Friday, November 21, 2014

Lords of Xulima: Made for Me

Almost two years ago, when I was in the midst of Tangled Tales, an anonymous poster commented and said that, inspired by my blog, he decided to create an RPG called Lords of Xulima. He linked to the blog of the studio developing it, Numantian Games. I was suspicious of the comment, given that the linked site (worth reading) referred to my blog as a "book." As it violated my comment rules anyway, I deleted the post and suggested that "it felt a lot like the author had simply plugged my name into that location and then tried to use my blog for free advertising."

Two years later, I feel kind of bad about that:

It turns out that the "book" thing was just a mistranslation (the developer is Spanish) and the developer really is a big fan. In an e-mail exchange a few days ago, Numantian Games director Jesús Arribas said that if not for my blog, "Lords of Xulima wouldn't exist." He also offered me some free Steam keys, so I absolutely had to check out the game.

It's not Jesús's fault, but the timing is horrible; I have no more time this month to play new games than I do to play old ones. I devoted about four hours to it--not enough time for a full review--and I really like it so far. In his e-mail, Jesús said that the game "is a tribute to those awesome old-school classics like Might & Magic, Wizardry, and Ultima," and you can definitely feel the influences as you play.

In basic design, Xulima feels a lot like an Infinity Engine game, with an oblique angle view as you march across some absolutely gorgeous terrain. Although you really need a mouse for fine-tuning, most of the commands have comfortably redundant buttons and keyboard shortcuts. Any part of the terrain--chests, corpses, plants, tree stumps, wells, and so forth--can have some kind of loot or encounter tied to it, so you have to move your cursor around to find those that you can interact with. Some people find this interface torturous, but I rather like it; it feels like you're truly exploring as you move around.

Finding some treasure under a rock.

Where it separates from the Infinity Engine is in depicting the party, depicting enemies, and combat. Your party is represented by a single character, as are fixed parties of monsters. These fixed parties don't move. A right-click on them depicts their true number and composition as well as the "awareness radius" that you have to enter to guarantee combat. It's possible to encounter random monsters, too, but they don't show up on the screen until you run into them.

Just as my party is represented by the one icon of Gaulen, so these three "Askary" are represented by a single on-screen creature.

Combat whisks you to a separate turn-based interface, more reminiscent of Wizardry or Might and Magic, but with far, far more options. The combat system is, in fact, one of the best I've ever encountered, offering a few features that I've never seen before. Chief among them is a long, continually updated list of icons, on the right side of the screen, depicting the current attack order--influenced by speed, initiative, and luck. Knowing exactly the order in which you and your foes will move introduces an entirely new tactical dimension to the battle, as you try to plot the order in which you attack, cast spells, and heal your party. Each successful attack carries the chance of stunning the enemy, knocking him further down the list, and I'm constantly deciding whether to concentrate attacks on low-hit-point foes or concentrate them on the next enemy slated to move, increasing the chances that I can keep my own party at the top of the line-up.

The icons on the right indicate who will attack in what order. The ones across the top represent the major actions: attack, defend, use an item of equipment, or cast a spell.

Even without this list, the combat system would be excellent. Like the earlier games to which it harkens, positioning is important; unlike the earlier games, you can constantly adjust positions in battle. There are considerations associated with types of weapons (missile weapons and polearms can attack across ranks), spells, item use, and fleeing, among many other things.

It's system of resting and restoration is, at first glance, drawn from Might & Magic. The party can rest for 8 hours at almost any location, and 8 hours of rest fully restores hit points and spell points. That makes it sound a little too easy, just as Might & Magic often was, but you have a supply of food that continually depletes as you move and rest, and you can't rest if it's gone. Might & Magic had that, too, but the difference here is that food is rare and expensive. You can find some in the wilderness and buy it in town, but a few days' supply costs a couple hundred gold pieces, and at the beginning, at least, finances are tight. This means that you can't abuse the rest system, and the game manages to find that nice balance between individual combat difficulty and accumulation-of-combats difficulty that characterize Might & Magic and Wizardry, respectively.

The world map provides a strong Might & Magic feel.

The other thing that I like about the resting system is that resting for 24 hours resurrects dead characters. At first, this seems illogical, but if you brush past that, you can see how it better serves strategic considerations in the game. If resurrection was impossible, or cost thousands of gold pieces in the nearest town, every character death would be an automatic reload. Here, where each character death is simply a depreciation of precious food, you're more likely to live with the consequences of a bad combat. This, in turn, encourages you to take more risks.

