Friday, May 14, 2021

Darkside of Xeen: Game Time!

A prophet describes every RPG ever.
As we wrapped up last time, my Level 26 party had finally found its way into Xeen's second town, Sandcaster, hoping to get a new bead on the main quest. As we emerged from the sewers, we were attacked almost immediately by enchantresses that looked more techno than fantasy. As it turned out, the entire city was being bullied by enchantresses and wizards (including a "master" variety).
That's an awfully cyberpunky enchantress.
Grimgrag the Baker told us the spellcasters are sensitive to insults. Sure enough, when I approached Blastem the Wizard in the tavern, he demanded respect. I had a role-playing option that wasn't really any role-playing option at all . . .
If any CRPG player has ever chosen #2 in this scenario, I want to meet you. E-mail me after you get your second COVID vaccine. I'll pay the travel expenses.
. . . which generated a huge tavern fight against a couple dozen mages. Fortunately, I was clearly supposed to have visited Sandcaster many levels ago. For the most part, their spells were unable to overcome my elemental resistances, and they typically died in one hit. The only negative part was waiting for all their spell animations to finish.
Elsewhere, Astra the Good Sorceress asked us to clean out the town of the magic users and their leaders, Xenoc the Wizard and Morgana the Sorceress. Morgana was in a room in town, but to find Xenoc, I had to go to the sewers and back up into a hidden section of town.
With muscles like that, why use spells?
The town had the usual selection of services, including a temple, which was good because half my characters were insane when I arrived. I don't think insanity has a spell cure in this game, although I haven't tried "Divine Intervention." It seems like overkill to cure one condition. Someone who inherited all his wealth and has all day to sit around reading manuals is going to pop in to tell me that there is a cure and it's in the manual. Must be nice.
The double-sized map also had a number of other encounters, most with NPCs in tables and tents:
  • Trainers for prestidigitation (Tibara the Magician), navigation (Gregor the Navigator), linguist (Natalie the Linguist), and merchant (Morgan the Merchant). Perhaps Darkside should have simply required players to learn Darkside-specific versions of these skills.
  • Melissa the Trainer told me that Natasha "will sometimes enchant ordinary things will spells of calm and friendship," useful for taming wild beasts. But when I met Natasha the Enchantress, she said I didn't have anything that she could enchant. I don't know if this is a later quest or if I just need to have a specific type of item.
  • A chest in one of the wizards' chambers had the key to the Great Eastern Tower.
  • Apparently, the darkside used to have travel mirrors just like the other side, but Alamar shut them down. 
  • The spellcasters' rooms had some potions that gave permanent bonuses to speed, intelligence, and personality.
The game has been generous with these lately.
  • James the Merchant and Edmund the Weapons Forger (that sounds like me makes bootleg copies) both had algebra problems, each of which netted us 250,000 experience for the solution.
p=1, a=2. What else ya got?
  • Digga the Salesman sold me "vulture repellent" for 25,000 gold. Later, an NPC told me that "vulture repellent doesn't work," but that NPC is named "Creighton the Dunce," so I don't know what to believe. I think I already killed all the vultures.
  • Niccola the Guildman sold us membership in the Sandcaster guild for 20,000 gold pieces each (60,000 total for my three spellcasters). Although I purchased it here and in the next two cities, I believe I already have all the game's spells. None of the guilds had anything to offer me.
  • Flint the Treasure Hunter said he's heard of a great treasure "horde" buried "somewhere in the land." I wonder if he's referring to the treasure of Jibbo Mox.
  • Sarah, "a Paladin's Friend," said that a dying paladin gave his magic armor to the "enchanted boulders o the land for safekeeping." That must be what the boulders' puzzle gets me.
  • A monkeydog (there was a second one!) said that I should never take all of a genie's money. "It's greedy." This suggests I played the encounter with the genie in the last session just right. I wonder if that will come back to benefit us.
". . . but you clean one lamp . . ."
  • Drusilla the Clairvoyant offers a hint of a plot twist for anyone who hasn't already played the first Might and Magic:
Just get a floor plan for the basement of his castle.
Most important, Geoffrey the Monitor was selling passes to Lakeside. Since I had tried to visit that city during the last game, and it had one of my statuette quests, I decided to head there next via the expediency of "Town Portal."
Lakeside was a smaller community.
We immediately got attacked by witches when we arrived. What's with the spellcasters in this setting? Imagine if they put this effort into helping the pharaoh instead of menacing small towns. Just like Sandcaster, they were pretty helpless against our "Protection from Elements." The small map was full of cages in which the witches had imprisoned townsfolk. We got a lot of experience for freeing them. One of the freed NPCs, Camilla the Captured, told me that they turn the captured citizens into monsters, who then get shipped to Castle Blackfang as guards. The ones that come out wrong go to the Isle of Lost Souls. 
Y'all aren't going to keep those sobriquets, are you?
Like Sandcaster, the witches had a bunch of potions that permanently increased attributes. They also had a bunch of texts that described in detail how to make such potions. The detail was a little unnecessary, as the instructions are impossible to follow using the game mechanics and clearly aren't meant for the player. Some of the potions were in cauldrons, and some of the cauldrons turned the drinker to stone rather than providing an attribute increase. After one such event, I finally decided to trust the heads on the side of the screen, which activate with the "Clairvoyance" spell (including the packaged "Day of Sorcery" spell). The one on the left shakes if it's unsafe to do something and nods if it's safe. The one on the right nods if there's any benefit to doing it and shakes if there's not. Obviously, he's the one you have to pay most attention to, but if they both shake, you probably want to move on.
