Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Quest for Glory II: Elementary

The Fire Elemental destroys Shapeir if you oversleep.

Since last blogging, I had to start the game over. It turns out that there's a bug in the game that, when importing a character from Quest for Glory, causes it to mis-identify the character class. In this case, the game thought I was a fighter instead of a mage. This should have been obvious when all the mage-related things I was doing (like passing the WIT initiation) wasn't causing my score to increase, but I didn't get it until I started exploring the desert and found that I couldn't cast spells in combat because my shield (which I didn't actually have) was getting in the way.


Re-starting wasn't so bad. With the knowledge from the first character, it only took about 90 minutes to get back to the same location. Since I now knew the uses of BARGAIN, I saved a lot of money. My score was much higher when I finished, since I got appropriate credit for the mage stuff. Most important, re-playing made the game's approach to chronology a bit clearer.

It turns out that Quest for Glory II is organized into a series of days on which specific events occur. For instance, Shema always dances in the inn on the night of Day 2, the poet Omar always recites on the night of Day 3, the Fire Elemental first attacks and destroys Alichica's cart on Day 4, and then re-appears for the player to deal with on Day 5. You have to be ready for these events as they occur. Once the Fire Elemental appears, you only have two days to defeat him before he consumes the entire city and the game ends.

The flip side of this is that if you know what you're doing, you have to spend several days screwing around waiting for major events to occur. I re-did everything I had accomplished in the first few hours in a single day: visited the moneychanger, bought equipment and spells, talked to all key NPCs, visited Aziza and the astrologer, and went through the WIT initiation. That left several days to explore and character-build before the Fire Elemental first appeared.

Just for fun, this time around I checked out what would happen if I said "YES" to the wizards' demands that I give up adventuring to study full-time. Shapeir is destroyed and I spend the rest of my life wondering whether it would have been better to help them.

Thus, on Day 2, I decided to set out and explore the desert. This first involved purchasing a saurus from a dealer at the city gates--a dealer who looked suspiciously like Groucho Marx. BARGAINING got him down from an asking price of 50 dinars to 20. The saurus immediately walked up and licked me.

Ha ha! You can go.

The saurus makes desert exploration possible in a number of ways, primarily by cutting down on the travel time significantly and thus reducing water and ration usage. At any point while riding him, you can say GO HOME to get back to the gates of Shapeir. Having to MOUNT and DISMOUNT constantly is a little annoying, but not much. He bolts immediately (throwing you off) at the appearance of an enemy, and it took me a while to figure out that I need to return to the screen where I originally lost him to find him again.

I had to laugh when, once again, I found myself exploring a desert that is apparently endless (at least, in two directions), with only a couple of key encounters, and the need to keep an eye on my food and water levels. Quest for Glory II and Fallthru are probably the only two RPGs on my list that fit this exact description. East and west, the screens never seem to stop but there are less than a dozen north to south, with the entire desert surrounded on those ends by rock cliffs. During my exploration, I only found three areas of note:

  • A cliff with a griffon sleeping in a nest. By casting "Levitate" to get myself up to the nest, I could take one of his feathers, an ingredient the apothecary needs for a "Dispel Magic" potion. I don't know why, but I forgot to take a screenshot.
  • An oasis where an old man sits with his long beard wrapped around a tree. His dialogue revealed him to be the "Dervish," and taking a bit of his beard back to Keepon Laffin solved his quest. I couldn't get any useful dialogue out of the Dervish.

A case of do or die?

  • A tree in the shape of a woman. When I first found it, I had no idea what to do. Later, I got some hints from the apothecary and Aziza, but I'll save that for next time.

Or I've been in the desert too long.

I figured Raseir would be on the other side of the desert, but I'll be damned if I can find it anywhere. The large span of dunes in between holds occasional sight gags, like a golfer unable to get himself out of the huge sand trap and an airplane flying overhead . . .

. . . but more importantly combat with brigands, scorpions, TerrorSauruses, and jackalmen. There are also supposed to be "ghouls," but I haven't been able to find any yet, and I need to for one of the apothecary's quests.

I could swear Corey Cole made a comment on my blog in which he said he regretted the combat system in this game. I can't find it, so perhaps I'm wrong. I hope so, because I don't really mind it. I think it improves significantly on the first game. Instead of one button for attack, one for defend, and one for dodge, Quest for Glory II gives you numberpad options to attack, dodge, and parry high, medium, and low while still supporting spells with the regular parser. I actually find it's easier in this game to anticipate attacks and take the appropriate action, and my "Parry" and "Dodge" skills have gone up nicely as a consequence. It also makes sense that different levels of attacks work better on different creatures. I've been trying to mix up attacking, parrying, dodging, and spellcasting in each combat.

Fighting a brigand.

Scorpions are my least favorite enemy, since they have an attack by which they grab you by their claw and sting you with their tail, and once they decide to use it, I can't figure out any way to defend or evade it. But killing them is extremely rewarding for the 20 dinars the apothecary gives you for their tails.

I had jacked up "Flame Dart" to a high level in the previous game and found that it serves me well here, although I can't seem to hit enemies with it before combat the way I could in Quest for Glory; perhaps that isn't possible in the sequel. "Force Bolt" seems promising: it both damages enemies and knocks them back for a second, allowing you to get in a few attacks afterwards.

In contrast, I've found that "Calm" does absolutely nothing. Charging enemies stop respectfully and wait for me to finish casting it, then keep on charging and we enter combat anyway. I also can't see any effect to "Dazzle." Perhaps it does lower the attack abilities of my foes, but there's no on-screen confirmation that it's accomplished anything.

Over several days, I killed dozens of brigands and a few scorpions. I don't seem strong enough yet to take on TerrorSaurses (which are mercifully rare) nor the large packs of jackalmen who attack at night.

