Sunday, August 2, 2015

Game 196: Dungeons of Avalon (1991)

I've mostly just been drawing names for the next games on my list at random, so I didn't plan it that I'd play three German-published games in a row--let alone two of them from the same publisher, CP Verlag, which seemed to specialize in releasing quick, forgettable games through its various magazines. This one, developed by Zeret Software (which only seemed to exist for Dungeons of Avalon and its sequel), was originally published in Amiga Fun in 1991, then Amiga Mania in 1992. I've tried without success to find where Zeret was actually headquartered. The lead developer has a Turkish name, but his associates sound German. I think Amiga Mania was a Hungarian publication, which is comfortably in the middle of all of this.

Oddly, the game takes place not in Avalon but in "H'Khan." The lead developer's name is Hakan.

It took me a while to find an English version of the game, and even then I don't know if it's an official translation. The quality isn't bad, but not everything is translated. Facing east, for instance, shows me an "O" on the compass, and a couple of the other terms and abbreviations are still in German. So is the manual, which I've uploaded here if anyone wants to give me a hand (not the whole thing, but maybe the backstory and what the advantages to "monks" are). The back story seems to be the usual rot about a wizard taking over a peaceful kingdom.

A bit of the backstory.

Dungeons of Avalon looks like Dungeon Master but plays more like Wizardry. You create a party of six characters in the adventurer's guild of a standard menu town and then descend into a dungeon of indeterminate levels, fighting creatures, opening treasure chests, and so on. Its encounter and combat system is straight out of Wizardry (perhaps via The Bard's Tale, which every German developer seemed to be familiar with), but it has the approach to dungeon design of Dungeon Master, including substantive walls, doors that roll up into the ceiling, opened by buttons, and a light smattering of navigation puzzles.

For your party of six characters, you choose between human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, troll, gnome, "lizzard," and sternbär races. (The latter translates as "star bear"; I have no idea what it's supposed to mean. A wookie?) [Edit: I guess it was "Stembar," an inside joke based on one of the programmers. See the comments.] Classes are fighter, thief, knight, hunter, monk, magician, healer, and wizard (these show a Bard's Tale influence, but perhaps by way of Legend of Faerghail). Attributes, which you can re-roll as many times as you like, are intelligence, dexterity, wisdom, luck, strength, and something abbreviated "KO"--probably constitution. There are no alignments, and every character is male. Portrait depends only on class and is not influenced by race.

Creating a party of characters. Gnarr is supposed to be a troll.

Each character is created with a handful of gold pieces, from which you outfit him with basic equipment at the "armour" shop (despite its name, it sells weapons and magic items, too). Identification of found equipment is done in the shop, as in Wizardry. A temple for healing and resurrections, and a training guild for leveling up, are also found in the menu city.

Buying items for the new party.

Once outfitted, you head into the dungeon, where the textures are reminiscent of Dungeon Master but the rest of the gameplay is more akin to Wizardry. Enemies don't appear in the hallways; instead, markings on the floor alert you to both encounters and treasure. Encounters are signaled by a barely-perceptible blue line; treasures by a star inside a circle. (I had assumed the latter was a Dungeon Master-style pressure plate at first.)

A button on the wall, but there's an encounter in between. Can you see that little bluish marking?

Combat is the turn-based, line-up-all-your-attacks-then-execute system that we've seen a million times (and are currently experiencing in Antares). Enemies can attack in multiple groups of multiple enemies at various distances. Characters can attack, use items, or cast spells. 

The one major combat difference between Dungeons of Avalon and Antares is the existence of a "fast combat" feature here, where instead of seeing the blow-by-blow account, you just get a quick summary of post-combat statistics. I saw this for the first time in Legend of Faerghail, another Bard's Tale-inspired German game, and I wonder if this developer was a fan.

Watching the messages scroll by in normal combat.
Versus just getting summary stats at the round's end.

At this point, you've probably noted for yourself another of Dungeons of Avalon's strengths: its bizarre visuals. Everything from the weapons shop to the monster portraits are done in a highly original, grotesque style that reminds me of something I've seen before but can't quite place. Another element that may not be new, but that I can't remember from other games, is the animation of the character portraits. Each of them winks, blinks, waggles his eyebrows, and opens and closes his mouth more or less continually.

A freaky temple found in the middle of the dungeon.

Sound is also reasonably well done. The town section has a relentless techno track that I'd rather turn off, but once you enter the dungeon, you encounter an evocative soundtrack of howling winds, creaking doors, rattles, and other weird noises. Unfortunately, you soon realize that the track is only about 50 seconds long, and the same sounds just keep looping repeatedly no matter where you are or what you're doing. There are some "ows" to accompany combat and some nice tones that go with spellcasting.

The first level of the game.

I created a party consisting of a human knight, a troll hunter, a dwarf monk, a gnome thief, an elf healer, and a half-elf magician, then spent about 90 minutes mapping the first level of the dungeon. I soon learned that secret doors are clued by little grates in the lower-left corner; clicking on them opens the door.