I admit I like the witch graphics.
There was a silly word puzzle that had the same shtick as the desert boulders, though much easier because there's only one possibility for each letter, and the answer is obvious anyway. I can't even remember what I got for solving it.
This could have been a little harder.
To wipe out the witches, I had to hit them in both the town and the sewers. The witch leader had a pass to Necropolis and the golden dragon statuette, one of three I have to recover for . . . a dryad? An elf? I forgot. Yes, I could look it up in a previous entry. Why don't you do that, David Allen, and report back to me.
I braced for more spellcasters in Necropolis, but as I should have guessed from its name, its theme was undead. Higher mummies attacked as soon as I entered (I never even got to face regular mummies!), and I had to fight a bunch of power liches when I pillaged their coffins. Things only started to get hard here, but not very. The biggest problem was the power liches kept cursing me, which in turn curses your entire inventory until you get it lifted at a temple or spend the absurd points on "Divine Intervention."
Isn't that a bit redundant?
The most difficult enemy was Sandro the Lich. He wanted us to bring him his heart so I could destroy it and end his curse. Even though we were working for him, his "hunger for the living" compelled him to attack us, and his first blast killed two of my characters. Raising them isn't a big deal at this point, though, and Sandro died (temporarily) with I think a combination of physical attacks and "Holy Word."
To kill Sandro permanently, I had to get his heart from the sewers, which are running with lava instead of sewage. Fortunately, it doesn't do much against my elemental protection. There were some trivial "lava roaches" that popped up as we explored. When we brought back his heart, Sandro expired gratefully and gave us not only another statuette but the key to his "old home" on the Clouds side of the world, the Dungeon of Death. He also gave us 2 million experience and the encouragement that "Alamar can be defeated."
I suppose the town should be commended for building above a geothermal heat source.
Incidentally, the name "Sandro" seemed familiar, so I Googled it. A bunch of wikis say he (or, more likely, another lich of the same name) appears in the Heroes of Might and Magic series on Enroth. There must be some reference to him in VI or VII, because I've never played Heroes
Maybe he realized he liked being a lich and gives away his heart again.
A few other odd things were in Necropolis. One was a very long book. Books in this game tend to be a couple of pages at most, but this one went on forever about a conflict between two brothers, both sorcerers, named Death and Darkness. They battled for years over who was stronger and eventually hashed it out in a cataclysmic battle in which they both died. I'm not sure what I was supposed to take from that.
More interesting were a series of "Books of the Dead." I think there were only five or six, but they were numbered III through VIII or something. Maybe I missed a couple; I guess I should go back. Anyway, reading these generally conferred 1 million experience points on the reader, but also aged him between 25 and 50 years. The final book conferred 10 million experience points but aged the reader 100 years, and could only be read by my druid and sorcerer anyway (there was an intelligence check). I think the "right" way to do this was to help someone named Thaddeus (based on a hint I got in Sandcaster), who can remove magical aging. But not having experienced that encounter, I warped back to the Clouds side (I still have a "Lloyd's Beacon" set in Vertigo) and did the circuit of druids. The thing is, I was afraid to let anyone get too old, even though I don't think there's any danger until you sleep, so I ended up doing this three times.
I hope the shock of "Lloyd's Beacon" doesn't kill him.
That must have been interesting for the people of Xeen: the world went through all four seasons three times in the space of about three days. What kind of system has the seasons advance whenever a druid gets some item from the last druid? But that isn't the only thing that's odd about this game and time. Based on some lingering questions from my previous sessions, I did some experimentation. The results indicate that if you didn't already know Xeen was a false reality, you'd be able to figure it out through a little observation:
  • One minute passes for every move or action indoors, not including inventory, the journal, or checking the time itself. Turning also takes no time. If you enter combat, one minute passes for every combat round.
  • Outside, the rules are the same, but every action takes 10 minutes. However, in combat outdoors, rounds only take one minute.
You have to keep your eye on the calendar. Days can slip by faster than you think.
  • It thus takes about 16 hours to cross the entire world of Xeen from east to west, and 10.5 hours to cross it from north to south ("about" because there are a variable number of inaccessible squares around the edge). Assuming a slow walking speed, that still puts Xeen at roughly 672 square miles. I was trying to find a good comparison to that. It's about the size of Los Angeles, but that doesn't really work because most of what people think is Los Angeles isn't Los Angeles and most of what is Los Angeles isn't what people think is Los Angeles. Houston and London both work. It's about the size of Houston or London. Just the cities, not the metro areas.
  • Using a magic mirror to travel takes no time at all, even though you have to hit SPACE to use it. Neither does entering or exiting a town via the door.
