Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Game 258: Gates of Delirium (1987)

Gates of Delirium
Diecom (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for the TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started:  13 August 2017
Date Ended: 16 August 2017
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
There are "Ultima clones" in the sense that they were clearly inspired by Ultima's mechanics and use an iconographic interface, and there are "Ultima clones" in the sense that they copy practically everything about one of the Ultima games, including the keyboard commands, the combat system, the magic system, what NPCs have to say, and the existence of a continent on the other side of the world with shrines that boost your attributes. Gates of Delirium is one of the latter. TRS-80 Color Computer owners, I realize that the vast majority of RPGs weren't available for your overpriced machine with its silly nickname, but this wasn't the way to go about it. This is just sad.
Compare the geography above to the opening of Ultima III. We're not off to a good start.
If Gates of Delirium has anything to do with its namesake on Yes's 1974 album Relayer, I don't see it in the documents or gameplay. Instead, the game is a copy of Ultima III, right down to the geography displayed on the title screen, where you can watch a little vignette of characters and monsters dancing around some very familiar tiles. Commands, too, are drawn directly from the Ultimas, including (K)limb and (Z)stats.

The same, alas, cannot be said of the production values. Aside from the cover, it's simply typewritten in a monospaced font. It does a decent job outlining the races, classes, menu commands, spells, and monsters, but offers no backstory. If you think, "Cool! The story and quest will slowly emerge through gameplay!," let me disabuse you now: no, it won't.
The "topside" game world from the documentation. Apparently, the land is called "The Land of Gates."
The player begins by choosing a name, sex, and race from human, elf, dwarf, gnome, and orc options. Classes are fighter, thief, magic-user, cleric, paladin, druid, and illusionist--the last character seeming in name only, as there are no illusion-specific spells.
Character creation.
You can ultimately get other characters to join your party, but much like Ultima IV, the character starts alone, weaponless, with 150 food and 750 gold.

I naturally began by exploring the town near the starting area. A welcome "sign" near the entrance named it "Casa." Little animated NPCs roamed the streets. Yes, we're back to the days of generic one-line NPCs. Guards say, "Be off!" Fighters say, "Ugh!" (but, I must admit, do not add "Me tough!"). Thieves say, "Your money or your life!" Clerics say, "Evil is everywhere!" Jesters say, "Tee hee hee!" Occasionally, someone will offer something valuable. These NPCs are usually fixed in one place. An NPC mage recommended that I "use OTHER commands," referring to an input (H) that allows you to type your own command keyword. An NPC cleric clued me that one of those commands is JOIN.
One in a hundred NPCs offers actual information.

Most offer nonsense like this.
I bought some ring mail and an axe. Weapons and armor are referred to by letters from A to H. A is hands and skin; B is a dagger and cloth; H is a two-handed sword and plate mail. The Eternal Dagger just let me wear things like Storm Plate +5 with an added "Invisibility" spell, but I don't think that will be possible here.
This is Ultima III's list of weapons exactly.
Experienced with Delirium's sources, I knew the most important NPCs would be hiding in darkened squares behind buildings and such. Sure enough, in a corner, I found an elf cleric named Gazer who happily joined my party. He brought no food or gold with him. I had to purchase him a hammer and cloth armor. And that was about all the excitement in Casa.

It was time, I reasoned, to head outside and see how the game had implemented combat. Plus, I could tell I was going to need money for food soon. My first battle was with trolls, and it followed the Ultima III model right down to the amusing use of "Conflict!" as the inciting world. You fight on a basic tactical map with no terrain considerations, and you can only attack in columns and rows. My priestly characters don't have anything in the way of offensive spells yet, so all I could do was advance and use melee weapons. As in Ultima III, enemies can attack and move on the diagonal but you can't.
We must give the developers credit for originality where it's due: they use only one exclamation point after "Conflict," not Ultima III's two.
The half-dozen trolls had knocked away about half my hit points before we killed the last of them, earning 3 experience points per troll. (Experience goes to the character who strikes the killing blow.) They left a chest that poisoned us when I opened it. I figured I'd just cast "Cure Poison," but it turns out that's not one of the listed spells in the cleric's book. I didn't find healers in towns until much later, so it was fatal for me this early in the game. I reloaded. I soon discovered that hit points regenerate at a rate of 1 per 10 moves. I tried to accelerate that with "Cure Light Wounds," but I could only cast one before I was out of magic points, and it took me 20 steps to regenerate them.
Another screenshot of fighting trolls.
The spell system is based on Ultima III. Characters get a certain number of spell points based on a combination of intelligence and wisdom (depending on their class). These spell points therefore do not increase as you level up; to improve them (and to cast any of the higher spells at all), you have to visit the antipodal continent and make offerings to shrines. Not calling said continent "Ambrosia" is another originality point in the game's favor.

