Monday, February 8, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Won!

All right. We got the kinks worked out from last time. It turns out that there are at least two ways--probably three--to win the game, and none of them are completely bugged. (Thanks to Peter, Nathan, and asimpkins in the last post for helping with all of this.)

  • First, you can defeat Variz in his dungeon. Yes, I encountered a bug where it incorrectly identified a storm giant as Variz, but Variz is still there, just in a room I didn't find. It's notable that if I had found the room on my first pass, winning the game would have come as a complete surprise, since I thought I was in the dungeon for a different purpose and the text doesn't give you any impression you're about to fight the final battle.
  • Second, you can wait until the "Armageddon" date when Variz leads his forces in an attack on Lanathor. For me, this was August 22, 1035; I don't know if this is fixed or rolled randomly when you start the game.
  • Third, according to a message board post, you can win by conquering the cities of Rathadon, but only if you do it with your armies, not by assassinating the rulers with your party. I wasn't able to verify this one.

I tried the second option first. I had been deliberately passing time, hoping that Variz would attack, but to no avail. Now, there are only a couple of ways to pass time in the game. One is to go to your quarters in the Disciples of Steel guild or a castle and rest the party. You can do this for 120 hours, or 5 days, at a time, but you have to keep doing it manually. The second is to take the party to a dungeon with no random encounters and weigh down the "S" (search) key while you take a shower or watch television or something. You have to acknowledge messages at the end of each month and the occasional birthday, but this method requires the least user input.

Doing it this way, I failed to notice for a while that the calendar wasn't advancing past August 22. The time would advance around the clock, but the date never changed. Only when I left the city I was in and returned did I get the messages that brought on the endgame.

I should point out that I started letting time pass in February, so that was six extra months I could have used to make money, improve my characters, and so forth. Since I did a lot of grinding and backtracking during the game proper, so I feel there was plenty of time to solve all the quests before the game-enforced final battle. I just think the player should get a little more notice.

Armageddon begins.
As I tried to enter the city, this is the notice I received:

In the distance, you see a rider galloping toward you. You wait for him to approach and after several moments, he is reining in his horse to a stop in front of you. He is out of breath, but he speaks in hurried gasps, "The forces of darkness march across the mountains and spread into the plains northwest of Farnus. You must unite the people of Lanathor and march our forces to defeat this evil horde."

For several days, you send runners out to the various kingdoms to see who will join you and your troops as you head to the Farnus flatlands. As you prepare to meet the evil wizard Variz and his army, your runners return with word from the other realms.
Following this is a roll call of all the kingdoms that you didn't take over but did reach the end of their questlines. In my case, all of them--Kitari, Hollengard, Cartha, Aragual, and Pallasade--offered to send help. The game told me that I would make my stand in Pallasade.
As the battle began, I had 96 armies to allocate around the battlefield, which took long enough, but it turned out that the enemy had around 145. After allocation, the battle plays much like a classic strategy game, not terribly dissimilar to Sword of Aragon. You can charge enemy armies, fire bows, or defend, and for each unit you can take a detailed look at its equipment, training and morale. It's a pretty impressive system given that it hardly ever gets used in gameplay.

My units attack the enemy. Note the equipment, troop count, and training rank it the lower-right. I guess it would have made more sense to let them come through the gate.
I fought for a while, but with so many units, it takes a long time. Each unit had an average of 100 soldiers, and a single attack between units might kill only 15 at a time. Add this up for more than 100 units per round, and you're looking at a multi-hour battle of slowly whittling down the enemy forces.

An end-of-round report from early in the battle. I like neither my chances nor the amount of time this is going to take.
I would have stuck with it, but the early battle reports were grim. I clearly needed to enter the endgame with more parity between my army and the enemy's, which would mean reloading the February save and spending those intervening months building units and micromanaging funds. I found this prospect less interesting than taking my party back to Variz's dungeon and trying to find him again.

This is where the storm giant's speech would have made sense.
On the third level, behind a secret door that I'd missed the first time, I found him and his army of giants and hellhounds. Upon entering the room, the game told me only that I faced "Rathadon high command within the rifts." I started to defeat them without "Wrath of God," but when the frost giants decimated my party with "Ice Storm" spells and Variz knocked us out for a round with "Time Stop," I pulled out my nuclear option and ended things in one casting.

After the battle, I got a quick animation of a knight standing next to a castle wall in a rainstorm and a notice that "the forces of good are victorious!"

I suspect if we'd really put out minds to it, we could have come up with a more interesting and appropriate end-game animation.
After that, the game let me keep playing. If I exited and re-entered the square where I encountered Variz, I faced the same encounter again. When I exited the dungeon and visited some of the cities, the lords still spoke as if the big final battle was ahead of us. I suspect if I wait until August 22 again, the land will get attacked as if I had never defeated Variz in the first place.

