Thursday, October 23, 2014

Unexpected Hiatus

Hey, everyone. As I'm sure has become clear already, I've had to take an unexpected break with my blog. Nothing serious--just a lot of work demands. Unfortunately, it looks like this is going to stretch for a few more weeks, so it's a good time to catch up on old postings. Look for my return somewhere around November 7. Maybe william will win Dragon Sword in the meantime.

Comments disabled because I'm just going to delete this when I get back.


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)


Saga
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 plaƮt." 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:

      S
,             .
      X

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.



Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Game 166: Crystals of Arborea (1990)


Crystals of Arborea
Silmarils (Developer and Publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, Amiga, and Atari ST
Date Started: 28 September 2014
Date Ended: 4 October 2014
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Crystals of Arborea is a weird little strategy/RPG hybrid from the French developer Silmarils. The company would later become semi-famous for the Ishar trilogy. Arborea, which takes place in the same universe and has some links to Ishar's back story, is sometimes called Ishar 0. I found the entire series on GOG for $5.99, making this the third 1990 game I've legitimately purchased. I suspect this tendency will grow as the years pass.
  
I found Arborea extremely difficult to get into. I've remarked before about the slight tinge of the bizarre that often accompanies games from the continent, as if the creators were unaware of any RPG predecessors or unwilling to offer games that fit into a recognizable lineage. This has produced some innovative elements in games like Le Maitre des Ames, Dragonflight, and Drakkhen, but even when I admire the games for these innovations, on the whole they often seem a little "off." For the most part, this is less a criticism of the games and more a recognition of my own perspective as a U.S. player with a CRPG history made up almost entirely of U.S. games. In the case of Arborea, though, I think anyone would find it bizarre. The lack of actual use of most of the game features, the limited leveling, and the short game time make Arborea feel like a game engine in search of an actual game.

The game features a main character (Jarel) and six companions. You get to determine their classes and stats but not their names.

Arborea is an island on something called the "crystal world." Ages ago, when the gods created the world, they populated it with three races: orcs, Sham-nirs (elves), and black elves. Each race had a role: orcs were workers, Sham-nirs artisans, and black elves rulers. The world was held in balance by four crystals, each representing one of the four elements (earth, sky, water, and fire), each ensconced atop a tower.

Everything was cool until "Morgoth the fallen angel," in revenge for the gods' casting him out of heaven, "swept across the crystal world" and corrupted the orcs and black elves. (What a surprise.) When the gods awoke and saw what was happening, they "drowned the world in their fury," leaving only the island of Arborea, home of the crystals. Somehow during these events, the crystals became dislodged from their towers and scattered about the land. It is up to Jarel, last prince of the Sham-nirs, to find the crystals, return them to their towers, and restore balance to the world.

(To stave off comments relaying the obvious, Morgoth is the primary antagonist of Tolkien's The Silmarillion, from which of course the company Silmarils takes its name. For all I know, "Sham-nir" is somewhere in Tolkien, too. No, don't bother to comment. I don't care. Tolkien allusions are so trite, cliched, and tired by this point that it's just going to piss me off every time I see one. Seriously, developers: enough. Do something original for a change.)


As the game begins, you define Jarel's companions. In a weird inversion of the normal character creation process, the names of the characters are immutable, but the player determines their classes (warrior, ranger, or wizard) and allocates a pool of points to strength, constitution, life points, and agility. After creation, the characters plus Jarel start in a group in the lower-left corner of the island map. You can move characters individually or in groups across the map, looking for houses, towers, dungeons, and the titular crystals. At the same time, enemy forces also scatter across the map, looking to stop you.

The overland map. You can see a couple of discovered houses and towers. My party is represented by yellow squares; the purple square in the top middle-right is the main character, Jarel. The brown or red or whatever squares are enemy parties. Two towers have been discovered on the west side of the map and two crystal locations have been discovered on the east side. I have no idea what those circles are in the upper-left.