Each spell depletes a set number of points. There aren't many spells. Magic users get "Burning Hands," "Light," "Magic Missile," "Continual Light," "Invisibility," and "Lightning Bolt." Clerics get "Turn Undead," "Find Traps," "Cure Light Wounds," "Protection from Evil," "Continual Light," and "Create Food." That's all the manual lists, anyway, covering letters A through G. Letters H, I, and J produce a message that I don't have enough spellpoints, so there are clearly more spells to "find," probably from talking with NPCs. One of them is "Cure Poison," but it requires so many spell points that the average player probably would never get it.
Using "Turn Undead" on some skeletons. I am obliged to note that this is also cleric spell "A" in Ultima III.
There was a castle mere steps away from Casa. A king and queen--or maybe two kings--reigned side-by-side, but their only advice was to "seek more experience!" Clearly, they perform a level-up service just like Lord British in Ultima III. There was a rations shop and a chapel full of clerics who encouraged me to "use the gates of luna!" Not "moongates," mind you, but "gates of luna."
You know how the only way you can kill Lord British in Ultima III is by stealing a ship while inside the castle and shooting him with the cannons? Yep, they even copied that.
Continuing around the continent, the city of "Ghost Town" was (appropriately) mostly deserted except for a "healing fountain" that actually poisoned, a couple unmanned shops, and a cleric deep in some woods who told me to "use gems to see all!" I can't remember if there were gems in Ultima III, so maybe the developers lifted this one from Ultima IV. At a pub, in a system going back to Ultima II, the bartender rewarded overpayment with tips, including not drinking the water because "some water is poison."
I feel like this would be hard to read from the actual road.

Further south, I ran into my first "gate of luna," which took me to the southern continent on the main map, but I didn't last long there because of the sheer number of monsters.

By now, I had resolved not to continue with the game, but I couldn't stop before checking out at least one dungeon. This was currently impossible as neither of my cleric spellcasters had enough magic points for the cleric's "Continual Light," meaning I'd have to find a place selling torches or find a mage NPC. Either way, it meant more town explorations. Unfortunately, I didn't find any other towns on the accessible part of the large northern continent. It turns out there are some accessible by water only and one that requires you to walk across a huge swamp (which doesn't poison your characters but causes damage every step instead). Clearly, I either needed a ship (the manual promised roaming pirates) or to go through the moongate to the monster-infested southern continent.

Before I could do either, I settled in for a period of grinding near the castle. Orcs, trolls, skeletons, and thieves showed up every five minutes or so. That seems like a long time when grinding, but any more often and I wouldn't have been able to replenish hit points between battles.

Treasure chests are a huge pain in the neck. At least 50% of the time, they're trapped with acid or poison. Acid does a couple dozen hit points damage, so because of it, you'd better have more than 50 hit points before you even consider opening a chest. Poison has to be cured by a healer until very late in the game. It costs 100 gold pieces, against an average haul of around 30 per chest. This is less of a consideration than the fact that you'll probably die of the poison before even reaching the healer. Fortunately, there's a "Find Traps" cleric spell that automatically removes the trap and gives you the gold in the chest; unfortunately, it often fails and you have to stand there and wait to replenish spell points.
This party didn't last long after this.
Still, it's a better option than saving and reloading. You can save anywhere in the game, but reloading means killing the game and rebooting, which is almost as much a pain on the MAME emulator (more below) as it must have been on the original machine. 

