Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Eternal Dagger: Won! (with Final Rating)

My sequel-deprived characters remain trapped eternally in a foreign landscape.
The Eternal Dagger
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for Apple II and Atari 8-bit; 1988 for Commodore 64
Date Started:  2 August 2017
Date Ended: 13 August 2017
Total Hours: 35
Difficulty: Hard (4/5), although adjustable on the main screen.
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
My commenters offered good advice for the "impossible" combat I described in my last entry. It centered around prioritizing dexterity in my attribute upgrades, searching for armor that protects against life draining (the high demons' primary attacks), and making better use of spells in combat. Thanks to everyone who commented.

But when I returned to play the game, I couldn't bring myself to engage in yet more grinding. So I sighed, lowered the difficulty, and tried the battle against Sri again. I defeated him with 4 characters killed. It was a hollow victory, yes, but by this time I was just trying to get to the end.
The objective of the dungeon. Acquired but not really "achieved."
Sri's chambers held the 8 "aqua-helms" I needed to visit the sunken city of Enolho. I retrieved them, made my way back to the Dwarven city, and left the Dwarven Island for the Elven Island.

I returned to Gray Eagle, and his minions flew me to the underwater city, leaving me on top of a tower sticking out of the surf. I strapped on the helmets and entered.
You probably want to back up your save before this point.
Enolho was a large single level featuring a lot of battles with demons, mermen, and sharks. By the time I found the portal to the demon world, my health was quite low and my karma about half used-up, so I somewhat shamefully reloaded from my position outside the city and simply made directly for the portal. There wasn't much reason to explore the city since all the nice weapon and armor upgrades that it offered had to be discarded before entering the portal.
"Wish" isn't the word I'd use, no.
My characters went through the portal with nothing but the Eternal Dagger (immune because it had once been living or something). We immediately faced battle with "undead warriors" whom my priests turned quickly. On their bodies, we found some basic equipment to replenish what we'd just discarded. A couple other battles on the same level also helped restore the characters' preferred weapon types, but the quality of the items was nowhere near what we'd just abandoned.
A fairly nice magic axe among a bunch of non-magic gear.
The demon world was two levels. The first had a maze in which the walls shifted every time I stepped on piles of rubble. The goal was to get to a set of stairs in the lower-right corner, but I had to use trial and error to get the walls to shift into the right position to allow me to make it down there. It was time-consuming but not hard, as there were no combats in the area.
Navigating a small, shifting maze.
There was a further maze of diagonally-situated squares that was no trouble at all, then a couple secret doors, then a final battle with some normal demons. The game really took it easy in this last section owing to the loss of equipment, I guess.
We are the sworn foes of colorful light!
In the room following the final battle, I looked at a table with a "pulsing colorful light." I had the option to destroy it with the Eternal Dagger, and of course I took it. This produced the endgame text:
As the Eternal Dagger strikes the light, it bursts in a polychromatic explosion. Huge energies tear at the fiber of your very souls. The Eternal Dagger shatters in your hand. You feel torn into a myriad of pieces. You have destroyed the heart of the gate and your world is safe. But still you are buffeted by the forces released. Suddenly, with an awful twist, you find yourselves in a normal landscape.

You are in a clearing in a wood. It is beautiful, but it is not home. That you must still find . . . but that is another adventure . . .
But the screen froze and there was no final save, and of course we know now that there was no "other adventure."

