Thursday, September 11, 2014

Captive: Final Rating

Antony Crowther (designer), Mindscape (publisher)
Released 1990 for Amiga and Atari ST; 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 10 August 2014
Date Ended: 8 September 2014
Total Hours: 42
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Even bad games often have an enjoyable "hook." With Captive, for me, it was the satisfying combination of a burst of blood and an audible clack that accompanies each enemy's death. You get no indication of hit points or damage levels until an enemy dies, so it's almost always something of a surprise when it happens, especially when you've just spent a few minutes engaging the foe in the deadly side-step-turn dance in which one mistyped key can be fatal.

It's no secret that I didn't care for Captive--didn't hate it, just didn't care for it--but there are several ways in which I admire the game, starting with the one above. In few games is seeing an enemy die so satisfying. Another is in the programming that must have gone into the procedural dungeon creation. While this results in dungeon layouts that are overly linear and a bit bland, it's still pretty cool. The complex rules that must have gone into the procedure--no shops too soon, release buttons must always follow closing walls, enemies with clipboards must always precede computers or puzzle doors--execute flawlessly.

The procedural generation also results in a few oddities, however. First, there is no "final battle" in each base--no "big bad" or unique enemy. Given how difficult I found the combats, this was somewhat merciful but also somewhat bland from a story perspective. As we've discussed in the comments, it also means that the puzzles can only be of the most rote sort, such as password-protected computers preceded with clipboards that tell you the password. When generating random dungeons, it's harder (impossible?) to create crafted puzzles that require complex maneuvering, testing, or logical inference, such as Dungeon Master's pressure-plate puzzles or Might & Magic's wall messages.

The puzzles get slightly more complicated as the game goes on, but they always involve a clipboard that tells you the exact answer.
Captive is rightly famous for being the game that never ends. When you finish each mission, you're given the option to continue to the next one, and the whole process starts over. Technically, this process does have an "end," but even the low mission limit on the PC version (256) would take thousands of hours to complete--I estimate about three times as long as every other game I've played as part of this blog--and I would be filled with despair if anyone told me they'd done that. Since your droids continue to get better while the enemy doesn't (you encounter every enemy type in the first mission), it must eventually get boring.

I've been criticized for playing Captive "wrong," by not upgrading weapons fast enough. I maintain that taking this approach is hampered by a) always needing to keep enough cash to repair droids; b) the fact that only like one shop in each base sells weapons; and c) the game documentation not making it clear that the next class of weapons is always a good thing (although this can admittedly be determined with the "AG Scan" device). Contrast this with, say, Fallout: New Vegas, where a player using a handgun at a high skill is going to be more effective than a player using a machine gun at a low skill. 

But I also allow that my own RPG tendencies did hamper my progress. For instance, I have an aversion to purchasing equipment in a game that offers it for free. It's much more satisfying to loot a helm +2 from a dead orc captain than to purchase it in a shop. Since Captive offers copious found melee weapons, super balls, and handguns until all but the final levels, I tended to equip those rather than purchase expensive-but-better weapons in the stores. I also have a weird tendency to try to diversify the types of weapons I equip, perhaps ingrained by RPGs where enemies have weaknesses to different weapon types (which is not the case in Captive). Fallout: New Vegas offers the ability to break down ammo and use the resulting powder and led to reload empty cartridges, meaning that if you want to go through the entire game with just a .45 pistol, you can still make use of the other handgun ammo that you find. Despite this, I insist on toting around a weapon that makes use of every type of ammo in the game, switching between them as I run out, ensuring that eventually I'll be taking on a swarm of deathclaws with a BB gun--a situation not so different than showing up in the final levels of Captive with magnums. Even after I understood how Captive worked, I insisted on replacing my superior laser pistols with "zlot" shotguns that I'd found, just to diversify my weapon selection.

Note that in this late game shot, I've replaced two of my lasers with inferior "zlot" shotguns just because, I don't know, they were free.
Nonetheless, even doing everything "right," I'd have to ding the game a bit for difficulty. Enemies encountered on the final levels are capable of blasting the droids to scrap, in just a couple of shots, even with upgraded parts and all shields blazing. Repairing droids is so expensive that you're essentially forced to play like a jackass--reloading every time you take significant damage, not just when you die--so you don't go broke and lack the ability to purchase the weapons and ammo that are so important. Yes, pushing through the final base with no weapons until I finally found a shop was satisfying, but it was one moment of satisfaction after endless hours of frustration.

Ultimately, my ambivalent feelings about Captive boil down to it not having enough of the elements that I truly enjoy about RPGs, something that I think will be reflected in the GIMLET:

1. Game World. A missed opportunity. Captive is nominally a sci-fi game that takes place in space, but it really feels more like a standard high fantasy game with sci-fi textures (the same way that Don't Go Alone felt like a standard fantasy game with horror textures). The framing story is essentially unnecessary and its conclusion confusing and uninteresting. In this, I must admit, it captures the spirit of other Dungeon Master clones perfectly. Score: 3. 

The space parts of the game were just time-fillers. They didn't in any way seem to be about traveling through space.

2. Character Creation and Development. "Creation" is limited to assigning names to the droids, which oddly determines their starting attributes. "Development" throughout the game is unsophisticated but still somewhat satisfying, as you spend experience points on skills and get random attribute increases every time you do so. Skill levels not only increase proficiency but unlock new weapons and armor.  It was nice to let a couple hours go by and suddenly realize I had 8,000 experience points to spend. On the downside, there are absolutely no role-playing opportunities, and development stalls in the last couple of bases, when you get paltry rewards for slaying difficult creatures and each new skill purchase costs thousands of points. Score: 4.

One character towards the game's end. I never got to use a "spaygun," and I'm not sure I even want to know what it does.

3. NPC Interaction. There are, alas, no NPCs. Turning the shopkeepers into NPCs would have significantly improved the game, as I'll discuss below. Score: 0.

4. Encounters and Foes. Captive has a variety of foes original to the game, though some clearly based on pop-culture references like Go-bots, Robocop, and Critters. Moreover, they are well-distinguished in power and attributes, such as whether they can shoot missile weapons, what types of damage they do (fire vs. physical), the speed they move, their relative hit points, and whether they can fly. These various characteristics determine the strategies you need to employ to defeat them, which is as it should be. There are no other satisfying "encounters" in the game, with all of its "puzzles" somewhat sophomoric and no role-playing choices. Some level of respawning would also have been welcome, to compensate for poor skill and money selections. Score: 4.

Didn't quite close that door fast enough.
5. Magic and Combat. I have to give Captive a lot of credit for being among a small number of games in which the player really makes use of the physical environment in combat. Between leading enemies in a "fighting retreat" along long corridors, smashing them with doors, laying mines, tricking them into shooting each other, freezing them in place by flooding rooms, and a variety of other tactics I outlined a few days ago, there are a lot of ways for the under-equipped player to (very slowly) whittle down the enemies. I maintain that for most of the game, you essentially must do these things to avoid taking too much damage.