Note the grate in the lower left.

The "rest party" option, which restores both hit points and magic points, only works if you're standing on a floor tile that's marked by the letter "C"; there was only one of these on the first level. Since there are no torches in the game to run out, no character ages, no wandering enemies, and no food meter, there seems to be no penalty to resting as often and as long as you want.

Chests can hold gold or items and can be trapped. I assume thieves are supposed to be better than others at dodging the traps, but I had about as much luck with that as in Wizardry.

The Level 1 thief was pretty miserable at doors, too, but once I got him to Level 2, the "pick lock" option worked more often.

If I had a wet rag in your position, would I have to heal it as much as I heal you?

When I first arrived at the level, a message told me to "Search for the 'Rune'!" I wasn't sure what that meant, but a little later, I ran into a face that demanded to know what I was searching for. Lacking anything else, I tried "RUNE" and was allowed to pass.

Beyond the face was a button that caused a lot of walls previously closed to open up. I soon encountered a dragon calling himself Elistaire, trapped by the "dark lord's" magic, and requesting a ruby dagger to free himself.

Later, I found the ruby dagger in a treasure chest and brought it back to him. He rewarded me with two chests containing 5,000 gold pieces each, way more money that I can even begin to imagine what to do with right now. The shop in town has only the paltriest selection of goods, and I've already bought everything useful there.

My reward. Taliesin's expression is appropriate.

My characters went from Level 1 to Level 3 during the first dungeon level; each level-up in town is accompanied by an increase in attributes.

The most terrifying training guild imaginable.

Some other quick notes:

  • You take damage walking into walls, just like Dungeon Master.
  • There are four squares surrounding the main dungeon window that seem to indicate active spells. One lights up when you cast the "magic eye" spell; I otherwise don't know what the spell does.
  • You can save and reload anywhere.
  • After experimenting a bit with reloading, it seems that the contents of treasure chests are fixed and predetermined, but the size of enemy parties is not. If you meet 4 worms in one encounter, you might only face 1 or 2 when you reload.
  • Enemies don't seem to respawn; once you've cleared the fixed encounters on a level, the only way to fight more enemies is to move down.
  • Door jambs fully occupy a square, like in Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder.
  • The game is almost entirely mouse-driven, although you can use the arrow keys to move, and you occasionally have to type words.

A large part of the southeast of Level 1 had nothing in it. I don't know if I missed some other secret door dynamic, or if maybe there will be another set of stairs back up from Level 2.

On to the next level!

The game is fast-paced and marginally fun, and I do like what they've done with the visuals, but in general there's a "been there, done that" feel that you often get with diskmag games. In the context of The Ormus Saga, I talked about developers sometimes lacking self-awareness and turning out games of epic length with much less-than-epic content. If the developer of Dungeons of Avalon possesses that self-awareness, the game should wrap up by my six-hour minimum. We'll see.

Time so far: 2 hours
Reload count:

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Antares: Lineare und Langweilig

Emerging into a new area.

The Eriankeller dungeon had culminated in a set of stairs going down. I took them and found myself in a new dungeon called Philgoel-Tunnel. I prepared myself for another 20 x 20 square, but the dungeon turned out to be an extremely long, linear tunnel of several hundred squares with only a few, brief, dead-end branches. Once I realized what was happening, I didn't even bother to map it.

Going through a long tunnel.

As with the previous level, I had to stop frequently and translate (both in-game and out-of-game) several messages found along the way. Incidentally, these messages aren't part of the text extracted and translated by my helpful commenters, so I'm having to use my own resources for them. The one above is clear through beispielsweise, and then I get lost. Something like, "All is relative. Depending on the position of the viewer, for example, a planet may revolve around itself or its sun"?

The others were a little easier. One was simply a road sign indicating 145 steps to Lauree (where I'd come from) and 28 steps to Nomiris. Another said something like "intelligence means knowledge, creativity, and power of deduction." I don't know exactly what to make of a message like that or the one above. Are the developers just throwing some philosophy at us, or are the messages somehow relevant to the plot of the game?

There were lots of encounters in the tunnels, with beasts called things like "lacoons" and "drakans" and "stix." Once again I'm reminded that while Dungeons and Dragons games can get boring and derivative, at least I know what the monsters can do and how much I should fear them. Games that generate their own bestiaries, like The Bard's Tale, Questron, and Antares make it difficult to remember who I should be afraid of.

It looks scary, in any event.

So far, none of the monsters in Antares have been very difficult. They vary only by whether they inflict physical damage or mental damage--and which, in turn, they're most susceptible to, something that my team can remind me with the beraten ("advise") option. Generally, when my attacks hit the creature, it's an instant kill. The only real trouble I've had is when I get swarmed with large groups of enemies and they get to go first in combat (I'm not sure how the game determines this; it varies even with the same foe). Occasionally, I have problems when my party members really need to sleep but I can't find a safe place to do so.