Speaking of saving, Delirium does offer one major difference from its source: the world state is saved permanently to disk. When you start a new game, you create a play disk that has all the town and dungeon information on it. If you kill an NPC or open a chest in a town, the act is written to the disk when you save. Thus, you can't kill the same NPC multiple times for experience and gold, or loot the same group of treasure chests simply by leaving town and re-entering. In this, it shares characteristics with Deathlord from the same year.
As in Ultima III, you can loot groups of chests in shops. But unlike Ultima III, those chests don't respawn when you leave and return.
I did do plenty of reloading during this session. The game has no compunction about sending large groups of giants or other high-level creatures at you even at Level 1. Because your only "heal" spell only cures about 5 hit points at a time, and it takes 10 steps to regenerate 1 hit point, you're almost chronically under health.
Owning a ship greatly improves the combat terrain in the player's favor.
But even at my maximum, I couldn't survive the swarm of enemies waiting for me on the other side of the moongate, so I was thrilled when I saw a pirate ship on the horizon. As with the early Ultimas, acquisition of a ship is a major deal in this game, allowing you to fully explore the land and, if you don't feel like fighting enemies, blast them with the ship's cannons. (You get no experience or gold from that, but it's an easy way to clear out tougher enemies.) Perhaps most important, it gives you a way to fight regular battles in which enemies can only approach you one at a time.
I think I'll weed out the fighters, giants, and thieves and just fight the skeletons and orcs.
With the ship, I was able to pick my battles better and amass the 200 or 250 experience points that I finally needed to level up.
Despite his proclamation, he increased my hit points, not my wisdom.
More important, the ship took me to a previously-inaccessible part of the starting continent, a town called Tirary, where a shop sold torches, keys, gems, and magic horns that stop time briefly. I bought mostly torches. A magic user in the northwest corner offered to join my party. He was Level 1 and named Merlin.
You wouldn't think torches would be such rare commodities.
Without preparing much, I entered my first dungeon, near the starting area. Dungeons in this game are not 3D like Ultima III but rather large and top-down mazes. There are enough chests to suggest that dungeon-delving is probably the key to wealth.
Arriving in a dungeon.
Encounters are sparse in dungeons but lean towards the difficult side, and my party was soon killed. If I was going to continue with the game, I'd do some topside grinding first, get to Level 3 or 4, buy some better gear, and make sure I was fully healed before going to the dungeons again. But I'm not going to do that because the game is boring and derivative, and if I'm going to spend dozens of hours across multiple posts on a 1987 game, it's going to be one that has some original ideas, like Deathlord.
This dungeon shows a ladder, a couple of chests, and some lava next to pathways to my south.
Plus, you don't need me to document this one. That was already accomplished by frequent commenter Stu, blogging as "yakumo9275" on Armchair Arcade back in 2007 (coverage starts here, but skip to here for things that I didn't already cover). To summarize his findings, each of the game's 10 dungeons is enormous, with dozens of large levels, at least one spilling the player on the other side of the world. Those that don't require fairly tedious backtracking once you've finished exploring down to the bottom level.

The antipodal continent has a few towns and four shrines where you can pay 100 gold pieces for 1-point statistic upgrades. This is the only way to get more magic points.
Stu finds one of the seven gate keys.
More important, a southern island in the other world holds the titular Gates of Delirium. Entry is barred by seven doors for which you need to find keys--six of them in dungeons and one of them in a hidden town (you find clues that tell you how to get there).
Stu approaches the Gates of Delirium.
Unlocking all the doors and walking up to the gates brings you to the endgame screen, which simply says that you solved the game and gives you four "secret messages." Back when the game was new, you wrote those messages on a card and sent it to Diecom to be entered into a contest, one prize of which was a brand new Color Computer so you could play more games like this. Anyway, Stu doesn't offer a summary of his experience, but the tone of his posts is largely negative and he had to resort to cheating to force himself to finish.
The end of the game, from yakumo9275's LP.
I give Gates of Delirium a 25 in the GIMLET. It does best (4s) in the area of NPCs--who can both join the party and impart key information--and economy, which never stops being relevant. It does worst (1) for the game world, which offers not a hint of history, lore, or purpose for the quest. It suffers for its length; the size of the dungeons is simply inexcusable. I did not subtract points for essentially plagiarizing Ultima II-IV, but its appropriations make me think worse of it than the score suggests.
They didn't even change the amounts you have to tip a bartender for clues.
I try not to be too insulting in these reviews--the developers are real people, and were probably young at the time--but it's hard to argue with the label that Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice affixed to Delirium in their book Vintage Games: a "shameless and insipid clone." You know who I feel bad for? Charles Dougherty. He goes and creates an original game (Questron) that owes little to Ultima except the use of top-down tiles, and he can't publish it without eating crow and giving a cut to Richard Garriott. Meanwhile, Rings of Darkness, Deathlord, Wrath of Denethenor, and Gates of Delirium do this with impunity.
I forgot to show you what a dungeon entrance looks like. These can be hard to spot.
Back in the mid-2000s, a group of nostalgiacs named Andrew Ayers, Michael Crawford, and Tim Lindner, whose parents hadn't loved them enough to buy computers capable of playing Ultima III, got together and created the "Gates of Delirium archive," a web site with links to the game files, documents, maps, notes, and technical information. My snarky comment aside, it really was well done. It would be a model fan page except that it disappeared some time after 2008.

