to buy an interstellar transport called SS Whale. Unfortunately, Whale is a bit of a lemon. It sucks up all the characters' time and money, until at last they find themselves broke and stranded in orbit around a planet called Castra, unable to even afford the price of fuel to get out of here. According to the manual, Castra used to have a thriving economy, but it collapsed from competition and is now a corrupt, crime-ridden slum.

The game has the weirdest character creation process that I can remember in a CRPG. It begins with a selection of the character's parents, from five male options and five female options. All you get to choose are their portraits; the game doesn't tell you anything about their relative strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, one of the male portraits is clearly alien, like a human-sized Cthulhu. The others look like digitized portraits of actual people. The manual has nothing to say about this selection process.
The parental options. At least one of these portraits is going to seem unfortunate a year later.
The game selects a sex for the baby at random. You give the baby a name, and then you're shown a baby portrait and his or her relative (eventual, I assume) levels in strength, intelligence, speed, mental energy, skilfulness, and health. A "DNA synthesizer" spins to the right, but it's non-interactive. You get a pool of bonus points ("Mutation Ratio") to allocate to the attributes, but the manual warns that actually using them leaves the character susceptible to genetic diseases.
My bounty hunter has no mental energy.
Once you accept the character, the game gives you a few lines of a backstory drawn at random from a database. Some of them are very sad ("Even in her first years of life, she changed her foster parents like clothes. She never felt the power of an intact family"), and all assume that the real parents (the ones you selected) died somehow. You then choose his or her primary school from six options: General Primary School, Space Education Camp, Basic Military Training, Streetkid Childhood (not a school at all, but life on the street without school), Cybertech Mental School, and Nagikamura Gakko (a chemistry-focused school). Most of these schools orient a player towards a particular class. Some of them aren't available to certain characters depending on attributes.
Choosing the character's education. Note the little story at the top.
Finally, you choose your character's secondary education from another six options: Battle Academy, Hoodson Medicine School, Aranian Monastic School, Psi Science Institute, Chemistry University, and Bounty Hunter Society. As you scroll among these options, the image in the upper-left changes to show the institution, which is a cute touch. We were just talking about a lot of effort put into unnecessary graphics in the context of Loremaster.
I started to try to analyze the effects of the different matings of men and women, but they weren't always consistent and I ultimately gave up. Relying partly on randomness, I went with the following 

  • Ishmael: Fourth guy/first woman. Game tells me that he was rejected by his foster parents and grew up in a monastery, which taught him law, order, and obedience. That put a paladin sort of character in my mind, so I sent him to Basic Military Training and then the Aranian Monastic School. The game tells me he's an Aranian, whatever that is. He has a lot of health, strength, and mental energy, but he's slow and not very skillful.
  • Starbuck: Third guy/first woman. Results in a strong, smart, skillful, female character with low health, alas. She had an even sadder childhood: her adoptive parents were just looking for a "kitchen maid." They threw her out when they came into some money. Nonetheless, she went to Space Education Camp and then (because it was the only option available), the Bounty Hunter Society. The game unsurprisingly made her a bounty hunter. Her education made her health a lot better, but she's a bit slow.
  • Mapple: Fourth guy/fourth woman. Resulted in a strong, fast, skillful character who was really dumb. "A working class family cared for the little boy," the game tells me, "who was educated to become a miner since his adoption." I sent him to Basic Military Training and then Battle Academy, and he became a soldier. Still dumb as a box of rocks.
  • Rachel: I spent some time engineering this one, as I figured I'd need someone with a good science background. A combination of General Tagge and Captain Janeway did the job. I sent her to General Primary School and Hoodson Medical School, and she became a doctor.
I avoided the Cthulhu option in all cases, though I assume it confers some advantages. I would just need to know more about what the alien is, and what the implications are to such inter-breeding.

I kept this group but played around with other combinations. It appears that your class depends exclusively on your secondary schooling, so the only options are soldier, doctor, Aranian, psionician, biochemist, and bounty hunter. If you've played the game and think I'll be crippled for not having a psionician or biochemist, please let me know.