It wasn't until I was compiling this entry that I took a look at the walkthrough by the always-reliable Andrew Schultz and saw that if I'd dithered around the room with the pulsing light, I would have been attacked by the "big bad"--the guy sending all the demons in the first place--whose name is Anawt. The name was referenced in a couple of earlier encounters.
What I would have experienced if I'd messed around instead of doing the obvious thing.
He attacks with a dozen or so high demons. I'm tempted to call the battle unwinnable, but I know from experience that if I do that, it will be 20 minutes before someone links a video of someone winning it on the hardest difficulty with a single unarmed character. So I'll just say that I couldn't see a way to win it. Not with my characters half-equipped with inferior stuff. I'm grateful the fight is optional.
The likely-impossible final battle.
In a GIMLET, I expect it to do slightly better than Wizard's Crown owing mostly to some interface improvements. I otherwise don't see many strengths or weaknesses that either game had that the other didn't have. Let's see.
  • 3 points for the game world. Storytelling was never SSI's strong suit. They improve in the Gold Box titles, but they never get great. Here, the world and backstory are mostly a set of allusions to generic fantasy tropes.
None of the business with the turtle, the eagle, the sunken city, and most other plot elements was well-fleshed out.
  • 6 points for character creation and development. By far, this is the strongest part of this little series. Even in the sequel, starting with skills and attributes already high, there remained a palpable sense of progress after every few combats. But while development was strong, there were still no good role-playing options by race or class.
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. The "NPCs" in the game are more like "encounters." That one point is generous. Dagger doesn't even have the old man spinning tales.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The game has a decent menagerie of monsters with their own strengths and weaknesses and a strong sense of contextual encounters (alas, not offering much in the way of role-playing options). The puzzles of Mad Avlis's dungeon were a particular bonus.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. My opinion hasn't changed. The tactical options are great--a huge step on the way to the Gold Box--but the game errs on the side of too much complexity, which in turn makes it too easy to rely on quick combat.
I was too ashamed to mention above that I used quick combat for the last battle. Keep in mind that at the time, I didn't know it was the last battle.
  • 6 points for equipment, the best part of the game other than character development. Given 8 characters with numerous slots, almost every battle produces an upgrade. The ability to pay to add enchantments to items is also fantastic, but I rather prefer the way the first game did it, where you could pay for substantial enchantments (e.g., storm damage) instead of just higher "+" levels. That's balanced here by more potions, scrolls, and wands that give magic ability to non-magic characters.
Having to drop everything, on the other hand, was painful.
  • 5 points for the economy. It's strong, with that one major "money sink" in the way of enchantments, although lacking in complexity since that's the only thing you spend money on.
  • 3 points for the main quest, but unlike the first game, there are no side quests or side areas. There remain no choices on the main quest path, except perhaps to stick around and try to kill Anawt.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics and sound are barely adequate, though improving slightly on the first game with a title graphic (and having any sound at all). Although the game makes good use of the keyboard, too many of the commands are cumbersome to access, and the movement system still sucks, but at least dungeon movement isn't the nightmare it was in the last game.
  • 3 points for gameplay. While larger than Wizard's Crown, it's still pretty linear and thus non-replayable. At the default difficult level, it's a smidgen too hard, requires too much grinding, and lasts a bit too long.
That gives us a final score of 41, or 3 points higher than Wizard's Crown, which I guess it earns primarily for having sound (the Apple II version of Crown didn't), the slightly more interesting dungeon encounters, and easier dungeon travel.
Why does the box show them stepping through the portal with equipment?! This would have been the one time that nudity was justified.
Dragon magazine, which famously awarded 5 stars to anything that blinked and beeped, gave this one 1.5 stars--literally the worst rating I've ever seen in their pages. It seems astonishing, since the game so faithfully replicates--as well as could have been done in 1987--a tabletop RPG module with tactical combat. I couldn't imagine what they thought was missing, especially where they gave 4 stars to Wizard's Crown.

Well, it turns out the low rating has little to do with the core game and everything to do with the character creation and import process. The review doesn't mention which version of the game they tried, but either it wasn't the Apple II or they suffered issues that I didn't. "The translation program does away with all but one wizard, and the remaining characters are really knocked down in abilities," it says, which simply doesn't make any sense. At least in the Apple II version, the characters came over completely intact. Anyway, because of this problem, the reviewers recommend creating new characters in Dagger, but they had trouble there, too. "One mistake or accidental slip of the finger could cause you to exit the creation module. If that occurs, you can't return to complete your adventuring party . . . you must start the party creation sequence from scratch again." Again, I have no idea what they're talking about. Each individual character is created and saved independently on the main screen (there's no separate "module") and even a power outage preserves that character on disk. I verified this with all three platforms.

The reviewers claim they lost their self-created parties, mid-creation, three times in a row, so resigned themselves to playing with the pre-created characters. Here, they ran into problems with the difficulty. "We got no further than a few miles with these adventurers, coming at last to a temple in the south. The party turned out to be entirely inadequate in holding its own against the hostiles that abound in nearly every hex." They finally gave up after 9 hours. I guess I agree that the beginning stages are hard, but certainly no harder than Wizard's Crown. Did they notice the difficulty slider?

Scorpia offered a more accurate (though still largely negative review) in the October 1987 Computer Gaming World, noting the interface improvements but also encountering the same difficulties in tactical combat when you start right outside a door and "your whole party is stuck until some room frees up." She noted that missile weapons can help, but "too often the angles are too severe, and bows or thrown weapons can't be used, making for a great deal of frustration during dungeon combat." I couldn't have said it better. She objected to the game's treatment of dwarves as money-grubbing and arrogant. Most of all, she disliked how the balance of tactical combat was tipped towards spells, making the battles more difficult and lengthier. "Not up to the previous game," she concluded, and "for patient players only."

The bottom line is that SSI did a pretty cool thing with Wizard's Crown but didn't learn enough lessons about what did and didn't work before crafting the sequel. Those lessons would be well-applied, however, when many of the same developers went on to Pool of Radiance the following year.