Fortunately, CRPG Commenter Adamantyr (who has his own summary of the game) preserved the entire site offline and sent it to me several years ago, when I was mixed up and thought the game was a 1984 title. I held on to the files.
The manual cover is at least original.
Actually getting the game to play took most of a day. For technical reasons I don't understand, it doesn't work with the Color Computer emulators I already had. (By now, the number of emulators I've downloaded for the Color Computer easily exceeds the number of RPGs availalbe for it.) Notes from the archive identified a couple of emulators that it did work with, but neither of them work with Windows 10. Finally, I downloaded the latest copy of MAME (which incorporates the multi-system emulator formerly known as MESS). MAME is a tremendously impressive and valuable project, capable of emulating dozens of systems and arcade games, but damn was it hard to set up. It's interface is far more cumbersome than single-game emulators, and it took me forever to figure out how to bring up the configuration menu (allowing me to switch disks, among other things) during the game itself. I suppose it was a good exercise, though, as MAME is bound to come in handy in the future.

(In case anyone finds their way here via Googling keywords and has the same problem, the issue is that the default key for the configuration menu, TAB, isn't enabled unless you first activate "UI Mode." The key to do that is mapped to the "Scroll Lock" key by default, which many laptops don't have. You have to use the configuration menu in the master emulator re-map that function.)
An advertisement for the game makes it a minor title among Diecom's catalogue.
Gates of Delirium was designed by Canadian developers Roland Knight, Dave Dies, and Dave Shewchun and published by Diecom, an Ontario-based developer whose best-known title seems to be an adventure game called Caladuril: Flame of Light (1987). All three developers have several other titles from Diecom during the same period, including an adventure game called Lansford Mansion (there's a good review of the game on the "Gaming After 40" blog), an action knockoff of Gauntlet called Gantelet, and an action knockoff of Boulder Dash called Bouncing Boulders, and an original action game called Bugs. Dies and Knight have later programming credits involving translations of arcade games for the Camputers Lynx.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, and certainly we'd be nowhere in the RPG genre if developers didn't copy and adapt each other's best ideas. But it's just creepy when your game seems to have no original ideas, owes too much to a single predecessor, and doesn't even offer an homage in your materials. This one, which doesn't even have the excuse of being shareware, borders on shameful.

Speaking of which, the next game on my 1987 list, Hera for the Apple II, is yet another Ultima clone. What was the deal with 1987? It seems to be an independent game, so I may exercise my new Rule #4 with this one.


For further reading: My review of Ultima III starts here. If you like hearing about Ultima clones, The Ring of Darkness is another particularly shameless one.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

MegaTraveller 2: Won!

The Duke of Rhylanor is a little excited.
Well, I said I'd do it in one more session, and I did. But man, did it take a long time. And I mostly just pursued the main quest after the last entry. I don't think I completed a single side quest.

As we discussed, side quests are only necessary for the money they offer. By the end of my last entry, my financial situation was already pretty good, and pretty soon into this session, any monetary woes disappeared forever.