Anyway, the Philgoel-Tunnel eventually emerged in the city of Nomiris, where I got a cut screen with a few paragraphs of text:

The end of the tunnel is reached. You enter a new city: Nomiris, built by the Vunorers for their subjects in the middle of the desert. You feel you are on the right path. The empire of the Vunorers, oppressor of many nations on Kyrion and other planets, lies in front of you. You are sure that something special will happen on Antares V. You are confident that one day you will show the Vunorers the true meaning of fear. The time might still be far away but heroes are not born every day either. 
So some weird stuff here. A few screens ago, my characters were just learning about the different races on the planet, but somehow we now know that the Vunorers are "oppressors of many nations on Kyrion and other planets," and my team has somehow made them our personal enemies. Also, I think this is the first mention of Antares having a numeric suffix.

Nomiris introduced some more sci-fi looking wall textures. The map turned out to be 20 x 20 again, but it changed the rules of the first map. On the first map, some of the "walls" were doors leading into houses, but those houses didn't occupy physical space. Here, they do. Literally every wall in Nomiris has a door, most leading to empty houses, some leading to advertised shops and services, and some leading to hidden shops and services. One of the latter is billed as the "meeting room of the Resistance." This would be the Resistance against the Vunorers, I guess. I upgraded a couple of my party members to Walther PPKs, which I wouldn't have expected to find on alien worlds.

A store run by the Resistance.

One of the doors leads into some kind of transport hub, I guess. Check it out:

The screen is different than any other presented in the game so far. It's interactive, and moving the mouse alternately highlights the "exit" and "ticket" options.  Choosing "ticket" takes me to a screen that says, "Please enter your PIN." I hope this is something that I find in-game and not some kind of copy protection.

One Nomiris door leads to a new dungeon, called Sakral. So far, the game has been very linear in the presentation of its maps, and it appears that isn't going to change.

Since I don't otherwise have a lot to report from this session, I thought I'd discuss combat in more detail, because although it begins with a Bard's Tale base, it has a lot of quirks. You begin with a list of your foes, who can attack in multiple groups of multiple enemies each; I've faced as high as 30.

You start with three options: kämpfen (fight), beraten (advise), and flüchten (flee). Sometimes "advise" isn't there, and I don't know why.

The beginning of combat.

"Advise" takes you to a sub-menu where you can "consider opponents," "negotiate/bribe," "rob opponents," and turn their portraits on and off. If you "consider opponents," some party member will offer a paragraph that both assesses the relative difficulty of the enemy and reminds you what types of attacks are most likely to work. The paragraph only comes up if you've faced the enemy before, though; if not, you just get a sentence to that effect.
Eva says, "Has anyone here seen an opponent?" [I assume that's smack talk.] and adds: "The creature has no idea of psi and special weapons, but it bites. So it is best met with tough weapons."

I haven't negotiated yet--it's a mechanic I almost never use in RPGs--but if you select it, you enter an amount of money to bribe the enemy into going away. Similarly, "rob opponents" has never worked for me; the game just tells me that I'm fehlschlag ("busted").

"The opponent takes the money but still insists on a fight."

Back on the main screen, fleeing of course extricates you from combat at a small cost to your morale. Since successful combats increase morale more than fleeing decreases it, it's not hard to keep it high. If you do get it very low, by fleeing from many combats in a row, party members will refuse to act in combat. I should also note that fleeing doesn't always work, especially against flying monsters or large groups.

Fighting gives several sub-options for each character that you line up one-by-one: attack (with the equipped weapon), use item, "psychological action," defend, cook, and heal. (Cooking and healing require food items and healing items, respectively). "Psychological action" has a further sub-menu with "telekinesis," "hypnosis," "group hypnosis," and "psychological defense." Not every character gets all options; only my ball of energy, who's highly skilled in psychologie, has "group hypnosis," for instance. The psychological attacks, if they work, generally result in immediate enemy deaths, so I guess we can assume that "hypnosis," for instance, is followed by the swift decapitation of the momentarily defenseless creature.

Attack options. This creature responds to physical damage, so I'll probably have everyone angreifen.

"Group hypnosis" seems to be the only attack that targets more than one enemy. There are no multi-enemy physical attacks--at least not yet. Maybe if I get automatic weapons or bombs or something. 

Naturally, some enemies are more responsive to either physical or mental attacks, and some are completely unresponsive to one or the other. If my ball of light is sleeping when I enter combat with an ektoclone, for instance, I really just need to flee because he only response to mental attacks and no one but Cubic is strong enough to make them reliably.

Once you line up the attacks and execute them, messages start appearing indicating what each character and enemy did, and the results. Sometimes enemies go first and sometimes the characters do, and I don't know how the game determines the order. It makes a huge difference, especially when fighting large groups that are either a) going to attack me one-by-one and perhaps kill someone; or b) all get wiped out before they can attack by Cubic's "group hypnosis."