The rest of combat was a little less interesting to me. The game offers Dungeon Master's basic mechanics but without the special attacks and magic system that allowed you to fine-tune attacks and defenses. And in general, I don't like real-time combat unless it's a bit more forgiving. I'm old and clumsy. Score: 5.

6. Equipment. In my opinion, the game's best category. Between weapons, armor (droid parts), devices and optics with special uses, cameras, and mines, you have a lot of options for outfitting characters. This game is (I think) tied with The Keys to Maramon to offer the first mines in RPG history, and I don't recall any previous game offering something as sophisticated as cameras that let you spy on what's happening in other parts of the dungeon--and to detonate them when an enemy approaches. I also liked that you could find limited-use versions of most weapons ("zlots") throughout the game. Considerations of weight (more weight saps more power) and item damage also added to the game's strategy.

Captive leaves it entirely up to the player to figure out what each of the items does and how it works. For instance, you have to purchase and test each "dev-scape" and "optic" to figure out its use, and even then it can be somewhat obscure (does the "Power Sapper" do anything but drain power?). To understand damage levels of each weapon, you have to run the "AG Scan" optic. I don't know any way to determine what ammo each weapon uses without just buying it and trying to reload. While in other games, I might appreciate the extra challenge afforded by all this experimentation, I generally felt Captive was challenging enough. Score: 6.

A late-game inventory illustrates some of the game's diverse equipment, including a dagger, a rifle, a shield, a die (to figure out door combinations), several clipboards with passwords, a battery, gold, three cameras, and several types of melee weapons and handguns.

7. Economy. Well, unlike many games, gold in Captive--as nonsensical as it is--remains valuable all the way to the end of the game, what with the constant need for upgrades, repairs, and ammo-refills. Because I was always on the verge of being broke, I didn't even fully experience all of the devices, weapons, and parts the game had to offer--perhaps the most compelling reason to continue on to Mission #2. Other than that, the economy isn't very sophisticated, and I didn't care for the fact that it was a closed system (since there are no random encounters), nor that you couldn't sell back unneeded ammo or zlots. Score: 5.

8. Quests. The game has a main quest, but it's so bereft of any real story or information that it's hard to regard it as much of anything. Even the final "choice"--whether to end the game with Trill's liberation or let him be re-captured and go on another mission--doesn't really make any sense thematically. No side-quests, no role-playing, not even the satisfaction of a real ending. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Inputs. I found the graphics reasonably good for the era--certainly above the "not distractingly bad" threshold I set for full score. Sound is about as good as you might expect for the era, and I definitely found gameplay enhanced with the sound turned on. I liked that the game had redundant mouse/keyboard controls for most things; didn't like that it didn't have keyboard controls for combat actions. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. I would characterize it as very linear, overly hard, not very replayable, and too long even for the first mission. The ability to keep playing as long as you want is, I suppose, a "good" thing if you like the game, but for me every base offers the same bland experience punctuated with the occasional thrill of dispatching a particularly difficult foe. This is not enough to sustain the 10 bases that the first mission requires, let alone unlimited additional missions. Score: 2.

The final score of 36 puts it just above my "recommended" threshold. I think Captive could have elevated itself to something I truly enjoyed with just a little additional effort, such as a few dialogue options with the shopkeepers offering tips on equipment and foes, a few fixed encounters interspersed with the procedural dungeon creation (would it have been so hard to plug them in for the first mission, at least?), maybe a text screen at the end of each mission, or with each computer hack, that revealed a bit more about Trill and his crimes. Heck, if this story had been any good, I might have been tempted to go on to the second mission just to continue fleshing it out.

Players that don't care much about plots, NPCs, and role-playing choices would probably scale the score up to an equivalent of a 50. I understand if you're one of those players, and I admit the game's mechanics are good for what it does, but even you have to admit that a game purely about mechanics is not what people generally think about when you say "RPG."

MobyGames's review round-up shows that contemporary reviews were all over the place, ranging from 44/100 to 94/100, but each notes its Dungeon Master heritage and suggest that the game appeals most to fans of Dungeon Master-style games, with which I agree if what you like most about Dungeon Master is the real-time combat mechanics.

I always try, often unsuccessfully, to separate my personal enjoyment of a game from my admiration of the development. I didn't like Keef the Thief much, but I thought it was an impressive effort for a couple of teenaged developers. In this case, I think 25-year-old author Antony Crowther deserves a lot of credit for designing the game by himself (apparently after his brother, a Dungeon Master fan, suggested it) in an era in which most single-developer games feel like throwbacks to the early 1980s.

Crowther had been building up experience prior to Captive, as a developer of minor arcade-style games like Bat Attack (1983) and Zig-Zag (1987) and a programmer on several Starlight Software titles like Deathscape (1987) and Dogfight 2187 (1987). Since Captive, he's continued to be active in the gaming field, working most recently for Electronic Arts on the Harry Potter series. His LinkedIn profile currently shows him as a "Technical Consultant" at Sumo Digital, a UK-based game company that seems to specialize in board, sports, and fitness games.

In 1993, while still working for Mindscape, Crowther wrote Liberation: Captive II with a much bigger team. Judging by the screenshots, its a very different game, preserving some of the first game's elements (like a party of four droids and associated equipment) but set in a much less linear world and featuring an actual story. I look forward to giving it a try. We'll encounter Crowther again before then, however, with Knightmare (1991), based on a British children's show, which appears to be yet another Dungeon Master clone but with a simpler interface than Captive.

For now I return to Secret of the Silver Blades, a game so different from Captive that we must marvel that they're considered part of the same genre.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Captive: Won!

Guess what option I chose?

When I last posted on Captive, I was in the space station where Trill was being held, but I had run out of ammunition and all my melee weapons had broken, leaving me with nothing but bare fists. Since the nasty creatures in the base require hundreds of bare-fisted blows to perish, techniques like ladder-scumming and the old side-step-turn tactic were out of the question. I had announced my intention to reload from the previous base and stock up on more ammo before attempting the space station again.

Well, I didn't do that. It was probably the best idea, but I just couldn't bring myself to cover all the territory again. Instead, I settled in for a long process of killing enemies with electric bolts. I tried to master the art of luring the station's behemoths one-by-one to a 4x4 area with a power outlet, then dispatching them via the side-step-turn method. Electric bolts significantly under-perform even the weakest guns, so each enemy took 5-10 minutes to die--assuming I didn't make a mistake during the process, which was rare. I'm not very good at anything requiring manual dexterity, and inevitably I'd turn when I meant to side-step or vice versa. This would lead to a period of momentary confusion in which I'd try to figure out what happened, during which the enemy inevitably shot my droids to rubble.