First, I got sick of my scout ship's limited travel capacity (just one sector at a time), plus I was getting destroyed in every space combat--which can occur randomly every time you arrive at or leave a planet. I sold the ship for $1.5 million, which would have been enough to keep me going until the end on its own.
This happens a lot.
That amount was supplemented by the facts that a) apparently, I'd been taking photographs of every Ancients ruin I visited; and b) Trow Backett back on Rhylanor would buy the for $150,000 apiece. That was another $750,000 that I pocketed.
You really need to learn to lowball. I would have taken $5,000.
Then, not so long afterwards, I discovered that some of the Ancients artifacts I'd been collecting were capable of delaying (though not ending) the threat of the slime spreading across Rhylanor. Between a "stasis ray," a "disintegrator," and a "pocket disk," I reduced enough of the threat that the government on Rhylanor paid me $7 million! Apparently, I could have found something called a "force dome" that would have stalled the slime even further and netted me more money.
And the math actually works out.
When I sold my ship, I had intended to swear off my own space travel and just use commercial and charter travel. But now that I was nearing $10 million, I figured I'd buy a far trader and outfit it with the best weapons that I could. After all, it only took half my money, and it would let me experience a side of the game I'd been ignoring.

I haven't talked much about space travel. The game's 117 planets are dispersed across a map of about 320 hexagons, organized into four "subsectors." The dispersal is not even. Most planets are adjacent to other planets, but some are isolated with several empty hexes between them.

The "scout ship" that I started the game with is only capable of jumping from one hex to an adjacent hex. Upon arrival, I either need to land on the planet to refuel or hope the system has a gas giant, where I can refuel for free. Since the whole process of boarding the ship, assigning crew locations, taking off, jumping, landing, and buying fuel takes about a billion mouse clicks, trying to get anywhere in my scout ship was just frustrating. Fuel prices cost about as much as paying for commercial travel anyway. And if you accidentally jump to a system with no starport or gas giant, you have to pay a ton of money to have the ship towed back to a system with a port. It just wasn't worth it, so I sold the ship.
"Jumping" from one planet to another.
But a "far trader" has engines that allow jumping two hexes at a time. Every system in the game is reachable that way (though sometimes via a round-about route). I figured that might improve in speed upon commercial or charter travel. Plus, charter travel to some planets is so expensive ($300,000 or more, with my low negotiating skill), that I still had a vague worry about running out of money eventually.

I won my first combat with my new trader. There isn't much to do in combat. Your crew automatically assigns itself to various stations, including guns, based on their skills. You just hit "target" and "attack" and watch as the ships fire at each other. You can't move, even.
Watching the battle take place.
After battle, you have the option to loot the enemy ship. I got so much in one haul that I can see why some people prioritize piracy in this game.
Is it really "pirating" if the ship attacked me first?
But I only had the far trader for about an hour of game time. At one point, I visited the planet Ylaven because my notes said there would be an Ancients site there. I didn't find a site, but when I stopped at the system's gas giant to refuel, I did find an abandoned Ancients ship.
This was lucky.
In a series of text screens, the game described how my party boarded and used some fuel cores we'd discovered at another site to re-activate the ship. It became ours. The Ancients ship is capable of jumping four hexagons at a time and doesn't require fuel. It also has its own special weapons that can't be modified or supplemented. Traveling with this ship meant that I didn't even need to land between systems and thus became much faster than any other form of travel.

Despite my low skill in ship's guns, I never lost a fight with the Ancients ship. I don't even think I took any damage. With no more need for money at all, except paltry amounts to travel between cities on a single planet, the game largely became a race to the end of the plot at this point.
I'm not even sure I want t know what's happening with this ship.
As I wrote several entries ago, MegaTraveller 2 is basically one huge treasure hunt as you follow clues from one system to another. But being an open-world game, it's also non-linear and occasionally rewards random exploration. If you lose a quest thread somewhere, you may be able to pick it up by visiting a random planet. I made it a practice to explore at least the startown of each new planet I stopped at, and I took pains to route myself through unexplored systems when possible. 

The developers tried hard to make each planet seem unique. The map in the manual has codes for a bunch of systems, and these codes tell you the type of starport you can expect to find there, its size, its atmosphere, its hydrographics, its government type, its law level, its technology level, and its population. Computers that you can access in the naval and scout bases and the Traveler's Aid Society (I eventually bought a membership) tell you even more about the political and social situations there. I found that some of the computer entries even gave hints about quests or the likelihood that the system has Ancients ruins.
TAS computers offer back stories and hints about plot points.
I appreciate the effort, but it doesn't quite work. If money was harder to come by, you might study the computer entries for hours looking for planets with solid opportunities. You might use the data to plot trade routes. If combat was harder, you might be wary about visiting a high-law level planet with no naval or scout base, as you're almost certain to have your weapons confiscated. But from the outset of the game, there's almost no reason not to move freely from world to world, meaning that all this intelligence is mostly wasted. Plus, the uniformity of each city map ruins any sense of uniqueness.
A better game would have made more use of these variables.
You'll recall that there are two branches of the main quest: trying to stop the slime released from the Ancients site from taking over Rhylanor, and figuring out which megacorporation was behind the sabotage in the first place.