I otherwise enjoyed the backstory and character creation process. It seems impossible that it wasn't influenced by the Traveller tabletop RPG or either of the two MegaTraveller CRPGs based on it, although it's a bit simplified. The universe feels quite similar, with the PCs making up a group that's just struggling to get by.
The game begins with a planetary menu. The party can buy or sell personal wares, buy equipment for the Whale, fly off to another destination, beam or glide down to the planet, or call someone on a standard nine-key telephone dial. We have no money to buy anything for ourselves or the ship, nothing to sell, no fuel to fly to another planet, and no one to call, so it seems the only option is to visit Castra and see what we can uncover.
Options from the ship.
Once on the planet, the game switches to a standard three-dimensional, tiled, "blobber" screen. The interface for this screen is odd. It seems to assume the player will be using a joystick, so inputs are minimal. You can use the arrow keys to turn, but to access character information or any of the other icons on the screen, you have to do a weird combination of the SPACE bar and the down arrow, at which point you can arrow around the various buttons and options and hit ENTER to activate them. It's one of the worst systems that I've ever encountered. No other key on the keyboard does anything, not even obvious stuff like 1-4 or F1-F4 to activate the character sheets of the characters. In times like this, I'd normally sigh and use the mouse--but the mouse isn't supported in this game, either. 
If there's any way to view a character sheet and the items the characters have equipped, I can't find it. You can see each character's statistics. The game tells me they're all "sleepy" and will become "more awake" with 2,048 experience points. 
One of the bottom buttons gives you information about the character.
There are no sound options, so you can't turn off the incessant music. Since there don't seem to be any other sound effects, I just turn off sound on my computer entirely. 
Within the bottom controls, each character can be assigned a role. There are eight potential roles: the leader, the scout (looks for traps), the closer (closes doors behind the party), the targeter (starts combat with an enemy already targeted), the joker (keeps up crew morale), the merchant (manages money), the weigher (causes each character's carry weight to be displayed), and the user (causes current temperature and oxygen content to be displayed). 
That sounds sarcastic.
I see an NPC walking around. It takes so long to get into the bottom control panel and choose the option to talk to him that he's a few steps away before I can make it work. He's apparently named "George McMil." We have nothing useful to say anyway. Other wandering NPCs mostly tell me to get lost.
As we explore, a small automap keeps track of our progress in the upper-left, although I don't think there's any way to expand this to see the whole area, so I eventually break down and map it manually. Castra occupies a 20 x 20 area, although at least half of it is unexplorable because of locked doors. I annotated them all, but I don't know if there's a way later to open them. I also annotate garbage bins and fire hydrants, though I can find no way to interact with them, and store counters with nobody standing behind them. Despite the planet's rough-and-ready-to-rumble reputation, we don't get attacked or hassled as we wander. There are a few wandering NPCs who have nothing to say. We find two staffed stores. They sell interesting-sounding equipment, like compasses, a "Roomscanner," and different types of traps, but we still have no money. A room in the northeast corner seems to offer free healing from a glowing orb.
My map of Castra.
On the western side of the map, tucked in an alcove created by a cloverleaf configuration of walls, we find a man named Greg Morgan brandishing a weapon. He says he's hiding from someone chasing and persecuting him, and he wants us to smuggle him off world by shrinking him using a Shrinking Device. Dialogue is with full-sentence options, but I haven't been impressed with the depth of choice so far.
Either people talk weirdly in the future or the translation was a little off.
We start taking another lap around the area, and to the south of Morgan, in a dead-end alleyway, we find two people accosting George McMil. I try talking to them, and him, but they have nothing to say. One does briefly wander off, but he returns, and they both continue to block my access to George.
Talking to these guys does nothing.
I fiddle with the controls and finally find a way for one character to attack the targeted person. I can also "Hypnotize" him, which I try first, to no avail. They both die with a few hits from my fist, however. The hardest part is switching the targeted opponent in the middle of battle, as you have to back out of the combat menu to reselect someone. I guess that's where having a "targeter" comes in handy. Several of my characters are wounded in the battle, but their health regenerates afterwards.
