Friday, March 5, 2021

Magic Candle III: The Whole Ball of Wax

This is a first: Instead of attacking us, the game's villain just exasperatedly tells us to go away.
As I wrapped up last time, I was contemplating doing a detailed blow-by-blow of the dungeon called Hitmos. I ultimately decided to do it, but we're going to pick up on Level 2 rather than Level 1 because I already blasted through Level 1 while I was contemplating things. Level 1 was moderately-sized. There was one staircase that went from Level 1 all the way to Level 7, but just to a section that didn't lead anywhere else. An apparition of Alvirex (the wizard supposedly behind the Blight) threatened us. We had to return to Level 1, fight through some rooms, and find our way to a separate set of stairs to Level 2.
As we begin the second level, Sakar speaks up and warns about "teleportals and other traps." His warning is well-placed. The level is a giant cross. We entered from a stairway on the left end of the cross. The other three ends all have (invisible) teleporters leading to other levels. In the center of the cross is a skeleton whose skull recites, "Your path onward lies towards the nearest pole. Beware the false jump, lest your journey be lengthened."
This short speech gives me a chance to carp about something that annoys me in the interface: whenever anyone has a dialogue that lasts more than a few lines, it extends off the bottom of the screen and your only option (activated by almost any key) is "Cont." However, two things are actually going on: the dialogue continues off the screen and continues onto a separate screen. To read all of it you need to hit the down arrow to scroll the rest of the initial text, then hit "Cont" to continue on to additional text. They should have just picked one or the other. It's very easy to skip by the off-screen text; in fact, I nearly always do it. The only thing that saves me is the notepad recording everything.
Again with the "mortals."
I don't know where it's ever stated whether The Magic Candle takes place in the northern or southern hemisphere, or whether the Solian Lands (despite the proximity to the main continent) is supposed to be the southern hemisphere. Either way, I assume that the south pole is the closest. I would have tried south first anyway because following in a right-most path is so deeply ingrained in me that it feels very alien to do otherwise.
The teleporter takes us to a section of Level 2 in the northeast corner, outside the borders of the cross. There's a room right next to us. (It's technically along the "left" wall, but I poke my head into all rooms that I pass; the "rightmost" rule is just to determine the direction of travel.) There's a battle and we find some stuff in a chest. All right, technically I did that already, too, but I promise from this point forward you're getting live action results.
Further down this corridor, before we reach its end, another invisible teleporter activates and takes us back to the stairway to Level 2. At first, I assume that north must be the correct way to go, but the teleporters at the north and east end of the cross both take us to the dungeon exit back on Level 1. So we go south again, get teleported to the northeast corner, and this time I carefully avoid the teleporter while moving north to the end of the corridor. Teleporters typically occupy only one square, but the whole party is affected if any member steps on one. Like ambushes, if you know where they are and can't avoid them through normal travel, you can sometimes avoid them with clever party configurations. This one, in fact, requires a party no more than 2 abreast, but that's my default anyway.
This happens a lot in this dungeon.
A few steps after the first teleporter, another one also sweeps us back to the stairway. But I try again, avoid that one, too, and finally reach the end of the corridor, where a third teleporter finally takes us to a new area--the southwest corner of the level. There's a door to a room here, and as we approach, Fiz speaks up: "Back in my days at Wizard School, some of the elders whispered of rumors that Alvirex had learned how to make rooms with secret exits." That's going to be useful momentarily, but there's a greater revelation here. Rimfiztrik knew about Alvirex? Why am I (speaking as Gia, I guess) just finding out about him for the first time, then? Suddenly suspicious, I Google the word on my own blog. Ah! I'm not just hearing about him for the first time! He was the villain in The Keys to Maramon! How has no one mentioned this before?! It somehow never occurred to me that he didn't show up in The Magic Candle II. The authors were laying the groundwork for this game a long time ago. This makes me feel better about the whole thing.
Back to the action. We enter the room. Combat hasn't been hard enough in this dungeon yet to justify taking mushrooms before entering every room. (The useful "Vision" spell, which told you what enemies were in each room ahead of time, has been removed for this game.) The room has three zombies, two tigrets, and one hibliss. The zombies and tigrets are purely physical creatures, so they're no problem, although the zombies are going to require "Restsoul" after I knock them down. The hibliss is a bit more threatening in that he can cast "Freeze," "Fireball," and "Disappear." (The book doesn't have a bestiary, but a good player takes notes.) I'm frankly more worried about him becoming invisible and unnecessarily prolonging combat as I track him down than I am about him doing any serious damage. I also know from experience that he'll take four or five hits to kill. The others will go down in one.
Having thus analyzed the battlefield, I do what I pretty much always do. As combat begins, I have my two strongest fighters, Gia and Eneri, swallow Gonshis. Gonshis give you four actions per round, although I just wasted one swallowing the mushrooms. I then switch to Evixa, activate the "Jump" spell in her memory, and send both Gia and Eneri across the room into positions where they can hit the hibliss and some of the other monsters. Gia goes first, manages to score a critical hit, and kills the hibliss in three blows. Eneri kills the tigret with one and a zombie in two, getting a +1 increase in her "Axe" skill in the process.
