Thursday, May 21, 2015

Game 188: Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark (1984)

Lone Wolf looks a bit creepy, if you ask me.

Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark
Five Ways Software (developer); Arrow (publisher)
Released 1984 for the ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 17 May 2015
Date Ended: 19 May 2015
Total Hours: 2
Reload Count: 5
Difficulty: Easy (2/5), once you figure out the trick to combat
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

When I was around 14 or 15, I owned the entire set of Kai (1-5) and Magnakai (6-12) books in the Lone Wolf series, by British author Joe Dever. I loved them. At some point before I left home for college in 1992, I no longer had them. I don't remember why, but Occam's razor would assign the blame to my mother. Until recently, I had no idea that the books had been continued in the Grand Master series (13-20) and the New Order series (21-32), with the last book published in 1998.

The first book in the series.

In preparation for this post, I went on Amazon and ordered used copies of Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water from a bookseller in Maryland. They had warned me that the copies were only in "good" condition, so when they arrived a few days ago, I wasn't surprised to find the character sheet in Flight from the Dark already filled out. I was surprised to see a familiar odd mix of upper- and lower-case letters and unnecessary serifs on each n and x, something I used to do until another kid in 10th grade leaned over my shoulder and opined that my handwriting was "gay." I can't prove it--there's no name on the inside cover--but I'm 99% sure that I ordered my own childhood copy of Flight from the Dark. If this had happened with my first copy of, I don't know, Crime and Punishment, or The Grapes of Wrath, I'm pretty sure I'd take it as a sign from the Universe. But what do I make of the Universe wanting to reunite me with Lone Wolf?

"You were not meant for Great Things, Chet. Your legacy shall be mildly diverting writings about meaningless, geeky ephemera."
The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which I read for posts on The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom, had left me with the impression that gamebooks were always a little goofy and puerile--poor substitutes for an actual RPG. I figured that my memories of Dever's series were a little rose-colored and that I'd be similarly unsatisfied with them. I'm happy to report that is not the case. The Lone Wolf books are just as good as I remembered--probably the best anyone was ever going to do with an RPG in paperback form. You've got just a couple of attributes to juggle--combat skill and endurance--and an inventory sheet that tracks weapons, other items, meals, and gold crowns. You can only carry 8 items at a time, including meals, so you have to be careful with inventory. There are all kinds of wonderfully evocative illustrations, including a series of them that show you each type of weapon.

That "quarterstaff" is the laziest weapon in the world. You couldn't at least wrap some grip tape around it?

The best part of the gamebooks is the series of skills that you select for your character, called Kai disciplines. There are 10 of them, and you can select 5 in the first book. You get 1 for each book in the series you complete. Some of the skills are manifestly for puzzle-solving and getting out of tough situations (e.g., tracking, sixth sense, animal kinship), while others help compensate for low attribute roles (e.g., weapon skill, mind blast, healing). Healing is particularly well implemented; if you have the skill, you can restore an endurance point for every numbered section of the book you pass through. One skill, hunting, allows you to find your own food at mealtime and save backpack space for other items. More than you'd think is possible, the combination of inventory and skills really lets you roleplay different characters, at least in terms of logistics.

The Lone Wolf series is a real series, with the story progressing from book to book, so the reader keeps his attributes, items, and skills. The story is reasonably well-told, though full of familiar tropes. In the northern part of a great continent called Magnamund, Summerlund and the Darklands sit side by side. The Darklords of the Darklands are the eternal enemies of the good people of Summerlund.

In Summerlund, the land's great warriors traditionally send their sons to study at the Kai monastery, where they learn skills similar to a ranger in a standard RPG. The protagonist is a young initiative of the monastery named Silent Wolf. One night, when all of the Kai Lords of Summerlund are gathered at the monastery for a feast, the Darklords launch a blitz and kill everyone. Silent Wolf, out gathering firewood during the attack, manages to knock himself unconscious on a tree branch and wakes up when the battle is over. Re-naming himself "Lone Wolf," he vows to take word of the attack to the nation's capital. He sets off with only an axe, a map of the kingdom, a random number of gold crowns, and an item chosen from a random table, which may include other weapons, pieces of armor, meals, a healing potion, or even more gold.

(To roll random numbers, the book has you close your eyes and point to a random number table at the back. I didn't like that, and I remember purchasing a 10-sided die just to play through the books.)

I begin my titular Flight from the Dark.

Like a good computer RPG, the book is structured into "chapters" that offer some freedom of movement but ultimately funnel you to particular plot points. In the first chapter, no matter what directions you choose, you fight various darkspawn scouring the area after the monastery attack while trying to make your way through the forest. Ultimately, you come across a refugee train led by a column of solders and, assuming you don't run away like a coward, you fight a "boss" battle against a reptilian "Gourgaz" get a mission from the dying Prince of Summerlund to take a message to his father.

After other assorted paths and adventures, you reach the outskirts of the capital, which is under siege. You have to choose from several paths to avoid the attackers and enter the city. Once inside, you have other assorted adventures before winning a final battle against some spies and getting in to see the king. He immediately gives you a quest to go Durenor to retrieve the Sommerswerd, an ancient artifact that can defeat Darklords. Segue to Fire on the Water.

A bit of the endgame text. Note the icon indicating the appropriate entry number in the physical book, where the text is about 5 times longer.

As I re-read the book, I tried to remember what I did, as a youngster, if I lost one of the many combats. Some of them are absurdly difficult, especially in the later books when it's assumed that you've loaded up on magical gear from the earlier ones. Certainly, I didn't cry out to the heavens in despair and start the entire series from the beginning. But neither did I simply assume that I won and go on to the next entry: I remember meticulously making all the rolls and fighting each combat. As I was already schooled in the conventions of computer RPGs, perhaps I simply allowed myself to "reload" if I died and to fight the combat again.