After the battle, we help George McMil to his feet. He gives us $1,500 and in subsequent dialogue, his phone number. He says he's a trader in "high-tech tools." Unfortunately, the game doesn't give us any way to ask him about a shrink ray right now. I note with some amusement that his number has only nine digits and seems to have a Medford, Massachusetts exchange.
I included this screenshot so I didn't have to write down the number elsewhere.
We head to one merchant, then the other, looking for a shrinking device. One has high-tech stuff, but nothing that sounds like it shrinks. The other, named Walter Wim, has weapons, but my $1,500 won't go far. The cheapest weapon, a hunting knife, is $201. A 9mm pistol costs $10,500.
We need to go save another six guys from mugging, I guess.
While talking to him, he happens to mention: "I am so in sorrow. I cannot find my daughter Winnie!" We do another loop around the city and find the girl huddling in an eastern corner. While trying to help her, we accidentally beam up to the Whale, but that's not a bad thing, as you can only save the game on the ship, and as we're about to see, it's good that we saved.
That looks like it could be a lost girl.
Returning to the surface, we find the girl and pick her up. On the way back to her father, an NPC blocks our way, and I incorrectly assume that he's hostile. We attack him, and moments later, a squad of soldiers shows up and kills us instantly.
I guess the planet isn't as lawless as the manual portrays it.
Reloading, we pick up Winnie again and return her to Walter Wimm. He thanks us and gives us some weapons. We apparently also gained experience points because the game says we leveled up, and it asks us to choose a skill for each character. (Again, the manual had nothing to say about this.) I do my best. The options vary per character, but some common ones are "Heal Wounds of Member," "Disarm Selected Opponent," "Check Honesty of Selected Opponent," and "Automatic Reload." I quit and reload at this point because it's the only way I can check what skills the characters already have. It turns out the characters already have "Hypnotize Opponent," "Take Up Trail," "Identify Weapon," and "Heal Wounds of Member," in that order. So after I return Winnie again, I pick different options: "Check Honesty of Selected Opponent," "Manipulate Computer," "Search for Traps," and "Identify Essence." Afterwards, all of my characters are wounded--I guess the game doesn't raise current health with maximum health--but they begin slowly healing.
What's the worst possible word that could come next?
Walter left us a shotgun, a 9mm ceramics pistol, an Apollo grenade, and two generic magazines of "ammunition." I hope they're universal. I give the shotgun and one magazine to my bounty hunter, the pistol and one magazine to my soldier, and the grenade to my Aranian. I figure out how to equip the two guns. 
It turns out that the guns came unloaded, as I discover moments later, as I walk outside the shop and am immediately attacked by a mugger. Fortunately, he only brought his fists to a gunfight. Unfortunately, my guns are unloaded, so I have to figure out how to do that while getting punched. Eventually, I have my soldier fumble the magazine into his 9mm and kill the mugger in a couple of shots. "The police scanned us $3000 for killing a thief," the game says. I hope that means that the police gave it to us.
This guy looks a little like Hitler.
If it's not clear from my description, it appears that only one character can fight at a time. I don't see any way to involve multiple characters in battles, although this interface is such a nightmare that it's possible I'm missing something.
It takes me a while to find anything after that. Eventually, I return to the other merchant, Max Flesh, who says that he heard we killed a thief. He offers us a job: take a heart to Lapis, to his contact Jack Nock. He will pay $100,000 for it. That sounds like enough to get us out of hock. 
Are we talking about an actual heart here?
We go to pick up the item, which indeed looks like a heart. It's called an "instant heart." The moment we have our hands on it, three guys appear and start blasting us, saying "Give us the heart!" I try to return fire, but they blast me to death in seconds. I'm going to have to reload and do everything again from the missing child quest. In the meantime, I'm going to check if the Amiga version does anything better with the interface, because this borders on absolutely unusable.
Time so far: 3 hours
Playing out of: Duty, with a little curiosity.