Paul Murray co-designed Wizard's Crown with Keith Brors, but Brors didn't seem to have a role in the sequel; instead, SSI had him on Realms of Darkness, which we'll see later this year. For his partner on Dagger, Murray was teamed with Victor Penman, who went on to manage several of the Gold Box titles. Murray himself had created several games for SSI, but after Dagger his resume switches to programming credits on titles designed by others (including, again, many Gold Box titles). He disappeared from the scene right about the time that Ubisoft retired the SSI brand in 2001, only to resurface in 2014 with the announcement that he and fellow SSI veteran David Shelley were founding Tactical Simulations Interactive (TSI). TSI is currently working on a Gold Box-inspired title called Seven Dragon Saga, which got off to a rocky start with a failed Kickstarter campaign in 2015. I really hope they're able to finish it.

Next up for 1987 is an Ultima clone called, for reasons that I hope turn out to be interesting, Gates of Delirium.


Further reading: Don't forget to check out my coverage of this game's predecessor, Wizard's Crown (1985). You can also read about the titles directly influenced by this engine, including Shard of Spring (1986), Roadwar 2000 (1986), Pool of Radiance (1988; the first Gold Box game), and Disciples of Steel (1991).

Monday, August 14, 2017

MegaTraveller 2: An Important Stop

And the whole "dog-person" thing gets creepier.
I continue to struggle with the differences between MegaTraveller 2 on paper and in reality. Part of me wants to hail it as an important stepping stone on the way to today's open-world games, with hundreds of explorable locations and an equal number of side quests. There's no denying the figures: MegaTraveller 2 has 117 planets with about 350 cities, and just about every one of those cities has something to do. There really hasn't been anything like it in CRPGs before.
The MegaTraveller 2 "game world."
The problem begins, I suppose, with the fact that the planets and cities are incredibly boring. There's one basic city map that has a few modifications for each city. Except on planets with Ancients ruins, things are rarely found outside the cities. There are only about 4 interior maps that all buildings with explorable interiors conform to. In some ways, this repetition is welcome: it would be exhausting to have to learn a brand new layout with each city you visit. But it also means that, for all the developers do trying to establish different governments, law levels, technology levels, and populations on each planet, the cities and planets are mostly undifferentiated except for their skins. There were many times, particularly when exploring the cavernous interiors of universities to find a single NPC, that I wished the developers had just used menu cities instead.
Pretty much all cities in this sector look exactly like this.
This city has different textures but otherwise has the same buildings in the same positions.
The more serious problem is the lack of solid RPG mechanics as you go about your galactic explorations. As much as I might love the many textures, building styles, and histories of the locations in series like The Elder Scrolls, I don't think I'd enjoy them for very long if all there was to do was walk and look. Those games offer open worlds with hundreds of locations--but in the context of the RPG mechanics to which I am addicted: fighting, leveling up, finding better equipment. MegaTraveller 2 is so weak in these areas that it strains to justify its RPG label.

But I have to give credit where it's due. Paragon was an exceedingly mediocre developer who fundamentally never understood RPGs, but against all odds, this game has managed to evoke some of the most enjoyable and addicting elements of what we'll see in the next two decades: nonlinear gameplay, long quest lists, complex plots that only slowly come together, and an inability to bring oneself to stop playing, even after a long session, because the next quest resolution is just around the corner.
Another quest gets added to my long list.
Despite having started over to ensure that my party had a ship, I ended up leaving it in the dockyard on Rhylanor for most of this session. I used commercial transportation to get around. Towards the end of the session, I found myself back on Rhylanor, and I'll probably use the ship from here, because I have to visit some interdicted worlds and the price of charter flights to those worlds is off the wall. I also can't end the game without having experienced space combat at least once. But in general, trading, piracy, and space combat will probably remain alternate approaches to the game that I'll never experience in detail, having made my fortunes on planet-based quests. I'm sure it's possible to win the game without setting foot in your own ship.

I settled into a pattern very quickly. It has basically consisted of the following steps:

1. Arrive on a planet. If it has a naval base or scout base, sneak out through their back doors rather than visiting customs and giving up my weapons. Otherwise, give up the weapons and hope for the best.

2. Check my "Locater" device (for which I eventually found batteries, as I'll describe below) to see if the planet has any Ancients ruins.
3. Fully explore the "Startown" of each planet. Chase down any wandering green NPCs. Visit any enter-able buildings and talk to those NPCs. If any of them give me a quest, enter the quest location in my notepad. Kill anyone who attacks me. Solve any quests self-contained to that city.
Chasing down NPCs in a new city.
4. This step didn't appear until late, but it eventually became important: if the planet has a police station, visit it and see if they want any of the IDs from any of the outlaws I've killed. It's a pain to figure out which outlaws are wanted on which planets, and you sometimes encounter them systems away from whoever has the bounty. Since about the 24-hour mark, I've had a dozen or so ID tags in my inventory at any given time, and it's always a nice surprise when a planet takes one or two and rewards me.
"Scars Pacino." Really strained yourself on that one, huh, developers?
5. Use the travel agency to visit any other cities on the planet for which I have business. Repeat Steps 3 and 4.