Sakar, who gets three actions, moves one space and then kills the other zombie in two. Tuff draws his bonebow and fires two shots at the other tigret, but misses both times. Fiz recalls "Restsoul" and sends the two fallen zombies to their final reward.
That leaves one tigret and one zombie, but they're easy enough to finish off in the next round. Tuff searches the bodies and finds a skull and 6 coins. A search of the chest reveals 22 Lokas, which cure poison.
There's a northern exit to this room that didn't seem to have a corresponding exit outside. I guess this is the "secret door" that Fiz talked about. We take it and find ourselves (nonsensically) in the northwest corner of the level. There's a door below us, but taking it brings us to a different room than the one we just left--a room with six zombies. I'm glad we managed to find the "Felmis" book because it seems this dungeon is going to be tough on "Restsoul." Since the enemies are all physical, I let them come to me and don't bother with any mushrooms. I kill them faster than Fiz can keep up with "Restsoul" spells, but I just kill them again. Fiz has spent so much energy by the time we're done that he has to eat a Sermin. The reward is a fountain with 8 "Freeze" spells, which I can't imagine actually taking the time to cast.
"Jump" spells and Gonshi mushrooms will get you through 90% of this game.
We take the eastern door out of this room, take one step, and immediately get teleported to the southeastern corner of the level. This area has nothing but a stairway up to Level 3, but it takes me forever to figure out how to get to it because it's surrounded by teleporters that all send us back to the southwestern corner. It turns out that there's one teleporter in the northeast corner (of the southeastern area) that bypasses the other teleporters and brings you right in front of the stairs. "It would be nice if one of these many spells allowed you to detect the locations of teleporters," I write, then realize I'd better check the manual to see if there is such a spell and I've just forgotten it. There is, and I have. It's called "Detect." Gia has 42 of the damned things memorized. Oy vey.
This would have been useful for the last 25 hours.
Level 3 begins with an NPC named Toriala who has been enchanted by Alvirex so she cannot move from her current spot. She'll join our quest if we can find and defeat him. Along those lines, she offers, "The stairway by the cauldron of blood leads to treasure as well as peril, the other to the culmination of your quest." It suddenly occurs to me--that would be the subtitle of this entry if I could make a wax metaphor out of it--that Hiltmos might be intended as the "final dungeon" and we might be here way, way early. Oh, well. At least I'll clear the way for my next visit.
There are three rooms in fairly quick succession next. The first has venom rots, acidslimes, and rustmoss. They corrode weapons, but the damage is easily repaired. The reward is two rubies. Room 2 is a darkwolf, two skeletons, and two jerrahs. Jerrahs can cast "Fireball" but I keep "Shields" at close to 99. However, I don't have to fight them at all. I talk to them, and they agree to depart peacefully. That sometimes happens when you're overpowered compared to the enemy, and there's usually no good reason to say "no" because the characters max out with their weapon skills well before the end of the game. The only reason Eneri keeps gaining skill is that I switched her to an axe fairly late. 
This is fun when it works.
Room #3 is the rightmost choice of an area where I can also take a corridor to the east. This one has 7 tekhirs and a jerrah. That's a lot of enemies, but tekhirs are purely physical and usually die in one hit. Still, I don't want the jerrah to have a lot of time to pick away at our shields from his back corner, so I have Evixa "Jump" Gia over to him in the first round. He dies in two hits and the rest is just mop-up. The chest has some wingbones for teleportal chambers.
A stairway upward is on the other side of this room. I haven't seen any cauldron of blood, so I backtrack (stopping to rest and fix equipment briefly). The cauldron of blood is next to a second stairway down that east corridor, but before we get there, we get ambushed by a jerrah, two zombies, and three skeletons. I use "Jump" liberally to get my strong fighters to better positions. It doesn't take long to destroy them, but ambushes are always jarring.
I figure I'd better try "treasure" before "culmination." The stairway goes to Level 4, where I have no choice but to enter another room (two jerrahs, slime, rustmoss, two spiders, who agree to leave), then get hit with another ambush (two fermigons, darkwolf, tigret, two ghouls). A stairway from there goes to Level 5. There are two more rooms (same sorts of enemies as we've been discussing) before another stairway brings me to a small area of Level 6, where there's a sign and a chest. The sign reads: "Although your companion is close, he is farther away than you think--Alvirex." I have no idea what he's talking about. The chest has a diamond, "Ladaya," and two wishbones. "Ladaya" is some kind of weapon, but only an elf can wield it, which I don't have.
Isn't that the vine that grows in Australia?
We trace our steps back to Level 3 and go the "culmination" route.  Level 4 has three rooms that offer nothing new except that one has a cache of 19 medicins, which are worth a lot. There's another goddamned ambush between the second and third rooms; this dungeon seems to have more than most. Realizing I'm going to make it through this dungeon with plenty of mushrooms, I start using more at this point just to speed up the battles. "Gonshi" is the most important for the extra attacks in confers, to the extent that I'm not sure that any of the others are even really necessary. A fountain with 11 "Caravel" spells (summons a ship) means I'll probably never need to memorize that one.
A sign between Levels 4 and 5 says, "I congratulate your valiant, yet futile efforts. Love, Alvirex." Level 5 has two rooms that both lead to the same location; I do them both because I don't want to miss any treasure. Something weird happens as we head north along a hallway. The characters suddenly break formation and "huddle around Gia in terror." There's a "zap," and the spellcasters "shake their heads as if they have forgotten a spell!" But I check their spells and they haven't forgotten all their memorized spells, so I don't know what that's about. A wall closes behind us.