The game put me in a bad mood from the beginning by requiring a mouse for movement and almost all aspects of gameplay, but that would have been tolerable if the movement system itself wasn't so dumb. The game features two movement modes: map-based (top-down), where you click on the party, click "Move," and click the destination; and 3D view, where you click on compass pointers to advance one step, turn, and strafe. The obnoxious thing is that Jarel, the main character, who needs to be present to collect crystals and explore indoor structures, cannot move in map view. The other characters, meanwhile, cannot move in 3D view unless they're grouped with Jarel. Grouping them with Jarel, meanwhile, is a different process from grouping with each other--a very unintuitive one, I might add, that left me frustrated for the first few hours of gameplay.

Coming across a house in the woods.

Since Jarel needs to be present at every key interaction, the characters basically act as scouts. Once they find something, you have to move Jarel to the location to interact with the thing. But since Jarel is pretty vulnerable by himself--indeed, all small parties are vulnerable--the mechanic basically just encourages you to group everyone with Jarel at the outset and spend all your time exploring in 3D mode. This is what I did for my winning game.

The 3D view is rather pretty, and a cynic would think that the entire purpose of the game was just to show it off. As you explore, you see creatures moving about, navigate around obstacles, and find structures that you can enter. Day fades to evening and then nighttime, with the colors effectively changing to represent the time of day. I just wish the developers had mapped the movement commands to the number pad rather than requiring me to click on the stupid compass.

Jarel can actually see his companions in 3D view. To get them to join, you have to click on their faces.

The most important structures, at least for character development, are a series of houses occupied by various wizards and lords. Each has some bonus to offer you--the location of a crystal, a magic sword, the ability to see in the dark, and so forth--but each requires you to answer a riddle to get their boon. The funny thing is that the answers to the riddles are not discoverable in-game, but rather require knowledge of external literature. One wants to know what "Excalibur" is, for instance, and another asks you what the "silmarils" are. You choose from three answers, so there's a one-third chance of getting it right even if you haven't read the Arthurian legends or Tolkien.

Most games just annoy me with Tolkien references. This one actually wants me to have read the books.

The locations are at least partly randomized for each game. Every game has at least one dungeon--a series of tunnels that you explore in 3D view. I didn't like the graphics in the caves; it was very hard to determine when passages opened to the right and left. But the dungeons are small, and the one I fully mapped in my last game contained both a crystal and an armor upgrade for one of my warriors.
  
About to encounter a troll in the caves.
  
Combat comes along fairly frequently. You can flee from most of them, but you really need to build up experience for the endgame. The combat system is relatively original to this game. It takes place on a  6 x 7 grid on which you and your enemies can move in any direction, including diagonally. Warriors can only attack enemies in adjacent squares. Rangers can only attack enemies at least one square away, for whom they have a direct line-of-sight (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally) with no one in between. Wizards can cast spells and target enemies from anywhere on the grid.
  
Fighting a bunch of bats in the caverns. The two warriors (three squares north and one and two squares east) can attack the bat adjacent to them. The ranger at 2 squares east, 2 squares north can only attack the bat two squares to his northeast. The mage on the far right can cast a spell at any bat, but he has to hope that the one adjacent to him doesn't interrupt his casting.
  
Each turn, each character can move once or attack. Casting a spell requires one turn to start casting and one turn to finish. If the spellcaster takes damage after starting the spell, he loses it. Every action requires a certain amount of "energy" from the character's pool of 99 points. Characters must periodically sleep to recover energy.
  
I found combat reasonably difficult, especially when multiple enemies attack at once. Most attacks miss your foes, while most of their attacks seem to hit you. Enemies aren't stupid, and they constantly move around so that your characters can't attack from too many directions at once. I found that, because of this, rangers were essentially useless. It was too hard to maneuver rangers into line-of-sight positions with no other characters blocking, and every time I did, the enemy would just move. I won the game with two of each class, but if playing again, I'd go with 3 warriors and 3 wizards.