Watching the selected attacks execute is easily the worst part of the game. The descriptions of your attacks and enemies' attacks scroll by so slowly that I want to scream, and unlike other games of this ilk, there's no way to speed up the text in a setting or by hitting a key. I once faced a party of 30 enemies in one stack. I tried to "group hypnotize" them and it didn't work, and the individual messages saying that it didn't work on each enemy in the stack took about 3 minutes to scroll by. Then I had to sit through another 3 minutes of each enemy attacking my characters. This game desperately needs a "quick combat" option.

Oh, come on!

At the end of combat, you're told how many experience points you earned, and so far there seems to be little relationship between the difficulty of combat and the number of points. I'll spend 10 minutes fighting a stack of bugs and get 300 points only to kill a single raptor in my next combat and get 1,500. Some enemies also drop "kaley" (the game's currency) and occasionally weapons, armor, healing items, and food items.

Doesn't "Erfahrungs-Punkte" sound like a rock subgenre?

A worse foe than any enemies on the screen is the food meter, which inches downward relentlessly, no matter what screen you're on. (Both the food meter and the energy meter decrease in real-time, not based on turns.) It even decreases in the middle of combat, and more than once I've had to reload after coming out of a long combat and having a character instantly starve to death. This is apparently why you can "cook" in the middle of a battle. Refreshing the food meter means buying food in a food store (or finding it from slain enemies, which is spotty) at fairly high prices; most of my money goes towards food. Limited inventory space means that you can't carry much food with you. Food stores aren't open at night, and a couple of times I've stood outside the food store, hoping that the sun would come up before the food bar completely depleted.

Burglary would be defensible here.

Other notes:

  • I've been carrying around a "Disk-Man" since the beginning of the game. I finally thought to try to "use" it, and techno music came blaring out of my speakers. That was only fun for about 3 seconds, but it solved the mystery of why there was a "sound on/off" button in a soundless game.

Note the little music icon in the upper-left, too.

  • Leveling up isn't very exciting. It happens completely behind-the-scenes, automatically, and is not, as I thought earlier, accompanied by any increase in attributes or skills. I frankly don't know what it does for you.
  • Based on some experimentation after our discussion last time, I'm convinced that "SW" refers to physical defense and "SB" refers to mental defense. You can equip multiple items to increase the stats (e.g., armor, gloves, and boots), but inventory space is so limited that I've been restricting everyone to one item each.

We've seen a lot of rare and unique elements in Antares, including the variety of character types, the separation of physical and mental "hit points," the cooking system, the ability to assess opponents, the morale meter, the on-screen dangerousness rating, the sleeping system, the translation system, the relative coordinate system, the method for identifying items, and the way that you can have characters speak their current concerns. As I pointed out with Legend of Faerghail, however, just because something is innovative doesn't mean it's good. I can't say I'm really enjoying the combat system (which, lacking spells, offers even fewer tactics than The Bard's Tale) and constantly having to watch food and energy levels during exploration. There simply aren't enough good RPG mechanics to make it an enjoyable experience.
In such cases, you at least hope that the plot is interesting, but so far, it seems ill-defined and juvenile. That leaves me playing for no reason than simply to not quit. I'm not going to quit--at least, not just yet--but we've definitely entered the "more work than fun" stage.
Time so far: 13 hours 
Reload count: 18

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Ormus Saga: Victorious in Spirit (with Final Rating)

I come across Lord Marox's castle, Magnar.

The Ormus Saga
Mike Doran (developer); CP Verlag (publisher) on Golden Disk 64; may have had prior independent distribution
Released either 1991 or 1993. Sources vary.
Date Started: 22 July 2015
Date Ended:
28 July 2015
Total Hours: 13
Reload Count: 12
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5), aside from not being able to win
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Well, after dedicating an absurd amount of time to The Ormus Saga over the last couple of days (time that I've been in New Orleans, I should add, to enhance the absurdity), I have declare defeat. Despite visiting, re-visiting, and re-re-visiting all of the game's locations, I still can't find the bit of information that gets me to the endgame.

On the positive side, I've effectively neutralized Lord Marox even if I haven't been able to kill him. First, I re-conquered all of the cities that he'd captured, and I used my funds to install garrisons that defeat all his attempts to re-take them. Second, I conquered his city and looted everything except what's behind a locked door I can't open. Third, I killed all his advisors. All that's left is an immortal old wizard grousing about how important he is.

Show, not tell, Marox.

The path to winning The Ormus Saga involves visiting the game's various menu towns, cities, cottages, castles, towers, and dungeons and finding a selection of information and artifact items that trigger subsequent stages in the sub-quests. So a visit to Harper Valley results in some information about the location of a treasure chest. Inside the chest is a book that must be gathered with four other books and given to an NPC to get a golden key. The golden key unlocks a door that has a scroll behind it--one of six scrolls you need to get the Amulet of Fire. And so on to the endgame. Naturally, you'd have to be awfully lucky to visit all the locations in the "right" order at the outset, so you have to backtrack a lot. Nothing in the game tells you the number of towns, towers, etc. (one NPC does tell you the number of dungeons), so if you miss one in your explorations, you're in trouble.