The hero learns not to be cocky about wandering around the desert after dark.

On Day 5, the Fire Elemental was in town, so I had to stop character development for the time being and deal with him.

The results of all my desert explorations.

The four elements and their associated elementals are clearly going to play a big part in this game. The WIT council was composed of masters of fire, air, water, and earth magic, and each mage I've met so far is aspected in some way to an element: Aziza to water, Keepon Laffin to air (he even floats about on a magic cushion), and the alchemist Harik Attar to fire. (I haven't met an earth-specific person yet that I know of.) The astrologer said that I would "walk in fire, earth, water, and air" on my quest.

Most important, the poet Omar, in his poetry/prophecy recitation, indicated that the city would be attacked by elementals of fire, air, earth, and water in that order. The prophecy started to come true the next morning when I found that Alichica's cart had been ruined by a Fire Elemental.

Does anyone?

Aziza was kind enough to give me a little tutorial on each of the elementals, suggesting that they would gravitate to the areas of the city that offered them the most fuel: open plazas for the Fire Elemental and the fountain for the Water Elemental, for instance. She further suggested that I would need to lure each of them from these places of comfort, then damage them somehow with their elemental opposites, and finally capture them in containers aspected to each elemental type.

She had the most information about the Water Elemental, and she directed me to the other mages for information about their respective specialties. Harik Attar, for instance, told me that incense would help lure the Fire Elemental away from the open plaza.

I engaged the Fire Elemental in the plaza outside the inn and used the incense to lure him into one of the passages. I thought to lure him all the way to the Plaza of the Fountain, but the game immediately told me that just getting him out of the first plaza was enough.


I then used my waterskin on him, which caused him to significantly diminish.

Finally, I placed my lamp on the ground, and he obediently fled right into it. I now have a magic lamp with a Fire Elemental trapped inside, which must be good for something.

I assume the other elementals will attack in regular intervals over the next few days, and I'll keep you updated. I have to say, I rather liked the first game's open-ended approach to time more than this game's insistence that the player accomplish certain tasks on a clock.

A bunch of miscellaneous notes:

  • Guards prefer that you not cast magic in the city--not even if you're just "practicing."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa . . . watch the magic!"

  • Guards and random NPCs have a way of walking in the middle of conversations you're having with other NPCs and responding to your prompts.

Yeah, I wasn't talking to you, Mr. Ego.

  • For my second character, I decided to buy things from the merchants--flowers, baskets, pots, whatever--whether I had an immediate need or not. Fortunately the ones selling things that were unimportant refused to bargain with me.

That's remarkably honest of you. I guess Katta aren't really like Khajit.

  • Between combats with brigands and selling scorpion tails to Harik Attar, I have no problem with money. I've been able to keep a good stock of healing, vigor, and mana pills, and the only thing that I'm "saving" for is a sapphire pin that the jeweler is selling for 500 dinars (I currently have only about 180).

That seems like a hint, but I can't begin to afford that right now.

  • I'm way overloaded with centimes, and I have no idea what to do with them. You get them as change from spending dinars and on enemy corpses, but shopkeepers never seem to take them instead of dinars. You can only DROP or GIVE them one at a time, and I don't really feel like spending hours typing GIVE CENTIME to the beggar, even if it will jack up my honor score. The moneychanger wants nothing to do with them. What am I missing?
  • I beat Trickster at yet another challenge.

I still don't quite understand what's going on with the Katta. In the first game, I got the impression they were in Spielburg as part of a trading caravan and just got stuck there, but at the beginning of this game, Shameen suggested they had gone to Spielburg specifically to find a hero, something that Corey seemed to confirm in a comment. Then, the poet Omar mentioned that a year ago, when the Emir of Raseir dissappeared, the Katta lost their home there, something that Shameen and Shema hadn't mentioned at all.

Something fishy is going on here.

But if the problems have been going on for a year, why were Shameen and Shema in Spielburg for three years?


Why didn't the Katta tell me that they came from Raseir? How did they know there were going to be problems at least two years ahead of time? What aren't they telling me?!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Game 155: The Ring of Darkness (1982)

The ZX Spectrum version has a 1983 copyright date but the Dragon 32 version says 1982. I'm going to trust the latter--it feels like a 1982 game--and go with 1982 in my master game list.

Commenter PK Thunder had a good point a couple weeks ago in relation to my characterization of Quest for the Key of Night Shade as an "excruciating pseudo-RPG." (I decided it didn't meet my rules and removed it from the list.) It's easy for me to sit here in 2014, my computer full of emulators that can play every platform from the 1980s, and dismiss a game as being superfluous or unimportant, but if you were a TRS-80 owner in 1983, Dungeons & Dragons, The Wizard's Castle, and Quest for the Key of Night Shade were pretty much all you had. You were probably happy for any RPG, pseudo- or otherwise.

So imagine you're an eager young player in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, and you've just unpackaged your new Dragon 32 or ZX Spectrum. Maybe in some magazines you've heard about the Wizardry or Ultima series in the U.S., and you start looking around for something to fill that RPG craving. You find nothing, unless you want to type the code for The Valley yourself. You start to suspect that the U.S. is going to dominate the Computer Age.

Then a company like Wintersoft comes along and offers a game like Ring of Darkness. You don't care that it's a breathtakingly obvious ripoff of Ultima; it's not like Richard Garriott--the prick who has the audacity to call himself Lord British--was porting his stuff to your little Welsh machine. It's all you have, and you love it.

Fighting an "evil ranger" in the wilderness between a river and a city.