The last base made me kill what felt like a hundred of these damned things.

I was also able to employ the "friendly fire" method in a few places, lining up enemies behind closed doors and letting them blast each other. There were a few areas where I could shoot at foes across obstacles, like fire.

Of course, they were shooting at me, too.

Avoiding areas with pressure plates that closed the walls behind me, I slowly penetrated the station. When I finally found a shop, it was like finding an oasis in the Sahara. Although the shop didn't sell any of the "cannons" that would make use of that skill, it did sell refills for my handguns and laser guns. I also bought a large supply of mines.

The damaged, empty-handed droids encounter the most welcome sight in the world.

With a healthy stockpile of ammo, the base became much easier, though it never became "easy." There were an absurd number of enemies, almost all capable of killing at least one droid in one shot, shield or no shield. I'd push a wall and open up an area with dozens of them. I'd have to let them come to me one at a time and fight battles of firing retreats. I'd finally clear them out, open up another door, and face dozens more. All told, the space station took almost 8 hours to complete. 

Finally healed, and loaded up with guns and ammo.

The station ended up being indistinguishable from any other base. It had a generator room, for instance, even though blowing up the station presumably kills Trill and ends the game. It had a computer that delivered a probe even though I didn't need any more for this mission.

The presence of the generators is a mystery. I assume the procedural method used to create each base insists on putting a generator room in every one.

I never did find a shop that sold cannons, but I did eventually find one that sold lasers, so I outfitted my entire party with laser guns and plenty of ammo, dumping the handguns and melee weapons that had filled non-laser slots until then. Though not the best weapons in the game, they worked well enough.

After an endless series of combinations, doors, passwords, button puzzles, and pattern puzzles, I finally found a combination door like those at the entrances to the bases. Since I knew I wasn't at the entrance, I figured Trill must be behind it, and I was right.

Trill rises from his chair as I enter his cell.

At first, I decided to just kill Trill and see what happened. He died in a single shot and the game immediately ended with the note that "Droid's are to be wasted!" which I don't know what it means. I assume something similar happens if you blow up the station's generators, but I didn't try it.

If you walk up to him instead of killing him, you get the end game message: "Amendment to the legend of Trill: A small party of four droids brutally outwitted the entire federation force, and succeeded in freeing the Creator of Evil.."

If this is supposed to be a twist of some sort, the game really doesn't offer enough information for it to sink in. Granted, Trill's crimes were unspecified in the game's back story. All we know is that he was hoping for community service and got sentenced to 250 years in suspended animation. That seems harsh for most crimes but somewhat mild for being the Creator of Evil, whatever that means.

Trill is transferred to another facility.

At this point, the player has the option to "Call it a Day" or "Let Battle Commence," the latter of which sees Trill re-captured by one of the station's behemoths and stuck on a new space station. The droids end up back in space in "Mission 2" with a new set of 10 bases to explore and blow up. If you beat Mission 2, from what I understand you get the same options and can continue on to Mission 3. Eventually, a bug breaks the game in Mission 2315, and in the DOS version, it loops back to Mission 1 after Mission 256. It's impossible for me to imagine any player getting up to either of these numbers. I'm curious what the highest documented mission actually is.

I naturally chose to call it a day, but I can see the appeal of continuing if you actually like the game. When I ended, I had only just received the "Sprayguns" skill and didn't have the chance to use the "Cannon" skill at all. There were several orders of better droid parts that I never purchased. There was, in short, lots of room for continued character development, although at some point the challenge must plateau and descend, once the droids have the best parts and all skills at 24.

I never did find myself really "liking" Captive. It had moments of exhilaration, sure, when tough enemies finally burst into sprays of blood, or when I came upon a much-needed store or power outlet when I was just about to give up all hope. But these are "rewards" in the same way a bully "rewards" you when he stops beating you, or the same way a piece of bread is a "reward" when you're about to die of hunger. You may appreciate them, but it's much better not to be in those situations in the first place. In that sense, I feel less like I "won" Captive and more like I just got paroled from it.

A short post for a long gameplay session. GIMLET coming up.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Game 163: Secret of the Silver Blades (1990)

When the Gold Box engine was created for Pool of Radiance in 1988, it was perhaps the best RPG engine that could exist at the time, in particular for the specific adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons rules. Its primary rival in my mind is Ultima V, which is better for world-exploration and NPC interaction, but nothing through 1990 exceeds the Gold Box for combat. Little in the 26 years since has exceeded the Gold Box for combat, and I honestly wouldn't mind if the greatest hits of 2000s and 2010s regaled us with their graphics and sound during the exploration phase but tripped over to the familiar oblique angle and customizable icons of Pool of Radiance for the combat engine.

I've said several times--and I probably sound like an old man--that my primary problem with modern games is that I don't understand what's happening half the time in combat. My wife was just recently joking that my final words will probably be, "What?! Why did I just die?!" because she hears me shout it so often from both my couch and my office chair. I never shout that in a Gold Box game. The system so perfectly incorporates physical attacks, ranged attacks, spellcasting, item use, and skill use in a top-down, carefully-controlled environment that not only do I know why I died, I can usually see it coming and identify what steps I could have taken to prevent it.

More than any other RPG engine of the era, and more than only a few since, the Gold Box encourages complex tactics and strategy in combat. You rarely just reload, try again, and hope for better dice this time. Instead, you learn about your foes' strengths and weaknesses and respond accordingly. It's like chess in an RPG.

The Gold Box games are also the only ones in which I have strong memories of individual combats.

Other fans have reacted similarly, which is why the Gold Box ended up being such a long-lived engine. This is the fifth Gold Box game in my chronology, after Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Champions of Krynn, and Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, and within the next three years, we're going to have eight or nine more.

The other day, a commenter asked me if I'd gotten tired of it yet. The answer is no, not yet, partly because I love the engine, and partly because I'm playing so many other games in between Gold Box titles. But while I'm not "tired" yet, it does irk me how few improvements we saw to the engine over the years. Adding a "Fix" command and improving targeting in combat were nice upgrades, but for the most part, the weaknesses of the engine in Pool of Radiance remain weaknesses throughout the series; among them are bland, featureless hallways; encounters that spring up suddenly when you walk into their squares; poor options for NPC interaction and dialogue; and the continued use of a paper "adventurer's journal" long past the point at which it was necessary. In some ways, the engine actually degraded between titles: neither Curse nor Secrets offer the same overworld exploration as Pool. And while it works for the adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons rules, I don't think it worked well at all in the Buck Rogers setting, where the lack of magic removes half the point of the combat engine.