6. If the planet has an Ancients site, rent a grav vehicle or ATV and find it. Explore and loot whatever it has.
I couldn't get into this site on Regina.
7. Hopefully, by now I've solved whatever quest brought me to the planet in the first place. If not, I may have to take a second loop to find the NPC I missed the first time.

8. Return to Startown. Visit the equipment shop and sell any excess weapons and armor that I may have looted from enemies on this trip.
A good portion of my income comes from weapons looted from bad guys.
9. Occasionally, stop in the casino, play roulette, and weigh down the ENTER key on my keyboard so it keeps betting and spinning while I use the bathroom or make a snack or something. As per my previous entry on the subject, I make an average of $10,000 every 10 minutes that way. If I forget about it and leave it weighed down for hours, my party gets kicked out of the casino after earning $100,000.

10. Head back to the space terminal and check the destinations for commercial and chartered flights. Head for the nearest planet for which I have a quest on my quest list. If none of the destinations are on my list, consult the map for the closest destination that will get me closer to a quest planet. Either way, upon arrival, start over at Step 1.
I don't know. It looks pretty comfortable to me.
There's plenty to do on the planets besides whatever quest may have brought you there in the first place. About 1 in 4 cities have a wanted criminal to kill and loot. Many have fetch quests contained to a single city, or at least contained to other cities on the same planet. A few, of course, have special encounters that advance the main quest.
Something like this happens in about 25% of cities.
These side-quests, as I noted in earlier entries, are vital to help maintain your bank balance so you can keep traveling, renting vehicles, buying artifacts, and replenishing equipment and ammo. There isn't a strong correlation between the difficulty of a job and the amount it pays. I spent over an hour on a bunch of interrelated quests between Yres and Alell, helping some engineers on Yres manufacture a new sealant for the planet's domes, and earned less money than it cost me in passage. Other times, I might kill a wanted criminal with no difficulty at all and make $150,000. A lot of fetch quests that require you to travel between planets, even between systems, pay only $5,000-$10,000, while a few that don't require you to leave a single city pay as high as $40,000-$50,000. It makes no sense.
$5,000 will barely get me off the planet.
I have completely ignored those NPCs willing to pay a few thousand for generic items. Occasionally, you'll run across someone who wants a laser rifle or a vacuum suit and will pay above what the shop pays, but never by much, and I can't believe anyone makes serious money this way. There are a ton of NPCs running around who will buy Rech Fruit, but any player who actually bothers to go to the planet Rech, pick up loads of the fruit, and sell it across the galaxy for $2,000 a load wants to extend this game a lot longer than I do.

Mostly because of the casino winnings, bounties, and selling looted weapons and armor, my bank account has swiftly grown, and I probably could have shaved a few hours off the game by prioritizing the planets with main-quest stops rather than those with side-quest stops.
Looting a gun after a successful combat.
Combat remains idiotic. It's completely bi-polar. A handful of enemies have PGMPs, which are capable of killing my characters (even those in battle dress) in a single hit if they get close enough. Since my characters have a tendency to rush enemies even when wielding ranged weapons, this is almost all the time, and fighting such enemies has become a frustrating exercise in attacks and retreats. Usually, though, I can defeat them in a few reloads. Then there is the occasional enemy with an FGMP, which can kill my characters in one hit even at a distance. I've just had to learn to give up on them.
Fighting some random attackers on the streets of this city.
The vast majority of combats, though, involve not the slightest hint of danger to my characters. My vacuum suits absorb most of the damage, and if the occasional bullet or laser shot gets through, I can just use my medic's kit to heal it immediately. Thus, my characters are perfectly capable of winning 80% of the game's battles with their bare hands if my weapons have been confiscated at customs.
Killing someone in an office building.
The characters are completely uncontrollable in combat, except for the lead character, who is theoretically controllable but never seems to actually attack. He particularly won't move to attack the way the others do. Repeatedly, I'll arrive at a Startown and get attacked by some enemy agents. My lead character will stand dumbly in place while everyone else chases the enemies through the streets. I could manually move the lead guy, of course, but that's a waste of time since, while being moved, he won't shoot.