When I say "breathtakingly obvious ripoff," I couldn't be more serious. The product would be indistinguishable from Ultima except for the couple of features it steals from Akalabeth and Ultima II. These include:

  • Overland, iconographic surface navigation is contrasted with first-person wireframe dungeon movement.
  • The game has the same attributes, races, and character classes as Ultima, plus modifications to attributes based on race and class choices.
  • The same enemies pop up in the wilderness, including "evil rangers" (Ultima)
  • The command list is copied almost directly from Ultima, including (K)limb, (Z)stats, and (I)nform and Search.

The Z-stats result.

  • A king gives you random quests to visit signs and slay enemies (Akalabeth and Ultima) and takes your gold for hit-point increases (Ultima and Ultima II)
  • Oh, but you also get hit points when you leave dungeons, based on the number of enemies you killed! (Akalabeth, Ultima)
  • Quests offered by kings alter between visiting signs and killing specific enemies in dungeons (Ultima
  • Towns feature little counters selling weapons, armor, spells, and food. You engage them by walking up and hitting (T)ransact. 
  • Bartenders give hints when you buy drinks (Ultima).
  • Spells appear as inventory items that deplete as cast (all three games)
  • You need to constantly watch dwindling food supplies (all three games)
  • Magic only works in dungeons (Ultima II)
  • A king's castle features a princess in jail and a jester wandering around who steals from you. And guess what the jester has to say?

You have to be #$&*@ kidding me.

I won't say that Ring of Darkness doesn't add anything not found in Ultima, but most of what it adds, sucks. For instance, the movement keys for the ZX Spectrum (the version I'm playing) are:

Q   P

Take a look at the keyboard and tell me if that makes sense. And, no the Spectrum didn't have an arrangement in which it did. Reviews of the game at the time were also baffled.

In addition to Ultima's "Ladder Up" and "Ladder Down" spells, there are some original to this game. "Magic Zapper" is just magic missile, but we also have "Unlock," "Create" (food, I assume), "Remove," "Jump," "Bridge," and "Kill." Since magic only works in dungeons, I assume that most of these spells have to do with obstacles and pits that you encounter there. The manual says nothing about the spells.

In fact, there's hardly any documentation. You're told that "you are about to enter a strange world of challenges, surprises, and satisfying problems" (huh?), and your ultimate goal is to "seek your fortune." A bit of drivel accompanies the opening screen, suggesting that the quest has something to do with finding five rings.

That whole "one ring" business sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it.

You start by assigning a pool of 40 points to three attributes: strength, intelligence, and dexterity, then choosing a race and class, which further modifies these statistics.

Afterwards, you're dumped unceremoniously on an open landscape with 150 gold, 100 food, 2 daggers, a suit of leather armor, and 4 "magic zapper" spells. You need to immediately (R)eady your armor and weapons because random enemies start attacking quite quickly. Outdoor enemies include evil rangers, bandits, and--most annoying of all--"hidden archers." There doesn't seem to be any way to kill this enemy. If you try to (A)ttack, the game says you're out of range, and spells don't work in the wilderness. All you can do is flee, which takes several unsuccessful attempts (with you taking damage each time) before it works.

What the hell is with these guys.

The land is dotted with castle-cities, dungeons, and special locations like signs. All locations look like castles, which makes it hard when you're trying to find a specific place. The closest castle-city to the starting area is called Borderton. All of the castle-cities are laid out exactly the same and offer the same services: a weapon/armor shop, a transportation shop (incorrectly labeled "smith"), a pub where you can buy food and drink, a magic shop, a throne room, and a prison.

Getting my first quest from the king.

Versus getting my first quest from the king--also to find a signpost--in Ultima.

The weapon shop only sold daggers, leather armor, and axes. I bought an axe right away and split the rest of my initial gold between hit points and food. The king gave me a quest to find "Sinclair's Sign" (perhaps a reference to the makers of the ZX Spectrum). I set out looking for it, but before I found it, I came upon the first dungeon: Doom Labyrinth.

As I mentioned, dungeons are wireframe affairs with ladders, pits, hidden doors, chests, and basic enemy sketches as Akalabeth and Ultima. When you exit a dungeon, you receive a hit point reward related to the number and difficulty of the enemies you killed. This silly mechanism was tolerable in Akalabeth and Ultima--Garriott didn't have a lot of other templates to work with--but it seems absurd that someone actually thought it was worth emulating.

Attacking a sad, confused-looking "etin" in a dungeon level.

Speaking of emulating, I learned two new emulators for this game. The first, representing most of the screen shots above, was the "Spectaculator" emulator for the ZX Spectrum. It seems to work all right, but the game originally came on a double-sided tape, and I kept having problems with it crashing every time it asked me to flip the tape.

Thus, I also checked out the "XRoar" emulator for the Dragon 32/64. Ring of Darkness was originally published on this platform, and it has a few differences. Most notably, overworld navigation takes place on a single screen rather than a zoomed-in area:

The map doesn't appear to be the same as the Spectrum version, either.

But the Dragon 32 version ended up giving me even more problems, including horrible error-trapping, which dumped me out of the game every time I pressed a key the game didn't expect. The emulator also didn't have a mechanism for speeding up the excruciatingly slow speed of the game, so I returned to the ZX Spectrum edition and toughed through my problems, which involved actually mimicking the rewind, stop, and start operations of the cassette.

The beginning of the game is much like Ultima II, where survival is a constant problem and almost all of the money you make goes towards food. Unlike Ultima II, it doesn't appear that you can steal food. There's a (S)teal command in the game, but I can't get it to work even for a thief character.

Food! What else would I steal? Actual valuables?

Slaying enemies results in an immediate reward of experience points and gold. In the overland area, this seems to be somewhat random--I'll get anywhere from 2 to 8 from killing an evil ranger, for instance--but the dungeon creatures offer more consistency.