In any event, it's been nine months since I've played a Gold Box game, a year since I played a D&D Gold Box game, and damn near two years since we heard from this little party from Phlan, so I'm certainly going into Secret of the Silver Blades in a good mood. I say this despite knowing that many people consider Secret the low point of the Gold Box titles, or at least the four-game Forgotten Realms series. I don't  know what their specific objections are, and I don't yet want to know. When I start a new game, I usually do a search of the comments in all previous games to get a preview, but I'm going to avoid doing that here so as not to poison my perspective. (I should mention that I have played Secret before, maybe 15-17 years ago, but all I remember is a little bit of the back story.)

In Pool of Radiance, the Level 1 party started out, grew in power, and restored the ancient Moonsea-side city of Phlan through a series of quests culminating in the defeat of Tyranthraxus, an ancient evil lately stirring up trouble. In Curse of the Azure Bonds, the moderately-powerful party headed to the Dalelands, south of the Moonsea, to investigate rumors about a princess of Cormyr. They got caught up in some factional strife when they were captured and branded by five evil organizations. One by one, they defeated the holders of their bonds, the last of whom once again turned out to be Tyranthraxus.

Secret of the Silver Blades starts with the party having "grown bored with peace and yearn[ing] for adventure." They need yearn only a short time. To the northeast of the Moonsea, somewhere in the Dragonspine Mountains (you could visit part of them in Pool), the residents of the mining town of New Verdigris are facing a threat. Dumping chests of gems into their Well of Knowledge, they wish for "champions to defeat the evil that infests our mine." The party is suddenly yanked from wherever they are, flown through the air--catching a glimpse of New Verdigris's glacier and a castle embedded in the middle on the way--and deposited, naked and unconscious, on the streets of the city. This part of the back story is manifestly intended to explain why the party has none of their equipment from Curse; otherwise, the game could have just started with them responding to a request for assistance and riding into town like normal people.

When the party finally wakes up, the mayor of New Verdigris explains what's happening: three months ago, the miners delved too greedily and too deep, and "monsters boiled forth" from a new shaft. The monsters first infested the mines, then the ruins near the mines, and may soon take over the city itself. "You must save us," the mayor concludes, "before we are overwhelmed."

From the demo screen. What horrible character names.
So far, the back story isn't too bad. I always prefer these modest "save a city" quests to those where I have to stop someone from world domination. Of course, the former can easily turn into the latter, as we saw with Neverwinter Nights. Still, for now the main quest has something of the feeling of Pool of Radiance.

I imported my winning team from Curse of the Azure Bonds. It consists of:

  • Bolingbroke, a lawful good male human paladin of Level 10.
  • Karnov, a true neutral male dwarf fighter (Level 9)/thief (Level 11). He won't be able to progress any more in fighter levels.
  • Goldeneye, a chaotic good female human ranger of Level 11.
  • Brutus, a chaotic neutral male human who started as a fighter, reached Level 8, then dualed to a cleric and reached Level 10.
  • Cesario, a lawful good male human who started out as a cleric, reached Level 9, then dualed to a magic-user and reached Level 11.
  • Viola, a chaotic good female human magic-user of Level 11.

As I discussed in my first Curse posting, with the sole exception of thieves, non-human characters are unfeasible in the Forgotten Realms Gold Box series because of level caps.

The imported characters prepare to set forth.

Characters created in Secret start at Level 8 with 200,000 experience points, and all my characters are Level 10-11, starting with around 800,000 experience points, a huge difference. This means that the early game might be a bit easy, but it also means that I won't experience much advancement in Secret, since the characters cap in this game at Level 15. I also realized late in this session that my ranger, who had been wearing a Girdle of Giant Strength at the end of Curse, imported here with 24 strength even though the Girdle didn't come with her.

As the game begins, the mayor gives the party 20 gems to sell plus a decent selection of magic items, including Gauntlets of Ogre Power, a halberd +2, a shield +1, and several +1 weapons and armor. The mayor says I can use his house to rest, and he has a teleporter that will take the party directly to the Well of Knowledge in the ruins. After that, the exposition ends and the party is free to explore the city.

You can jump right to the heart of the ruins or find your way there through corridor exploration.

I was thinking about ways I could increase the challenge and variety of my fifth Gold Box outing. Usually, I'd do this with limits in the party selection (e.g., all mages, no mages) but I didn't want to do that here for legacy purposes. Instead, I came up with this: I won't allow my party to memorize more than one of each spell unless they've already memorized one of every other spell of that level. By increasing the variety of spells, it will ensure that I actually try neglected spells like "Slow," "Feeblemind," and "Dimension Door." It will also keep me from abusing mass-damage spells like "Fireball" and thus will increase the tactical nature of combat. We'll see how it goes.

Probably only the third time I've ever cast "Confusion" in a Gold Box game.
New Verdigris was nothing special--a standard Gold Box 16 x 16 map containing the mayor's house, a pub, a training hall, a bank, a temple, and an armory. There's really no reason it couldn't have been a menu town. Eight buildings are labeled "private residence" and have nothing in them. One building has an old man who spins tales; another houses "Marcus the Wizard" who has no interest in seeing me but is willing to sell some trinkets through a servant. There's a probable 12-to-7 that Marcus will be the subject of some special encounter later.

In contrast to the Phlan armory, where you could buy every obscure variety of polearm, New Verdigris has a paltry selection. Incidentally, if an RPG armory is selling something weird like a "cute yellow canary," you pretty much have to buy it just in case.

The Mayor had a few journal entries to convey, starting with the revelation that he used to be a Red Plume--a soldier of Hillsfar--who was probably in Yulash when my Curse party came traipsing through. The entry refers to "a band of blue tattooed adventurers" but he doesn't seem to be aware that that was us. He also talks about a "magic brotherhood known as the Black Circle" and that "it was based on their divination that we extended our lower tunnels." Marcus turns out to be a member. The Mayor assures that the organization is "studying ways to stop the monsters" but given that their name is, you know, "the Black Circle," I think perhaps they're up to something more sinister.

Having finished exploring the city in less than an hour, I turned my attention to the ruins outside the city's gates. Apparently, the teleporter in the Mayor's house will take me deep inside those ruins, to the Well of Knowledge, but I'd rather find it through exploration first. Only a few steps into the ruins, I found myself in the first battle of the game, a random encounter with a group of bugbears and griffons. Later combats--all random, so far--served up ogres, hill giants, hell hounds, and crocodiles. One wonders how these diverse creatures have all been surviving in the depths of the earth.

It's still fun when they line up for "Lightning Bolt." Too bad I only have one of these at a time.