From Ultima, the game draws its attention to carefully-crafted world-building and expositional dialogue, and I admit that this is one area that simply hasn't gripped me. Part of it may be that I simply don't have much time this month, so I lack patience for complex histories and lore. The game takes place on a planet with two continents (one image suggests that it's Earth, 800 million years ago though I don't know how literally we're supposed to take that), Rodinia and Xulima; the latter pronounced "SHU-li-ma."

Rodinia is the home of the kingdoms of men, while Xulima has, since time of creation, been the home of the nine gods. In recent years, the wars of men have become so destructive that some of the gods felt that they should intervene. Others disagreed, leading to a civil war among the gods. Rather than risk destroying the Earth in their conflict, the gods departed the planet, but not before one of them, Golot, appointed as his Herald an "explorer" named Gaulen, instructing him to travel to Xulima. Upon arrival, he and his party are surprised to find it populated by men, as well as a variety of monsters; the suggestion here is that the monsters represent failed creations that the gods declined to send to the main continent. The shrines of the 9 gods have been overthrown by human conquerors, and apparently a big part of the game involves liberating these shrines.

Already, I'm a bit confused by aspects of the back story, and I probably have some of it wrong, but there appear to be some conflicts between the story told in the game documentation and some of the information that you receive in-game. In the end, after a few hours of gameplay, I'm still not sure what my primary mission is, but I suppose that's something that might be revealed as I go along.

An awful lot of exposition from one dialogue.

NPC dialogue so far has also been slightly disappointing, consisting primarily of info dumps rather than meaningful role-playing choices. Nonetheless, there are choices--something I find lacking in a lot of contemporary games--and I like the way that the game differentiates significant NPCs, with dialogue trees, from those that simply stand around and occasionally impart a bit of lore.

One of the latter.

In the first town I encountered, I was disappointed by the fact that the buildings were non-interactive. The innkeeper stands outside his inn, for instance, and you have a drink and listen for rumors from a menu; you can't actually walk into the inn. The opening chapter has also felt a little linear. Technically, you can take two major branching paths from the opening city, but most of the pathways are blocked by clearly impossible monsters for low-level characters, forcing you to proceed in a mostly pre-determined sequence. The literature on the game promises an "open world," so I expect this is just to help new players and things will open up soon.

These mushroom creatures, blocking one path, dismantled my party in seconds.

Let's get back to the good stuff. While I don't typically like being forced to role-play a named character, that's only true for the first one (Gaulen). The player gets to create and name five others. Of the nine available classes--soldier, cleric, thief, mage, barbarian, paladin, arcane soldier, divine summoner, bard--we've seen seven before, but the game still has a unique take on each of them. Each has different starting attributes, weapon skills, spells, resistances, and different hit points per level, and each requires a different investment to improve in certain skills. Choosing only five of them is a relatively difficult decision.

One of the things I enjoy are the number of ways to amass skill points and improve in skills and attributes. When you level up, you get to improve two attributes (strength, agility, speed, constitution, and energy) by 1 point each, then spend a pool of 5 skill points on whatever weapon, magic, and thieving skills you want to advance. But in between level-ups, you can find skill books, potions, trainers, blessings, magical well water, and other mechanisms that accomplish the same thing. There's an entire "herbalism" system by which you can use the various plants you find to directly affect skill points, attributes, or resistances. A separate talisman, found by Gaulen at the beginning of the game, collects energy that you can expend on healing or, at high levels, the improvement of abilities. Finally, there are plenty of inventory items that work on attributes, skills, or resistances directly. In general, it's awesome to have so many ways to improve the characters, particularly since combat is quite difficult and even a one-point bump in speed can make the difference between victory and defeat.

(The game offers three levels of difficultly: "Normal," "Old-School Veteran," and "Hardcore." I'm naturally playing the second one.)

Tutorials assist you at the beginning of the game.

The beginning portions of the game have handy tutorials to help you walk through. I've had no problems with the interface, and I like the way that left-clicking executes an action and right-clicking brings up information about an object. The graphics are lovely, and the sound effects offer satisfying clangs, thuds, whooshes, zaps, and so forth in combat, as well as gurgles, chortles, and taunts from some of the enemies. A great automap annotates key locations and allows you to add your own notes. Lockpicking and trap-disarming bring up a couple of mini-games that I haven't yet mastered. Good or bad, at least they're original.

Lockpicking involves tracing the correct path from gear to gear. Every time you choose the wrong square, you lose a lockpick. This is a very difficult lock; easier ones have more squares already blanked out for you.