  • Here's where it gets weird. Visiting any town service--temple, tavern, armory--makes one full day pass on the calendar, even if you immediately back out. Oddly, this has no effect on your active buffs. The game acts as if no time has passed at all, and any active spells or healing potions remain active until 05:00 the next day.
  • However, if you get healed at the temple (and only healed; donations don't count), it will remove any active buffs for that character only. That's what was happening to my party all throughout Clouds.
  • Training takes one initial day for just visiting. If you actually train, it's one day per person, regardless of how many times they train. Training removes buffs and spells but not status effects like drunkenness that would otherwise wear off over time.
  • If you haven't slept in 48 hours or more when the clock rolls around to 05:00, the game says, "Your party needs rest!" and everyone gets "Weak," which puts a sad look on their faces and reduces all their attributes by 1. It never seems to get worse than that. Occasionally, even though their appearances don't change, their statuses get restored to "Good" (and their attributes go back up) for no reason.
Everyone is sad and slightly weak.
  • A year is only 100 days. It rolls from Day 99 to Day 0.
When I was done puzzling the mysteries of space and time, the party decided to return to the Clouds side and explore the new dungeon. Given its name and that it had belonged to a lich, we expected it might be full of undead creatures. Instead, it--or, at least, its first level--is a giant crossword puzzle. It violates the rules of any modern crossword puzzle grid, but that's forgivable since nearly every answer is themed answer. In a Sunday New York Times crossword (which has about the same number of clues), you're lucky to get five or six themed answers.
We did not have to consult our notes for this one.
This one has 89 clues and answers, 41 across and 48 down. They all start in dead-end squares, which was probably a limitation of the engine (e.g., you can' t have two encounters in one square, with one clue on each wall). Some of them are generic fantasy, like "half man, half bull" (MINOTAUR) or "knight's attendant" (PAGE). Some could be figured out generically but are also emphasized in Might and Magic specifically, like "savage, primitive person" (BARBARIAN) or "armored mammal" (ARMADILLO). But quite a few require specific knowledge from these two games, including "unicorn whose alicorn was stolen" (FALISTA) and "Castle Basenji password" (THEREWOLF). One of them, "freed from spaceship" (CORAK) was even a spoiler. A couple of them had me shuffling through my notes and screenshots from the last game.
None of them are very hard, however, because they're all given--even highlighted--in a little travelogue given by a statue at the entrance to the dungeon. That really annoyed me. The reward for finishing the puzzle is +5 levels, which is enough that the player should have had to do the work. I didn't use the book. If you want to try it yourself, here's the blank version and the filled-in version.
A statue spoils the entire puzzle.
Solving the puzzle doesn't just get you 5 levels; it also gets you down the stairway to the lower level of the Dungeon of Death. Unfortunately, even with my ninja at Level 65 (including the +5 for solving the puzzle and 10 levels from the fountain), I can't open or bash a door in this area. I thus reloaded from before I got the +5 levels, thinking that if I have to return to the Dungeon of Death anyway, I might as well save it for when those levels are a lot more valuable.
I don't want to seem ungrateful, but I think we deserve more than a haircut.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • When you go into a store or other service location in Clouds, you get a desk. Walking up to the desk and hitting SPACE activates the "store." On the Darkside, instead of a desk you get this wooden thing. I had perceived it as a door, but I finally realized this session that it's supposed to represent stairs going up, to where the actual services are found.
It took me until now to properly interpret this image.
  • For the first time, I had to take money out of my bank account to train. Thanks to the rewards in Necropolis, we each went up about 15 levels at once. I still have about 2 million in the bank, but a couple of my characters could train more; they're just at the maximum level for Sandcaster (50). Lakeside and Necropolis don't have training halls, so I suppose my only hope is the final city, Olympus.
  • Olympus is up in the clouds, and I have no idea where to get a pass.
  • This is fine because I still don't have a pass to Sandcaster, so to get there to train, I was having to sneak in through the sewers. 
  • Lakeview had some flooded squares in the northern part of the city, a couple with boats. I guess it was supposed to be a marina. One boat offered us "safe passage" to the Isle of Lost Souls, but that just took us to the outside. I was surprised we didn't find a key to the dungeon on the island in the city, given its connection to the witches. 
  • I need another 5 energy discs for the next phase of Castle Kalindra. About 12 hours after finding a fourth energy disc, I still haven't found a fifth one.
When I was done (for now) with the Dungeon of Death, I had reached the end of my immediate clues. Everything else requires an item or is at an unknown location, such as the "head heretical cleric" who possesses the third statuette. I thus rolled for a new random area and got A2, just north of where I'd already explored for Necropolis. 
Feeling like a badass, I was almost immediately deflated by a "gamma gazer." I remember beating one before; why would it be hard now that I'm 15 levels higher? I mean, he didn't come close to killing us or anything, but the combat took about 7 rounds, and I had to heal a couple of times.
Griffins--which seem to have a particular hatred for my knight--and giants prowl the eastern edges of this map, which transitions from desert in the southwest to snow in the northeast. I haven't found much so far, but I have found a second space ship. And this one allows me to enter it.
We should have some interesting things to discuss next time. 
Time so far: 18 hours