Thus, a bit of a buggy, let-down ending to a long and complex game, although I do appreciate the ability to win the game multiple ways.

A GIMLET is up next. I'm going to have to do some careful analysis on Disciples of Steel, so I didn't want to conflate this post with the final rating. But because it's so short, consider this an "extra" post that doesn't count within my normal three-day rotation.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Out of Ideas

If only this were true.
Ever since I started Disciples of Steel, people have been warning me about a "time limit" that the game imposes--supposedly, you have to have your act together (and I'm not entirely sure what that entails) by a certain date, or the forces of darkness sweep over the world or something. Aware of this, I've been apprehensive with every month that passes. But after this last, long--so very long--session, I have the opposite problem: all the time in the world, and nothing to do with it.

In my last post, you learned how I had started to reach the end of the rulers' questlines, usually getting control of their kingdoms--and the ability to set tax rates and raise armies--in the process. On a monthly basis, I started getting notices about the amount of money my taxes were raising in each city.

Nice of them to bring it to me in the dungeon.

The ends of the rest of the questlines were relatively swift. The elf king had me rescue his kidnapped daughter from a set of caves only a few steps from the city, then kill a demon called a "Sethnor." When I was done with the latter quest, he warned me that a wizard who survived the Battle of Unthar, "once the weakest but now the father of lies," was preparing to march his army from the Isle of Kulm, north of Rathadon. He named the wizard as "Variz" and said that the elves would be with me when the time came. This will be important in a minute.

I then turned my attention to Constantium's last quest: kill a dragon menacing the countryside from a cave. I'm including the screen shot of the exterior just to give another sense of the ubiquitous "flavor text" that the game throws at you:

The dragon was easy. He attacked me without backup, and a single "Power Word: Stun" kept him immobile long enough for me to kill him with melee weapons.

Thaddeus prepares to stun the dragon.

I returned to Pallasade with the dragon's body. Like the elf king, the ruler of Constantium declined to hand over his kingdom. But he did warn me that an evil army was gathering and that he'd be on my side when the time came.

Up next was Denias. The king told me that his regent in the nearby city of Warig was in rebellion, and I'd need to assassinate him. I had tried the "assassination" mechanic before--you walk up to the palace, right-click on the party, and choose "assassinate," which brings you to a large battle inside the palace--but when I was far weaker. This time, I was able to win with a bit of effort. The battle featured a lot of strong guards and mages, but the battlefield was sectioned off into several rooms, so it was easy to clear one room at a time and then lure enemies individually around corners and through doors.

Killing the reagent.

It turned out that this same map is used for all palace attacks, and I had several more to fight before the end of this session. 

In any event, when I returned to Cartha, the king abdicated and gave me the kingdom to control. As was my normal routine by the time, I set a tax rate of 5% but didn't raise any armies just yet.

My final set of quests, before heading into Rathadon itself, was for Serbia. There, the king had me overthrow a Rathadon outpost (involving another palace battle) on the western side of the land. As with Constantium, he didn't hand me the kingdom but he did promise aid against Variz.

At this point, I wasn't entirely sure what to do next. Rathadon had its own questline, but since the king was so manifestly evil, it didn't feel right to follow it. But lacking other ideas, I decided to visit Krighton Krigg and see if he asked me to do anything terribly objectionable. 

"My orcs speak constantly of the power of the man who lives under the fire," Krigg said, and demanded that I go find out who his orcs are talking about. I had a pretty good idea that this person was the previously-named Variz, indicating that while Krigg might be evil, he isn't the Big Bad of the game. Thus, I journeyed to the volcanic island to the northwest of Rathadon (by now, I'm using the priest's "Teleport" to move just about everywhere). Here, upon discovery of a cave, the game warned me that I had discovered "the source of all evil that walks the face of Lanathor."

What is it with evil guys and volcanoes?

I'll pause here to note that throughout these adventures, as well as a couple of side-dungeons that I explored on a lark, my characters continued to steadily improve. Thanks to potions that increased my spellcasters' primary attributes, I unlocked a set of powerful spells, like "Ice Storm," "Deathstrike," "Destruct," "Mass Invisibility," and "Wrath of God"--the latter of which we're going to have to talk about in a minute.

The best treasure cache in the game.