Overall, I had a lot of fun in the 4 hours I was able to devote to Lords of Xulima. I'll take Sr. Arribas's compliments about my blog in the spirit that they were intended, but the true inspirations of Xulima are the classic RPGs that I've written about, and like Might & Magic X did with its franchise, Xulima does a great job paying homage to the past while offering plenty of 2014 innovations. I recommend it and am happy to offer free Steam keys to the first three commenters who say they want them.


This is not, alas, the end of my break, but please be patient for just a little while longer. I've managed to finish my major work projects, but now it's time to take Irene on a much-needed vacation. When I get back, I have a work trip that will probably take up my time for the week, so I suspect the resumption of my blog will take place around December 7.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hiatus Drags On

Hi again, everyone. Sorry that it's been so long since the last post. I gave the wrong impression in a comment somewhere; my recent lack of productivity is not due to "burnout" but rather because I've been given a chance to work on some very important projects for my profession, and I don't want to screw them up by over-indulging in RPGs. While it's true that the upcoming crop of games has "facilitated" this hiatus by not interesting me very much, for the moment we can regard that as a good thing.

I'll be back as soon as I get these projects completed enough that I'm confident I'll make their deadlines. I don't have any interest in altering my plan.

I'll leave comments open, but I will be deleting this post when I start blogging again, so don't say anything that you really want preserved for posterity.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Game 168: Warrior of Ras, Volume Four: Ziggurat (1983)

This title screen is from the C64 version even though I played the Apple II version.

Warrior of Ras, Volume Four: Ziggurat
Randall D. Masteller (author); Screenplay (publisher)
Released 1983 for Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 12 October 2014
Date Ended: 13 October 2014
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Ziggurat brings the Warrior of Ras series to a satisfying conclusion, synthesizing elements that we saw in Dunzhin, Kaiv, and The Wylde (links to my reviews, which it would make sense to review if you want to understand this one). We've got the indoor walls and room layout of Dunzhin, the expanded item list from Kaiv, and the tactical combat system from Wylde, all in pursuit of a randomly-generated treasure, just as in the first and third games.

The back story--just as superfluous as those for the first three games--recounts a warrior's expedition to the Ziggurat of Ras, where he hoped to find the "Sapient Scepter of Sirocco" and break the power of a "wretched king whose reign of horror reduced these prosperous lands to poverty." The game's interface is presented in the manual as a magical amulet, passed down to the warrior by his father, "the great warrior Dominican." As you start your own game, you receive a random quest item--the Spiteful Rod of Jysor, the Ebony Horn of Fisat, the Silver Scarab of Sevyw, etc.--to find.

The main quest is randomly generated at the start of the game.

As with the other three, there's no character creation. You can import a saved hero from the previous games, but otherwise you start as a Level 1 adventurer with 2000 gold pieces to spend among armor, swords, torches, food, water, packs, crosses, flint & steel, ropes, dirks, picks, mirrors, and magic items. As with the previous two games, there's a magic sword for 3000 gold--something worth saving for. Unlike the previous games, you can purchase various potions, rings, and wands in the shops instead of only finding them in the dungeons. Magic dirks and magic spears also join the item list for the first time in Ziggurat. A bug in my version made dirks cost $30 but sell for $500, making it possible to get infinite gold at the outset.

The market, for the first time, has magic items.

Once outfitted (the "@" gets you a "standard pack" of gear for $1900), you stash your excess treasure in the vault and then head into the dungeon. The ziggurat consists of about half a dozen randomly-generated dungeon levels connected by tunnels. As you move along, you may encounter packs of the game's varied monsters. Stepping on a special square in the rooms always generates a battle followed by a treasure haul.

In the basic interface, little has changed. You type various commands (EAT, INVENTORY, GET, MOVE EAST 3) or their abbreviations (E, I, G, M E 3) to interact with the world and your objects. Volume Four restores the ability to specify a number of squares to move that Volume 3 took away. Every so often, you have to DRINK water and EAT food to avoid hit point damage. You supposedly need torches to see, but I couldn't figure out how to light them in this game (USE didn't work), and the dungeon revealed itself despite the lack of them. I also noted that Rings of Light appeared to have no effect, so this might be something that was never sufficiently programmed. Ropes also don't appear to have any use at all.

The corridor at the north end of this level is connected by two tunnels, but not to the rest of the level.

The random events and messages that kept Dunzhin and Kaiv interesting are gone here. Ziggurat does add secret doors for the first time. 

You may have to walk past them a few times.

In Dunzhin and Kaiv, combat was fought through commands on the main screen. Wylde moved this to a separate combat map, which Ziggurat preserves. I found this system admirable in Wylde--only a handful of other games in the era were offering special combat maps--but also a little annoying, as it made each combat last a bit too long. Ziggurat solves the problem by making the combat screens a lot smaller and removing navigation obstacles. I thought it hit the right balance.