I swiftly learned that screwing around in the overland area is a losing proposition. You don't make enough money from killing evil rangers et. al. to even come close to restoring the hit points they sap, particularly when you have to keep escaping the invulnerable hidden archers. Thus, I spent most of my first exploration session in the dungeon, where at least you get a hit point boost upon exiting and there are no archers.

A few things make Ring of Darkness much harder than Akalabeth or Ultima. In both of the latter games, you could descend into a dungeon and have a reasonable chance of exiting with more hit points than you started. This rarely happens in Ring of Darkness, although you do end up slightly better off than you started thanks to the gold you accumulate. The key problem is that enemies always get the first attack. Whether you wander into a square next to them or wait for them to come to you, you never get to strike first.

Adding to this, enemies stay in fixed squares until they "acquire" you, and many of those fixed squares are at intersections in the dungeon. It's not uncommon to move into a square and get a notice that you've been attacked by a thief (with a consequent loss of hit points). You don't know where he is, so you turn right, only to find an empty corridor. The thief attacks again. You turn around, and there he is. He attacks again. By now, you've lost one-third of the hit points that you had in the first place, and you haven't had a chance to strike a single blow. I also find that streaks in which I miss five or six times in a row are quite common.

Facing a very badly-drawn skeleton in the dungeon. It's too bad I don't have any missile weapons to shoot him across the pit. Instead, I'll have to advance onto the pit, where he'll get the first attack.

Nonetheless, through a combination of exiting when my hit points got too low, receiving my boost, returning to the castle to pay the king for more, and re-entering the dungeon, I managed to slowly earn the 1,024 experience points necessary to make Level 2. At this point, three new items appeared in the weapon/armor shop: a sword, a "spiked rope," and a suit of chain mail. The "spiked rope" sounded promising as a long-range weapon, and I thought it might help take out the hidden archers, but no, it doesn't work.

During this time, I explored the map a little more and found Sinclair's Sign. At the sign, I found a suit of leather (echoing Ultima, where one of the sign posts gave you a weapon), and upon returning to the castle, I got some more experience and 416 gold from the king. Unlike Ultima, the king doesn't send you on the quest again. He simply says that his quest is done.

Solving the first quest.

Moving on through the only paths available within the natural barriers of water and mountains, I found my way to a second city, Port Stillwater, where the king asked me to kill a "jelly cube." There's a handy dungeon nearby where I could attempt that quest, though I don't know what level on which they appear.

From Ultima, in the Lost King's Castle.
From Ring of Darkness. The developers were so lazy they couldn't even think of a different creature for the player to kill.

A few miscellaneous notes from the game:

  • When you die in the game, you get "resurrected" in a random part of the map with 250 hit points and no apparent penalty to experience, gold, or items. 
  • An "inform and search" command finds hidden pits in dungeons. You basically have to use it on every corridor lest you go plummeting to the next level with no way back up.

A pit right in front of a pit. Clever.

  • The game copies Ultima in that a few monster types--thieves, skeletons, giant bats, giant rats--are always found on Level 1. Reach Level 2 and you get giant spiders and "etins" in addition to the above. I haven't yet made it to Level 3 or lower.
  • The transportation shop sells a cart when you're Level 1 and a cart and a mule at Level 2. I wonder if it eventually offers a laser-armed hovercraft as in Ultima.
  • Other than getting new items in the shops, I'm not sure what leveling does for you. It's unrelated to hit points, and it doesn't seem to make me more effective at combat.

The above took me about 6 hours, and I don't imagine I'm very close to winning the game. As a gameplay experience, it's about as good as Ultima (although the fact that it plagiarized so heavily from Ultima makes it worse in general), which is a game I liked for historical value but wouldn't have wanted to play for more than the 8 hours it took me to beat it.

But I haven't deliberately bailed on a game since Bloodwych two years ago (since then, the only winnable game I haven't won, Legend of Faerghail, was due to a irrecoverable bug), so I'll probably continue, see if I can beat it, and see if it has an original thought in its head. If I end up having to kill that jester for his key, freeing the princess, and getting a time machine, there's going to be hell to pay.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fallthru: Final Rating

I played for a lot longer than 1 hour and 34 minutes. The game only considers your last session in making its tally.

Independently developed and published, at one time offered through PC-SIG
Released 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 27 June 2014
Date Ended: 14 July 2014
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Well, Fallthru is certainly an odd and original little offering: a text RPG that doesn't really seem to be aware that it's an RPG. It follows few conventions of the genre, and judging by the evidence, I'm not sure Paul H. Deal ever played an RPG prior to developing this one.

It's rare to play a text game that isn't also a text adventure (or, at least, adventure/RPG hybrid). It's even rarer (perhaps unique) to play one with the geography structured as a typical RPG. Most text games elide long transitions between areas, and almost every screen has some kind of useful purpose. Fallthru, on the other hand, revels in its vast areas, with coordinates stretching into the thousands on each axis, at least 10 million explorable squares, and long journey times between important points. As I noted last time, the actual coordinates may very well be infinite. But they're not just a bunch of numbers; drop a coin on one of those generic squares and it will still be there when you return. Every coordinate also has its own odds for a random wildlife encounter or a random warrior or NPC encounter.

In this, the game is more akin to a top-down, tile-based RPG like Ultima V or Dragonflight rather than a typical text adventure. It would be absurd to try to map and catalog every tile in Ultima V just to record the few cities and dungeons that occupy the landscape. Instead, you simply record the locations (including coordinates, if you have a sextant) of the important locations. Fallthru's version of the sextant is the "Wherstone," and once you have it, you technically don't have to map. You can just write down where important cities and dungeons are and let the coordinates be your navigational guide.