The Ancients part of the quest involved tracking down each member of the Ancients Collectors Society to get their wisdom and visiting each Ancients site to find artifacts and "coyns." The ACS members helped identify which planets had Ancients ruins, but random use of the "Locater" device on every planet helped identify a few more. Early in the game, I thought that I had to visit every site and collect every device, but I guess that's not the case. All of the artifacts but one are optional, I think--although the others are responsible for that $7 million. You only need 36 "coyns" to win the game, and there are more than that in the galaxy. I ended the game with 41.
We explored a huge set of caverns for 20 minutes to find this one coyn.
The Ancients sites are interesting. Each one has a slightly different look and feel, and as you explore each one, the game offers verbose cut scene text to describe them. Here's what I found on Gerome, for instance:
In the dark, murky cavern, you struggle to negotiate the craggy corridors. One of the passages seems to have a pale light source at its end. You venture down the tunnel, taking tiny steps, and struggle to maintain your balance on the damp rocks beneath you.

At the end of the tunnel, you stumble upon an incredible discovery: a deserted space vessel. Lying half-buried in a dry, crusty bed of mud is the wreckage of a fantastic ship like no other you've ever seen. A transparent, illuminating glow bathes the craft in a soothing array of soft colors. Only once race could have constructed a ship this magnificent: the Ancients. After photographing the Ancient vessel, you gaze at the remains of the shipwreck in wonder and feel a twinge of nervous excitement as you prepare to board the vessel.
Another nicely-written and illustrated introduction to an Ancients site that had, I think, a single coyn.
These passages are all very well-written but again, mostly wasted. The actual "exploration" of the ruins involves wandering around cavernous areas with no combats and no encounters, only to find a single item or two on the floor.

The plot occasionally got silly, too. On the wreck of the ship described above, I activated a computer and read some logs from the long-dead Ancients captain. The logs mentioned a few planets with ruins that I didn't know about, and they described the war beginning between Grandfather and his children. At first, they're confident: "It is one against 420." Later, they become panicky as they realize "Grandfather has pinched off his own pocket universe" and thus "we can't fight him." I'm not saying it's horrible, but I didn't expect the ancient legend of "Grandfather" and his children to be literally true. Plus, I had to track down an Ancients expert to translate some writing on a shield, but somehow my characters are able to interpret the writing on the computer? To use the computer in the first place? It took me 9 hours to emulate Gates of Delirium in MAME, and that system is only 30 years old, not 300,000. Why are the planets named the same thing now as they were 300 millennia ago?
You're the only sentient beings in the galaxy. Who are you sending that "mayday" to?
On the corporate side of things, I started to run into a wall. Representatives refused to speak to me, or refused to tell the truth, and my "interrogate" skill wasn't good enough to crack them. Very late in the game, I found some "truth serum" at an abandoned university. It apparently was placed in the game to compensate for weak "interrogation," but I found it too late to do much good. I basically only used it on the secretary of Lie Iaccocco, the president of Tukera Lines, to get her to tell me where I could find him. 
Ms. Chan illustrates the value of the initialism "TMI."
But when I visited him, he simply said that he couldn't believe anyone in his company would be responsible for internal sabotage, and he offered me $250,000 to prove otherwise.
For the record, the real Lee Iacocca was the son of an Italian hot dog vendor who started at Ford as an engineer and worked his way up to president via good ideas and hard work. Sometimes, I don't know what this game thinks it's satirizing.
I had expected the Imperiallines thread to lead somewhere. Two representatives had told me that the company was up to no good, and they recommended that I search the offices of a representative named Gryfythh on Junidy. I did that, and I found a disk that outlined Gryfythhs's plan to attack a Naasirka facility on Aramax. I traveled there but couldn't find the facility in question, and otherwise couldn't find anyone to give the disk to. In any event, this sub-plot didn't seem to be related to the "real" conspiracy.