One change from previous games soon became clear: the ruins are not confined to a 16 x 16 grid, or even a series of them, as with all previous D&D Gold Box titles. (Curse had some areas smaller than 16 x 16, but they always fit with other such areas to make up a map that was 16 x 16. Buck Rogers had larger, more irregular areas, but that wasn't a D&D game.) So far, I've explored to an X coordinate of 28. There are also large "unused" areas (unless access is through some later teleporter); this isn't technically "new," although it's rare in previous games and the areas were small.

The corridors are long and winding, with a lot of switchbacks and few alternate paths, so that two squares only a coordinate apart might take dozens of moves to traverse. More than any other Gold Box game so far, it feels like you're really in a maze. I haven't decided if this is good or bad.

Was drawing the arrow too hard?

I've been a bit disappointed in the graphics and sound, which haven't advanced at all since Curse. The game still only supports EGA graphics, and the corridors are still uniformly bland and featureless. While I like the turn-based gameplay better than Captive, I confess I miss actually being able to see and hear enemies in the game world instead of suddenly stumbling into their squares with no warning.

I'm just saying, maybe I would have seen these things from more than 10 feet away.

Aspects of the interface also haven't changed since Curse, with both good and bad results. On the good side, I love that the mouse/keyboard/joystick options are all redundant, so you can use them in whatever combination you want. If you want to use the keyboard, you just type the first menu option. If you want to use the mouse, you click on the option. If you want to use a joystick, you scroll through the options and "fire" on the one you want. Every game ought to be like this until we get to continuously-moving 3D interfaces in which you absolutely need the mouse to navigate.

On the bad side, the developers still haven't fixed some of the annoyances from Pool and Curse. In combat, pressing "Target" still scrolls through your own characters instead of jumping right to the enemies. There's still no "Center" option for fireballs and other area-effect spells (although the spacebar works as an undocumented feature), and after killing all the creatures, you still have to perform an action for every remaining character in that round. The game doesn't remember what magic spells you memorized last time, so you have to manually select them again. They're minor things, but I know they get fixed eventually and I wish the series would hurry up.

And of course they haven't done anything about the awful economy. Within about six fights in the dungeon, I had more platinum pieces than I could even carry. The vault in town will store it all and even trade platinum for gems, and there's a magic shop that sells wands of "Magic Missile" (but nothing really cool like wands of "Fireball" or Girdles of Giant Strength).

Overall, it's nice to be back in a familiar setting and interface that I know I like, but I wish the game had "wowed" me a bit more at the beginning. Pool, Curse, Champions, and even Buck Rogers all had introductory sequences that made you feel you were entering some grand new adventure, not just walking into a standard dungeon next to a standard menu town. Here's hoping Secret gets a little better, but even if it doesn't, it won't be so bad.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Captive: Surviving on the Inside

Reaching the station where Trill is being held. It looks ominously like the Death Star.

Despite what I said at the end of the last post, I decided to try to marathon my way to the end of Captive. It partly worked. I finished the regular bases and made it to the space station where Trill is being held, but I've gotten stuck there and probably won't be able to finish.

The game got a little easier for me after the last post, for a couple of reasons. First, I spent money on better weapons and droid parts, although I kept my lead characters going primarily with melee weapons until late in this session (ammo is expensive). Second, the muscle memory in my fingers got used to the turn-side-step combo on the keypad, so I could flank all but the fastest monsters as long as I could find an area of at least 2x2. Third, I started to master some of the game's other mechanics, which I'll cover below.

I still maintain that Captive is absurdly deadly, even by the standards of Dungeon Master clones. Even with all four of my droids blazing their shields, and with all of them upgraded to the best Bronzite or Ironide parts, I still was unable to stand up to more than two shots from some of the late-game monsters. Sometimes not even one. Fortunately, I slowly grew to master--or at least understand--the arsenal of tricks that the game allows. Some of them are adopted from Dungeon Master, but several are unique to the game. They include:

1. Hit and run. This tactic takes advantage of the fact that enemies can't strafe. If they encounter a 90-degree angle, they have to step forward and then turn before they can fire or continue pursuit. Thus, a long, bendy hallway is your friend. Wait for the enemy to enter an angle, fire off a few shots, then flee to the next bend when he turns to face you. When enemies can't pass certain obstacles, like water, this becomes even easier. Dangers: You forget the map and end up trapping yourself in a dead-end, or there simply isn't any suitable hallway to do this.

This guy has just turned to face me on a bend. I need to strafe to the left, then turn right, and shoot him a few times when he enters the square I'm currently in. Then I'll run to the next bend in the corridor and do it again.
2. The side-step-turn. This uses the same mechanic as "hit and run" but without the benefit of corridors on either side. You lead the enemy to an area of at least 2x2 squares. Since enemies follow predictable patterns as they chase you around the squares, you can use this to your advantage. Just as the enemy turns to face you, you side-step (strafe) to a square that puts you diagonal to him, then turn to face the square that he'll enter as he tries to get next to you. When he does, fire off a few shots (or melee attacks) before he can turn and face you, then quickly do another side-step before he can shoot. Repeat, constantly dancing around in a 2x2 square pattern, until he dies. Dangers: Finger fatigue ensures that you will occasionally screw this up. It works poorly on fast enemies, and you don't have time to save in the middle of it, so one mis-typed key causes you to lose your progress beating down a foe.

You can do a kind-of hybrid of the first two strategies if you can find a room with a pillar in the middle.

3. Mines. Shops sell mines, and occasionally enemies leave one behind when they die. Enemies will avoid them if there are alternative paths, but if you can find a corridor that an enemy must travel to defeat you, you can lay any number of them. I found that 3-4 mines were very effective against even the tough enemies on the final base, but they're also very expensive and heavy. Flying enemies are immune to them. Dangers: You set off your own mines, so you have to remember where they are and use the anti-gravity device to walk over them.

4. Cameras. Cameras sell for less money than mines but are slightly less effective. When set up, they look like Daleks from Dr. Who. When you switch them on, you can see the facing corridor on one of your monitors, and a little yellow square denotes the presence of an enemy in the corridors. When the enemy steps on the square with the camera you can press a button to detonate it. Dangers: Fast moving enemies often zoom by the camera before you can react.

Setting up a camera. Hitting the right "X" on the monitor screen will cause it to explode.
I suppose cameras have tactical purposes other than blowing up--perhaps to warn you of the approach of any enemy on your backpath--but I don't see the value here. The bases are all organized into small, discrete sections separated by doors, ladders, elevators, and walls. It's comparatively easy to determine if you've cleared a section, and fairly easy to tell when a switch or panel opens access to another hallway. You'd have to be a fairly careless player to get surprised by enemies, in which case you're probably not using cameras anyway.

5. Shooting through slits. Walls occasionally offer slits through which you can view enemies on the other side. You can fire electric bolts and super balls through these slits, or regular guns if you're inverted on the ceiling. Since some enemies can also fire at you, and they often have a wide range of motion on the other side, limiting how often you can shoot at them, I haven't found these to be very helpful.