Each enemy delivers experience points to the character who makes the kill. Somewhere around 100 experience points, characters make Level 2. The game is so short, though, that none of my characters got higher than Level 3, and even that included some grinding.
  
In combat, Jarel acts as a warrior and can fight and level up with everyone else. If he dies, however, the game immediately ends with an image of the triumphant Morgoth.

Congratulations. You rule a small island.

There are 9 magic spells: "Acceleration" (basically "Haste," granting extra moves per turn), "Force Field" (protects a character but prevents him from moving), "Teleport," "Ball of Fire" (one foe), "Lightning" (all foes), "Paralysis," "Blindness," "Regression" (drains enemy levels), and "Treachery" (causes enemies to attack each other). Only "Acceleration," "Ball of Fire," and "Force Field" are available at Level 1, though, and I don't know when some of the others become available because I never got them at all. I relied on "Ball of Fire" most of the time.
  
A wizard prepares to cast "Ball of Fire" on a creature on the other side of the map.
  
There are notably no "Healing" spells. Jarel comes with a stock of healing potions that go pretty fast. There's at least one place in the game where you can refill the potions, but I didn't find it in every game. Minimizing damage in the first place, rather than healing later, is a key to winning the game.

Jarel heals himself and some of his compatriots with potions.

There's no economy in the game, nor really any equipment, meaning it technically doesn't meet my rules as an RPG. Yes, you can get magic swords and armor and such, but these just provide boosts to your stats; they're not actual items that you can equip, un-equip, trade, and drop.

Winning the game means recovering the four crystals from where they're scattered across the landscape. I've read some places that monsters will occasionally find them first and move them. I don't know if that's true, but if so, I never saw the consequences of this. In my winning game, I found one in the caverns, got a hint where to find the second, and just stumbled on the other two while exploring the wilderness (the outdoor ones sit on huge pedestals, so they're hard to miss).

Finding a crystal in the woods. As you walk up to them, they float down to Jarel.

After you have them, you go around the four towers and restore them. This is accompanied by a graphic.

Approaching the tower.
And restoring the crystal. How was I carrying four of these around in my backpack?

At the final tower--whichever one you visit last--Morgoth himself is waiting outside and attacks. The first time I faced him, I was completely unprepared for his difficulty, and he utterly took my party apart. He's extremely hard to hit, gets 3 moves per turn, can make himself invisible, and takes about 1/3 of the damage that other monsters do from successful attacks and spells.

Morgoth awaits at the final tower.

To defeat him, I had to grind for a bit to improve my various scores, then sleep for a while to make sure everyone was at full energy. Even then, it took me several reloads to achieve a victory. I accomplished it mostly by having my wizards cast "Force Field" on Jarel. Morgoth prioritizes attacks on Jarel, and he ineffectively beat at the force field while my other characters slowly whittled him down.

The warrior Akeer sacrifices himself for the rest of the party.

When Morgoth dies, everyone gets 1,000 experience points--far more than they would achieve in a normal game up to this point--and a 10-point bonus to all attributes. Neither really helps, as the game ends the moment you step past Morgoth's corpse and into the final tower. You're then treated to an animation of the island of Arborea slowly rising out of the sea, exposing more of the land around it. The sense is that the gods' floodwaters have receded, but there's no textual confirmation of this.

The crystals glow in the four towers, and the island rises from the sea again.

I won in 2 hours, about 1/3 of it spent reloading multiple times to defeat Morgoth.

I don't expect a very high GIMLET rating:

  • 3 points for the game world. There's a sensible enough back story, I guess, reflected in the actual gameplay, which is more than most RPGs of the era accomplish.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There aren't enough choices during creation, the characters barely go anywhere during gameplay, and there's no role-playing. I included a point for the encounter-based upgrades that you get from NPC houses.

The main character barely went anywhere in two hours of gameplay.