We don't really have that kind of relationship, guys.
Two steps later, there's another friggin' ambush, and the combined fermigons and hiblisses actually manage to kill Fiz by targeting basically every attack at him in the first round. I have to resurrect him afterwards, then us potions and Sermins to get us back up to speed.
This combat did not go well for us.
A stairway brings us to Level 6, which has three rooms, none terribly hard. There are some skeletons and zombies, though, and I stop for a while in one room to fix weapons and memorize more "Jump" and "Restsoul" spells.
A final set of stairs brings us to Level 7. As we exit the stairway, Sakar complains that dwarves practically have to climb the stairs on hands and knees while "longer-legged" races have it easy. The next step, he hits a pressure plate that opens a wall to our north. I don't know if that was supposed to be ironic or what. On the other side, we have another huddling-around-Gia-in-terror, and then suddenly all of our Mirgets are sucked out of our pouches. I wasn't really using them (they make attacks more powerful), but that was still a pretty damned expensive loss.
The final area is another cross-like shape with four rooms leading off of it. Each one has some of the tougher battles of this dungeon, which has not been nearly as tough as the earlier ones I explored. The treasure is good--a couple of gems, "Timestop" spells, a suit of Methreal armor. A last ambush in the center of the level has the most annoying enemies of the game: kothspawn. As battles begin, these creatures make multiple copies of themselves, most of which die in one hit. You have to identify the "real" one to kill the group. Fortunately, Gia detects the ambush so they don't get a free round. 
This is getting tiresome.
The last room oddly takes us to no combat. Instead, it's a furnished room with a firepit, candelabra, and a sign saying: "Do not disturb. Evil wizard a work." The evil wizard in question is Alvirex. I talk to him, but he simply says that he has "nothing to say to anyone, particularly a brave hero who has made a shambles of my tower." I try to ask him about BLIGHT and TORIALA, but he has nothing to say. He has no special dialogue for Eneri, the hero from Maramon. I invite him to join the party but he declines. I'm about to leave, but I decide just to go through the special items in my inventory to make sure he doesn't respond. When I use the mirror I found in the dungeon Tarrak, I get a response. The game shows some special artwork along with the narration:
As Alvirex stares into the Mirror of Honesty, he begins to tremble, then, as if it were against his will, to speak.

"The Blight is my doing," the evil wizard admits. "I had thought to be its master, and to use it for my own ends. But it has grown beyond my dreams, and is now out of my control. Still, the Blight makes the world more interesting. I would not destroy the Blight even if I could. The only thing that could possibly destroy the Blight would be the spell that kept the ancient Solian Empire in harmony . . . but that spell was contained in the Solnicon, a book that no longer exists!"
I wonder if this works on any other NPCs.
That's all we can do. A teleporter takes us back to Toriala. She's a hireling, and I don't want to replace one of my characters anyway, so I leave her to her freedom (I don't know how we won it). I make my way out of the dungeon. I guess we weren't here too early after all. I guess Alvirex isn't the endgame.
I only have a few small islands left to explore, but unless something unusual happens on any of them, I imagine I'll be spending the next few hours cycling through the cities again, asking everyone about SOLNICON. I suppose I should start at the libraries.
This wasn't a bad session. I wouldn't mind if there were fewer battles, but more challenging ones. I think for whatever time I have left to this game, I'm going to try harder to experiment with the various spells. 
Time so far: 25 hours

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Around the World of Xeen

Walking around the edge of the world.
I ended my last session wondering how I should begin my explorations of Xeen, and it took me an hour or so into this session to come up with a solution, which turned out to be the most obvious solution, but that often happens in life.
I began by finishing the clean-up of Rivercity. I hadn't been able to beat the Yang Knights mid-way through the last session, and they were still tough at the beginning of this one. I could only hit them about 1 time in 15. I ended up using a lot of my gems on "Fantastic Freeze," the best offensive spell that I have at this point, plus burning through a lot of the magic items I'd collected. Their leader, "Captain Yang," was particularly difficult. But I eventually got through them and was rewarded with a couple of chests, one of which had 50,000 gold. My financial worries seem to be temporarily over. I stashed about half of what I had in the bank, along with a couple hundred gems. I don't know if you earn interest on gems, but I'm going to find out.
If I were "captain," I'd demand the more colorful armor.
After this, the outdoor explorations began. My first thought was to go "organically"--to simply role-play the party. I was in Rivercity, near the lake in which Darzog's Tower resided. One "Walk on Water" spell could take me across the waves to the tower. The tower was the site of my main quest. Why not try it?
Ah, right. That's why.
I soon came across a small island with a fisherman in a hut. He complained of "lake beasts" ruining the fish supply and wanted me to kill them. No problem; I probably would have done that anyway. I soon ran into one of those "lake beasts," looking like the Loch Ness monster. It looked back at me briefly and casually tossed off some kind of missile attack that killed everyone immediately.
So much for the "organic" way.