It was blind luck that let me pick up the path again. I had a layover on Pscias between stops and decided to explore the starport. I entered a building and suddenly found myself in combat with 5 guys. In the middle of combat, incidentally, this appears on my screen:
Where has this been all game?
For the first and only time in the game, one of my characters spontaneously acquired a skill through continual use of an item. It didn't happen with any of the other items that I'd asked the characters to use, and I never got any more training opportunities at the training facilities. Honestly, the game's approach to character development just makes no sense. It's either bugged or horribly broken from the outset. In nearly 40 hours of constantly using various types of weapon, armor, vehicles, and interpersonal skills, I was able to train once in "ATVs" and spontaneously generated a level on "Swords." Unbelievable.

After I killed them, I interrogated their leader, a guy named Grazer, in an adjacent room. He admitted that he was one of the two suspicious characters fleeing the Ancients site on Rhylanor, having activated the slime. He said he had been hired by a Tukera representative named Jayef Nonnel, who my notes said should be on Treece but I was unable to find him in the first visit.
I filmed two people fleeing. I don't think we ever found out who the second guy was.
Here, things got interesting. Grazer offered to let me join the conspiracy. Just for fun, I said yes, and he gave me a quest to go kill Trow Backett. I made an alternate save at this point, reloaded, and said no. He battled me and I killed him.
An intriguing alternate path opens.
Grazer had started his speech with "So, Cruxlic spilled his guts?" I didn't know who that was. Later, looking at a walkthrough, I see that I was supposed to have interrogated one of the random thugs attacking me and discovered he was recently released from the Huderu prison world. I would have then gone to Huderu, interrogated the warden, and learned about Grazer.

On to Treece. I found Jayeff Nonnel in the Tukera offices. I didn't even have to use interrogation or the truth serum: he admitted to everything. He had somehow learned how to activate the Ancients site on Rhylanor, and he hired Grazer to do it. He broke into Ashkashur's office and issued the order for the Vemene agents to kill me. And he partnered with Cruxlic to recruit prisoners as hit men.
You're destroying a whole planet over inter-office politics?
He did all of this because of a rivalry with fellow Tukera representative Roald Bulolo, based on Rhylanor. He wanted to "teach him a lesson about power and control . . . to destroy everything and then reroute all trade to the Lanth subsector."

Okay. I mean, I'm glad I solved the conspiracy, but wow was it anticlimactic. And talk about overkill! That would be like some Microsoft executive from Cambridge collaborating with ISIS to nuke Seattle so that the headquarters would be moved to the east coast and he'd have better promotional opportunities.
Looting the body from what turned out to be the game's final battle.
In any event, he attacked me and I killed him. On his body were a couple of disks outlining his nefarious plans, plus an Ancient "string of pearls" and a journal that mentioned an "Ancient site where challenges await adventurers." I already knew from the shield translation that such a site existed in the Regina subsector, and I knew from visiting Regina itself that there was a site I couldn't access before.

The site was interesting. It consisted of a series of pearly domes with teleporters at each end of the room. The only "challenge" was a simple number puzzle in which I had to finish a sequence beginning 1-9-2-8. Don't overthink it. It's a count-up followed by a count-down. "3-7-4-6" was the answer.
The visuals here were pretty cool.
The site offered a "Locater Plug" which fit into my Locater, but I never really figured out what it was for. More importantly, it delivered enough coyns (7) to give me the full set I needed. When I tried to use the "coyns," I was explicitly told that I should use them on Shionthy, so that's where I went. I used them again right out of starport, and they opened a "rip through the fabric of time and space" which led my party to "a magnificent city."
I hope the writer had a per-world contract.
I'm tempted to transcribe everything that followed, but it would take forever. (The game got very verbose in its final hours.) To summarize, the party entered the portal. We started to marvel at the domed city when we were suddenly paralyzed by some Droyne (Ancients) warrior robots and taken to Grandfather, who was dressed in "an awesome suit of armor, carrying a majestic staff and had "black eyes like an endless abyss, filled with the answers to every question and the solution to every problem that ever existed."
"Grandfather, what do women want?"
Grandfather was cool. After hearing our story, he explained that he sealed himself in the pocket universe after the destructive war with his offspring. He was amused when he heared about Rhylanor. The slime isn't supposed to destroy the planet, he said; rather, it was a terraforming substance that would restore life and water to the barren landscape. He agreed, of course, that it needed to be stopped before it covered existing cities. He gave us a terraforming activation device and sent us back through the portal, promising that he wouldn't be interfering with the universe again.