Finally, I'll note that there remains almost no character development during this entire process. Skills don't increase as you use them, nor do they ever seem to appear in the training ceters. Only once in the entire game has a training center offered me the ability to increase a skill, and that skill was "ATV," which I maybe used once. The whole system is enormously frustrating, and even this late in the game, I don't understand the connection between, say, combat skills and success in combat, particularly since you can't see the damage that individual characters are doing. Does it make sense to equip a powerful weapon for which you have no skill? What about wearing a powerful suit of armor? Are my characters without "laser weapons" skills hitting anything when I equip them with laser weapons? How have I been able to kill so many enemies with my fists despite no "brawling" skill? Why am I never offered the opportunity to increase that skill despite using it repeately? I fear I'll reach the end of the game still not understanding any of this.
The one time I was able to level up, with a skill I rarely used, assigned to a random party member.
A couple of notable side-quests have included:
  • On Ohian, King Klem wanted my help routing out an underground rebellion. I only found out about this by wandering into his house by accident. But since he said in the same breath that his primary motivation was to "corner the oxygen market on Ohian," I declined to help him. He and his palace guards immediately attacked. I only had fists for weapons because his customs service had impounded everything else, but we still killed the king and his guards easily. I stole some "oxygen factory blueprints" from his house and later sold them to the leader of the rebellion.
  • On Effate, I went the other way. A guy named Viddi was raising a rebellion, but it was clear that he and his followers were full of hot air. For killing him in a fairly easy combat, I made $150,000.
The game could have perhaps been more subtle in this characterization.
  • I wasted a lot of time on the planet Alell, searching the mountains for the ruins of a crashed ship. Unable to find it, I re-consulted my screenshots and saw that, according to the NPC who told me about the supposed crash, the name of the ship was Blatant Lie. I guess maybe that should have been a sign. 
  • On Regina, a woman named "Marilyn Monrope" wanted my help putting her demo cassette in the hands of a talent agent. I took it to a guy in another city who listened to it and told me to give her an appointment slip. When I returned to her, the game called us "naughty, naughty travellers" and said that Monrope "showed her appreciation in a most special way." In case that wasn't clear, it also noted that the experience was "most . . . aaahhmmmm . . . satisfying.
Okay, gross. There are 5 of us.
  • On Alell, a woman gave me a "birthday present" to deliver to her brother in another city. It turned out to be a drug shipment, and her brother had been replaced by an undercover police officer, who arrested one of my characters for trafficking narcotics. I had to bail her out of jail for $3,000. That seems to be the end of it, though--there's no word on having to return for a court appearance or anything.
I get arrested for no reason whatsoever.
  • The Vargr planet of Vreibefger was suffering a rabies epidemic. I don't even remember where I got hold of a vaccine, but I brought it to a scientist there, and he gave me a "bronze star" signifying the planet's gratitude.
The Ancients sites are all accompanied by textual cut scenes.
As for the main quest, there are three basic "avenues" that I've been exploring:
  1. Visit the Ancients sites and see what I find.
  2. Visit the Ancients experts and see what they can tell me.
  3. Visit the agents for the various mega-corporations and interrogate them about the corporate conspiracy that caused the disaster on Rhylanor in the first place.
On the first topic, I've explored three sites, on Inthe, Fulacin, and Victoria, and I found a fourth site on Regina that won't let me in. On Inthe, just as with the first party, I only found a single "coyn." I suppose I'm destined to eventually collect the entire group of 36.
Finding batteries to power Ancients devices.
The Fulacin site was a big yellow cube that seemed to have no entrance until I prodded at its circumference and was eventually teleported inside. It had a small maze in the interior that led me to 2 more coyns and a pile of 10 batteries. One of the batteries inserted in the "locater" I received from Trow Backett causes the device to emit a green light if we're on a planet with an Ancients site, and an orange light otherwise.

I found the site on Victoria because of the locater; I was otherwise only there to talk to a professor at the university. The site took the form of a huge checkerboard that had two piles of 5 coynes each.
19 down, 17 to go.
The Ancients experts have offered varying degrees of help. On Zivje, Karim Flored sold me an Ancients shield with an inscription on it. On Moughas, a guy named Rahjel Dramahern translated it to say, "Grandfather's proving ground of intelligence, wisdom, and cunning," with a map pointing to the Regina sector. Deghrra Szan on Efate just expressed confusion that the Ancients would build a device to destroy a world. Beckett Senchur spoke of the importance of finding all the coyns and suggested some might be found in a cave-in, in which his grandfather was nearly killed, on Gerome.
An early "collection quest."
The last Ancients expert I visited, Sawert Weston, attacked me when I introduced myself. On his corpse was a note directing him to kill "anyone who comes looking for information on the Ancients." It was unsigned, but noted that the author works for a megacorporation and that his "plans to destroy Rhylanor can't be ruined by any meddlesome fools on a hero's quest."
The incriminating note.
This ties, then, to the murky corporate conspiracy. I noted earlier that I've been attacked upon arrival on a lot of planets. Upon interrogation, one of the attacking thugs told me they'd been hired by Vemene, the special security service of Tukera Corp. But this made little sense, as Tukera has a headquarters on Rhylanor and stands to be destroyed by the slime. On Ohian, I spoke to Aran Ashkashur, head of Vemene, who claimed that someone hacked his computer to issue the orders to kill me. A Tukera agent named Lorn Denveldt suggested that Sharushid or Imperiallines might be responsible.