All right, I decided, if I'm going to be exploring the central lake last (which seemed suddenly likely), then there was an obvious exploration pattern that would get me there last: start at the outer edges of the map and work my way inward. I thought I'd make a run around the perimeter to start. I reloaded from Rivercity and took the teleportal mirror to Vertigo, which is in area F3, on the edge of F4 (maps go from A1 to F4). I walked east from there to the eastern edge of the map and then started making my way south. As I explored this literal edge, I thought of some thing my characters might do in real life, like lie down and poke our heads out over the edge to see how "thick" Xeen is. I mean, it has to be thick enough for dungeons, right? I started to ask the same questions I asked in Ultima VI. If you take a dungeon all the way through, do you experience a gravitational shift in the middle? Where does the water go? Since it seems to leave the planet, how is it ever replenished?
We caught that bottle just in time.
My exploration worked okay for a while. I finished the eastern and southern edges of F4, fighting some toads along the way, then cut through the southern boundary of E4, fending off skeletons and zombies. D4 became a problem, though. There were clusters of deadly insects called "stingers" that I could kill if I really threw everything into it, but that got exhausting quite quickly. Even by then, however, I realized this was no fun. I was losing any sense of theme to the various map areas. Even though they're comically small, the creators did take pains to give them some kind of theme.
Thus I changed my mind and did the most obvious thing. I returned to F4 and set about exploring the entire 16 x 16 map, minus a few squares to count for the ragged edges.
On the game map, F4 comprises Toad Meadow and the Witches' Tower. Toad Meadow deserved its name: it was full of giant toads, as well as giant snakes. The toads were capable of inflicting "sleep" with their tongues, but they otherwise weren't hard to kill with melee attacks. There were several locations where I could find Phirna Root for the healer outside Vertigo, but the game would only let me take one at a time. There was no one monstrous toad as the graphic on the game map suggested, which was a little disappointing.
The one non-hostile resident of Toad Meadow introduces herself.
An old woman named Valia lived in a house in the south of the meadow. "Before I die," she said, "I wish to see the witches of Toad Meadow destroyed." She went on to explain that she has spent her life hiding a unicorn named Falista from the witches, but now the unicorn has disappeared, and Valia fears that the witches have "killed her for her alacorn's magic." She gave me the key to the tower.
(Before researching this word just now, I didn't know that alicorn has been used since the 17th century to refer to the horn of the unicorn. There was a similar quest in Might and Magic III, with that spelling, but I just kept referring to the item redundantly as an "alicorn horn," thinking that alicorn was just some variant on "unicorn." The game's spelling here is a bit unorthodox and is often used to describe a unicorn-pegasus hybrid in other games.)
We found the tower in the center of the meadow. As we approached, a brief cinematic took over in which some weird guy with runes on his face said, "I see you have the key to this tower.  You may pass, mortals." A few things mildly annoyed me about this. First of all, that's not how a key works. You don't show it to someone; you insert it into a lock. Second, every time some RPG being calls me "mortal" with a sneer, I feel compelled to show him exactly what mortality means. How do these witches--who, as we're going to see, were charitably maybe Level 1--have the ability to summon an "immortal" guardian for their tower?
What is this guy's story?
Beyond that, the tower itself was easy. The witches had spells, but for the most part they didn't even damage us. They died in one hit. As we explored the four levels of the tower, we freed their prisoners from cages and opened various chests; opening the cages and chests did far more damage (and disease) to my party than the witches or their various goblin minions.
One of the more colorful enemies so far.
There were also skulls in various alcoves who provided hints and spells for gems. "Don't forget to use the levitate spell before you enter the cloud world!," one said. I didn't know what that meant until I got to the top of the tower. The roof was a small area of stone from which clouds went off in all directions. The automap indicated that I was looking at an entirely new map, not a variant of the surface map. I cast "Levitate" and walked around a bit on the clouds, and it appears that you can even move between maps up here--that the game has an entirely separate, second "map" with the same number of squares as the surface, but this one above the clouds. (Never mind the absurdity of a four-level tower poking above the clouds.) I either never knew or completely forgot about this. The subtitle makes a lot more sense.
On a particularly sunny day, I guess you can't get around this way.
One of the freed children told us the password ("Rosebud") that opened the door to where the witches had stashed the alacorn. We snatched it and returned it to Valia, who gave us all the "Crusader" skill plus experience.
F3 was next, starting with a return to Vertigo for healing (I don't have "Cure Disease" yet). Dorcas had also gotten cursed somehow. On the way, we found a bottle floating in a pond with a message from Crodo: "Help! I am in Darzog's Tower!" I believe messages-in-bottles are making their appearance here for the first and only time in a Might and Magic game. 
When psychic projections failed, Crodo resorted to more classic methods.
I had explored F4 from the outside-in, but I did F3 in east-west strips, moving north. It was a temperate region, with forests and lakes and mountains. Special encounters included:
  • A fountain that raises you five levels (in addition to the already-discovered ones that raise your hit points and armor class). I'd mention here that walking costs 10 minutes per step, so it doesn't take long to pass a day and for the fountains' effects to wear off. Fountains don't really benefit you while you're exploring; they're for visiting later, using careful timing to maximize their effects before difficult combats or indoor areas (where time passes more slowly).
  • A hermit named Orathin asked me to find his lost bone whistle, which activates two statues in the area that teach "Cure Poison" and "Cure Disease." He lost it in Pitchfork Creek, which is in E3 or E4.