Shooting electricity through a slit at an enemy on the other side.

6. The door crush. Position yourself in front of a closing door or wall and let it pound your enemy while you supplement its damage with melee attacks and shots. This is a viable strategy in the early game, but not so much in the late game when standing in front of some enemies for even a few seconds is enough to wipe out your party.

7. Friendly fire. When enemies sense you, they fire at you, even if they're on the other sides of doors or walls--and even if other enemies are in between. You can sometimes trick enemies into wiping each other out this way. A few enemies have shots that automatically bounce off walls and doors if they don't encounter anything in between, and if you can get them firing at you from the other side of a wall or door, they'll kill themselves.

Bases 9 and 10 featured enemies of living fire. Since they have to stay rooted in the fire on the floor, however, it was easy to use hit and run tactics on them.
8. Super bouncy ball. The "super balls" you find throughout the game will bounce back and forth between walls until they hit something or exhaust themselves in 6 or 7 bounces. I keep a big supply. Send them careening in a big room and there's a good chance that they'll intercept something eventually. You can also use them to test for the presence of enemies on the other side of a room or corridor that's so long you can't see the end. If the ball comes bouncing back, it's clear. Dangers: The balls can hit you, and cause significant damage, so you'll want to find a place to duck out of the way if you start hurling them.

9. The crowded ladder. It's tough to get into a situation where this works, but when it does, it's fun. Your party cannot occupy the same square as an enemy. If an enemy is standing at the top of a ladder when you ascend, you'll automatically nudge him into an adjacent square. But if that adjacent square is occupied by another enemy, he cannot move and automatically dies. If you can get a bunch of enemies milling about the top of a ladder with only a single adjacent square, you can kill a lot of them this way and just have to deal with the one remaining. Unfortunately, it's more common to find ladders with at least two adjacent squares, meaning at least three enemies have to be in the right position for this to work.

10. Ladder-scumming. The last refuge. Lead an enemy to the ladder. Head down. Pop up, squeeze off a few shots, pop back down. Save and repeat. If the enemy gets lucky and shoots you the instant you reach the top of the ladder, reload. Dangers: Some enemies react so fast that you basically have to hit "fire" before your brain can register whether the enemy is actually in front of you when you reach the top of the ladder. This wastes a lot of ammo when the enemy isn't there. Some enemies react and fire so fast that you have to reload a lot even when ladder-scumming.

Ladder-scumming to defeat this pack of robots in the space station.

As I grew more adept at these methods, I found the last three bases a little easier, although the last base featured this horrid thing:

Notice how well all those shields are performing. They might as well not even be on.
It moves so fast I can barely react to it, and since it flies, it's immune to mines. I had to resort to ladder-scumming to defeat every one of them. Overall, as I fear I've said ad nauseum, while I can appreciate this type of combat, I don't really like it. Too much relies on fast fingers, and I'm just lousy at that.

Replacing my droid parts. When I get done, do I really have the same droid?
On equipment, I eventually upgraded every droid to "Bronzite" parts, and on the last base my lead droid got "Ironide" parts. There were even better parts available, but I didn't invest enough points in "Robotics" to equip them. I didn't notice a huge difference in the amount of damage they repelled, but I did notice that the higher-level parts made my devices consume far less electricity. Also, repairing these higher-level parts is a lot more expensive.

The secret to surviving Captive--both financially and physically--seems to be to avoid getting hit at all.

The skill problem haunted me with weapons, too. Throughout the game, I made the "mistake" (if you can call something you have no way to foresee a mistake) of trying to master the early skills before investing a lot of points in the later skills. This is partly because you find melee weapons and simple handguns all over the place, whereas you have to pay for more advanced weapons and their ammo. It's also because the more advanced weapons require a lot more skill. For instance, for my droid with 49 wisdom, advancing from Level 2 to 3 in "Cannons" costs 4,389 experience points, whereas advancing from Level 16 to 17 in "Rifles" requires only 570.

This has some weird consequences. Commenter MOZA, for instance, assures me that the worst laser is better than the best handgun. But since the best handgun requires 24 skill points in "Handguns" and the worst laser requires only 1 skill point in "Lasers," this suggests that you're wasting your time ever getting all the way up to 24. Best go only to 9, at which point the next skill becomes available, and I guess always invest your points in the best available skills? I want to re-iterate that the Captive manual is absolutely no help with this question, and in the typical RPG, a high-skill level generally trumps the type of weapon.

One droid's current skills. I probably should have concentrated more on the later skills and made sure I got the last one--"Sprayguns"--before the final base. Despite investing some in "Cannons," I haven't actually bought any cannons.
Anyway, partly because I didn't want to waste the substantial investment I'd made in lower skills, and partly because ammo for higher-level weapons costs so much, I remained well behind the curve in weapons for the entire game. This created a much higher level of difficulty for me, but I managed to get by anyway--until the space station, where my paltry selection of laser guns and handguns were no match for the absurdly difficult monsters there. 

The final three bases grew progressively bigger, until they were so large that walking around them took about 30 minutes even when they were completely cleared. I still didn't have to map, however. The nature of the procedural map generation means that no matter how large, the bases will be almost completely linear. Never does a late section suddenly re-connect with an early section. What does happen, however, is that the passcode needed to get through a door in an early section might not be found until very late in the base. This dynamic ensures that you end up looping through each base multiple times as you acquire new passcodes. I got rather sick of this towards the end.

Opening a new section of the base with a passcode I found way, way, way far away.

In the last couple bases, these types of passcodes became more common, but it's the same dynamic: find the clipboard, then find the panel that it opens.
A few other notes:

  • This keeps happening. I don't know why.

  • The weapons you find in little alcoves on the wall, although they look like brass knuckles, swords, handguns, rifles, and so on, are all called "Zlots." It took me a while to understand how these differ from the ones you buy in stores. They're meant only for temporary use. They have a limited number of blows or charges, they disappear when they run out, and they can't be repaired. Throughout the game, I was using them as primary weapons when they're really meant as backups for when you run out of ammo.
  • The procedural nature of dungeon creation means that occasionally you have weird stuff like this, where I've gone through all the trouble to find and enter a passcode, only to find a two-square, empty corridor on the other side. Ladders and elevators routinely lead to empty squares.

Good thing there were lasers blocking this area.

  • The battery was the best purchase I made. It's often a long time between power outlets, but since one battery can fully recharge four droids, I rarely worry about running out of power anymore.

Recharging at a wall socket.