Something called a "slizzer" aims for my chest. This attack will cost him about 10 movement points. #3 and #4 will get to go next, after which everyone will be below my number of turns, and I'll get to attack. If things get rough, I can flee out the corridor to the right.

Combat is governed by "turns," the number of which are affected by strength, encumbrance, and magic considerations like Potions of Haste. Every action--turning, moving, running, throwing, using a magic item, attacking--consumes a number of turns, and the character with the highest number always goes next. This is a complexity we don't see again in top-down games until maybe Wizard's Crown. Unfortunately, clever enemy pathfinding makes it hard to get on the same line with them at a distance and reduces the utility of spears and some magic items.

Tossing a spear at a warrior.

Like the previous games, in melee combat, Ziggurat allows you to do a regular HIT, AIM for a round, or put your energy into a FORCE attack, afterwards specifying what body part you want to target. Low-armored body parts like heads and necks are harder to hit but easier to score a quick kill. Each body part has its own hit points. Lucky rolls can result in critical hits that do 2 or 3 times the damage.

A few new commands make an appearance here: CHOP, GOUGE, KNEE, and KICK. Regrettably, the manual doesn't cover these new commands at all, but they seem to apply to unarmed combat.

Killing enemies gives you experience points, which in turn make up levels, which in turn affect your attack value and hit points. Leveling is rapid through Level 10 and then slows down considerably as experience point requirements increase exponentially. 

My character about halfway through the game.

Magic treasures--rings, wands, and potions--are far more plentiful than in the predecessor games, at least at specific treasure squares. You can activate a Ring of Shielding, quaff a Potion of Strength or Ironskin, or wield a Wand of Fire almost every round if you want. I found that offensive rings and wands had some weird range issues--enemies can be too close to use them--but potions were particularly valuable, and I sold most of the other magic items to buy more potions of Healing, Super-Fight, and so on.

Your ultimate goal is to get strong enough to defeat the higher-level creatures on the later screens, like mummies and vampires, both of which require magical weapons to hit. One room holds the quest treasure, and I don't know if this always happens, but in my game it was in a section of a level with no doors or tunnels inside. I finally learned that you can wield a PICK and use it to knock through walls, which is how I got into the quest area.

I bashed through the walls to the south and am about to pounce on the quest treasure.

The treasure was guarded by a "mummy king," but I defeated him (aided by potions) and collected the treasure. Returning to the entrance, I was given this message:

I ache to know what the rest of this message said, but I suppose it's lost to history.

After your success, you get a new quest treasure and can keep playing the character.

The GIMLET should be, by a small margin, the highest in the series:

  • 1 point for a threadbare game world.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. No creation options, but leveling is rewarding.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. No special encounters, but the monster parties have various special attacks and defenses and are well-described in the manual.
  • 5 points for combat. The body part system and tactical logistics are both impressive for a 1983 game.
  • 4 points for the most extensive equipment system of the series.
  • 3 points for the economy, which is relevant for most of the game, especially with the ability to buy magic items.
  • 2 points for having a main quest

  • 2 points for limited graphics and sound and a serviceable interface.
  • 5 points for gameplay that is replayable and pitched at the right difficulty level and length.

The final score of 27 is 2 points higher than Wylde. In my post on Dunzhin, I said that the game "has some ideas too good to ignore, but it lacks too many RPG elements to fully enjoy as an RPG." It's in this sentiment that I leave the series. Although it developed some RPG elements, like an inventory system, after Dunzhin, it never really blossomed into a full-fledged RPG. On the other hand, author Randall Masteller only had a year between the first game and the last, and regardless of what I think makes a good comprehensive RPG, it's clear that Masteller achieved exactly what he set out to achieve: create a challenging game whose randomly-generated quests and dungeon levels could amuse even the game's author.

While Masteller was working on the Ras series, he was also programming and porting other author's games for Screenplay and other companies, including MicroProse. Titles concurrent and just after Ras include Asylum II, Solo Flight, F-15 Strike Eagle, and Silent Service. More than a dozen titles follow in the 1980s, most sports and action games. He did porting work on Pirates! (1987) and Airborne Ranger (1987), both fondly remembered from my childhood. Eventually, he started his own company, Random Games, focusing on board and strategy games. You can read my full account of his work in the post on Dunzhin.