Exchanging one quest item for another.

Here's where I'm stuck: to get into the World of the Dead and smash Marox's Gem of Power, I need three amulets. One of them, the Amulet of Wisdom, is in the possession of King Argon, and he'll only give it to someone who brings back his crown, which Marox stole. The crown, meanwhile, is behind a locked door in Marox's castle, and a single NPC line says that I need the "Staff of Marox" to get through the door. I've received no other information about the staff, and I haven't been able to find it anywhere in the game.

Even then, we have the problem of the Amulet of Death, which is supposedly held by Marox's archdaemon servants. I've been told that I need to kill all three of them to get the Amulet. The problem? Marox only has two archdaemon servants. I've killed both, and nothing happens. I even killed some hapless villager, thinking he might be the third in disguise, to no avail. 

In a game where you can dig for treasure in the middle of the ocean, anything is possible.

Thinking I'd missed something, I revisited all the locations, talked to all the NPCs, and searched everything, but nothing new emerged. Googling, I found this one German site that lists all the location coordinates in the game, but I'd already been to all of them. So I don't know what to do barring a visit from the developer or someone who's won the game.

A few other things discovered since the last time:

  • Purchase prices for weapons, armor, troops, and other items are randomized each time you visit the merchant (within a set range, I guess). If you don't like the price, leaving and returning gets you a better deal.
  • Better armor seems to reduce damage rather than the likelihood of a hit. This makes sense to me, but almost all RPGs do it the other way.
  • Last time, I talked about weapons, armor, and shields breaking as scripted events. It's even worse than I thought. The game doesn't care which item breaks; it only knows that the next combat you fight, against whatever foe, #&*$ you, your weapon is going to break. That means that if you're unhappy that your expensive Death Sword just shattered, you can reload, equip some lesser weapon, fight your combat, and have that break instead.

That 22 gold wasn't worth a suit of magic armor.

  • You can "send troops" to any city at any time, and they arrive instantly. A player with low integrity might wait and see what cities Marox attacks, reload, and send troops to the city in anticipation of his arrival.
  • Sometimes the locations of chests aren't delivered in plain coordinates. One required me to solve an algebra equation.
  • If you attack and kill NPCs, really nothing happens except that you can't talk to them any more. Two towns allow you to purchase resurrection for any slain NPCs. There are a handful of NPCs that start the game dead, and you have to pay for the resurrections (or cast the spell yourself) if you want to talk to them.
  • Raising experience levels turned out to be a matter of visiting one of the game's three temples and praying. Leveling up is accompanied by +1 strength, +3 wisdom, and 30 hit points.

Leveling up in a temple.

  • I never did much with spells in the game, save CURAX ("cure poison"). Most of them simply duplicate items in the game, like maps and torches, and the more powerful ones cost a lot of money.
  • A couple of enemies--wizards and demons, at least--can cast spells, which absolutely waste you (like -75% of your hit points) until you find the Mystic Helm, at which point the spells do nothing at all. Annoyingly, enemies who cast a spell still get a physical attack following the spell. It feels like the spell ought to have been their entire turn.

Ha, ha, demon!

In the last post, I had talked about the difficulties associated with methodically exploring a top-down, tile-based game world. This became a lot easier once I bought my first ship. Ships in The Ormus Saga don't work like they do in Ultima, in which you have to remember where you left it. Instead, ships here are just inventory items that you "board" any time you need them and apparently pocket the moment you hit land. Maybe your troops are meant to be portaging them or something. The upside is that once you have a ship, you can explore the map in fixed ribbons, occasionally having to move around a mountain peak.

Boarding a ship near an island temple.

Ships have a damage rating that doesn't have anything to do with actual damage (which doesn't exist; you can't fight ship battles in the game) and seems more like a simple counter of how many times you've boarded them. Every time you board, the condition goes down by 1. Eventually, you have to "repair" them in one of the harbor towns, which costs the same amount whether you're repairing 1 damage or 99 damage.

Let's see how she rates:

  • 2 points for the game world, which mostly clones Ultima. It's not hard to see Mondain in Morax or Mondain's Gem of Immortality in Morax's Gem of Power. I did like some of the little allusions in Ormus, such as the deceased hero Lord Thorn or the Dragonwars, but it never came to much. There might have been more in the original documentation.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There are no choices during creation. You have some traditional experienced-based leveling, but I never really felt that the character was getting more powerful from these level-ups.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. Talking with NPCs is a vital part of the game, but also a bit boring since you have no dialogue options and they're all menu-based, so there's no joy of finding that obscure NPC hidden behind a secret door.

Marox's counselor demonstrates a poor understanding of the term "secret plan."

  • 1 point for encounters and foes. Enemies in the game vary only by icon and hit points. A couple can cast a single damaging spell.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Both combat systems are just silly and offer no tactics whatsoever. The magic system is...there.
  • 3 points for equipment, a decent selection of weapons, armor, and shields of increasing benefit. There are other utility and artifact items that are fun to find.