Every time my party members accumulated 1,000 or more experience points, I spent a few minutes on skill improvements. My knight, armed with a "+20 Sly Sword" taken from a Death Knight and wearing a set of Boots of Speed, had become an unstoppable killing machine, absolutely mowing through enemies. (The "Sly Sword" is probably a reference to that ridiculous contraption in The Sword and the Sorcerer [1982]. The creators of the game missed an opportunity by not making it a ranged weapon.) Because of this, she started getting more experience than anyone else per battle, which I then channeled back into even better statistics. By the time she had "edged," "armor," "body," and "dodge" skills above 300, I think she could have won most battles by herself.

So I entered the "source of evil" pretty confident. Between my last post and this moment, I had been playing for maybe another 6 or 7 hours.

I spent the next 20 hours of feverish gameplay in this single dungeon. It was big enough to make up an entire game by itself. There were random encounters every few steps, and though I did my best to evade most of them, I ended up having to fight a pitched battle every 5 minutes or so. About 1 in 6 combats--particularly those with giants--killed a character and forced me to reload. The prevalence of random encounters was exacerbated by the need to turn and face every wall to look for secret doors, since these were plentiful (although towards the end, my ranger got high enough in the "perception" skill that he started finding them automatically). I did gain thousands of experience points, which was good, but the expedition cost me almost two game months. Throughout this entire long, painful process, I wasn't even entirely sure that I needed to be there.

Early in the dungeon, a voice whispered to me that Variz "will attack before the year is out," which turned out not to be true, as I entered the dungeon in December and left in February, and there was no attack in between. Soon after, in a large area with multiple jail cells, I found the body of legendary warrior Ustfa Nelor.

Or "Uthor Nelor" as only this one screen has it.

He had written in blood on the wall, "Only in unity will you find Variz," which turned out to be the password to a couple of places later. In a nearby alcove, I found a sword that a voice told me was capable of defeating Variz. I assume it was Nelor's sword.

CyHagan is the witch from the game's intro screen who prompted the re-establishment of the Disciples of Steel in the first place. She has otherwise been absent from the game until now.
Those were the only major plot-based encounters for a long time. For over a dozen hours after this, I just fought wave after wave of giants, elementals, demons, and Rathadon forces (don't know what they were doing here since the king didn't seem to be aware of Variz). Several hallways had traps every step. There was a whole area of undead encounters that never led to anything important, and rooms full of guards and demons that turned out to be dead ends.

At some point, my priestess's "karma" skill got high enough that she got a new spell: "Wrath of God." To call this spell "overpowered" doesn't go far enough. When cast at maximum power, it simply kills every enemy in the battle--on-screen, off-screen, hiding in corners, whatever. Only the fact that spell points take so long to regenerate keeps this one spell from completely breaking the game. I used it liberally on giants, who I otherwise had to micro-manage with multiple castings of "Power Word: Stun" to survive, and my priestess started to overtake my knight as the party's primary experience-hogger.

"Wrath of God" works its way methodically through the enemies.

Eventually, things started to get weird, and I'm sure there were bugs involved. I found a passage that opened into the negative space between and outside the dungeon's walls. This area, probably not meant to be explored, allowed me to approach stariways from angles unintended by the developers, which took me to similar areas on other levels. I got lost in this vast emptiness for a while, and while there were no fixed encounters here, the random encounters never stopped.

I don't think stairways are supposed to work this way.
Before we get to the end of the dungeon, we have to talk about another bug: occasionally, the monster pictured on the encounter screen (and fought on the subsequent combat screen) doesn't match the textual description. For instance, the description might say that you face "numerous undead," but instead you get attacked by a handful of trolls. Here's an obvious example:

This bug may be behind my inability to get to the endgame. Eventually, through multiple secret doors, twisty passages, and fixed combats, I made my way to a nondescript room that the game informed me was "Variz's quarters." Variz said: "Welcome, Disciples. You have managed to succeed where others have failed. But let it be known I refuse to give up, and only I shall leave this room alive!" The game then informed met hat "Variz and his minions attack."

The problem is, the portrait shows a storm giant, and that's what I got in the ensuing battle: a single storm giant. I killed him without too much trouble and nothing happened. I tried re-loading the game and re-entering the chamber, but the same thing happened.

I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd fought Variz and his minions anyway. Would that have been the end of the game? If so, what was all the kingdom-conquering and army-building about?

In my case, I returned to the surface discouraged and returned to the king of Rathadon. His reaction was simply, "a wizard!" I'm not sure if the game thinks I defeated the wizard or if I completed the quest just by discovering that the man in the dungeon was a wizard. Either way, Krighton Krigg gave me 60 experience points.

This ended his questline. When I asked for another quest, he said that after consulting his seers, I needed to "leave his palace and never return" or he would kill me.

That's gratitude for you.