After I cleared the last of the 10 bases, I had no idea what to expect from the space station. I rather hoped that I would just arrive at the station and the endgame sequence would commence. I should be so lucky. Instead, the space station is a base just like the others, only with much harder monsters. Even Bases 8 and 9 featured some of the easy monsters from the first couple of bases, and the really tough enemies (like the one above) were punctuations in a long series of easy or moderately-challenging encounters. But I found no easy encounters on the space station. The moment I entered, I was greeted by this behemoth . . .

Well, hell.

. . . and it just got worse from there. The only three creature types I've found on the space station are two types of these giant cyborgs and packs of robots that look like Robocop. All of them are capable of wiping me out in a hot second, and ladder-scumming and mines are the only techniques that have had any effect.

Unfortunately, I'll soon run out of even these options, as I'm out of ammo (despite loading up all my available inventory slots on the previous base) and I haven't found any shops to restock. I'm not even sure there are any shops on the space station. I'm going to have to reload a saved game from Base 10 and get everyone equipped with better weapons, and a lot more ammunition, before I try again. I don't know how soon that will be.


In list news, I've removed Secret Valley (1983) for the ZX Spectrum. In mechanics, the game is virtually indistinguishable from The Valley (1982), which I already reviewed. You enter a direction to move and random stuff happens. There simply isn't enough gameplay content to be considered an RPG under my rules, although I confess I don't know what other category I'd assign to it. I suspect this fate is going to befall a lot of the "RPGs" I recently added from the World of Spectrum site.

I've also taken the advice of several of you and rejected Bad Blood as an RPG. It was a tough call, as the game features world exploration and NPC dialogue that you rarely find in non-RPG games. But its lack of any character development and its all-action combat mean that it violates two of my core criteria. I briefly considered playing it anyway, as it would have been fun to contrast its post-apocalyptic theme with Fallout: New Vegas, which I've had going on my Xbox for the last few weeks. As I went through the manual and initial game areas, however, the back story and plot--centered on problems between "Mutes" and "Humes"--just struck me as irredeemably goofy. Origin may have created worlds, but sometimes they made a hash of the job.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Game 162: Warrior of Ras, Volume Two: Kaiv (1982)

This is the C64 opening screen; the full title is on the next screen. I originally had it as a 1983 game, but the copyright screen and manual for the Apple II version says 1982.

Warrior of Ras, Volume Two: Kaiv
Randall D. Masteller (author); Screenplay (publisher)
Released 1982 for Apple II; 1983 for Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64
Date Started: 27 August 2014
Date Ended: 27 August 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

At the beginning of this year, I reviewed Warrior of Ras, Volume One: Dunzhin, the first of a four-game series by Randall Don Masteller, published by Screenplay of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was an enormously productive period for Masteller, with all four games--each building in capabilities--issued within a two-year period. I had originally tagged the first sequel, Kaiv, as a 1983 game, but the screen and manual copyrights both say 1982. Since the first two games were advertised together, the 1982 date is probably correct.

I didn't dislike Dunzhin. (It would be worth reading or re-reading that review before getting into this one.) It enjoyably passed an afternoon and I gave it a score of 22, which wasn't bad for a 1982 game. It had some strong innovations, including a complex system of armor class and damage, with different body parts having different ACs and damage levels; a tactical combat system involving three levels of attacks against various enemy body parts; experience rewards relative to your level vs. the enemy's; and the ability to "search" for a particular foe at any given time. I just wished it had other RPG elements, like an inventory and a strong economy. "It has some ideas too good to ignore," I remarked, "but it lacks too many RPG elements to fully enjoy as an RPG."

The less-exciting Apple II main screen.

Thus, I was looking forward to Kaiv, which features an inventory system, with some items used flexibly for combat (e.g., potions, magic rings) and others used as puzzle-solving tools (e.g., ropes, picks). Unfortunately, we still have no character attributes and no way to even name your character, but the series is clearly growing.

The framing story is set in the land of Ras (the name was originally an acronym for "Random Area Series"), ruled by Lord Doserror the Inevitable. Doserror's greatest warrior, Grimsweord, has just returned from "the Ancient Lands," where he discovered the legendary Kaiv. His account of his adventures comically, though somewhat uncomfortably, intersperses lore with game instructions:

I reached a massive door, twice as tall and wide as this hall. I pounded on it with the hilt of my sword. I felt a strange sensation. A voice within my mind told me that I had indeed found the Kaiv, though it made it seem as if it were some fell game. As the doors swung back smoothly on massive hinges, I heard the voice ask:


As I had never entered the Kaiv before, I said (N)o.

It goes on like this through all of the gameplay elements and commands. I'm not sure if the suggestion is that the hero is Grimsweord, or another fighter sent to the dungeon to do a better job.

Exploring the "Kaiv" means navigating both combats and obstacles.

Kaiv allows an import of a character from Dunzhin, with all his attendant experience and gold. That seemed a little too easy for me, so I started with a new one. The game begins in a marketplace outside the cave, where you can purchase a variety of exploration items, armor, and swords. Weapons can break in combat, and you need a couple of backups, since the game won't allow you to fight with fists. The manual says that the "standard pack" at the outset would consist of a suit of armor, three swords, 10 torches, 15 food, 15 water, a cross, flint and steel, three ropes, two dirks, a pick, and a mirror. This is all easily purchasable with the starting 2,000 gold. In fact, the only thing outside your price range at the beginning is a "magic sword" for 3,000 gold--something to save up for.

Purchasing an initial selection of equipment.

Weight and encumbrance affect movement, so the game lets you store excess cash outside the dungeon. There's no reason not to do this unless you plan to bribe creatures a lot.

The titular cave is a series of randomly-generated maps progressing west to east for six screens. Where Dunzhin was organized in discrete, lettered, rectangular rooms, Kaiv's spaces are far more irregular, spotted with cliffs (you need a rope to climb), pools of water or acid, and other navigation hazards. Some of the hazards produce an early variety of "quick time event" where you have to quickly hit a key to avoid taking damage.

I have suffered a collapse and am using my pick to get out of it.

Hitting a key quickly avoids taking damage from an acid pool.

The game preserves the movement system I disliked from Dunzhin where you have to type MOVE EAST 3 or MOVE NORTH 1 to mince along at the desired number of steps. Yes, you can abbreviate this M E 3 and M N 1, but it's still more annoying than using the arrow keys. Sensing this, Masteller did allow the use of the arrows to move one step in any direction on the Commodore 64 version. I started trying to play that version, but I ran into a bug by which all of my attacks always missed the enemies. Thus, I was stuck typing things the long way in the Apple II version.

You rarely want to move more than one step in any direction into unexplored territory, as the torch only illuminates one square around you and you could easily find yourself running into walls and taking damage.