None of his future games, alas, were RPGs, so we will not be encountering Mr. Masteller again. While I can't detect direct influence of Warrior of Ras on later games, this small series represents some of the most innovative titles of the early 1980s and deserves to be better remembered. I also suspect it will be a long time before we encounter the word "ziggurat" again in an RPG.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Game 167: Saga (1990)

Lankhor (Developer and Publisher)
Released 1990 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 10 October 2014
Date Ended: 11 October 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Saga is a bafflingly bad game. I would expect this quality of gameplay from a title released in the early 1980s, or a shareware title, or a title released for some horrid platform, but not a) in 1990, b) from a major publisher; and c) for a perfectly respectable, if slightly aged, PC platform. Nothing about the game makes any sense whatsoever.
The Saga game windows. I'm only playing one character, so the right side says "player absent" for the entire game. I'm facing a human fighter and a werewolf, and the message window shows the damage they're doing to me. At the bottom  you can see my character class (elf) and attributes.
This is my first experience with an Amstrad CPC game, but I know the computer has some decent titles. In Europe, it was a legitimate contender to the Commodore 64/128. The Bard's Tale had a release on the Amstrad in 1987. So did J. R. R. Tolkien's War in Middle Earth, Bloodych, B.A.T., and Dragons of Flame. I'm not holding any of these up as great games, but at least they were competent. Saga, is in fact, a late addition to the Amstrad catalogue; on my list, the only two games after it with Amstrad releases are the two HeroQuest titles.

It's not the developer. This is, admittedly, the only RPG on my list from Lankhor--perhaps the only RPG that Lankhor ever made--but the company was clearly not a bunch of amateurs. Wikipedia notes that the developer's first game, Mortville Manor, is the first game to feature speech synthesis. Here's what that game looked like, in 1987:

In short, the platform was capable of better, the developer was capable of better, and the nation of France was capable of better. Where did this game come from?

Saga is winnable in about 30 minutes, and not in the way some adventure games are, where if you know what you're doing, you can take shortcuts and buzz right to the end. There aren't any shortcuts in Saga; there doesn't need to be, because the entire game only takes up about 24 screens, and half of those are repetitive scenes in the "labyrinth." It has 5 combats and 3 other important interactions, and that's it. Although the interface suggests an adventure game, there isn't a single "puzzle" within it.

The even more amusing thing is that the game supports two players. Except for perhaps the initial combats, it isn't a challenge enough for one player, let alone two. I'm picturing two French youths running home from a computer store in 1990 and slamming this exciting-looking fantasy game into their Amstrad disk drive. One picks up the joystick while the other positions his hands on the keyboard. They spend about an hour creating their characters, exploring the available classes. Finally, after a lot of debate, a lot of laughs at the goofy character portraits, they finally settle on their choices. Excited, they swap disks, hit ENTER, and start exploring the game world.
Creating two characters.
Less than half an hour later, they're looking at each other, confused. "Je ne comprend pas," they say. "C'est fini? Ou sont les orques? Je veux tuer plus de mauvaises choses, s'il vous plaît." Defeated, they have nothing to do but go outside and play bilboquet or something.

Heprena has some troubles.
The back story is simple. In the "13th century," the character has received a message from his old mentor and guardian, Merlux the Magic Master, that "Heprena is dying." The character leaves his simple house in an enchanted forest and responds to Merlux's call. 

The player creates a character from one of six classes: warrior, magician, assassin, elf, paladin, and priest. Each has a different set of attributes (strength, dexterity, charisma, intelligence, hit points, magic points), a different set of weapons, and--for those capable of casting magic--a different set of spells. The player can then put 6 points in any combination of attributes that he wishes. Agility, intelligence, and strength all influence various combat and spell rolls, but I didn't see any place in the game where charisma made a difference.
Choosing from among 6 character classes.
Gameplay takes place on a series of static screens. The interface has only five inputs, whether using the keyboard or joystick: up, down, right, left, and execute. If using the keyboard, the movement keys are nonsensically mapped to:

,             .

Mimicking a joystick on the keypad was much easier.

Commands include "Move" (followed by the direction), "Open," "Look," "Use," and separate sub-menus for various things to do with items ("Take," "Give, "Drop") and other actions ("Attack," "Talk," "Cast a Spell").

For a while, I couldn't get anywhere with the game until I realized that commands apply to the location of a cursor on the screen. You use the movement keys to position the cursor over whatever you want to look at, open, talk to, attack, and so forth, and then choose the appropriate command. The cursor resets to the upper-left corner whenever you change screens.

As I mentioned, the game is quick and easy for the right sort of character. The only real difficulty is in combat; some of the classes aren't well-equipped for the game's 5 battles. When combat arrives, enemies start attacking in real time, doing 4-6 points of damage every 20-30 seconds or so. During this time, you're furiously positioning your cursor over the enemy, hitting SPACE or the joystick button to bring up the command screen, scrolling down to "Actions," scrolling down to "Attack," scrolling to the chosen weapon, hitting the button again to execute, and then hitting it a few more times to simulate the dice rolls. I found it extremely hard to get through this sequence without accidentally selecting one of the other commands, then having to cancel it, and taking extra unnecessary damage in the meantime.