Some of the special items in my late-game inventory.

  • 4 points for economy, a strong point in the game. With the need to constantly replenish troops, broken equipment, and spells, you never feel too rich. Rewards from exploration and combat seem pitched just about right.
  • 2 points for a main quest of multiple stages, but no side-quests or role-playing.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. I can't forgive the joystick-only interface, especially on a game designed for only one platform. The graphics are poor even for an Ultima clone, and there's no sound at all.
  • 1 point for gameplay. It gets that bit of credit for non-linearity, but the game is way too long for the experience that it offers.
I've declined to subtract points for the crashes and freezes just because I think those are more likely emulator issues than original programming issues. That gives a final score of 21, which seems a bit high to me, but then again, I did play it for 6 hours straight the other night, so it must have some appeal. The more important thing is that it's 13 points lower than the original Ultima from 10 years prior.

Online databases offer contradictory information about the game, and it's unclear where they're getting all of it. For instance, most sources give 1991 as the release data, but the only sure mechanism of publication that I've found is the August 1993 issue of Golden Disk 64. It's possible that the developer released it through independent channels before the diskmag release.

Everyone seems to agree that Mike Doran wrote the game, but some sources give a co-developer as Andrea Metzner. I haven't been able to track down either of them. I don't even know what nationality they are. The more important news from the online databases is that The Ormus Saga is actually a remake: Doran's first game seems to have been Ormus (1990), a more primitive, all-text version of The Ormus Saga. It offers dialogue via keywords, as in Ultima IV, rather than just an information dump. In the same way, Ormus II (1991) seems to be an earlier all-text version of The Ormus Saga II. There are other games, for which I've only seen pictures of the box, called Stories of Beryland I and II; I have no idea what the dates are on these, but they may just be compilations of the Ormus games.

Exploring Remfield in the original Ormus (1990).

I admire Doran's dedication to developing his setting, but I can't claim to be overly enamored with the result. I give a pass to independent games for not featuring the same quality of graphics and sound as their commercial counterparts, but there's less of an excuse for such primitive gameplay. The thing I expect most from independent games--from any games, really--is a sense of self-awareness. If you can only program menu towns (hell, menu dungeons), primitive combat, and half a dozen monster icons, fine--but you don't have a 10+ hour game. You have a 4-hour game. Don't give me Ultima I's complexity (less than that, really) and Ultima V's size and length. John Carmack is a good example of a developer who had this self-awareness and designed games (Shadowforge, Wraith, Dark Designs) that were about the right length, difficulty, and complexity given what he was able to program. The developers of Dragon Sword and The Ormus Saga are something of the opposite.

For this reason, I can't say that I really "look forward" to The Ormus Saga II: Guild of Death (1993) or The Ormus Saga III: The Final Chapter (1994), but it's clear that they are more advanced games (they seem to have explorable towns, at least), so in that sense I do look forward to seeing how the games progress. In the meantime, perhaps someone will come along and tell me what I missed to win this one.

Time to devote myself entirely to Antares for a while.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Ormus Saga: Subtitle

Liberating the land one city at a time. This shot shows several types of the game's terrain.
Exploring Beryland has made me wonder how we ever mapped effectively in top-down, tile-based games--or, more to the point, how we ensured that we didn't overlook any important locations. The Ultima games came with maps (and perhaps Ormus did, too, in the original publications) that helped. When I replayed Ultima IV, V, and VI for this blog, I already remembered the basic geography of Britannia; I can't remember what it was like to explore the land as a blank slate. Ultima II was based on Earth geography, so it was easy to find your way around. Ultima was perhaps the most confusing of the games, with all of its islands, but before long you could buy an air car and explore the entire world in a search pattern.

Lacking any of these things in The Ormus Saga, I wasn't sure how to approach mapping and exploration, especially since I kept getting turned around by rivers and mountain ranges. I started mapping it in Excel, but I gave up when I realized it would take far longer than the game is worth. I could have done just some rough sketches on paper or something, but my soul resists the imprecision of such an approach.

A tiny portion of the game world.

So I'm making do with half-measures. Once I had enough funds for some "magic maps," I discovered that they provide both coordinates and your rough position in an outline of the overall game world. If I just record the coordinates of cities and dungeons I find, I can use the maps to find my way to most places. All that's left is a mechanism of systematic exploration that ensures you don't overlook any important cities, dungeons, towns, temples, and castles.

Given relative positions, I'm guessing the game is 256 x 256 squares.

The game gets its horizontal coordinates backwards, incidentally. It records all the locations in the game as tile positions "north" and "west." But by "west," it really means "east." If you start at 50N, 100W and move two spaces to the east, you'll be at 50N, 102W. This caused a lot of confusion for a while as I tried to find treasures.