Chabon Art, representing Sharushid on Efate, said his company had nothing to do with the disaster and suggested something might be going on internally at Tukera. In the game's only callback (so far) to the first MegaTraveller, he recalled Konrad Kiefer's betrayal-from-within at Sharushid a few years prior. "Dont rule out an internal traitor," he said. "I can attest to the fact that it can easily happen."
Until now, I wasn't even sure that the first game took place in the same continuity.
A few NPCs opined that another corporation, Oberlindes, was behaving suspiciously, and one of my side quests involved stealing some of their client files for who I think was a Tukera agent. But on Regina, the Oberlindes representatives, even under interrogation, called their company "honorable" and its founder "a man of unwavering honesty and fairness." Later, on Extolay, Marc Oberlindes himself claimed innocence. "I'm a competitor of Tukera," he admitted. "But I'm certainly not out to ruin them."
Oberlindes resents my interrogation.
On Ruie, the thuggish representatives of Naasirka also denied involvement. Amusingly, they offered that the slot machines at the casino on Garrincski are programmed to pay off, as if all slot machines don't do that in this game.

I did get some traction on Enope with some Imperiallines agents. One of them told me that the company is up to "no good" and gave me an antique pistol to give to another agent as a sign. He, in turn, gave me a message for "Axl Rows" on Menorb. For his part, Rows directed me to a Vargr named Gryfythh, "head of Imperiallines' Aramis subsector" and suggested I search his office on Junidy. That remains outstanding on my list.

The "interrogate" skill has been invaluable in these discussions. I don't see how you'd get far without it, although I'm not sure that solving the corporate conspiracy is necessary to winning the game. I should also note that a lot of the NPCs remained green even after I interrogated them, meaning there's still something they have to offer. 
Before using the "interrogate" skill...
...and after.
There are still lots of places to visit, including Ancients sites on Gerome and Lablon, Ancients experts on Heroni and Treece, and more corporation representatives on Junidy and Treece. Most of my other "to do" items involve visiting salesmen who sell passes to interdicted worlds. As yet, I don't have any particular reason to go to those worlds, but there might come a time when I'm out of clues and just have to start visiting random planets looking for Ancients sites.

If you can ignore the goofy NPC names, the story isn't bad. It just takes a little too much wandering through nondescript cities and corridors to find these individual pieces of the puzzle. Here's hoping I can push through and win it for the next entry.

Time so far: 30 hours

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Eternal Dagger: Exasperating Demons

Somehow, "demons riding wolves" reminded me of this comic.
A couple of decisions that I made going all the way back to Wizard's Crown came back to bite me in this session of The Eternal Dagger. The first was a general one: relying mostly on "quick" combat. I've covered before how the Crown/Dagger combat system leans a little bit towards the extreme end of combat simulation, causing even simple battles to take 30 minutes or more. Yes, a player using the right tactics is likely to incur less damage in tactical combat than quick combat, but when healing and resurrection are so easy, it's tough to force yourself to do things the long way.

Relying on quick combat has one huge weakness, though: it means you haven't built up the skill and experience necessary for tactical combat when the hour arises. There are some battles that quick combat just won't win, mostly because they involve tactics that the AI doesn't apply. In the middle of one of the dungeons covered in this session, for instance, you face combat with a group of "jesters" who basically have one weakness: the "Fear" spell. Since there's no way to tell the AI to use this spell exclusively, characters in quick combat beat their heads against the enemies using the wrong tactics and inevitably die. A tactical player can win quite easily, but this isn't the time to begin exploring the tactics in depth for the first time. I wasn't quite doing it for the first time, but I certainly hadn't achieved any level of mastery the way I have in, say, the Gold Box games.
Another cramped fight. Fortunately, an anagram helped me with the enemy's weakness.
My second error was undervaluing missile weapons. Not valuing them at all, to be honest. In Wizard's Crown, there was little need for them, as most combats took place amidst generously open terrain. Rather than split my skill development between a melee weapon and a missile weapon, I went all-melee. That creates a problem in Dagger, where so many of the dungeon combats occur in narrow corridors that only accommodate one character at a time. When I started this session, my imported characters didn't even have the 100-point minimums that new Dagger characters start with. I had to rectify that pretty fast.
Combat in the wilderness, with its open terrain, is much easier to navigate than dungeon combat.
If you're not ambushed, the tactical combat process begins with a "positioning" round in which you set the starting points for each character. This process is very limited in dungeons, as you can only move characters to positions for which they have a clear path (as if they were actually moving, not just being dropped into starting positions). Moreover, the lead character (in my case, usually the thief) can't move at all. So many dungeon combats occur in tight hallways just after you open doors that the lead character is almost always immediately thrust into melee combat, and all you can do is somewhat uselessly re-arrange the other characters' positions behind him.
No matter how I arrange my characters, only one can fit through the door at a time.
During combat, characters can choose from five types of attacks: aimed (despite name, it involves less accuracy and more damage), defensive, killing, normal, and thrown weapon. They can also move, change facing direction, cast spells (including a "quick" option that consumes twice the points for twice the power), "guard" (automatically attacks when an enemy moves next to him), load a bow (only necessary once per battle), use a magic item, pray, change items, sneak, turn undead, scan the battlefield for hidden enemies, view enemies' statistics, dodge, and simply end the turn. The number of options diminishes if you move or turn during a round and if you're adjacent to an enemy. Even this far into the game, I don't always understand all the rules.
Fighting the boss of one of this session's dungeons.
In its combat options, Dagger drops two options that were in Wizard's Crown: (F)all prone and (S)tand up, meant to protect against missile weapons, but apparently considered one step too far. The whole system would be simplified even further for the Gold Box games, with fewer types of attacks, no need to take a combat turn to load a bow, no way to (non-magically) scan for invisible enemies. Facing direction in Gold Box matters, but it's simply determined by where you move and attack; you can't adjust it separately.