Selecting commands to attack a gargoyle.

There are two places in the game where all of your hit points are restored. You have to survive 3 combats (2 with 2 enemies each) before that, and this is the toughest part of the game. When my first character, a paladin, was unable to get that far, I enlisted a warrior as a second character. Although I couldn't effectively control both at once, I could use the warrior as cannon fodder for the first few battles. When he died, the game maintained an annoying screen saying "your quest ends here."

Both characters stand outside the starting area and swap some items.

Assassins, who come with 5 poisoned blowdarts capable of heavy damage, and magicians, who come with spells, were promising, but their low hit point totals meant that I had trouble staying alive. I finally won the game with a high-HP warrior.

The combats technically give you experience points, and the manual promises that these make up a kind-of "character development," except that I never saw them doing anything. With only 5 battles in the entire game, it's hard to argue that experienced-based leveling is really necessary.

Combat, as primitive and annoying as it is, is probably the most sophisticated part of the game. Adventure games usually come with a lot of inventory puzzles. This game has 8 inventory slots, rendered all the more mysterious because there are only 4 items to pick up throughout the game, and you only ever have 2 at any one time. None of the uses of the inventory could remotely be called "puzzles."

There are a handful of characters to interact with, but all interaction is just a matter of putting the cursor over them and choosing "Talk" from the menu. Sometimes you have to do this multiple times to get all their dialogue.

I'll try to summarize the plot concisely. North of the starting house, there's a forest of mushrooms. Looking at the largest one reveals that it has a door. Opening the door finds you in combat with a man and a werewolf. Killing them brings you to "Malus the Crazy," who expresses astonishment that you killed his two companions, gives you a "male gzouzou," and tells you to leave before you make him mad.

A few screens later, you come to a gnome pointing to the right, saying "over there!" If you try to talk to him, he says, "Everything I have to tell you is in the bubble. No joke." Continuing, you find yourself in the "Labyrinth of the Gnome," a small maze that you don't really have to map. There are two battles in the maze, one with an animated sword and sickle, one with a giant bee. A note found in a well tells you to keep going east from there, which takes you to the exit. Along the way, you can release a genie from a bottle and get fully healed.

Fighting animated weaponry.

Outside the labyrinth, you move north a couple screens and find a boat. Boarding, a pirate threatens your life and gives you 1 minute to respond. The only way to appease him is to give him Malus's "gzouzou." This seems to be a creature that the pirate gives to his own familiar as a companion. As a reward, he sails you to Heprena.

Heprena is desolated, with all the residents fallen into a torpor. In Merlux's house, the old mage expresses gratitude for your presence and tells you that an "evil spirit" has taken control of the city and plunged everyone into a "sleep of nightmares." He reveals that the evil spirit, the "Eye of the Devil," is in a tomb in the graveyard, but he succumbs to the mystical sleep before revealing the name on the tomb.

In his house, you kill a gargoyle and retrieve a wooden stake (as far as I can tell, this is never used) and 10 gold pieces from a chest. A spellbook heals you. A crystal ball elsewhere in his house tells you the name on the grave: "Edgar Paupoe."

Looking for the final game area.

You give the 10 gold pieces to a coffinmaker in exchange for keys to the cemetery. In the cemetery, you look at the graves until you find the right one, then open it and descend into a dungeon. A tablet informs you that "evil born of evil perishes by evil." A room full of mirrors imbues your own eyes with "satanic reflections." You fight one final combat against a "guardian of the door," then enter and find the "Eye of the Devil." Defeating it, in accordance with the tablet, simply involves looking at it. 

Good lord. Where is the rest of him?

After a quick ending screen and an option to save the player, you're back on the desktop.

Always nice when NPC dialogue blends with interface instructions.

I was happy but surprised to find that the game had ended. I assumed everything to this point had been a prologue. My best guess, given the unused inventory screens and limited character development, is that Saga was meant to be a modular game, like Eamon, with the same character transferable among multiple "adventures." I suppose it's possible that there are others in the Saga line out there, but this game was pretty obscure on its own.

In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 1 point for the game world. There's nothing particularly notable about the "13th century" fantasy kingdom invoked in the back story except that it's full of weird characters and tropes that perhaps make sense in France.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. For the brevity of the game, the choice of character class does make a legitimate difference, but it's not long or complex enough to feel the effects of "development."
  • 2 points for NPC interaction--the handful of bland NPCs that give some information.
  • 2 point for encounters and foes, featuring generic monsters and no true adventure-game puzzles, even.