Although I sometimes groused about it, the enormous geography of Fallthru actually serves a few valuable purposes. First, it makes it feel like the world is a real place. Go wandering in the woods near your house, and I doubt you'll find a dungeon or treasure every 100 feet. Instead, you'll find a bunch of trees that look the same no matter which direction you travel. Second, the distances help serve the game's "simulation" purposes, by which you have to occasionally find food, water, and a good place to rest. Third, much of the challenge in Fallthru is piecing together bits of lore, logic, and tools to find these key locations. There are virtually no places that you can stumble upon by randomly setting out into the wilderness.

Fallthru is fairly well-written, although almost clinically so. The text is economical--hardly any location features more than a single paragraph--and yet manages to sketch out a strong sense of geography and situation. There are hardly any spelling or grammar errors to break the immersion. But there's also no real sense of wit or humor in the text. I'm not sure the game had a single joke. That's not exactly a complaint--I usually complain the other way, about too much goofy humor--but it is odd to find a game that takes itself so seriously.

The game's primary problem is one of pacing. In the opening stages, you have to grab a throwing knife and find a hunting ground, and you spend hours collecting food for personal use and sale, but after that, you never have to hunt again. By the time you can survive in the far-flung places where animals give you 20-30 rations upon killing them, hunting has ceased to be necessary. A lot of thought was put into other ways of making money (bagging and selling sand, trading grain, even stealing) that also swiftly become superfluous, as a single successful combat against a warrior nets you more ralls than a dozen expeditions with your backpack full of grain.

There's a period where your explorations are confined mostly to the cities and the roads in between, and during this period, you collect lore from warriors and citizens, carefully record warrior levels, and occasionally fight them to increase your own power. But pretty soon, you max your level (and end up with absolute loads of cash) and hardly ever fight again for the rest of the game. For me, the last half of the game was solely about piecing together hints and finding key locations and items.

The constantly-nagging need for food, water, and rest provides a logistical headache throughout the game, but not a hard one. It's comparatively easy to carry loads of food and to find water sources (which are also usually good resting places), so all the dynamic does is force you to interrupt exploration every few minutes and spend a long time typing EAT, EAT, DRINK, REST, DRINK, REST, EAT, DRINK, etc. It would have been nice if the author had gone one way or the other with this. The first way would have been to make it authentically challenging: food more expensive or rare, your burro unable to carry much (or no burro at all), watering holes and springs rare features of the landscape, and so on. In such a game, you'd have to carefully prepare for each long expedition, spend time hunting in the field, and actually note locations of springs and wells for later visits.

The second way would have been to allow the player to purchase some kind of "bag of unending food" and "canteen of limitless water" the same way it allows the purchase of the "Flyr" and the burro just when aspects of inventory and travel distances start to get annoying. I would have preferred this.

I mentioned that the game isn't much of an RPG. This is true in a few ways. First, the only development comes from the nebulous "combat level" statistic. There are no separate attributes (although missile weapon experience must be tracked separately, behind the scenes), and your maximum health and fatigue levels never increase during the game. Second, there are hardly any monsters to fight! There are warriors to duel, wild animal attacks (which are binary; either you're strong enough to fend them off automatically, or you're not) and sometimes one monster at the end of a dungeon. Finally, except for hunting animals, you never kill anything--not even the final demon, Zugg. Instead, the game makes it clear that you just beat it into submission or retreat.

I drive a demon to retreat instead of preventing it from ever mauling adventurers again.

The warriors and few monsters you encounter don't have any compunctions killing you, however, and that's where I have to bring up the last major negative: death has no consequences. You don't even have to reload from your last save. When you die, you have the option to continue from a few squares prior as if nothing happened.

Finally, before the GIMLET, I want to address the multi-player options. Fallthru offers the ability for three separate players to play cooperatively, but it's simply impossible to imagine full games in which three people sat still long enough to win this way. With the player rotating every 20 turns, you'd have just enough time to get through an EAT, EAT, DRINK, REST, EAT, etc., cycle before you had to turn it over to your friend. The characters can't fight in combat together, so the only benefit to cooperative play is the ability to drop resources and perhaps share key locations. If I really wanted to play this one with a friend, I'd ask him to sit on the other side of the room on his own computer. The game is tedious enough at times without having to wait for someone else to complete his actions.

On to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. Fallthru offers essentially no back story. From the manual, there are suggestions that your character is a "foreigner," just arrived in Faland, who needs basic information about the land. On the other hand, the INFO command allows you to call up detailed information on places, people, and historical events, and it's unclear how a newly-arrived PC would have this knowledge. There is no comprehensive history of the land offered, though some of the INFO entries allude to an ancient king named Morag and the "Demon Wars."

Where the geography of the world makes it feel like a real place, other aspects don't. Everyone is a warrior or a peasant; there is only one unique NPC. The land seems to have no government, the people do little but farm and trade, and warriors only seem to fight each other. Finally, we have the issue of the horribly unimaginative names, like the "Glu'me Forest," "Th'em'ty" desert, "Hi'mtn," and the names for the various earth-like beasts. Overall, a mixed bag. Score: 4.

The LORE command, fleshing out aspects of the geography and history, is perhaps the game's strongest contribution. But how do I know all this stuff?

2. Character Creation and Development. As previously discussed, somewhat poor. The only creation option is your name, and the only development option is your warrior level, which caps at 76, well before the end of the game. There are theoretically some "role-playing" options in that you can attempt to STEAL from markets (failing gets you tossed into the wilderness in exile) and murder peasants for their valuables, but doing either nets you "dishonorable" status and makes the game unwinnable. On the other hand, building honor through good deeds (giving, food, water, and coins to peasants) is a reasonably-fun role-playing dynamic, especially in the early game, when you need all the food, water, and coins that you can collect. Score: 3.