  • A ranger named Derek, living in a wagon, searching for his fiancee, Celia. Zombies kidnapped her and took her into the Forest of the Walking Dead. That appears to be in E4.
  • A shrine that conferred +50 poison resistance. These shrines and fountains are useful, but I wish the creators had just made them apply to the whole party. Instead, you have to activate it and then specify each character. Who visits and only applies the bonus to one character? This is a flaw in the otherwise excellent interface.
  • Myra the Herbalist, already encountered, who mixed up several Potions of Antidotes for each Phirna Root we brought her. These were swiftly obsolete.
  • An orc outpost that I burned for experience. Not burning these outposts doesn't seem to infinitely generate more monsters the way it did in Might and Magic III. That suggests the number of experience points in this game is fixed, except perhaps for the arenas.
There were a few orcs, but I'd killed most of them in earlier sessions. The Red Dwarf Mines were the only "dungeon."
F2 showed lava, and I didn't think I was ready for that yet, so I moved down to E4, a forested area full of skeletons and zombies. I did it in north-south strips moving west. The enemy "camps" were "shrines to the undead," which we could desecrate for experience and items. I found Orothin's bone whistle among a pile of bones at the top of the map. We went back and gave it to the hermit and got 15,000 experience points plus the two spells taught by the statues.
I had to laugh at "destroy the furnishings." I pictured the party slashing couch cushions.

How, precisely?
The area's dungeon was called the Temple of Yak, continuing an unfortunate Might and Magic tradition that began with the Temple of Moo in III and will move on to the Temple of Baa in VI. Once again, there was a door guardian--some kind of orc. I had the entry item, a Stone of Yak--a cursed mermaid gave it to me while I was exploring the edge, saying she wanted me to recover a potion that would restore her tail.
A pit trap opened beneath us soon after I entered. I wasted some time with the "Jump" spell before I remembered that the "Levitation" spell would let us walk over them with impunity.
A pit trap flanked by boxes I'm too weak to open.
Regular enemies varied from easy skeletons to moderate Yak clerics and priests to tough Yak liches--the latter only coming out if I disturbed their coffins. The Yak liches were immune to magic and had a powerful "Sleep" attack. If I could keep most of my party awake for a few rounds, I could kill them with physical damage, but a couple of times they rendered all but one character comatose and then made short work of him.

Some of the enemies in this dungeon.
Other aspects of the dungeon were a bit tough. There were a bunch of crates that even my paladin couldn't open, so I'll have to come back when I have more strength (or identify a fountain for a temporary boost). One special lich, called the "Yak Master," just wiped the floor with me. I'm not entirely sure I figured out a puzzle that involved turning some switches. There were some pools to bathe in that just seemed to disease me (one gave me 25,000 experience points and then immediately killed me). I had to leave about half the dungeon for later.
This would be a good name for one of my cats.
Whoever you designate as the "opener-and-searcher-of-things" (boxes, doors, beds, piles of rags and bones) takes some serious abuse. In my party, it's Suss the Ninja. Open the door--boom, trap removes half her hit points. Search the pile of rags; she gets diseased. Open that sarcophagus; she's cursed. Search that chest--now she's unconscious and her armor is broken. 
But I did find the mermaid's Elixir of Restoration, plus a couple of coins called "King's Mega Credits." The resulting experience was enough to get us to Level 11, after which the next level seems laughably far away.
I'm enjoying Xeen, but its weaknesses seem somehow more apparent to me this time than in past games. In some ways, the world feels like a giant "to do" list, with every square a task. You just kind of mow your way through the world, accomplishing everything there is to accomplish, leaving a barren square behind you. It's almost as if you start the game on a world teeming with life, and you slowly kill all of it. Even the NPCs' huts are usually empty after you've solved their quests. Plenty of games have featured a similar approach, of course--tiled movement, nothing living in the environment except enemies, plot progression tied inextricably to geographic progression. Maybe it's the lack of any respawning that makes this one feel so extreme. Or maybe it's just become clear that it's time to move on; that Xeen is clearly the end of the line for its type of gameplay.
The ugly mermaid departs, leaving another abandoned hut on the landscape.
Man, I have got to snap out of it this week.
Time so far: 25 hours

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Magic Candle III: Already in Snuff

Traveling by "Teleport" actually saves aggregate stamina.
Our adventure this session begins with the party in Telermain, having rested and restocked (as much as their finances will allow) after exploring the Tower of Wesgar and returning with a magic mirror. We hire a ship and make our way back to the large island in the south-center of the Solian islands. I don't think I've mentioned it, but you hire ships at 50 gold pieces per day. It takes about one full day to get to the two extreme ends of the map, so you only need one or two days (an extra day is a nice buffer in case you misinterpret the map) to get where you're going. The question is whether you want the ship to hang around so you can take it back. That costs extra days. Not having a ship isn't a huge problem because the "Caravel" spell will summon one, plus there are those teleportal rooms that I still haven't used once.
The next thing I find on the island is the city of West Tasur. West and East Tasur are co-joined, but East Tasur has been overrun with the Blight, all of its houses abandoned. The western side has the usual shops and NPCs. I find the codewords of two gods in their respective temples. An NPC named Shalama tells me of her friend, Lucia, a priestess of the god Vorhamme (who forged my magic sword, Brennix). Lucia was married to the chandler of Tasur. Before they were forced to abandon their home on the east side of town, he buried a scroll next to his front door telling where to find a cache of magic candle wicks. The house should also have a supply of rubies in a chest.