The last battle of the game.

  • 2 points for magic and combat, with some minor choices related to type of weapon and spells.

Casting a spell in combat. The mage's options are "Healing," "Petrify," "Invisibility," and "Dagger."

  • 1 point for the limited equipment, all puzzle-based, which means the game technically doesn't meet my criteria as an RPG.
  • 0 points for no economy. The 10 gold pieces found at one point are just another inventory item, not something that you can spend flexibly.
  • 2 points for a vague, unsatisfying main quest.
  • 1 point for barely-serviceable graphics, no sound, and an awful interface.
  • 2 points for gameplay that while linear, non-replayable, and bereft of meaningful choices at least has the decency of finishing quickly.

The final score of 15 is the lowest I've given to any game since 1983 with the single exception of The Stone of Telnyr, which was a shareware title.

From a recent eBay auction. It went for £36.

Lankhor was a French company that was around from 1987 to 2001. Their catalog consists primarily of action, sports, and racing games with a couple of adventure games thrown in. I think that Saga is the only title that aspires to RPG status, though I have to check out something called La Crypte des Maudits in 1991. The authors of the game, listed on the main screen, resolve to Regis Blazy and Guillaume Genty. Genty, at least, was a full-time Lankhor employee, dispelling any possibility that this game was an independent title that Lankhor charitably published. He is credited on a variety of racing games for both Lankhor and other publishers after Lankhor went bankrupt. Why he decided to turn his talents to a godawful RPG is anyone's guess. Blazy is a little more obscure; his last name is given as "Blazis" on a different site, but either way I can't find him credited on other games.

This is the second French game in a row to disappoint me, but the country will have some chances to impress me in the coming year, with Le Diamant de I'le Maudite and Tyrann both coming up in 1984. Eventually, I'm going to take second looks at Tera: La Cite des Cranes (1986) and Le Maitre des Ames (1987), as I didn't get far enough in either game during the first round to even rate them. The good news is that my French has vastly improved since 2010, and I didn't have any trouble with the text in this game. I had to use Google Translate for about half a dozen individual words, not the entire paragraphs that I had to plug in for Tera and Maitre.

Next we'll finish up the Warrior of Ras series and take a look at Hard Nova.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Dragon Sword: Unmitigated Galt

A message on Level 5 of Galt's Home suggests an encounter that never materialized.

I had committed to playing 4 more levels at the end of the last post, and I ended up playing 6. Galt's Home turned out to be 7 levels, not the 5 I assumed. I couldn't very well quit in the middle of one of the dungeons, so I decided to press on to the end.

The dungeon naturally featured increasingly difficult levels of monsters. I logged 92 among the 7 levels, only one of which (pixies) I encountered in the previous dungeon. Each monster basically appears for two levels and then makes way for harder variants. There were a host of them capable of causing instant death, and towards the end I started to encounter more dangerous spellcasters, some with mass-damage spells. I've only found one creature that drains levels (the pit fiend), which I learned to destroy immediately in combat. Oddly, some of the creatures to make an appearance on the last level of Galt's Home include such pedestrian-sounding creatures as skeletons and zombies. 

Monster names progressively got weirder. It must have been hard to come up with hundreds of these things.

Although the frequency of the random battles seems to have slowed down, the dungeon was rendered a little more difficult by a scarcity of recharging squares. I only found one group on Levels 2 and 3. I didn't find any on Level 5. Level 6 had a bunch of single-square rechargers, but there was something weird about them. They stopped working, at least for a time, if I encountered enemies nearby. Level 7 had dozens, though, so the endgame wasn't so hard.

The first five levels offered virtually no equipment upgrades, but Levels 6 and 7 made up for that with several nice +2 and +3 items, including (for the first time) weapons. I'm beginning to doubt that armor class really does much of anything, though. Enemies seem to hit my monk, who has -40 AC, with the same regularity that they hit my first two fighters at -9 and -10. Perhaps the effects eventually hit a cap.

The navigation obstacles got more annoying as the levels progressed.  Levels 2-5 all had large dark areas. I don't mind those so much because enemies don't attack while you're in them. Spinners were quite common throughout, as were one-way passages, which often dump you into a dead end and require you to cast "Open Wall" to escape. The game is absolutely fiendish about teleportation squares. There's no warning when you're suddenly teleported, and the developers did a "good" job ensuring that the destination squares look a lot like the departure squares. Often, I wouldn't realize that I'd been teleported until I noticed my map was screwed up. Then I'd have to erase several minutes' investment in mapping and start over. This was particularly true of Level 7, which had around a dozen teleporters. I got so paranoid that I was casting "Locate" every few steps, which drained my cleric's spell points.