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Revisiting: The Seven Spirits of Ra (1987)

The Seven Spirits of Ra
United States
Macrocom (developer); Sir-Tech (publisher)
Released in 1987 for DOS
Date Started: 23 January 2011
Date Finished: 5 May 2021
Total Hours: 9
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
This is a game that I've long wanted to convert to a "win" even though it isn't really an RPG. I could have rejected it on all three of my grounds, but I didn't, back when I played it in 2011. Thus having already numbered and listed it, I figure I should tie it off with a victory.
Ra was made by the same team that created the highly-original ICON: The Quest for the Ring (1984). In that game, you played and interacted with characters from the Nibelungenlied. Ra similarly mines classical mythology, in this case the Osiris myth from ancient Egypt. As before, Dr. Randall Bohrer of the Georgia Institute of Technology served as the subject matter expert while collaborating with his former students, Neal White III and Bryan Rossman, on the programming.
Starting out.
The manual tells a long backstory about Osiris, the first pharaoh, and his brothers and sisters among the Egyptian pantheon. Someone more versed in Egyptian mythology would have to confirm, but I think the story that the authors tell in the manual is a bit different than any of the traditional versions. It sometimes conflates them and sometimes seems to go off in its own direction. (This is in no way a criticism, just an observation). The basic story is that Osiris was a wise and successful ruler, but his brother, Set, managed to gaslight the populace into thinking otherwise. Eventually, Osiris's own guards set a trap for him and allowed Set to murder him.
The opening moments of the game show this assassination happening on a boat.
Set butchered the body of the king and scattered the pieces, each of which was devoured by a different animal. Meanwhile, the spirit of Osiris, deprived of a proper burial, wanders the Duad, the after-realm, looking for a way to return to the land of the living. The goal of the game is to find the spirits of the five animals that ate Osiris, slay them, and gain their own powers. 
The backstory and quest naturally call the title into question. The manual says that Osiris had 10 spirits within him; three of them went to enjoy immortality with Ra while seven went to the Duad. These seven make up the seven "lives" that you have in the game. So why does the title have them as the seven spirits of Ra? Ra doesn't really play a part in the game.
In any event, during the game, you must slay a particular rat, vulture, snake, bat, and crocodile, each distinguished from its brethren because its graphic flashes as you approach. When you kill the animal, you gain the ability to transform into it. Such transformations are key to the game's limited puzzles: there are swamps you can only cross as a crocodile or snake; small areas you can only navigate as a rat or snake; and areas to which you have to fly as a bat or vulture. I assume the redundancies among the transformations are there to keep the game from being too linear.
You must become a vulture to reach the entrance to one pyramid.