I leave Fiz in the wizard's lodge studying "Felmis." In literally the next house, I find an NPC named Jarron selling "Felmis" for 1,750 coins. I don't have that much, but I mark it as a priority. An NPC named Delpina gives me the password (KAVITAR) for the dungeon of Sora on the island of Minalt, in the far southeast.
Ignoring a sign warning us away, we enter East Tasur and start exploring the buildings and fighting various blight creatures who ambush us on the streets. I'm already low on "Medicin" from curing illnesses.
The house with a chest full of rubies is the third one that we search. We dig up the scroll next to the front door and it tells us to find a building with a courtyard in the southwest corner, then search in the northeastern corner. We do so and find a magic wick. I don't know for sure what it's for, but some things said elsewhere in the game make me suspect that we're going to be constructing a new Magic Candle, probably to trap whatever demon is responsible for the Blight.
So . . . a piece of string?
Back in West Tasur, we sell the rubies for just enough money for "Felmis," so I finally don't have to worry about memorizing "Restsoul" anymore. 
We continue poking around the island. East of Eisheim, we find the sleeping place of the goddess Seine, and one of the code words I've been tracking awakens her. I forget to note what she increases for us, but one of the attributes is intelligence.
"Wait a minute. That time King Rebnard invited me to his chambers to 'wield his favorite staff' . . ."
Aside from a stronghold and a teleportal chamber, the last thing we find on the island is the ruined city of Nekros, the centerpiece of which is the Great Library of Archos. There's a locked door in the library and somebody beyond it, but we don't have his name so he won't let us in.
Some cool statues.
It's a relief when we're done with the large island. At this point, I've been moving mostly west-east, but I decide to pretend like I've been going around the islands counter-clockwise, and thus make Minalt my next stop. It has a teleportal, a stronghold, and an "ominous gateway" leading to the dungeon of Sora, which my passcode soon opens.
I wonder what happens if I yell it.
Sora is only three levels, which is a relief. All three are sectioned, with some areas only accessible from higher or lower levels or teleporters. There are a fair number of rooms, but with easy enemies. We find a handful of diamonds and other gems, which will be nice to sell. A puzzle on the second floor requires us to split the party and station three people on three different pressure plates while stepping on a fourth. This opens a wall that allows us to get to Level 3. 
Game, please. I've won Chaos Strikes Back.
On Level 3, we find a magic axe called "Meatus" that only dwarves can use. This causes some reshuffling, because now I have two magic axes and only one character with a decent skill with axes. After some angst, I give the other magic axe to Eneri so she can develop her skill with it and give her magic sword to Fiz.
A teleporter brings us to a hidden area of Level 1. An NPC ghost there (I have to cast "Soulspeak") tells us the name of the ghost in the Nekros library: GORION. This is, of course, also the name of the PC's mentor in Baldur's Gate. Given that the later game also starts in a library, I wonder if it's a deliberate homage, or if there's a source character in some fiction I haven't read. 
"But it will cost you 10,000 gold pieces or a rare book to get in."
Vorhamme's sleeping chamber is the final room of the dungeon, and we have to pass it by because we don't know his code word. We find it in literally the next place we stop. Upon doing so, we hustle back to Sora, wake up Vorhamme, and get raised in strength, carpentry, and a few other attributes.
Finished with Minalt, we move to the eastern island, starting with the city of Elport and soon moving on to the city of Tiara. This is where we finally get some information about the Blight. It comes from the east, they say, and is worst around the Tower of Hitmos (we get the password). An NPC in Tiara named Rozimel blames the Blight on Alvirex, a wizard from the "northern lands" now living in Hitmos. I don't know; "Alvirex" sure sounds like a demon's name, like "Dreax" from the original game.
We finally get a name!
Hitmos sounds like an endgame sort of place, but it's on the same island, and we have the pass code, so we decide to give it a try. But shortly after we enter, it becomes clear that I'm simply not "feeling" this game session or this entry--literally the only thing that has remotely interested me is the Gorion thing--so I think I'm just going to end it prematurely, post it so I'll have something that will go out on Sunday, and start again fresh in a couple of days. Maybe I'll do one of those ultra-detailed ones that gives the blow-by-blow of every corner of the dungeon. Some people like that.
Alvirex doesn't like halflings, I guess.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • While exploring Minalt, we ended up fighting a few battles on a surface of light volcanic ash. God, I wish all combats in this game took place on this backdrop. In nearly every battle, I miss at least one enemy because it's camouflaged by the background texture.
This makes me long for the days when we didn't try to graphically depict things.
  • The game has a severely annoying bug by which sometimes when you're wandering outdoors, it has to stop to load. When it finishes loading, everyone's energy levels drop to 0 for no reason. I have to then waste 6 Sermins.
Son(a bitch).
Next entry tomorrow to make up for the brevity of this one.

Time so far: 22 hours

Friday, February 26, 2021

Game 404: Time Traveler (1980)

Stony Brook is on Long Island. It has a decent jazz club. It's probably closed now.