At this point, the only thing I could think to do was attack and conquer Rathadon. I decided to try it by building an army back in Farnus. Thanks to my adventures in the dungeon, I had about 350,000 copper pieces among my party members and another 200,000 back in the vault. (It turns out, by the way, that the Disciples of Steel guilds and the castles all share the same vault.)

Raising an army took more of this sum than I would have believed. It took 1,000 just to define the army and about 75,000 more to staff it with 50 "veteran" soldiers and 40 "elite" soldiers. Equipping the troops with weapons, bows, armor, and mounts took almost another 100,000. Nearly 2/3 of my wealth was gone when I finished this one army, and the game informed me that I would need a monthly outlay of almost 30,000 copper just to maintain the force.

Buying mounts for the "Army of Chet."

When I was done, I chose to take my new elite force on the road with me. On the way to Rathadon, I tried to enter the dwarf city just to see what would happen, and it told me that they refused entry. I guess I can't be too offended by that.

Upon reaching Rathadon, I chose to attack the capital city. The game warned me that if I was defeated, the Disciples would be killed. I acknowledged this. What followed was  strategic game map not unlike Sword of Aragon but with far fewer options. I was given a choice of placement for my one army, after which the enemy armies started appearing. And appearing. And appearing. Yeah, it turned out that Rathadon had about 30 units to my one.

At least there are some convenient crucifixes.
I barely got to explore the army combat options before my force was wiped out. Clearly, attacking with 90 soldiers wasn't going to win the day and my current gold reserves weren't going to cut it.

I don't quite blame the game on the gold issue. I stopped bothering to take equipment for sale a long time ago, which undoubtedly has contributed to my financial straits. I also haven't been exploiting the mage's "Lead to Gold" spell, which generates the equivalent of 2,000 copper with every maximum casting. Some of the wealth is clearly meant to come from taxation, which I've probably been setting a bit too low.

I clearly wasn't going to take over Rathadon with an army for a long time, so I did it the easier way: I dumped my army at the nearest friendly garrison, returned to Rathadon, and attacked the palace with just my party. A single casting of "Wrath of God" killed everyone except Krighton Krigg himself, and he went down with a few melee rounds.

But taking over the capital didn't reward me with any endgame text. I also conquered Rathadon's secondary city, Devil's Way, but also got nothing.

So what now? Does the bug that failed to produce the battle with Variz mean that I can't win the game? Or is he still going to attack, eventually, and I just need to find something to do until that date? (To check the obvious, I forced my party to wait until one year had passed since the beginning of the game--which is harder than it sounds--but nothing happened.) I wouldn't mind explicit spoilers on this one. It's going to be horribly disappointing if I got all this way into the game and can't win because of a bug.

In the meantime, some commentary on various encounters:

I couldn't help but think how disappointed David Bradley would be playing this game.
Here's another one where the text writer didn't communicate well with the graphic artist.
Just some awesome flavor text.
I'm not sure this guy really understand what it means to be a "skeleton." Seriously, this is what happens when, unlike in Dungeons & Dragons, monsters have no obvious immunities.

This whole time, I've been worrying that Disciples of Steel would screw up an excellent set of game mechanics with a nonsensical, confusing, or buggy endgame. It's now appearing that, more likely than not, that is the case. I guess by next time we'll know for sure.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Game 210: Xyphus (1984)

The compass in the upper-left corner turns out to be somewhat ironic.

Between 1978 and 1983, computer RPGs slowly defined themselves. We saw a host of proto-RPGs plus a few landmark games like Ultima, Wizardry, and Ultima III that stood so much taller than other titles that they established the standards for the rest of the decade.

As we come to the end of 1984, it feels like a year that has keenly felt the influence of these giants but that doesn't yet understand what made them good. It is a year full of disastrous experiments that, at best, dumbed down the mechanics of the source games and that, at worst, made them almost completely unplayable. You can almost hear the developers' enthusiasm as they say, "Hey, why don't we make a game like Wizardry, but with ___________!" But whether they filled in that blank with "text commands!" (Shadowkeep), "cute portraits and the ability to remove helmets!" (The Black Onyx), "a big quiz at the end!" (The Standing Stones), or "and endgame that changes all the rules!" (Tyrann), the results were far worse than the original game. Questron is an almost-exception, making a mess of Ultima's mechanics but ultimately producing a better story. With the exception of the brief and unwelcome branch of gamebook adaptations, almost every game in 1984 has an obvious pre-1984 source game and, in all cases, under-performed those sources.