Turning into a bat is the only way to see in a cave near the end.
There are eight areas to explore: the Desert of the Three Pyramids; the pyramids of Manu, Hetsahpet, and Osa; the Pits of Abot; the City of Tombs; the Caverns of Isis; and the Stronghold of Set. Each is swarming with continually-respawning enemies. There are a few fixed treasures, puzzles, and encounters in each area.
Like ICON, the game uses CGA graphics, but is able to get more colors and a higher resolution than should have been possible through a set of innovative tweaks that, as a non-programmer, I don't really understand. The controls are excellent--all keyboard, one key per action, with intuitive mapping like "T" to transform and "W" to change weapons. 
Osiris starts with one weapon, just a hand attack that does virtually no damage, so one of the first goals is to find a sword, which in the basic games is in the southeast corner of the outdoor area. You have to cross the Nile to get to it, avoiding crocodiles. Things aren't easy even after you have the sword. Combat with the sword requires that the sword itself--which always juts out to the right of the character icon--be in contact with the enemy. This means that there's no attacking from under, above, or right of the enemy. Meanwhile, to sap your own hit points, the enemy needs only to touch you. Most of your hit points are lost just trying to get into position.
Trying to kill some mummies before they kill me. The snake who ate a piece of my body is in the room in the upper-right.
The sword isn't even effective against ghosts, so until you find one of the other two weapons--a Wand of Fire and a Wand of Lighting--you just have to do your best to avoid them. I lost four of seven lives during this early stage of the game, and that's even with frequently reloading. Hit points regenerate slowly if you stand still, but it's hard to find an area where that's safe. There are rare mushrooms that also heal you.
My character sheet near the end. I only have the bat to kill.
Things are a bit easier once you have the wands, but not always. The wands allow you to attack in any direction, which is nice, but if you attack with a wand too close to the enemy, you'll take some of the reflected damage. If you miss with the Wand of Lightning, you have to wait for it to bounce around and dissipate before you can attack again; there are some maps in which it takes literal minutes for the bolt to travel across the map and bounce back, leaving you without a weapon in the meantime.
I assume the difficulty was intentional, because otherwise the game is relatively small. If you didn't die so much, you could win in an hour. And that's in a "basic" game. There's also an "advanced" option in which only mushrooms heal you and some of the items are randomized, so you can't use previous knowledge to find things.
I traverse a small passage as a rat. One of the wands and three treasures await on the other side.
The best parts of the game are the use of lore. As you enter each area, you get a title card with a little blank verse describing what you'll find there. Most of the puzzles are based on this lore. For instance, in the Pits of Abot, you meet the crocodile god, who bars you from reaching the god Thoth. He wants to know why you seek Thoth. To answer correctly, you have to remember the title card for the Pyramid of Manu, which ends, "Look instead for the gates to wisdom." I didn't get it. I Googled what Thoth was the god of and tried MAGIC and WRITING before getting it correct with WISDOM.
HOPE is later the answer to a riddle.
When you reach Thoth, he offers this: "Salvation lies in the sight of truth. Although you see, you are in darkness. The Spirit of Truth seeks light." This provides answers to two of the final questions in the Caves of Isis: "Where are you?" (DARKNESS) and "What do you seek?" (LIGHT). A stela in the City of Tombs provides the answers to the other two.
I nearly typed "infinity."
To get to the endgame, I think you have to kill all five animals, but I think three are only technically necessary to navigate to all the areas. I'm not sure what happens if you try to finish the game without having killed one of them. You also have to make an offering of treasures at the Altar of Ra. I have no idea how many treasures are needed here; I just dropped all of mine.
As an atheist, I never understand how religious people are so accepting of being in a state of constant surveillance.
After that, you pass through the four questions in the Caverns of Isis, where you can also visit an island to reclaim your lost "lives" from earlier in the game. At some point during this journey, you transform into Horus, Osiris's son who was also Osiris reborn.
So Isis is simultaneously my mother, my wife, and my sister.
A few transformations are necessary to reach Set at the center of his stronghold. The final battle is a bit disappointing. He's immune to wands, so you just end up waving your sword at him until he dies, which costs you a few lives along the way. I read an interview with the authors in which they said they originally planned to introduce a lot more strategy to the final battle, with Set changing forms repeatedly and Osiris having to transform into his own animal forms to keep up. It's too bad they weren't able to use this. Set does change forms during the battle, but all you do is stab at him.
Approaching Set amid his allies.
The victory screen shows Horus/Osiris being ferried back to the land of the living as text scrolls across the bottom of the screen: "Hail, Osiris, conqueror of Set and his Dominion of Darkness. Like Ra, you emerge victorious over the power of night. Journey with Ra as an immortal aboard his boat of the Sun."
You then get your final score, which is a combination of the enemies you killed and the treasure you found, minus what you sacrificed to Ra. I think something may be bugged with the score, though, as mine kept going into negative values during the game. I could never identify exactly what was causing it to do that.
844 doesn't sound bad, but I think I was up to over 3,000 at one point.
After the victory screen, you get . . . I don't know what to call it. A story? A religious text? It's ten screens of text tiled The Koru Kosmu, or The Eye of the Universe, "a fragment of the Discourse of Thoth to a priest of Amon-Ra." No Googling turns up anything of that name, subtitle, or text, so I assume the authors must have written it as a kind of bonus. The story is told from the perspective of a young priest who falls asleep while studying ancient texts and receives a vision from Thoth. Thoth shows him that there are two worlds: the temporary, malleable physical world, and the eternal, unchanging spiritual world. Truth, he says, is to be found by looking beyond the material and into the spiritual. Thoth then uses these two worlds as the metaphors for the text and subtext of stories, including the one we've just learned about Osiris. "To understand it literally is to become entangled in the veil of appearances." He explains in great detail about the symbology of Osiris's tale and the lessons we should take from it. I've retyped the entire thing after the end of this entry because I don't think it ought to be lost, but I'm also not sure what to make of it. Is it a bonus for winning? Is it an attempt by the authors to ensure that the lessons of the game are not lost on the casual player? Either way, it's one of the more interesting endgames of the 1980s.
Back in 2011, I gave it a 19 on the GIMLET. Looking at the scores now, I want to make some adjustments to the individual categories. It doesn't deserve the 2 I gave it for character creation and development since there's none of either. But I would raise "encounters" from a 2 to a 3 and "economy" from 0 to 1 to compensate, and thus leave the final score the same.
The number of fans for which "exhaustively researched for authenticity" would be a selling point must have been small in 1987.
Alan Roberts reviewed the game in the August 1988 Computer Gaming World. He called it an "arcade/adventure," which seems apt. He didn't think much of the mechanics, but he praised the game for its source material, plot, and manual. He characterized the post-winning screens as "a short optional philosophy lecture."
Though marketed by Sir-Tech, The Seven Spirits of Ra sold poorly. DOS was still a limited market at the time, and the developers limited themselves further by writing the program for specific hardware. Macrocom thus folded after two highly original games that remain hard to classify. While neither is really an RPG, I'm glad I played them both to the end.
The Koru Kosmu, or the Eye of the Universe
A Fragment of the Discourse of Thoth to a Priest of Amon-Ra
Once, while I was studying the ancient texts, sleep came over me and restrained my bodily senses. And as I slept I thought that there appeared to me a being of boundless magnitude, who called me by name and said to me, "What do you wish to hear and see, to learn and know by thought?"
The game's odd coda begins.
"Who are you?" I said.