I have mixed feelings about the injury and damage system in these games. On the one hand, the approach taken by most games--having a simple pool of "hit points"--is laughably unrealistic. It makes little sense that a character fights just as well at 1 hit point as at 50, then suddenly keels over when he loses that one. Dagger's system of bleeding, injury, and health as separate considerations makes more sense. Injuries detract from ability but don't have to be fixed right away. Bleeding can kill you if not stopped. A character's health can fail for reasons unrelated to cuts and wounds. Certainly, in modern games, I vastly prefer body part-specific systems like Fallout to generic health systems as in Skyrim--or at least I do for the enemies. The ability to literally disarm ghouls or stop fast-moving deathclaws by crippling their legs is glorious. I enjoy micromanaging such injuries much less for my own characters. Crown/Dagger doesn't really let you target specific body parts on enemies. Nor does it really feel like a crippled enemy performs notably worse in combat. Thus, the system that theoretically applies to both you and your foes feels more like it just applies to you.
This is nice flavor text, but I'm not sure if specific injuries to enemies really matter in the long run.
Of particular annoyance is the inability to see how badly your enemies are hurt. The amount of damage they can take is sometimes staggering. I'll land blow after blow, doing severe injuries every time, and yet somehow the bastard is still able to keep his feet. I'd really like the ability hear to see how badly an enemy is injured and how close he is to death (again, two separate considerations). It would allow better planning in combat.

The spell system, of course, multiplies the tactics available in the game. In addition to healing and turning, priests get a "Bless" spell in combat. Wizards can choose from 22 combat spells, including a "Fire Ball" that works much like the Gold Box variant. There are a couple oddities with the system. First, visibility doesn't seem to play a role in where you cast spells; you can target fireballs and such around corners and past closed doors. Second, most offensive spells are multi-enemy spells. "Paralyze," for instance, has a small chance of paralyzing all enemies instead of being targeted at one. So does "Magic Blast." Protection spells, meanwhile, always apply to the whole party, including "Countermagic" (halves damage from magic attacks), "Magic Protection" (+6 against magic attacks), "Missile Protection" (really missile immunity for one battle), and "Armor" (+6 against physical attacks).
Spell options available in combat.
When I fight in tactical combat, I usually get my spellcasters working on those protection spells right away. This makes it all the more annoying when we fight enemy spellcasters who simply "Dispel" those protections, often multiple times per round. A lot of magic enemies also seem to have some kind of teleportation ability, as they'll suddenly show up adjacent to characters who they shouldn't be able to reach by walking. Enemies capable of stealth and invisibility are rife at higher levels, and I end up having to cast "Reveal Enemy" practically every round. The end result is that I find tactical combat most frustrating against magic enemies, and of course this is when you most need it.

Even this deep into the game, there are a lot of things I don't understand. In addition to points covered above I don't really understand what governs how far my characters can move in a round, and whether they can attack when they're done. Sometimes, I can't seem to move in a direction even though there's an empty space there. Other times, I seem to be blocked from turning in a particular direction. The blast radius on certain spells seems to change between castings. Sometimes, certain attacks aren't available for no particular reason. Healing sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. I don't even really know what "sneak" accomplishes. 