A typical Xyphus screen. My party--the people with brackets around them--is about to engage a giant slug. A hawkman awaits on a nearby peninsula. Below the slug is some kind of treasure. It's Aspida's turn to move, and the cluster of keys to the bottom-right shows her movement options.
Xyphus's obvious inspiration is Exodus: Ultima III, one of the first top-down RPGs to feature multiple characters and a tactical combat system in which characters move and act independently. (It may have been the first, but Galactic Adventures and Expedition Amazon came out the same year and had some of the same elements; it's hard to determine exact release order today.) As is the norm during the period, Xyphus simplifies many of its source's mechanics: three races instead of five; two classes instead of eleven; a simpler inventory system; no separate first-person dungeon system; no dialogue system; menu towns instead of explorable towns; and the combat system integrated into the same window as exploration.

But the developers had to fill in that blank somehow, and what they came up with was "hexagonal movement!" No simple NESW or arrow-key navigation for this game; instead, you get to master the venerable YHBVFT cluster, corresponding with the ability to move northeast, east, southeast, southwest, west, and northwest, but not north and south.

The party gets a hint. Crossing that bridge was a lot of messing about with individual characters.
Hex maps had been used for years in wargames and strategy board games and must have seemed like a good idea at the idea at the time. But five minutes with Xyphus demonstrates the superiority of the square for tile-based computer games. Hexes--and they aren't real hexes anyway, but offset rectangles--add absolutely nothing to the gameplay but to force the player to pause and think before doing something as simple as moving one square. I normally like to play a game with the same interface that the original players had, but the key cluster used for movement in this game is so non-intuitive that the camel's back broke and I installed AutoHotkey. I plan to learn it in time for my next session.

Xyphus's manual aspires to Ultima III's complexity when it comes to the backstory and the vivid descriptions of monsters and spells. Aspires but does not achieve, I should say; Penguin had nothing on Origin when it came to production values. But as a footnote that we'll explore in more detail next time, one of the co-authors of Xyphus, Dave Albert, would soon leave Penguin for Origin Systems, where among other things he would end up writing the Book of Mystic Wisdom for Ultima IV.

Decent illustrations accompany monster descriptions in the game manual.
Xyphus is Greek for "sword," and the game's backstory has echoes of Greek mythology. Ten thousand years ago, a demon lord named Xyphus was defeated when an archmage named Szhaalin ripped out his heart. Droplets of the demon's blood formed into various breeds of goblins and hellhounds, and pieces of his ruptured heart formed sword-shaped amulets "from whence all magic springs." The demon retreated to the caverns beneath the continent of Arroya to "languish in eternal pain." The continent became overwhelmed with beasts, poisonous creatures, and undead, and men learned to stay away.

Fast forward to the present day, and most of the world has been conquered by a warlord named Das, who has brought order and justice, "albeit with the edge of the sword and the purification of the torch." He has been unable to conquer Arroya, but prophecy holds that a band of humans, elves, and dwarves can conquer the continent and defeat the demon lord once and for all. Das has promised a kingdom to those who succeed.

You adventure with up to four characters from elf, dwarf, and human races and fighter or spellcaster classes. There are no attributes and no other options in character creation except the name. Apparently, you can go with fewer than four, but the game warns you during creation that you need at least one elf and one dwarf, so two is the minimum.

The totality of character creation.
Gameplay is organized into 6 "scenarios," each with an objective that you must complete before moving to the next one. The game warns you that it can take between 3 and 12 hours to complete each scenario, which I mentally halve based on improved loading speeds alone. Scenario One's goal is simply to reach a fortress on the far side of a multi-screen map.

A title card begins each scenario.
Characters move independently across the game map. Already difficult because of the hexagons, movement is further complicated by variable movement speeds between different races and classes, by the tendency of characters to run into each other, and by terrain (e.g., one-square bridges over water) that forces you to micromanage your characters into a particular formation. The game's one concession to ease is to allow you to move all characters in one direction at the same time by holding down the CTRL key (TAB in the VICE emulator).

Theoretically, I like the idea of allowing your party to split up and visit different corners of the map. Practically, you really need to keep the party together, at least in the first map. Combat is too hard to attempt independent exploration, and some enemies are immune to normal weapons, so you need a character with a magic weapon or spell handy.

Various artifact items, including weapons, spells, and "Xiphoid amulets," are scattered about the map, and it appears that you can always see them as long as they're on the same screen--that is, you don't have to walk over every tile. Monsters, on the other hand, are hidden until you approach their squares. There might be a bunch of them hidden within the same group of tiles, so you have to be careful about blundering about too quickly. Best to explore slowly and lure them to the party one-by-one.

The four characters surround and defeat a centaur. On a peninsula to the south, another enemy awaits next to a treasure.
Combat proceeds in turns, but characters don't have many options except to attack or flee. Spells are expensive and costly to endurance, so casting them is a pretty rare thing, at least in the first scenario. My attacks seem to hit about 50% of the time and do predictable damage depending on the type of weapon and type of enemy. For instance, maces always do 2 points of damage to most enemies and Xiphoid amulets (with both enable spellcasting and can be wielded like a dagger) do 1 to most enemies but 3 to hawkmen.