Combat hasn't changed much at all from Dunzhin. As you explore, you run into packs of ghouls, skeletons, wolves, fighters, ogres, goblins, wyverns, trolls, vampires, and other D&D-derived monsters. Sometimes they'll offer you the choice of withdrawing without combat, but mostly they just want to fight. You can try to HIDE or BRIBE enemies to leave you alone if you're low on hit points. The monsters have a variety of special attacks and are fairly well-described in the game manual.

LORDS: Once they were great knights and warriors, but they were trapped in the Kaiv eons ago. These accursed noblemen are magnificent fighters. They are heavily armored, with plate mail, war helmets, and swords of great renown.
GORGONS: The sight of a gorgon can turn a warrior to stone, and with good reason. Gorgons have shapely human bodies but hideous faces, glowing eyes, deathly pale skin, and "hair" of writhing serpents. The ancient legends say that a mirror can protect the warrior from being turned to stone.

In combat, you choose to just HIT or to spend a round AIMing or increasing your FORCE. In addition to the type of attack, you specify the body part to be attacked: Head, neck, chest, abdomen, left leg, right leg, left arm, right arm (with arms and legs replaced with forelegs and hind legs for creatures). For both you and the monsters, each body part has its own armor class, chance to hit, and hit points, and if you reduce any of them to 0 (or the creature's total hit points to 0), the creature dies. Heads and necks have very few hit points but very low chances to hit; chests and abdomens have a lot of hit points and a high chance to hit.

Fighting a fighter.

Armor absorbs a few hit points damage on each body part, slowing losing armor points as it does so. When the armor defense reaches 0, it's time for a new set of armor. All in all, it's one of the most complex health and armor systems that we have in the Bronze Age. It's just too bad there aren't more types of armor.

There are no classic attributes, but your level affects your attack and defense values as well as your individual body hit points. I found leveling was absurdly rapid in the early stages: I gained one level for every single combat up to Level 7, and after that I still managed to get up to Level 10 pretty fast. (This makes sense if the assumption is that many players imported characters from Dunzhin.) But since the required number of experience points increases by 25-50% each time, it will still take a long time to reach the maximum level of 20.

A late-game character sheet shows my attributes and hit points for each body part.

Monsters politely attack you one at a time, and you always get the first blow, so it's possible to work your way through a pack without them ever getting a chance to hit you. This rarely happens, though. In general, I find the combats very deadly, though the ability to save anywhere reduces the consequences of this.

Enemies never drop anything, but you find gold and potions and supposedly rings and wands on the dungeon floor. I say "supposedly" because in 4 hours of play I never found a wand or a ring. There are eight types each of potions, rings, and wands, and the effects are both powerful and useful. Potions include healing, haste, hiding, ironskin, strength (doubling attack damage), and "etherealness," which allows you to move through walls. Rings operate either by charges or duration, and they include three types of shielding rings, fireballs, invisibility, teleportation (random), and light. Wands include cold, fire, lightning, and paralysis. It's not a bad inventory system for a series that had no inventory in the first game.

You also have to carry stocks of torches, food, and water, and the game frequently gives you messages about getting hungry and thirsty or torches running out. I don't mind the dynamic, but you never find torches, food, or water in the dungeon, and especially as you start to explore more screens to the east, it's annoying to have to trek back to the entrance to revisit the market.

Kaiv also keeps Dunzhin's dynamic of having all kinds of weird things happen as you explore. A voice whispers "I like you" or "I don't like you." You suddenly feel a boost in confidence. The cave collapses around you and you have to use a pick to get out. A voice says "go away!" and you're randomly teleported elsewhere. You disturb a colony of bats (other than a brief animation, I don't think this has any consequences). These special encounters keep the game very unpredictable.

Dunzhin had a "main quest" to find a random treasure on the bottom floor. Kaiv's main quest seems to be finding the "Legendary Treasure" on the sixth screen. This legendary treasure is . . . wait for it . . . a pile of 5,000 gold pieces. Just a tad underwhelming, but of course the "real" point of the game is just to explore and develop as high as possible.

It took me about 4 hours of play to get to Level 11, collect enough funds to buy a magic sword, and make it to the site of the treasure. When I finally got there, I found that I could only carry about 3,500 of the 5,000 gold pieces if I didn't want to start dropping other items. This reduced my movement speed to 1 per round, but fortunately I had a lot of "Haste" potions and was able to compensate as I limped back to the exit. There was no acknowledgement, upon leaving, that I'd found the legendary treasure.

My final inventory. I'm not sure what the purpose of the dirks was. Don't ask me why I'm holding my regular sword when I have a magic sword.

I expect the GIMLET to score slightly higher than Dunzhin. Let's see:

  • 1 point for the game world. Unfortunately, the framing story is very brief and has no impact on actual gameplay.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There are no creation options and a fairly standard experience/leveling system during the game itself.
  • 0 points for, alas, no NPCs.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The monster list may be somewhat derivative, but it's still nice to find such an early game implementing features like paralysis, level-drain, and the need to hold up a mirror against gorgons. The various random happenings in the game are a little too random to be fully enjoyable, but they do add some variety to the exploration.

Sometimes enemies are just trying to get from one place to another, just like you.

  • 4 points for combat. The body part/armor class/damage system is unique and interesting, as is the ability to spend a round improving AIM or winding up more FORCE. There is still no magic in the series--only magic items.
  • 2 points for a basic equipment  selection. I was disappointed that I never found rings or wands. I don't know if they were exceedingly rare or if it was a bug.
  • 3 points for the economy. Unlike the first game, gold has some use, and you have to keep collecting it for survival gear. Having to save for the magic sword is a nice sub-goal.
  • 1 point for not much of a main quest.
  • 2 points for bare-bones graphics, a sound system that consists mostly of piercing boops, and a text-based control system that I still don't like for movement even though Masteller tried to help by allowing abbreviations.

The game has pretty good in-game documentation, too.

  • 4 points for gameplay, earned mostly for the modest level of difficulty and for lasting just about as long as the depth of the gameplay could support.

This gives us a final score of 23, surprisingly only one point higher than Dunzhin. The discrepancy is primarily in the 2 bonus points I gave to Dunzhin for some of the innovative elements that didn't fit into other categories. I debated whether I should carry these points forward but ultimately decided not to. 23 feels like it works well in comparison to other games with similar scores.

My post on the first game has some information about Randall Masteller and his influences. I had a great e-mail exchange with him that week, in which he enthusiastically answered all of my questions and really seemed keen to talk about the game. (Some of the other developers I've contacted in the past year have been far less pleasant.) I'll shoot him an e-mail to let him know this one is up and see if he has any additional remembrances.

I'll be playing the final two Ras games over the next few months. Based on the manuals, Wylde and Ziggurat offer similar game mechanics but deeper back stories and more meaningful main quests. As randomly-generated dungeon crawls go, the Warrior of Ras titles offer a reasonable amount of fun for short time periods, and I've enjoyed watching the series develop.