Level 5 had a huge dark area in the middle; I had to map by feeling my way.

On Level 4, I got a bunch of hints to a riddle that I would ultimately face on Level 5. Stepping in one square, I got a vision of Galt (described as a thief and plunderer) sitting on a mountain of treasure. He had this to say:

The first one I am not--look at me and see! I know no math, but the second is twice three. The third I leave to your own device but do not leave until you've heard my advice. The stairs are guarded by an evil man. Answer in reverse and do not play into his hand!

The text refers to the fact that the password has three separate parts. Elsewhere in the level, I got three other clues to the parts:

  • "To have no money, to have no name. The word you seek means the same."
  • "Of one word I speak, not a bit more. It is larger than five, but shorter than four."
  • "It never stops, it has no shame. Into eternity it goes, an eternal flame."

I figured out the answers without much trouble: POOR, SIX, and TIME. The problem lay in Galt's instructions to "answer in reverse." When I got to the stairway guardian on Level 5, I first tried the word order in reverse (TIME, SIX, POOR) to no avail. I then tried the letters in reverse (EMIT, XIS, ROOP), and finally both (ROOP, XIS, EMIT). Nothing worked, and I assumed that I was wrong about one of the answers. Maybe it was IMPOVERISHED or something. I quit for a while, briefly toyed with asking for a hint from Brian and Tim, but ultimately restarted and tried the words in different orders. Ultimately, it was XIS, EMIT, ROOP that allowed me to pass. This goes against the "first, second, third" order of Galt's message.

Level 6 was an enormous maze with spinners, teleporters, and ultimately no purpose. The stairway to Level 7 is mere steps from the entry to Level 6, and there was nothing important to find elsewhere on the level.

A lot of mapping for little purpose.

Some previous messages had suggested that spellcasters would lose their power on Level 7, but actually the reverse was true: the level had so many recharging squares that I never had to worry for a minute about spell points.

The level featured multiple iterations of the same 3 x 3 room, including 7 pairs of them connected by 3-square corridors. It was in one such room that I encountered Galt and his allies.

The dungeon's final battle.

I guess Galt himself was immune to magic, but his allies sure weren't, so I blasted them away with "Ice Storm" and concentrated my fighter's attacks on him. He died disappointingly fast and left an "ebony dagger" behind. An early message in Perion's Place had said, "A dark wand, an ebony dagger, ring of mithral, staff of stone, golden armor, slayer of dragons…" I found the wand in Perion's Place and the dagger here; I assume the other artifacts are found in subsequent dungeons.

In addition to Galt, Level 7 also had one important square: the one that told me the password to the next dungeon. It turned out to be BOOM.

Accessing the third dungeon.

I used the "Teleport" spell in combat to get myself back to Level 1 and out of the dungeon. In consequent level-ups, my cleric and mage both got Level 6 spells--the final spell level. Most important among them is "Summon Deamon." My summoned familiars and dogs stopped serving as anything but cannon fodder a long time ago; it'll be nice to have a more powerful ally in the front ranks.

I've had to name about 200 familiars and dogs. I'm out of good ideas.

Before wrapping up, I stopped by the entrance to the next dungeon, gave the password, and peaked in. I guess the developers hit a nadir of creativity when naming this one.

A few final notes:

  • At some point in the dungeon--I forgot where--I found a bronze key. I never found a door for it in Galt's Home, so I assume it must open something somewhere else. It doesn't work on the locked door in town.
  • I realized belatedly that "Cure Pet" not only heals the pet but also cures all conditions. I was dumping my poor familiar or wolf every time he got poisoned, slept, or paralyzed because the regular versions of "cure" spells don't work on him.
  • The bug that makes the "game over" screen come up randomly in combat has gotten worse. It now also frequently comes up on squares where you'd normally get a message or encounter. This necessitates reloading from the last save. This wouldn't be a big deal, since you can save anywhere, except that spells don't remain active when you reload. For every reload, I have to waste points casting "Light," "Armor," and "Compass" again.

That's 12/30 levels completed. Each level takes a reliable 2 hours, so we're looking at at least another 36 hours in the game, which seems a little excessive. I don't think anyone can say I didn't give it a fair chance. I'll spend a little time playing with my new spells and offer a GIMLET.


In list news, I've knocked Moria down a few pegs. I have a lot of notes and material, but for whatever reason, I find the process of compiling it exhausting.