Characters start with 12 hit points each. Resting restores hit points quickly and costs you nothing, so it's easy to rest up between battles. Resting during battles is possible, but it takes the character out of commission for a few rounds and leaves him vulnerable to attacks. Characters have a fatigue meter in addition to hit points, and it depletes as you attack and cast spells but replenishes when you rest or walk. Death appears to be permanent, but you can save and reload the game on any square.

Time to reload!
Monsters are a mix of D&D standards (ghouls, hobgoblins, mimics) and original or semi-original creations (ice dragons, sand asps, toothpaws), including several different breeds of goblins and orcs. Many are immune to normal weapons. Since the first map doesn't have much in the way of magical weapons (Xiphoid amulets only do 1 hit point of damage at a time), you have to take care of some with spells. In particular, a pack of werewolves took my party apart until I found a city selling "Bendicca" spells, which kill them specifically. It appears that enemies don't re-spawn, meaning there's a fixed amount of experience and gold across all the scenarios. Successful parties probably explore each map exhaustively.
A party member finds an important artifact.
I do like the game's approach to distributing gold and experience after battles. Where most games either give them to the character who struck the killing blow (Ultima IV) or distribute them evenly among party members (the default), Xyphus adopts a hybrid: the character who actually killed the enemy gets twice what everyone else gets. Despite having amassed more than 1,200 experience points per character, I haven't leveled up yet, and I'm not even sure what leveling up does for you.

In the midst of battling a bunch of "toothpaws," Kranos kills one and gets more of the resulting experience.
The landscape is dotted with towns that sell weapons, armor, and spells. Armor progresses in a linear manner from shields to magic "veils" (each new item is supposed to augment, rather than supplant, the previous item). For weapons, you can have multiple in your inventory at a time and switch among them. There seems to be no way to trade items or gold among party members, so you have to be extra careful how you spend it.

A character looks over the armor selection in a shop.
I've barely scratched the spell system. The manual offers 6 attack spells, 3 hindrance spells, and 2 healing spells but says there might be more. Most of the spell names are simply their effects in (sometimes slightly modified) Spanish: Ciega blinds foes; piedra petrifies them; abeja ("bee") produces welts; matamosca ("fly swatter") is an attack spell.

In the first scenario, I fully explored the map, died and reloaded a lot, and killed a couple dozen pumas, centaurs, bandits, toothpaws, werefalcons, stone golems, and giant slugs. I found three Xiphoid amulets, a handful of spells not mentioned in the manual, and a long sword +2.

Reaching the end of the scenario.
Once I reached the outpost on the far side of the map, the scenario ended and I was taken to the second scenario, where  I received a mission to travel to a second fort and warn them about goblin raids. I haven't explored it very far yet. The first scenario took about 3 hours, so if that's average we're looking at an 18 hour game. I don't much want to do it, but it's tolerable if I have a TV show going in the background.

And on to scenario 2!
Xyphus isn't a bad game. It probably would have been a joy on my C64 when it was new and I only bought 3 or 4 games a year. It just doesn't stand up well in the modern era, when we have access to the entire historical catalog of RPGs and can choose from a host of titles from the same era that either are one of the best titles of the time or that, if they're clones of such games, at least clone them better.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Disciples of Steel: Conquering the Kingdom

The party slowly transitions to managing an empire.

As I've reported before, the 2014-2015 Winter from Hell in the Northeast caused so much water damage to my house that Irene and I had to move out while the entire place was gutted and reconstructed. We had to move all our stuff into temporary storage--and "temporary" turned into "permanent" last month when we decided it would be less effort to just sell the damned house than to keep trying to fix it. We are now living a semi-nomadic existence, having rented an oceanfront place for the winter. Who knows what will happen in the spring.

As much as I hated hauling all my stuff from my house to storage, then some of it to our first rental place, and then again to our second rental place, I think I'd actually rather do it again than have to set up another computer. I bought a Dell Precision 17 laptop on December 15 and figured it would take a couple of days to port over my programs and files from my old computer. It turns out I wasn't even finished with the process when I had to head back on the road a month later. Even now, I keep finding things that I've forgotten: DOSBox requires a special video codec, I forgot to deauthorize my copy of ArcGIS Spatial Analyst on my old computer, I need to re-map the default image capture location in about 16 emulators, and so on.