Time Traveler
United States
Krell Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II, Commodore PET, and TRS-80
Expanded and released again as Odyssey in Time in 1981
Date Started: 20 February 2021
Date Ended: 21 February 2021
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Partly user-definable but ultimately easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I rejected Time Traveler years ago, thinking it was so manifestly an adventure game that whoever categorized it as an RPG on MobyGames ought to have his account revoked. I finally sat down to BRIEF it today and discovered that I was wrong. It's not much of an RPG (but honestly, what was in 1980?), but it's certainly not an adventure game.
It is, specifically, a variant on The Wizard's Castle from the same year, where you explore a grid in which any square might hold encounters, traps, and treasure. Instead of a single map with multiple levels, there are 14 maps (each 5 x 4) in different eras of human history, ranging from ancient Egypt (1300 BCE) to World War II Germany. You play a time traveler visiting each era with a quest to retrieve a magical ring.
I can't help but hear "where to?" in the Clouds of Xeen mining cart voice.
It's an interesting concept. A modern game could have a lot of fun with it, and the player could learn a lot about history while he plays, as I inevitably do every time I pick up an Assassin's Creed. In this case, however, the various "eras" just determine what text is inserted in various encounters, all of which otherwise play exactly the same. You can envision the programming as you play:

Where A$ is set to "GEORGE WASHINGTON" in 1779 or KING RICHARD during the crusades. I don't want anyone to get the impression from these screenshots (as I originally did) that the game offered textual descriptions of various scenes in each era. It's nothing like that. You don't stroll past pyramids in ancient Egypt or get to foil Nazis in World War II. Everything that happens in the eras is purely mechanical. There isn't even a bit of flavor text describing the era when you first arrive.
I did learn one thing, however. As you arrive in each new area from the main menu, you immediately have to choose a "side" in whatever conflict they're experiencing. If you go to Denmark in 1000, it's the Vikings or the villagers. Japan in 1790 puts you between samurai and peasants. For 50 BCE Rome, you choose between Caesar and the "aristocrats." "England 1644" has you choose between "roundheads" and "cavaliers." I vaguely knew that the year would have been during the English Civil War, but I didn't know those were the terms, respectively, for supporters of parliament and supporters of Charles I. So that's something.
You face this same type of choice as you enter each era.
After making your selection, you arrive in a random square on the 20-square grid. Each era has the same selection of potential squares: dock, house, arsenal, treasury, prison, barracks, market, field, [local ruler's] headquarters, cave, town square. Some of these have buildings which offer an additional set of encounters inside. You start each era unarmed and with 1,000 gold pieces; any weapons or wealth you amassed in your last era disappears when you leave.
The game tells you what you see in your current area, which can include any combination of the following: a crowd of commoners, guards, a sign, gold, weapons, or one of the rings. The latter three options only show up if your last action was to search. After seeing what each square holds, you have a number of potential options. I'm going to list them all out because I otherwise couldn't find a manual, and someone might come along needing assistance. Your success in all of these areas is influenced by a "difficulty" variable that you can set from 1 to 6 at the outset of the game.
  • B)ribe: If there are guards in the area, this will make them go away. You want to do this to avoid them spontaneously attacking you, or to get them to stop blocking the way into a structure in that square.
  • D)rop weapons. The only reason I can think to do this is that sometimes guards won't let you into a building if you're armed.
  • F)ight. Gets rid of guards the old fashioned way.
  • G)o. Leave the square by going any cardinal direction or IN or OUT of a building. If you're in a market square, you can also attempt to go to your time machine.
  • I)nformation about what rings you've collected and which are still outstanding.
  • M)ap
The game map.
  • P)ersuade. If there's a group of commoners in the square, you can try to get them to join you. Success depends on your "eloquence" skill (and maybe whether you sided with the "commoner" faction), which goes up if you pass and down if you fail. Once allies join you, they remain in your party for the duration of the era and make combat a lot easier.
  • Q)uit the game.
  • R)ead a sign. Sometimes you can't read it; sometimes it says "Keep off the Grass"; sometimes it tells you where to find the era's ring.
Signs aren't always accurate, but I think this one was.
  • S)earch. This is how you find gold, weapons, and the ring. 
  • T)ake anything that came up during a search. If you take weapons, the game will show you as "armed" from that point, and your chances of surviving combat improve. The same goes for your group.
  • U)se the power of a ring. More on this below.
  • W)ait. Causes a turn to pass. This happens automatically if you don't act within a few seconds.
There are a number of spontaneous things that can occur, too. You can experience a "time machine malfunction" that whisks you suddenly to a new era. An informant can turn up and offer to tell you the location of a ring for a certain amount of gold. Guards can demand half your wealth in taxes. The local ruler can spontaneously order your arrest (this seems less likely if you sided with his faction). Finally, guards can just decide to attack you for no reason.
That's gratitude for you.
Combat is resolved automatically. As it begins, you're told how many people are on your side how many are on theirs, and whether either side is armed. The game automatically calculates a probability of winning based on these variables, generates the appropriate random numbers, and tells you the result. If you win, your "combat skill" variable goes up; if you lose, it goes down. Your "health" may also go up or down. If you win, generally all that you "gain" is that there are no more guards on the screen. If you lose, you might be imprisoned in the "prison" square and have to escape or fight your way free. You can also die, but the time machine rescues you and zaps you to a new era when that happens.