Technologically, playing The Ormus Saga has also been very frustrating. The game freezes about 1 in every 8 times that it has to access the disk, and it has to access the disk a lot--to load new tile blocks, to enter and exit locations, to enter and exit combat, to activate menu items, and so forth. Fortunately, the VICE emulator allows the creation of a save state with just an ALT-S, so I'm in the habit of hitting that key combination every 20-30 seconds, and then ALT-L to reload when the game inevitably freezes. Unfortunately, I was done in by another problem that I don't understand. Maybe one of you who's more proficient with the technology can help me with this. I've been using save states for various emulators for years now, and I often find that while the save state will load without any problems during the same emulation session that created it, if I close the emulator and re-start it, the save state freezes or crashes upon re-loading. Why does this happen? Why doesn't it always happen?

In any event, I had to learn the hard way to use save states during most of the gameplay, but use the game's own save feature before closing out of a session. With that, I've been able to make a little progress.

See that dungeon in the mountains south of me? If I hadn't been mapping every tile, I probably would have overlooked it.
To recap, The Ormus Saga is a limited Ultima clone that takes place in Beryland. The kingdom is being threatened by the Ormus Cult, which has already taken over a bunch of cities and can, in the course of gameplay, take over more, including the king's castle, which immediately ends the game. You play a generic warleader who has to both develop his own skills and inventory as in a typical RPG, but also raise armies to re-capture the towns taken by the cult.

This is particularly important because each town has a different selection of shops, and only certain towns sell the items you need to progress in the game.

I can't take advantage of this city's services until I liberate it.

Once I realized that the game starts in the southwest of Beryland, I began exploring the south coast heading east. The first city I discovered, Dillingston, was occupied by the Cult. So was the next, Dalewood. Finally, I found one that wasn't, called Hillstone, followed by a Temple of Mar, and a city called Harper Valley.

All the game's towns are menu towns, and each offers the ability to search a list of doors, chests, bookcases, baskets, and other receptacles that in a more elaborate game you'd find by actually wandering around the town. Many are locked (and it took me a while to find a town that sells keys), but between the opening city and the three unoccupied ones, I found enough treasure to fund an army of around 150 troops. This allowed me to besiege and take over Dillingston and Dalewood.

The heroic general loots the city.

Between the visited cities, I'd also collected lore on a number of buried treasures, so I set out to find some. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that buried treasure chests require magic keys to open, and I hadn't yet found a city that sold them.

How disappointing after all that digging.

During these explorations, I was surprised at how few wandering monsters I discovered. In 4 hours of gameplay, I fought maybe 10 total combats. For this reason, I still haven't gotten off Level 1. I don't know how many experience points it takes. You start the game with 210, and I'm up to 492 now, but nothing so far.

Because of the relative scarcity of monsters, I was looking forward to my first dungeon exploration. I saw one in the mountains early in the game, but I needed to wait until I found a city that sells a "climbing tool" to access it. When I found a shop selling the tools in Dalewood, I eagerly returned to the dungeon, prepared to fire up a torch, entered it, and...

This is a "dungeon."

Yep, dungeons in this game are just menus, like cities. Despite "conversation" and "attack enemy" options, neither of the two dungeons I've "explored" have had anyone to talk to or attack. The only purpose to them is to search for the same types of chests and other receptacles that you can find in towns. As in towns, many of them require keys or magic keys.

Last time, I tried to describe combat, but I don't think I made it sound as stupid as it is. Even though you can see your character icon and various enemy icons, it's not a battlefield map like in Ultima IV or V. Neither you nor the enemies ever move from the starting position. When you attack, you aim at a column of enemies, and your attack always goes to the first enemy in that column--basically, it's like selecting your target from a list. Phantasie used the same approach, with graphics that are just for show rather than any kind of tactics.

Note that the "battlefield" with these sea monsters still looks like grass.

The one creative element here is the use of the "Troop Attack" in combat. If you select that, you choose an enemy to target just like a regular attack. But when the enemies retaliate, they attack your troops rather than you. In that sense, troops are like extra hit points in combat.

These demons are too dangerous to fight on my own. I use my troops to whittle them down. Some hero, huh?

If your troops make the kill, you don't get any experience, so I learned that what to do in tough combats is let your troops attack a few times to wear the enemy down, then finish him off with a character attack. It's not always easy to estimate how many hits it's going to take to kill a foe, however.

In city combats, there's no individual attack option. The troops are all you have. You and the enemy exchange blows, slowly whittling down your troops, until only one side is left. There are no tactics, no spells, and the conclusion is foregone from the beginning, but the game still forces you to fire back and forth for 10 minutes instead of just offering a way to reach the inevitable conclusion with a single button.

Despite the inevitability of my victory, I still have to aim, fire, and kill each of the enemy troops one by one. It's even worse than it looks, because the maximum number the game displays at a time is 14 troops, so there might be 4 or 5 "underneath" each icon, and I have to attack it multiple times.

You don't get any treasure or individual experience for winning city battles, and even a winning one can easily cost 70 or 80 troops, which cost around 400 gold pieces to hire in the first place. Thus, your accumulated gold disappears quickly, especially since the enemy keeps re-conquering cities you've already liberated.