We returned to Rhylanor. Before activating the device, we visited Lord Hollis and gave him the disk outlining the Tukera conspiracy. He gave me a pass to see the Duke of Rhylanor, who in turn rewarded me with $1 million credits--not that money was any good at this point.
Yes, it was an inside job. Again.
And so we rented a gravity vehicle, left the city, and flew to the edge of the slime's spread.
Just note that the planet appears to have water and trees already . . .
We walked up to it and activated the terraforming gun. The slime "vaporized, leaving fresh soil and lush, green grass and vegetation beneath it." A continued "domino effect" finished transforming the planet into a "lush paradise." I have to admit with some embarrassment that I don't remember Rhylanor being described as dry and barren before. Maybe it was during the opening sequence.
If the whole planet gets terraformed anyway, why did the slime ever need to cover the planet?
The endgame video commenced. The party met with the Duke again, who had a really long speech, presented for some reason as scrolling text on the bottom of the screen:
On behalf of the Royal Family and the citizens of Rhylanor, and on behalf of the Imperium and all of the megacorporations that conduct business on this great world, I, Duke Leonard, grant you Knighthood in the Honorable Order of the Arrow.

Though their reward is monumental, no amount of money can repay the debt we owe them. Our homes, our lives, and our futures are secure thanks to the efforts of these worthy individuals. These courageous and cunning knights have not only saved Rhylanor, they have transformed it into a lush, thriving world. There is now fresh soil where before there were scorching deserts. Rocky, barren wasteland is now dense, deciduous forests and vibrant green grasses. Dry river and lake beds are now filled with clear, life-sustaining water. In the amazing rebirth of our planet, new industries will emerge, agricultural enterprises will flourish, exotic species of animals will appear, and we will all take part in a cultural renaissance that will change our lives forever.

Thanks to these adventurous knights, the secret of the Ancients has been solved. The Ancients never meant to destroy Rhylanor. Instead, they sought to transform our world and make it a better place for all. Sadly, the Ancients never saw the results of their work, but hopefully there's a spark of their brilliance still left in the galaxy, somewhere. Maybe, the Ancients still exist in another time and space, and maybe they're looking upon our newfound abundance with pride.

Here's to Rhylanor! Here's to the Ancients! And here's to the greatest adventurers of all!
The party seems to be one member shy as we approach the Duke.
You may recall that the supposed reward for solving the crisis was half a billion credits. Well, after the speech, we got a scroll proclaiming that we were awarded $5 million credits, with the remaining $495 million to be paid "as Rhylanor begins to rebuild from the destruction." That's reasonably funny. I wouldn't bet on my party ever seeing the balance of that reward.
It's good to know there's still parchment in the future.
The sequence ends with Kevin, the tour guide from the opening sequence, starting a new tour at the Rhylanor Ancients site, noting that since the last tour, "an amazing thing happened."
The face that bookends the adventure.
The game then dumped us back in Rhylanor Startown and let us keep playing. In a slightly better game, I'd be tempted. Of the 117 planets, I only visited 82. What's the story with Bevy on the fringes of the Rhylanor sector? How did I miss Paya right there in the middle? Is there anything else to discover on the prison planet of Huderu? What's happening on Celepina, where the an NPC captain told me that a visit from a Zhodani representative is under protest? What does the TAS computer mean when it says that Vanejen has an "unusual Vilani culture?"
You occasionally get hints from NPCs in space.
Unfortunately, with no character development, boring combat, and a tendency for side quests to play out either banal or goofy, the game doesn't quite justify further exploration. But it almost does. From this year, from this developer, that's a reasonably important accomplishment.

I may keep playing to see how the "evil" plot resolves, working with Grazer. If they actually programmed an alternate ending in which Rhylanor is destroyed, that would be pretty amazing. I also want to see what happens if we just wait out the clock. Thus, we'll save the summary and rating for a separate posting.

Time so far: 39 hours