"I am Thoth, the Master of those who would know."
"I would learn," I said, "of the mysteries of the temple and of that which is."
He answered, "I know what you wish, for I am with you everywhere. Keep in mind what you would know, and I will teach you."

And forthwith all things changed before me and were opened out in an instant. All about was a pure light, impossible to look at steadily. But around the light there came into being a shadowy place, downward tending, and in it where a multitude of shapes, coming and going, as the waves on a great sea.

And Thoth spoke to me and said, "Do you understand the meaning of what you see?"

"Tell me its meaning," I said, "and I shall know."

"The Light is all-pervading Mind, and the place of shadows is the Kosmos that comes from the Mind. Understand that the world is two-fold, the seen and the unseen, the sensible and the spiritual. The outer world is changeable and material; the inner is eternal and spiritual. The outer or surface realm of appearance is like a dark mirror that reflects the intangible light of the inner realm. The ignorant man puts his faith in appearances but the wise man sees with the inner eye of the mind and knows the invisible within the visible. For all things which they eye can see are unsubstantial and distorted reflections; but the things which the eye cannot see are the realities, and above all Truth and Goodness. As the eye cannot see the Eternal Mind, so it cannot see Good or Truth. For Eternity and Goodness and Truth are parts of the One Reality. All who would know should look inward with the eyes of the heart. 
"Seek a guide to lead you to the Door of the House of Knowledge. Pass beyond the veils of the senses, for the true light cannot be seen with bodily eyes, but with the eye of the heart and mind alone." And when Thoth had finished speaking, I said, "Lord Thoth, guide me, that I might see truly."
"Look now with your mind upon the play of the shadows," he said, "and fix your thought on what you see."
And as I gazed upon the wavering forms there came into my mind the wondrous story of Osiris and his struggle with Set. But soon there fell over all a veil, and on the veil were the forms of all manner of demons and monsters. And when I was amazed, Thoth spoke again.

"Know, then, that the mysterious of Osiris are a true reflection and are meant to be a guide to those who seek wisdom, but a snare to the unaware. Its mysteries are cloaked in the veils of passions, to entangle those who live only in their senses and know only their corporeal selves. The initiated know that the Great Myth of sufferings and struggle of Osiris with his adversary Set is a Sacred Drama, exhibiting the Initiate's path to wisdom. It is a story of symbols, of reflections of what is. So know that to understand it literally is to become entangled in the veil of appearances.

"The other world of the Duad is a hieroglyph of the material world. For the initiate, Osiris's descent into the Duad after death is a token of the existence of a realm of being that transcend the boundaries of the physical world and its truths. And Osiris's life beyond signifies that there is a realm of existence that is not corporeal."

"Yet," I said, when Thoth had paused, "how may it be that the horrors of Osiris's death or the violence of Horus's revenge teaches the wise?"

To which Thoth replied, "Your question shows that, though an initiated priest of this temple, you still need guidance. Do you not see that the legend of Osiris's defeat at the hands of Set, his death, and the consumption of his body by the creatures of the field and air are signs? Remember that. Set is the brother of Osiris, that is, his other-self. In the realm of the corporeal, visible world, Osiris is doomed to defeat. He is overcome by envy and ambition; he is consumed by animal appetites. The tale of Osiris's destruction is the tale of the dissipation and dispersal of the mind under the onslaught of the corporeal and physical.

"The descent into the real of the Duad shows the inner descent into itself of the lost spirit. Only by such a journey can the soul recover its lost and hidden elements from the dark and lethal depths before it learns to ascend into the light.

"You who would understand the mysteries of Death and Rebirth, know that Osiris does not achieve victory through his own power. He is guided on the way by what is written; the questions he is asked make him understand. He can no more grow in the ways of understanding by himself than a plant can grow without the sun.

"Be mindful, then, of the guides you have been given."

"Lord Thoth," I asked, "much remains unclear to me. Tell me more of what Osiris's becoming a master of forms signifies."

"You now see that appearances may have many meanings, and it is true that the powers of transformation that Osiris gains represents more than overcoming the passions of the flesh. Know that the path Osiris takes is not one of renouncing the passions, but rather learning their powers and controlling them. By doing so, Osiris becomes a lord of creation, one whose soul is like a polished mirror in which the microcosmic form of the divine nature is reflected. 
The story either ends abruptly, or this fragment does.
"Know that the changes of this world, the endless succession of births and deaths, is in its way a reflection of the imperceptible and eternal. The outer cosmos has been made in the image of the spiritual world and reproduces eternity in a copy. For though the kosmos moves and changes, it is ever the same, for all that perishes comes again in the cycle of reoccurrences, for through time, all is brought back that has perished, so that for the whole there is no beginning or end. That which manifests itself and disappears by turns in the several parts of nature, does so in such fashion that again and again in the checkered course of time it shows itself anew in those same parts in which it disappeared before. This is but one of the truths that the great myth of Osiris teaches."