In case you find my story boring, here's a shot of the party taking on a dragon.
A few days ago, I was worried I'd have to repeat a lot of these efforts when, while unwisely trying to get some work done on a tiny table in a hotel bar, I spilled a Moscow Mule across my new laptop's keyboard. How it happened is complicated. It basically goes that I accidentally knocked my iPhone off the table, and in my panic to interrupt its fall with my left hand, I forgot I was holding a full copper mug in my right. Two-thirds of the cocktail poured smack in the middle of the keyboard and began seeping into the interior. Two seconds later, the screen froze, displayed something that I missed because I was desperately searching for a napkin, and went black.

Let's fast forward to the good news: despite all the liquid that entered (or could have entered) the computer's innards, it turns out I just fried a single RAM chip located beneath the keyboard. (I could have been using the laptop for the last week if I'd known that and just taken it out.) Thus, I am saved from having to reinstall 78 programs and transfer 700 GB worth of files for the second time in a month. However, the whole episode screwed up my momentum on Disciples of Steel and ensured that when I was finally able to blog about the game, it would no longer be fresh in my memory.

In this session, I started taking over kingdoms. Now I give the quests!
I am currently hoping--desperately hoping--that the final act of the game doesn't turn out to be really stupid, because right now, I love it. I've already gone into detail about the tactical combat, the character development the equipment system, and spells, all of which feature the types of statistical logistics that make up my kind of RPG. I equally enjoy the game's approach to plot and storytelling: open-world, competing factions, many quests of varying length and difficulty. It's lasted too long for this blog--two months since I played another 1991 game--but not too long for its content.

In some ways, it reminds me a lot of Might & Magic VI and VII. The mechanics are entirely different, but both games take place on a continent of reasonably complex politics, both involve uniting multiple regional lords to a common cause, and both are perfectly happy to let you explore dungeons and find quest items before you technically get the quests. You have to be careful about this. I lost a few hours of progress because I accidentally sold a corpse that I needed to solve a quest, before I discovered that it was even a quest item. I've learned to keep anything that sounds unique; fortunately, the game gives you a vault just for that purpose.

I could recount all the different quests done for the different lords since the last post, but such a litany would be pretty boring to read even if it was fun to play. Suffice to say that I was beginning to wonder if I would ever reach the end of a questline when suddenly I did. Queen Valencia of Demata had asked me to explore the Lost City of Terine to retrieve the Cross of Thydra. (A quest I had also received from the king of Farnus. Farnus took the cross permanently but the queen didn't, meaning I had to turn in the quest to Demata first and Farnus second. I had to learn this lesson the hard way and reload.) The temple was huge, and I never actually completed it because there was some business with a hermit who wanted a "magic word" that I couldn't identify. Without it, he wouldn't let me pass, and for role-playing reasons I didn't want to just kill him.

This wasn't it.
But whatever I missed in that section, at least I found the cross. When I returned it, she then wanted the corrupted corpse of her late father, who I had slain as a lich. Thankfully, I had kept it. Her next quest had me raid a bandit camp for a stolen shield, and the one after that was to retrieve a "Gru Root" from nearby swamps to cure a case of poison.

I don't mind fetch-and-carry quests when they're interspersed with more complex ones.
At this point, I expected yet another quest, but suddenly Valencia said it was time for her to marry, pointed at Octavianus, my blacksmith, and announced that she'd chosen him. In seconds, the ceremony was completed, and the game informed me that "now the Disciples of Steel rule this land."
Good luck, Octavianus. She looks like she's into some weird stuff.
Rulership opened a whole new set of game dynamics that I have not yet begun to master: setting taxation rates, recruiting and equipping armies, and garrisoning and defending cities. It turns out that raising armies is expensive, and I had long ago stopped worrying about the game's economy except to make enough money to buy mushrooms. I'm now back to loading up on looted equipment after combat and selling it.

Recruiting an army is expensive.
Later, I ended three more questlines: Teal's, Farnus's, and Tobruk's. Teal's took me the longest. Wiping out the thieves' guild took almost 8 hours by itself. The dungeon was huge, had multiple secret doors, and featured dozens of hard combats, each capable of wiping out stocks of hundreds of mushrooms. But the rest of the Pirate King's quests were simple: slay the Death Knight wandering around the island ("Power Word: Stun" took care of him, like it does all single enemies) and grab some Mangi Root from a swamp to cure a plague.

The party surrounds and pummels the frozen Death Knight.

When I brought back the plague cure, Rathbone said it was too late for him and prompty died after designating my party as his heirs. I got the same kingdom-ruling options that I had received in Demata, but I didn't do anything but set a small tax rate of 5%. Hopefully, that won't be enough to make the populace revolt.

Rathbone wills me his kingdom before his death.