The consequences of thievery.

3. NPC Interaction. NPCs consist mostly of wandering peasants and warriors that you meet on the road. Everyone has a bit of lore to impart, drawn randomly from a lore bank, and dependent (I think) on both your level and the region of the world you're in. These NPCs offer some light role-playing opportunities (in giving them charity), but none of them are uniquely memorable, and you don't have any options in your own dialogue except HELLO. Score: 4.

Collecting a valuable hint from an NPC warrior.

4. Encounters and Foes. Except for NPCs, covered above, there are no real encounters in the game. Even the puzzles are mostly just a matter of having the right item. As for "foes," they're pretty banal. Wild animals attack you, and who prevails is solely a matter of your combat level. Prior to Level 7, you don't want to go into Hyen territory; after Level 7, you automatically drive them off every time they attack. The warriors are identical ciphers with procedurally-generated names. The demons are just generic monsters who deal melee damage, although there is at least one that requires a bow and arrows to kill. The game had INFO entries for some of the monsters you meet but not others.

I suppose I should give some credit in this category for the navigation puzzles in some of the dungeons. I found them more "challenging" than "frustrating," in the sense that logic and creative use of the interface could generally suss out the solution. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. Also poor. There is no "magic" despite the game world clearly supporting magic in the form of magic items. Combat consists solely of typing the FIGHT, SHOOT, or THROW commands, with success dependent on equipment and character level. There really are no tactics, and much of the success or failure is based on random rolls. Minor credit: the game is rare in allowing you to YIELD against warriors and pay a tribute to end an unwinnable combat. Score: 2.

6. Equipment. Much of the main quest is about assembling the right artifact items, but almost all of them have some valuable secondary purpose, such as the silver amulet warning about nearby dangers and the gold amulet healing injuries. There are a handful of weapon types, one armor type, and lots of other bits of equipment useful for adventuring, including salves, shovels, lamps and oil, navigational aids, and packs, sacks, and burros to help you keep it all organized. While it sounds strong, equipment is generally binary--either you have what you need to succeed in a particular place or you don't--and thus it felt like for most of the game, equipment was about puzzle-solving rather than a standard, flexible RPG inventory. Score: 3.

Finally collecting the scimitar was a rewarding moment.

7. Economy. Strong at the beginning, when every rall counts, and you're hoping to save up for a burro, the Flyr, a Navaid, armor, a sword, and other important pieces of equipment. Right about mid-game, you've bought everything already, and yet you continue to amass ralls for no purpose except to buy occasional (cheap) food. Score: 4.
8. Quests. The main quest--to get "home"--is pretty pathetic, given that the game doesn't give you any sense of who you are, where home is, or why you're so eager to get back there. There are steps on this main quest--indeed, the entire world seems structured around serving it--but there are no side quests, no alternate endings, and no role-playing. All of this is too bad, as these things are arguably easier to program in a text game than in a graphical game. I was extremely disappointed in the ending. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. A text game is mostly about the interface and the quality of the descriptive text. As I mentioned above, the text quality here is good. The parser is easy to use, and the game offers welcome one- or two-letter abbreviations for most of its verbs. There aren't many synonyms, but the command list is short enough that it's easy to memorize.

I didn't like how random encounters took a second to appear in each screen, forcing me to pause and wait between movements when traveling over long distances. I also thought the logistics of moving items from one place to another were needlessly complicated. The only sound that the game offered-- a beep when one of the games eight-hour periods changed--was startling and annoying every time it happened. Score: 3.

The game occasionally offers ASCII "graphics" on signs. I never found anything valuable at "Sturk Beach," incidentally. Not even sturks.

10. Gameplay. Fallthru deserves some credit for non-linearity, at least at the beginning, when all you're trying to do is build your fortunes and combat level. The main quest path has a mixture of steps that can occur at any time and those that require some precursor steps, and towards the end of the game, it started to feel very linear. I don't see it as being "replayable," except to try to beat your time. A few elements--the locations of trees and water sources, primarily--are randomized between games.

I think the difficulty is about right but the pacing is poor, and overall the game lasts too long for the depth of content that it offers. Score: 4.

The final score of 32 puts it slightly below what I consider "recommended," at least as far as playing the whole game. It certainly is worth checking out for a few hours. There's a good base here, and a few tweaks--tightening the last act, offering a more interesting plot resolution, allowing the player to buy something that dealt with the food logistics--would have propelled it well above my "recommended" threshold.

I can't find any contemporary reviews of the game, so I don't know what kind of reception it got in its era. (Though Paul Deal's comments, below, suggest people didn't like it, or at least it wasn't what they were expecting.) As a shareware title, it probably didn't receive wide distribution. For at least a time, it was picked up by PC-SIG, a Sunnyvale, California-based distributor of shareware titles and publisher of a monthly magazine focused on shareware. Despite an international distribution network and at least the appearance of success, the company abruptly and mysteriously went out of business in 1993. It's notable that PC-SIG marketed the game as a "text adventure"; I think most text adventure lovers would have found Fallthru confusing and alien, which probably explains its low sales.

I've been trying to connect with Paul Deal himself, to no avail. All the old e-mail addresses I find online come bouncing back, the number attached to him in public directories has since been disconnected, and a message I left at an alternate number has not yet been returned. He posted a comment onto a (non-game-related) bulletin board a few months ago, so I know he's still around. In the comment, incidentally, he indicates that his "day job" was as a microbiologist for NASA, which might make for the coolest dual-classing that I've ever heard of.