"But surely, then," I said, and I awoke.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Game 412: DragonMaze (1993)

Golden, Colorado is where Lookout Mountain is--easily one of the top 10 most beautiful places I've ever visited. Man, it's been too long since I've traveled.
United States
. . . by Design (developer and publisher)
Released as shareware in 1993 for Macintosh
Date Started: 4 May 2021
Date Ended: 4 May 2021
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: User-customizable; moderate (3/5) on average
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)      
The best I can figure, the only versions of DragonMaze available online are demo versions. If you wanted the full versions, you had to send $19.95 to the oddly-punctuated company, with the checks made out to the dots and everything.
Originally, I could only find version 1.1. Because of a number of problems, I wrote this up (the part labeled "1.1" below) as a BRIEF. I then made one last scan of various sites and managed to turn up 2.2, which is also a demo, but has a fully-winnable scenario. Version 2.2 is so much different than 1.1 that some time must have elapsed between the two. There is no indication in the game files what year they were created or released, so 1993 is at best a guess.

DragonMaze 1.1 is a graphical "roguelite." It has far fewer features than the typical roguelike, and it doesn't enforce permadeath. When you start a new game, you can even set the number of levels you have to explore, the number of items on each level, the number of items you start with in your pack, and the number of monsters.
Starting a new game. There are more weapons in the game, so I don't know why these are the only three you can choose among.
During character creation, your name and weapon skill (sword, hammer, or bow) are the only options you get. A randomly-created dungeon of corridors is seeded with items and monsters. Items included the usual roguelike staples--melee and missile weapons, armor, shields, helms, wands, scrolls, books, keys, gems, gold, and potions--as well as odd items like bombs. There are only a few types of each, but the title screen promises more if you pay for the game. Some items are mysteries, like gold and gems (there's no place to use them) and keys (there are no doors).
A book offers some information on an enemy.
There are a couple of things I like about the game. It offers clear statistics for weapons and armor. You can find books that have information about the games' enemies. A "Display" menu lets you cycle through a number of zoom levels, which is helpful because it's tough to see what enemies are at small-scale zooms but tough to navigate at large-scale. Combat is automatic; when an enemy is an adjacent square, the game automatically has you trade blows with him even if you're simultaneously doing something else, like walking in a different direction.
At a 50% zoom level. This might be the ugliest random dungeon I've ever seen.
On the negative side, the interface is tough to use without a mouse, which I never like. The keyboard cluster for movement is the unintuitive I-J-L-comma. There are only a few regular commands: info/inventory, pick up, use, drop, and fire. There's no key to escape from the inventory menu; you have to click the "close" box. There appears to be no experience-based character development or leveling. You can improve your one attribute--strength/hit points--by drinking certain potions, but killing enemies doesn't seem to do anything for you except get them out of your way. 
The information-and-inventory screen. Note that it depicts what I have equipped and shows my armor stats.
The main quest requires you to find a crystal and return it to the starting square. There are a number of problems with this demo version, however:
  • The game doesn't seem to generate a crystal. I've started multiple games with only one level and have not found a crystal once.
  • Even if you specify multiple levels, the game doesn't generate any stairways down.
  • If you use a scroll of "Down Stairway," the character just gets stuck.
  • The level randomization process creates some areas detached from others. Maybe there's a secret door mechanic that I'm missing, but I don't think so because there aren't any commands to search, bash, dig, open, or what-have-you.
  • You can save a game, but the game doesn't recognize the game file if you try to "open" it.
  • There's an "about" text file in the game folder that has nothing in it. The in-game instructions are extremely scant.
  • If I play more than about 30 minutes, the game crashes with a message that says "FormatArmy Army" and then two numbers separated by a slash. This doesn't seem to be a Mac OS message, so I don't know if it's a game-specific message or a Basilisk-specific message. Either way, it crashes the OS so bad that I have to kill the emulator.  