After I returned the cross, King Krassus of Farnus had me clear out an outpost of Rathadon spies, then destroy a Rathadon fortress north of Tobruk. When I returned from the ninth quest, he told me that his son and heir had been killed to an evil warrior named Jax, and he asked me to kill him. I had to wander around a forest for a while before Jax attacked, but once he did, the battle wasn't very difficult. After I returned Jax's body, Farnus turned over his kingdom.

I don't remember why I focused on the dwarves of Tobruk next, but the dwarf king had me explore some mines where a bunch of dwarves had been turned to stone by a demon (a quest that also has an echo in Might & Magic VII--did the New World developers play this game?), kill the demon, find some magic mushrooms to heal the dwarves, and explore a dungeon accessible from within the city to kill a cross between a beholder and the Thing. I also had to return a broken blade and...I don't know...something else. There were like three quests in a row that I solved just by completing a single dungeon.

"But he stops when he realizes you're not laughing, too. You stare at each other in silence for a few seconds. It's awkward, really."

I expected Firbin Redforge's questline to end with some excuse for my taking over his city, just as with the others, but it didn't. He simply said that he'd be "at my side" when the final battles started with Rathadon. This is the first time that it's been clear that Rathadon will be the ultimate enemy, making me wonder what happens if I a) finish Rathadon's questline; or b) assassinate the leader of Rathadon before the endgame starts.

Equipment advancement has been pretty steady, with +5 and +10 items giving way to +25 and +30. A small number of items have improved my skills by 10 or 20 points. Towards the end of this session, I started finding potions that raised my attributes. It took some thinking to determine how best to allocate them. In some games, I might try to raise the attributes of my lowest characters, but in this game I think it makes more sense to augment existing strengths than to take the edge off weaknesses.

My party leader's backpack has some decent stuff.
Lots of miscellaneous notes:

  • I talked last time about magic, but it didn't occur to me to mention one of the major differences from the Gold Box titles: the lack of buffing spells, and in particular the lack of buffing spells that you can cast before combat. There are a couple of them related to protection and speed, but you already have to be in combat to cast them.
  • "Power Word: Stun" is so useful that I ended up giving every character 100 points in "Power" so they can cast illusion magic. That's enough to freeze two foes for two or three rounds each. If I'm luck with initiative, I can freeze up to a dozen enemies in the first round of combat--which is good because I'm routinely fighting groups of 30 or more foes these days.

The party is swarmed by thieves in the thieves' guild.
  • The option to parley and then "be amicable" has never once worked.
  • I've invested over 200 points in my ranger's "track" skill, and I have no idea what it does.
  • In one dungeon, I found a "divining rod," but I'm not sure what its use is, or even what the message is telling me when I try to use it.

  • Similarly, the "search" command has never once turned up anything that I haven't found just walking around.
  • Potions of healing heal 100% of damage, but they're very rare.
  • The priest's "Teleport" spell turns out to be pretty useful, instantly whisking you up to 62 squares in any direction on the overland map. That's enough to get to the islands without having to sail a ship.

After completing a quest, Fanatica teleports the party back to town.
  • I don't think I've covered it before, but the game has amusing descriptions when you walk past random buildings in the cities.
  • I still think menu towns would have been a better approach, but I only recently discovered that you can instantly (L)eave any city that you're in.
  • Here are a couple of interesting monster portraits from various dungeons:

The programmer failed to communicate with the graphic artist on this one.

  • And I want to again express my appreciation for the textual dungeon descriptions which are both more frequent than those in the Gold Box games:

The game remains hard. Even with many of my skills approaching 300, I occasionally encounter foes so difficult that I die in the first round (especially if they surprise me). But I enjoy the challenge, and even having passed 60 hours, I haven't gotten sick of the combat. I keep catching myself having the kind of fun I had when I was a kid, imagining the characters working as a team and shouting orders and encouragement to each other: "Didymus, see if you can stun the one in the back!"; "I'll take the ogre!"; "Nialphe, fireball that corner of the room!"
The ending must be coming up soon, and I'm actually quite apprehensive about it. I assume it will involve wealth and kingdoms and armies, but I don't know how many resources I'll need. I don't know if I need to finish every questline to win the game, and I don't know exactly when I'll run out of time. Yet, somehow this uncertainty doesn't bother me, and even the prospect of having to play it again (later in my 1991 list, of course), now that I know what I'm doing in the early acts, fills me with more excitement than dread.

I don't want to give the impression that the game is perfect. Above, I covered several things that just don't work. There is also a notable lack of role-playing choices, including dialogue options and encounter options. But unless it completely tanks in its final moments, I can't imagine that Disciples of Steel won't GIMLET in the top five.