Thanks to pdw's sleuthing, we do have a couple of secondary sources for information about Deal and his take on the game. In an interview with Michael Feir in a 2003 issue of Audyssey (an electronic magazine focusing on games accessible to the blind), he indicates that he started programming the game as a "learning project" to help him write programs "to create biological simulations" (sensible, given his career at the time), which partly explains the game's preoccupation with food, water, rest, and the logistics of moving things around. He had hoped to make upgrades to the game (particularly combat) to take advantage of increased memory as the years went by, but player reactions seem to have disappointed him:

I hardly ever heard from anyone who solved the game. Mostly people called to tell me the game was too hard or that it was impossible. Very few actually registered. I finally concluded the game simply did not provide most people with the kind of game playing experience they wanted, and so I abandoned it.

In a letter to SynTax Adventure Magazine in the early 2000s, he indicated that he lost most of the files, including the "strategy document" that he created for registered users, during a move. But he also indicated in both the letter and his Audyssey interview that he was re-exploring the game and working on a new document. My guess is this evolved into his novelization.

It doesn't appear that Deal ever wrote another game. He has self-published a number of books over the last decade (I assume he retired about 10 years ago), seemingly focused on a young adult market. I hope he eventually stumbles on my blog, offers some comments about the game, and reads the comments of one player--and a number of commenters--who, if not "loving" the game, at least can appreciate it.

Despite times that I didn't enjoy the game, overall I'm grateful for showing me something new, and I wish more games had taken inspiration from it, even as I'm glad they didn't exactly replicate it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Quest for Glory II: Class Conflict

Sounds like someone on the development team has experience with post-graduate studies.

Over at The Adventure Gamer, Trickster is going through Quest for Glory II as a fighter, which always struck me as the most boring of the Quest for Glory classes. Perhaps sensing this, the creators offered the upgraded "paladin" class for those inclined to a sword-and-board lifestyle. I am aware that mages and thieves can technically become paladins, too, though my understanding is that it's somewhat more difficult. I haven't decided if I want it for my mage even if it's possible.

However, I'm curious about one thing: if my mage becomes a paladin, can he use a sword? That I think fighters are somewhat "boring" doesn't mean I want to fight with a dagger for four more games. I visited the weapon shop here, thinking I might be able to buy a sword, but the jerk of a shopowner, Issur, would only sell one if I traded in my old one. What kind of way to run a business is that?

Oh, stop acting like there's some separate "sword" skill.

Issur, incidentally, offered a little armwrestling mini-game. I partook and won on my first try. I guess importing a character does have his advantages. Trickster lost his first attempt and tried to blame it on emulation speed. Hey, T! My hero can beat up your hero!

Issur looks like the guy on Pawn Stars.

Anyway, Issur wouldn't talk to me after that, or even play the game again, so I left to do more mage-type things.

That's what we call being a "sore loser."

I had two more things to do in the city before heading out into the wilderness: visit the astrologer and find the Wizard's Institute of Technocery (WIT). After asking a few NPCs, I found that the astrologer was at the end of "Tarik of Stars," which I guess makes sense.

Is there any rhyme or reason to the different background colors for NPC dialogue?

The astrologer asked me to tell him about my past, which reminded me there's a TELL ABOUT command in the game. I haven't otherwise had a chance to use it, though I suspect I'm missing opportunities. Anyway, after hearing about my past, he said he'd create a custom fortune for me, but it would take several hours and I should come back.

Fun stuff on the walls. I tried to climb up that ladder but the game wouldn't let me.

So the moneychanger was on "Dinar Tarik" and the astrologer was on "Tarik of the Stars." No one had told me the exact location of the WIT, but I consulted the map hoping there would be an "Arcana Tarik" or something. There was nothing like that, but there was a dead-end street in a very obvous place at the top of the map, where some kind of facility would have symmetry with the other plazas and buildings. I figured that must be it.

The map on the back of the game manual.

Reaching the dead-end street, I cast "Detect Magic," and sure enough, a door came into view at the end of the corridor.

I had to cast "Open" to enter. I found myself in a hallway surrounded by portraits of famous magicians, including Erasmus and Zara from the first game, the mysterious Erana of "Erana's Peace" fame, Aziza from Shapeir, a guy I didn't know, a blacked-out portrait (curious about that), and Harry Houdini and Merlin from non-Quest for Glory mythology.

A voice first asked my name, then why I wanted to enter the WIT. I was stumped at that one. After trying "TO LEARN" and "HERO" and getting thrown out, I replied simply "MAGIC" and was allowed to proceed. Next, voices asked who I'd use as a sponsor.

I had a feeling the "correct" answer was Erasmus, so I wanted to try some of the others first. Each selection was accompanied by the wizards contacting the named sponsor through his or her portrait and asking if he or she would support me. These were the results:

  • Zara said that aside from selling me a few spells, she didn't really know me and wouldn't take responsibility for me. I didn't think that was very nice. Clearly, she must have been aware that I saved Spielburg.
  • Aziza also said that she didn't know me well enough.
  • In response to Erana, the wizards said that she hadn't responded to summonses for many years. There was an odd note when I clicked on Erana's portrait that said "she reminds you of Genesta, a Faery you once knew." At first, I thought it was odd that the game was ascribing a background to the hero, but I guess it was just a King's Quest reference.
  • When contacted, Harry Houdini was clearly in the middle of one of his escape acts. Through muffled gasps and chokes, he conveyed he was too busy at the moment.
  • Merlin simply indicated he didn't know me.

The spelling "Merlyn" and the reference to "Gramarye" indicates that the author of this passage has read T. H. White's The Once and Future King, but the surname "Ambrosius" suggests that he or she has also read Mary Stewart's "Merlin" trilogy. (Either that or Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, but that seems less likely.)