This is an ominous error.
Fortunately, 2.2 fixes all of these problems.
Version 2.2 is clearly from 1.1's lineage, but it has been so upgraded as to be a fundamentally new game. At the same time, it removed enough roguelike elements that I would say it's no longer within that sub-genre. I groaned when I realized it was playable and I would have to extend this entry. But I soon found myself enjoying it.
The setup for the demo level is that a kingdom is being menaced by a red dragon. The kingdom used to have artifacts (the Golden Armor of Zoth and the Fire Sword of Abrial) to defend against dragons, but these have been stolen and hidden in the same large dungeon that contains the dragon. The hero enters on a mission to find the objects and slay the dragon.
Finding the Golden Armor--and leggings--of Zoth.
Character creation has a couple new features. You can specify an enemy against which you are particularly skilled, in addition to your preferred weapon. You can also choose your icon. Starting life force, gold, and arrows are rolled randomly, but within a fairly tight range.
The new character creation options.
The dungeon level is fixed rather than randomized, and it has new features like doors, lava, switches that open walls and bridges, and signs, all of which you activate by simply walking on or next to them. Commands are the same as the original, but the inventory and character screen remains active, and you can use it to activate items and switch between equipped items. Movement has been remapped to the numberpad. The zoom options are gone, but there's a "map" command that shows the entire level.
I check the map as I walk near some lava.
The huge dungeon level can be explored in almost any order; secret doors (found by simply bumping into the wall) and teleporters keep it from being too linear. Monsters include giant spiders, goblins, orcs, trolls, nagas, giants, slimes, and lizard men, and killing them does increase an invisible experience statistic. You periodically gain levels, which increases your maximum health, your hit accuracy, and your damage. There are also potions that increase maximum health and necklaces that increase accuracy and damage. Weapons and armor can take damage and break, so you frequently need backups.
This was a surprise when it happened.
There's no more roguelike use of random descriptors or colors on potions and scrolls; you mostly know exactly what everything is. There are a few colored potions that you have to learn through trial and error, but their colors don't change between games.
One cool feature is that you can enlist allies. There are about a dozen elves in the level who will follow you if you rescue them from their cells; they'll fight alongside you until they die. There are also a couple of scrolls that summon allies. 
A sign tells me what I already know. I have three elf allies with me.
You find the Golden Armor of Zoth with some orcs. A series of signs fleshes out the backstory: apparently, the king's evil brother was the one who stole the artifacts. He's in the dungeon--a black wizard--and he has the Fire Sword of Abrial nearby.
The overall goal is to get the two artifacts while also getting strong enough to defeat the dragon. It helps to bring a stock of healing potions to the final battle, including the full-healing purple potion (I think there is only one of these). It took me several tries to defeat the dragon, although I left about one-fifth of the dungeon unexplored and may have found more advantages. I started by emptying my crossbow at him, then blasted him with five charges of a magic wand, then used a "Summon Demon" scroll to bring an ally into combat. I then whacked at him with the Fire Sword, healing as necessary, until he died. 
Fighting the dragon. It's too bad those piles of gold have no use.
The title screen promises 10 more scenario levels if you pay for the full version of the game, and if they're all about this length and complexity, I could see it being a lot of fun to dip into DragonMaze now and then. In a GIMLET, I give the demo scenario:
  • 2 points for the game world, including a backstory with a twist.
A sign delivers a plot twist.
  • 2 points for somewhat limited character creation and development.
  • 1 point for NPCs. That's for those that will fight with you. There's otherwise no interaction.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. They're fantasy standards, but reasonably well programmed. Snakes can poison you; dragons breathe fire; ghosts must be hit with a magical weapon.
A wall switch opens a bridge across the lava.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There aren't many options, but I do like some of the scrolls.
  • 4 points for equipment. A decent system that could benefit from roguelike randomization. I love that you can see exactly how the items compare.
  • 0 points for the economy. You can collect gold and gems, but for no reason in the scenario level.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
It seemed like a lot more than 125.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are nice enough, featuring a rare (for the era) paperdoll inventory screen; there are a few sound effects; the revised key commands work well.
  • 6 points for gameplay. It has a little nonlinearity and replayability (at higher difficulty levels); the difficulty is pitched just right; and the length is perfect for its size and complexity.
That gives a final score of 25, a decent rating for a shareware game. I wouldn't mind checking out the other levels. The author, Owen Gwynne (who moved from Colorado to Wisconsin after the game was released), found a career as an artist. I don't believe that he or his company ever produced any other games. I wrote to him but had not received a reply by the time I was ready to publish this entry.
DragonMaze is the second 1993 game to require only a single entry, but alas I suspect we will not be as lucky with Abandoned Places 2. Before we go there, I think I have enough breathing room now to try to finish Mission: Thunderbolt.
Speaking of Abandoned Places 2---goddamned Amiga emulation. I've tried two versions of the disk version, including one available from the developer's official site, but it crashes between "Create a Party" and "Start a New Game" with a "Guru Meditation" error every single time, no matter what configuration I use.
Years ago, someone made a custom WinUAE configuration for WHDLoad for me that has a drive mounted as the hard drive. He included a bunch of games with it, but I'm pretty sure I've added games to it in the past. My recollection was I just extracted the files and then stuck the .info file into the main directory while leaving the other files in a folder with the game's name. If I do this here, though, then load the WHDLoad configuration, it clearly isn't seeing it as the same type of game file, because all the others have "Drawer" next to the names. 
If I try to load it anyway, I get an "object not found" message. I would appreciate if:
  • Someone who's ever gotten the disk version working can go through his settings with me; or
  • Someone who knows more about WHDLoad can tell me what I've done wrong installing the file.