  • 2 points for NPC interaction, based on the limited interaction with the guys in their houses.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. There are only a handful of enemies in the game: black elves and orcs on the surface; trolls and bats in the underground; and Morgoth at the endgame. All enemies are melee-only and none except Morgoth have special attacks or defenses. There are no other "encounters" in the game.
  • 4 points for magic and combat. The combat system feels half like an RPG, half like a board game, but it's reasonably tactical and engaging. The magic system is only so-so.
  • 1 point for equipment. I'm charitably giving this to the couple of upgrades you can find.

Finding some armor in a cavern--one of only a couple "equipment" upgrades in the game.

  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 2 points for having a main quest, but with no side-quests or role-playing decisions.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics are relatively nice, especially in 3D mode. The sound is okay, consisting of occasional growls, screams, and clangs during combat. I didn't like the interface at all; it was all mouse-driven and not very responsive. I'm going to give an extra point in this category for the in-game documentation, which (though it lacks certain key pieces of information) is reasonably thorough. It's perhaps the first example we have, outside roguelikes, of extensive instructions within the game itself rather than a separate manual.

The manual is accessible from the main screen and has several sections.

  • 3 points for gameplay. It gets one for a certain amount of nonlinearity within a limited game world. It gets another for the randomness making it somewhat replayable, and a third for being at about the right difficulty level. But its short duration makes it feel more like a prologue for a longer game than a full game in its own right.

The final score of 23 is well below what I consider "recommended." The engine isn't horrible, the graphics are nice, and the combat system is promising. It just needed a better-balanced game, with more RPG trappings. I assume this is what we get in the Ishar series starting in 1992.


Arborea was covered in several Amiga magazines, which predictably focused on the graphics, sound, and music rather than the actual gameplay elements. (The May 1991 review from CU Amiga begins by giving thanks that "the days [are gone] when a role-playing game meant little more than a great leap of the imagination, a plot with trolls and gameplay along the lines of a special maths paper." You want to know when RPGs started getting "dumbed down"? This is it, right here.) It got 86% from The One, 91% from CU Amiga, and 86% from Amiga Action. Oddly, it's Amiga Power, the magazine I just excoriated for its half-assed review of Secret of the Silver Blades, that comes to the rescue with one of the only sensible reviews, giving the game only 48%.

Crystals of Arborea can be quite pretty (especially at night) if not outstandingly so, but while it has a lot of screens, it doesn't seem to be blessed with a great deal of variety. Add to that a distinctly slug-like pace and rules that seem to have been picked at random . . . and it all seems rather pointless. I found it one big snooze.

This was around the seventh game from Silmarils, but the first quasi-RPG; all of their previous offerings had been action, sports, and racing games. Two years later, they published Ishar: Legend of the Fortress (1992), folowed by Ishar 2: Messengers of Doom (1993) and Ishar 3: The Seven Gates of Infinity (1994). Judging by screenshots, the games seem to use Arborea's 3D interface but eliminate the grid-based combat, which I think is too bad: I was hoping it would be improved, not dumped. The entire series gets mixed reviews.

The authors of Arborea and Ishar are listed as Pascal Einsweiler and Michel Pernot. They were active on Silmarils titles throughout the 1990s, with their last credits on Ashgan: The Dragon Slayer (1998) and Arabian Nights (2002). Both are action games. Silmarils went out of business in 2003. The owners of Silmarils (the Rocques brothers) and Einsweiler went on to found a new company called EverSim, which still appears to be around and has a small library of geopolitical simulation games.

Arborea seems little-remembered today except as the weird precursor to Ishar. I wasn't able to find any walkthroughs or FAQs online, nor even very many detailed descriptions. There are a couple of YouTube videos, but only of the first few minutes of gameplay. Once again, I'm glad to have filled the role of cataloging the obscure.

****

Next up is supposed to be Moria. I had first wanted to win it "honestly" before posting about it, but that's clearly not going to happen. Then, I decided I'd win it "dirty" so I could at least show the endgame, but even that is taking a long time. It may or may not be my next game. If it's not, the next game is going to be an even more obscure French game, this time actually in French, for the Amstrad CPC: Saga.