Yorick, Keepon Laffin, and Baba Yaga simply produced notes that they weren't valid selections, so I guess they weren't members of the Institute. I think the game missed an opportunity to do something funny with Baba Yaga. I also think it missed an opportunity to have a response to "Fenrus" instead of "Erasmus."

In the end, it was "Erasmus" that got me in. The other members of the Institute clearly felt same way I did about him in the first game:

He appeared in his portrait, told a bunch of dumb jokes, and agreed to sponsor me. First, I had to pass a little test for him, which consisted of moving one of three bells to a pedestal and causing it to ring--in three spells or less. It was easy. "Detect Magic" identified the right bell, "Fetch" moved it to the pole, and "Trigger" caused it to ring.

Is this supposed to be a challenge?

The Institute then passed me along to the "real" test, which consisted of walking along a narrow path, with void on each side, and having to defeat four obstacles. The first was a spinning staff. I initially tried "Force Bolt" and "Flame Dart," hoping they would send it spinning away, but they didn't work. Confused, I started working my way down the list of spells.

The results of "Detect." Good to have that confirmation.

The solution turned out to be casting "Fetch" to get it to move towards me and then "Levitate" so I could move up as it passed under me. 

At this point, though, I was nearly out of spell points, and there was no way to rest during the test. I had to exit, go back to the apothecary, and stock up on some mana pills before trying again.

The second test was a stone wall that turned into some kind of rock monster when I cast "Trigger" on it. I could then "Calm" it and climb over it, but it woke up when I was on the other side and started pounding the walkway. I had to cast "Calm" a second time to keep moving.

The third test was a big iceberg. "Flame Dart" melted the frost on it, revealing a fracture. Three consecutive "Force Bolts" exploited the fracture and pushed two pieces apart until they fell off the walkway.

Finally, there was a door in front of a raging fire. "Open" opened the door; "Calm" made the flames diminish so I could see the hole on the other side; "Fetch" closed the door; and "Force Bolt" (specifically on the top edge) knocked it over so it provided a bridge across the hole.

There might have been other ways to solve some of them. None of the tests made use of "Zap" (which is understandable since you have to start the first game as a mage to even have it) or "Dazzle," though I wonder if the latter would have worked on the rock monster.

When I was done, the Institute wizards said I had passed and indicated that they wanted me to give up adventuring and devote myself full-time to studies. The game offered me the choice of whether to "take the oath that you will ignore and forget about those who said they needed you in the land of Shapeir and devote yourself to the improvement of your mind and magic." Way to ask a loaded question, Quest for Glory II.

At least it's a role-playing choice.

I said no, of course. The council was upset but Erasmus congratulated me, noting "what good is magic or knowledge unless you use it?" He gave me the "Reversal" spell, which rebounds magical attacks directed at you. I was then dumped back in the alley, leaving me confused as to whether I'm a member of WIT or not.

Flush with victory, I returned to the Katta's Tail Inn for the night. Omar the Poet was performing with his translator, Ja'afar (another name that would later appear in a Disney film). The "translator" wasn't a language translator, but rather someone who translated verse into plain text. It's rather funny. In response to NAME, Omar says:

This is followed by the "translator," who explains:

I imagined Omar saying "Fly me to the moon / and let me play among the stars / let me see what spring is like / on Jupiter and Mars" and Ja'Afar explaining, "Hold my hand. Darling, kiss me."

Omar indicated that the Katta had been expelled from Raseir, which is why they came to Spielburg to find me in the first place. This is nothing that was even hinted by Shameen and Shema. 

I settled in for Omar's official performance. The poem he recited was more prophecy than poetry:

In the Month of the Serpent, in the year of the Djinn
A shadow passed over the Katta's Tail Inn
Astrologers forell that Doom shall come to dwell
And Shapeir shall e but sand upon the wind

Comes a Hero from the North, riding on the very air
And this is sign the first to then beware
For Darkness soon shall fall and shadow cover all,
The city and the ones now living there

The first Doom shall be Fire, which shall burn the very stone
The next is Air, and rocks are overthrown
Earth shall be the third, then the final Doom is heard,
The Water gone, the city parched like bone

Unless the one called Hero is a Hero true indeed,
Who comes to help the city in its need,
Then will face the depths of Doom in the darkness of the Tomb
From the Elemental's Master, we are freed

The next morning, signs indicated that the first part of the prophecy was coming true. A Fire Elemental had been to town, and Alichica's stall was destroyed. Sounds like I'd better get cracking on the main quest.

Do all of my exploits have to be in service of some prophecy?

A few miscellaneous notes:

  • I ran into a beggar a few times in the Plaza of the Fountain. Giving him gold seemed to increase my "honor" score, but I didn't get any useful information out of him.

Sounds like your parents started you with a bit of a handicap.

  • Many of the plazas have open windows that make me vaguely remember climbing into them when I played as a thief back in the 1990s. I can understand why people play as thieves; the windows are just so damned enticing.

Yes, I do!

  • You have to eat and drink regularly as you explore, although the game automatically deducts water and rations if you have enough. That's a nice contrast to Fallthru.

I continue to love the game's overall sense of fun--something that I emphasized in my recent review of the first Quest for Glory. When you pass Erasmus's test with the bell, fireworks shoot out of the top of it spelling "Erasmus" and "Fenrus." A green-and-blue shield on the wall of the weapon shop is annotated as "the Black Shield of Falworth. It's been repainted." When you come out to Alichica's ruined cart after the Fire Elemental attack, he's optimistically trying to hawk the burned wood.

I don't think any other game I've played so far has imparted the same sense of having fun while still maintaining a relatively serious, interesting narrative. It makes it an honest pleasure to play the game no matter how it performs as an RPG.