I hadn't picked up the weapons yet, so I'm unarmed with a low combat skill. My probability of winning is just 40%.
Here, I have allies, weapons, and a much higher score.
As you can imagine, your success in each era depends partly on strategy but a lot on luck. You might arrive in an era and immediately get approached by an informant who, for 800 gold pieces, tells you that the ring is in a market. A market square is one move away from your starting square. You go there, search, find the ring, and immediately GO to your time machine and make your escape.
On the other hand, you might spend a dozen rounds manually searching each square, finding no allies, getting no informants or helpful signs, fighting off packs of guards ordered to arrest you, eventually defeated and imprisoned, stripped of weapons and gold, stuck in a loop where you can't seem to get free of the prison but the guards won't actually kill you.
Stuck in an Italian prison with a low probability of fighting my way free.
The good news is that you can't die, so there's no way to lose permanently. Even on the highest difficulty, you just have to roll with the punches until you can start fresh in a new era, where you might get lucky. I found that a good strategy was to try to enlist allies as soon as possible and find weapons to arm them. That way, I could usually explore most of the map with a high probability of winning any combats that came along. The bad news is that there's no way to save, so you do have to win in a reasonable time if you don't want to keep the program running permanently.
I pay for a hint.
Each of the rings has a useful power that you can invoke if you're carrying it, and you can carry up to three rings between eras. I admire some of the clever things that the author made the rings do within its limited mechanics:
  • The Ring of Thoth (Egypt) ensures you can always read signs.
  • The Ring of Hammurabi (Babylon) increases your eloquence.
  • The Ring of Solon (Athens) speeds up healing.
  • The Ring of Romulus (Rome) helps you locate other rings.
I find the Ring of Romulus in a marketplace
  • The Ring of Joshua (Jerusalem) makes you invulnerable.
  • The Ring of Rune (Denmark) lets you warp out of the era and back to the time machine from anywhere, with perfect success.
  • The Ring of Paul (Crusades) does something called "anachrony." I have no idea.
  • The Ring of Augustus (Italy) stops the other rings from disappearing. See below.
  • The Ring of Alfred (England) lets you escape prison with 100% success.
  • The Ring of Eagles (USA) increases your gold.
  • The Ring of Gaul (France) slows time or something. I never tried it.
  • The Ring of Jimmu (Japan) automatically searches as you move around squares.
  • The Ring of Nevsky (Russia) lets you start each era with weapons.
  • The Ring of Loki (Germany) makes you invisible.
The problem with carrying all of the rings is that there's a good chance that they'll disappear or get stolen and return to their own eras. Having the Ring of Augustus stops this from happening, I guess, but I always got nervous carrying the rings and generally found the best strategy was to deposit them in my time vault as soon as I could, ensuring I didn't have to replay their eras. (Once you deposit a ring, you can't pick it up again.) I won on a difficulty level of 3, and I suppose at a higher level, it might be necessary to make the rings a greater part of your strategy. Romulus and Rune would be a particularly potent combination: Warp in, find the ring, and immediately warp out. But without Augustus, you probably lose one or both of them in short order. Augustus with either Romulus or Rune might be better.
Unfortunately, nothing happened after I had found and deposited all 14 rings. I'm not sure if there was something else to do, as I never found a copy of the manual. I did inspect the code, and there's a line that tells the program to flash "THE GAME IS OVER," but my interpretation of the rest of the code is that you would never reach that particular line. Then again, my knowledge of even BASIC is only, well, basic. I can't otherwise find any winning text in the program, so I'm going to call it a win anyway. I'll score it as a 15 on my GIMLET, with 1s and 2s in all categories.
I got and deposited all of them. I don't know what the game wants me to do. (I think the asterisks mean that you don't to "Use" those rings; their powers are active as long as you possess it.)
I didn't have a great time with Time Traveler, but it was almost . . . acceptable. With a few more variables, a little more use of the themes of the eras, and a little more complexity, this could have been a decent game. It perhaps was for 1980. A reviewer named Terry Romine covered it in the first issue of Computer Gaming World and gave it a medium-rare review, ultimately concluding that "after a person develops a strategy, the game will quickly become a series of stale replays." In the December 1980 issue of Dragon, Mark Herro says that when he started to play, he intended to "roast" the game, but later had some fun as he tried to figure out the best approach through the eras. Still, the idea that this game sold for the equivalent of $80 today ($24.95 in 1980) is mind-blowing.
This ad clip shows Krell selling the upgrade alongside the original.
We've seen New York-based Krell Software before, most recently with Sword of Zedek (1981). That game used a similar approach--grid-based exploration with a variety of potential encounters in each square, including the ability to P)ersuade groups of monsters to join as allies. The "Search" and "Take" functions are essentially the same between the two games, and combat is resolved similarly. I'm relatively sure they were programmed by the same author.  The company was around only a short time (roughly 1980-1983) and never developed anything graphical. In 1981, they repackaged Time Traveler as Odyssey in Time, which offered 10 additional eras and a save feature for $39.95, or about $120 in today's dollars. I was unable to find it, but unless it offers a lot new, I'm not particularly interested in finding another 10 rings.
I had a major project due this week, so you might see another "easy" one before I get back into either of my primary games.