Because of all of these issues, I don't find the challenging combats of Crown/Dagger as fun as the challenging combats of other games, including the Gold Box series and Disciples of Steel. I've noticed that visual feedback and sound also plays a role. Combats are so much more satisfying when a successful attack results in a hearty "thwack" rather than a barely-audible "pip" indistinguishable from the sound used when the attack misses.
Quick combats are less efficient but over faster.
To recap the plot so far, my party is amid a strange series of islands in Middle World, which has been invaded by demons from another dimension. These demons will soon finish their takeover of this world and then progress to our world if we can't stop them. To do that, I have to find the "sunken city of Enolho," go through the portal there, and use the Eternal Dagger somehow on the other side. (It occurs to me belatedly that the Dark Designs trilogy basically cribbed the same plot. I suppose so did Pacific Rim for that matter.) To get to the sunken city, meanwhile, I needed the support of Gray Eagle, who I ended the last session trying to find.
Great. Now I'll have "Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong" stuck in my head for three days.
Some NPC clues got me to his aerie without trouble, but he said that in order to prove myself "worthy" of going to Enolho, I would have to get the "feathered cloak" from the dungeon of Mad Avlis. I'd been to the dungeon before, but was turned away at the entrance because I needed the "Bag of Winds." Gray Eagle gave that to me.
Working to stop an alien invasion apparently doesn't make me "worthy."
Mad Avlis's dungeon turned out to be full of puzzles, and most of them were quite fun. There was a cryptogram that used combinations of only three symbols (1, &, and -) to make up its letters, but solving it wasn't too hard, as there were a couple of obvious THEs, which in turn revealed an obvious THERE IS A.

The full phrase ended up being THERE IS A DOOR BEHIND THE BED IN THE HO?? ROOM. I guess the second-to-last word is probably HOWL, referring to a room full of howling enemies. There was indeed a secret door, leading me to a Great Sword +7, which is interesting because I thought the highest you could go in this game was +6.
All the extra characters in this cryptogram made it more annoying than difficult.
Later, to open a door, I had to solve a math puzzle:
The answer is (7). See if you can figure out why.
There was also an anagram and a variant of the "knights-and-knaves" logic puzzle, plus one that I never really figured out. I was trapped in a small room with levers on the walls and a button. Pulling the levers at first accomplished nothing--they wouldn't move. Pressing the button led to a countdown starting from 20. During the countdown, pulling the levers just caused gems above them to light up. I went around pulling them randomly and I must have done something right, because when the countdown reached 0, the doors opened and allowed me to proceed.
I never figured out what this was about.
The final battle with Avlis wasn't too hard--I did it in tactical mode just to keep my skills from getting rusty--and the cloak was found in a piece of furniture beyond. A door puzzle led to the exit.
Back at Gray Eagle's, he commended me for finding the cloak but said we'd need to retrieve "Aqua Helms" from the Dwarven Island before going to Enolho.
I have to admit this was kind of funny.
NPC elves had warned that the dwarves were money-grubbers, and it was true. They charge for using the temple, which is free everywhere else. Equipment and enchanting costs are double those on the Elven Island, and sale prices are half.

Dwarven Island isn't as big as Elven Island, but it has a huge mountain range criss-crossing the interior, so getting anywhere means working your way around the circumference. Dwarf patrols attack a lot, and if you can't run from them and don't want to surrender all your gold, you end up getting the whole island after you. They carry very expensive equipment, though.
Well, that's nice.
The key dungeon on the island is a series of caverns belonging to someone named Sri. As I explored, I fought a bunch of low-level battles with demons and vampire bats--nothing that would have prepared me for the dungeon's final battle. This combat takes place after you've opened a door. The enemy--Sri and a dozen "high demon" allies--begin in a room south of the door. You can see the configuration in the screen shot below.
A high demon undoes all my work from earlier in the round.
It's another tight corridor that allows only one character to pass at a time. I can't even get through the door on the first round because some of the demons start right there, meaning I can't fight in melee combat with more than one character at a time. I can't back up and let them come to me in the more open area to the east because the demons are perfectly happy to cast spells and drain life from a distance. They can also seem to teleport themselves to wherever they want, so occasionally melee opportunities do open up, but never when or where I want them.

I can't counter those spells with "Countermagic" or "Magic Protection" because the demons cast "Dispel" multiple times every round. Since they also keep casting "Mass Invisibility" on themselves, I have to spend most of my spellcasting on "Reveal Enemy" so I can see them. Oh, and if I happen to get lucky and kill a demon, Sri is capable of resurrecting him!

Attempting quick combat led to my entire party dying without a single demon killed.

This is where my mistakes came to haunt me. If I'd spent more time in tactical combat earlier, I'd have a much better sense of how each of the spells works. And if I'd invested points in missile weapons, my rear characters wouldn't be so useless. I probably also should have stocked up on offensive scrolls and potions. But even given these considerations, I must say, the battle seems absurdly hard.

Thus, I settled in for a period of grinding. I spent an entire rainy Saturday alternating bouts of work with bouts of grinding. Every time I got up to 255 experience points, I spent 100 on advancing an attribute and 155 on skills (prioritizing missile weapons). I cashed in any loot I'd found and spent whatever I had on upgrading my gear. Then I attempted the battle again. Having lost, I went back out and started another cycle.
The richer the loot, the more I can spend on item enchantment.
As I leave you now, after about 8 cycles of grinding as just described, I still can't win the damned battle and I'm thinking about resorting to lowering the difficulty level of the game. But I could be overlooking some obvious tactic, so I'll take hints while I see what I can do with MegaTraveller. Next post will be a final one whether it involves a win or not.

Time so far: 30 hours