The enemy attacks a town in which the garrison is apparently one guy. I haven't figured out what the shields behind the troops mean. You can attack and eliminate them in combat.

Towards the end of this session, I discovered the king's castle, which is just another menu town. Each city, town, and castle has a selection of 4-6 menu NPCs to talk with. Their names are mostly normal ones (e.g., Jonathan, Ben, Dan, Tina)--probably the developer's friends--though occasionally rendered backwards (e.g., Nomis, Ekim). From them, I've discovered a bit of the game world's lore and quests. A summary:

  • The Ormus Cult is led by an evil wizard named Lord Marox. He lies on an island called Black Isle.
  • Lord Marox created a Gem of Power with the help of the god of the World of the Dead. The Gem makes Marox immortal, and it must be destroyed. This plot point occurs in no other game I know.
  • The king's name is Argon. Lord Marox used to be a member of his royal council, and when he defected, he stole the king's crown. Getting the crown back is a step in the game's main quest.

Visiting the king. Not enough games go to the periodic table for their character names.

  • The people talk of a historic event called the "dragonwars." During these wars, a city called Ghoul was destroyed. Four ancient books, scattered across the land, hold some secret to do with Ghoul. A priest named Carlos in Monter Bay (I haven't found it yet) is searching for these books.
  • A large black dragon has recently returned to the eastern swamps.
  • The dwarves in the city of Dillingston are mourning for a wizard named Thorn. NPCs have mentioned him several times as an old friend of King Argon.
  • Marox is trying to enter the World of the Dead. This requires a holy word of 7 letters (NPCs have already given me three) plus an artifact called a Trigonom, which is a combination of three amulets forged by the gods. Marox already has the Amulet of Death. The Amulet of Wisdom is locked up in Argon's castle. The elves in Elvenstone may know the hiding place of the third.

From the NPC discussions, it's become clear that solving a number of side-quests, or sub-quests, is going to be about finding the right artifacts and quest items in miscellaneous dungeon treasure chests. For instance, I found some kind of magic gemstone in a dungeon near the king's castle. Some will undoubtedly come from buried treasure chests.

Towards the end of this session, I conquered the city of Coldwater and finally found a shop selling magic keys. With one in my possession, I dug up one of the fabled treasure chests and found a pretty good haul. Now that I can afford both keys and magic keys, I need to re-explore all the cities and dungeons I've already passed to collect their treasures.

At last! I only have about a dozen more to find, now.

Some other notes:

  • Hit points regenerate very slowly, like 1 in every 30 or 40 moves. Resting in towns is the only viable way to get healed on a regular basis.
  • Food depletes so slowly you barely notice it. I have to buy a few more rations maybe once every hour of gameplay.
  • When you find treasures, you often find gold nuggets and jewels. These sell for 17 gold pieces and 25 gold pieces, respectively, in any city. Annoyingly, you have to sell them individually by re-selecting "sell nuggets" and "sell jewels" multiple times in the "sell" menu and saying "yes" to the buyer's offer. Similarly, you have to buy troops 6 at a time instead of just plugging in the number you want.

Repeat 10 times to get another 60.

  • Just as in Ultima IV and onward, walking through swamp carries a risk of poisoning the character, requiring a "CURAX" spell or trip to a healer.
  • There are multiple levels of weapons, armor, and shields, but each town might only sell 2 or 3 types. You have to study costs to know which is "better," since there's no visible armor class on the screen.

Above dragon shields, found in other towns, are black shields and magic shields.

  • Weapons and armor occasionally break in combat. This doesn't actually happen in combat, but you're told about it in the post-combat screen. These seem to be scripted and timed events. If a sword breaks in one combat, you can reload, explore for a while, fight a different combat, and see the sword break there. It will break even if you don't use it during the combat (i.e., if you have the troops do all the fighting).
  • Escaping combat doesn't make an enemy go away, but it might make the game recalculate his numbers. If you get attacked by an enemy and don't like the odds, you can escape and re-engage, and you might find yourself facing a smaller number.

This combat seems a little unfair at my level, but if I exit and return, I might face only 1 or 2.
  • I still haven't found any reason to attack NPCs in the towns.
  • Spells are actually inventory items, like in Ultima I. That's why they kept failing when I tried to cast them. I've only found them sold in one town (and even then, only a couple of them), and received them as treasure from one chest.
  • With all the dungeons as menus, there seems to be no reason for torches except to illuminate a larger area when night falls.
  • There are no keyboard commands in the game--everything is by joystick--but the names and order of the commands (attack enemy, board ship, cast spell, dig, enter, etc.) suggest that the developer intended to map them to the keyboard and never got around to it.

I think I've experienced most of what the game has to offer at this point. It's not torture to play it or anything, but it's a bit boring even in its innovations, and a lot of its mechanics seem to be geared towards making it artificially long. Ultima was a better and more exciting game 10 years prior. I'll probably keep playing to avoid bailing on two games in a row, but not if I experience any more technical glitches.

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 7 (not counting after freezes)