The ZX Spectrum cassette versions came out the same year as the first two books. That's pretty fast; Dever must have negotiated the rights to a computer game at the same time he was signing his publishing contract. Unlike the adaptations of the two Fighting Fantasy books we saw earlier this year, the CRPGs of Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water take a few steps to distinguish themselves as games. Your combat skill, mostly unchanging in the books, increases in the games with every successful combat. (If the games hadn't made such a concession, they wouldn't be CRPGs under my definition.) Instead of choosing 5 of 10 disciplines, the character is assumed to have all of them, but at different "levels" (hidden from the player). The use of skills is binary in the books--either you have the needed discipline or you don't--but in the game, they have associated probabilities, and rolls are made behind the scenes when indicated.

Lone Wolf makes a successful "Sixth Sense" roll.

Combat is quite a bit different in the game. It occurs in real time, with the ability for the player and foes to take steps forward and back in between attacks. Weapons have various reaches associated with them, with longer ones able to often damage creatures who can't come close enough to hit you. There are three attacks--chop, swipe, and thrust--some of which are ineffective for some weapons (e.g., a "swiped" spear and a "thrusted" hammer do little good). The "Mindblast" and "Mindshield" skills are activated with keys, rather than passive as in the books.

Fighting this setting's version of an orc.

But while combat may be more "advanced" in the game than in the books, it still isn't good. You get no feedback about whether your attacks are successful or not, and no indication of your enemy's total health. The two "boss" combats in the game were laughably impossible until I figured how to just spam the same attack over and over, killing the foe before he had a chance to react.

The game, meanwhile, degrades plenty of aspects of the book. There's no way to pro-actively use items or eat meals, so the game simply dispenses with most of the inventory, including the pieces of armor the book lets you pick up. There are plenty of places that offer choices in the book but the game forces you to take one path or another--it reduces player choice in travel instead of doing what a decent CRPG adaptation would do and increase it.

Wait...what? Why would I go the longer way? The book lets me make a choice here.

The interface is awful, with non-logical keys (the game came with a keyboard overlay to help with this). In places where you have options, you have to unintuitively scroll through the options with the "1" key and then hit "9" to select one.

A late-game choice. I have to hit "1" to see the next one--to follow the riverbank.

Even worse, the game reduces most of the book's text. I can't imagine why; the game certainly wasn't shy about forcing the player to read paragraphs of scrolling text. Yet there isn't a single entry as verbose in the game as in the book. A typical example:

Game: You descend the rocky slope towards the graveyard. Wicked briars tear at your cloak and cut your legs. The haunting murmur of distant voices fills your ears.

Book: As you descend the rocky slope towards the Graveyard of the Ancients, you are aware of a strange mist and cloud that swirls all around this grey and forbidding place, blocking the sun and covering the graveyard in a perpetual gloom. A chill creeps forward to greet your approach.

Towards the end, it gets nuts. In the book, once you reach the city of Holmgard, you're given a choice whether to keep following an officer or take off on your own. Either choice leads to a bunch of adventures before the ending. The game has you automatically "lose" your guide, go through one battle against some enemies, and then shoot right to the ending text.

You may notice in the screenshots that the game continually references the associated entry in the book. This is because the cassette came with the book, and I guess players were meant to keep it in hand if they wanted to read the full text of each encounter. Given that, I can't think of a single reason that a player would want to play the game.

The sequel is selling on eBay for only $5.66.

My GIMLET gives it:

  • 2 points for the game world. The backstory is good, but the game doesn't offer much of a "world" since you're stuck on a linear path.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There are no options at all creation, and the only development is an increase in combat ability.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 2 points for foes that are a bit original to the setting, but don't really have any particular strengths and weaknesses. Games based on gamebooks ought to be stronger in encounters, but while Lone Wolf is a better-written gamebook than most, it still doesn't offer puzzles, role-playing choices, or even logic in its various flip-the-page options. At least, not in the first one.

I don't know...this might be the earliest game where I fight something riding something else.

  • 1 points for a godawful action combat system with no magic except "Mindblast."
  • 2 points for equipment, consisting primarily of a bunch of weapons that you can swap in and out and some quest-related items.

Checking my inventory.

  • 1 point for an economy. You find plenty of gold here, but you can't spend it anywhere except to buy passage in a couple of places. Fire on the Water offers more options for spending accumulated gold.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 1 points for graphics, sound, and interface. Graphics are bare-bones but at least try to flesh out the scene. There are a few scattered sound effects, but the music is so piercing you mostly want the sound off. The interface is pretty bad, consisting of non-logical keys (e.g., although you usually fight on the left side of the screen, you hit "E" to advance and "R" to move backwards). Even though the game is short, it's annoying to have to wait while some animations and music play.

The game at least made an attempt at cobwebs.

  • 1 point for gameplay that is extremely linear, too easy, and extremely brief. The 1 point is for replayability since you might want to try different paths.
That's a final score of 13, which still seems kind of high. I think I enjoyed Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash more. I found one contemporary review, from the March 1985 Crash. The author, Derek Brewster, makes the same points I do: basically, why play the game when it offers a more limiting experience than the book?

The Spectrum versions of both Flight from the Dark and Fire on the Water were written by Five Ways Software in Birmingham, England. They received only a U.K. release. Five Ways' c.v. shows them mostly creating Spectrum ports for other company's games, none of them RPGs.

This wasn't the end for Lone Wolf computer games, however. 1991 saw Lone Wolf: Mirror of Death by Mr. Micro, a non-canon action platformer. It's not an RPG, so it won't be on my list. In the 2000s, we saw an aborted MMORPG and then an aborted first-person computer game. In 2013, an iOS game called Lone Wolf: Blood on the Snow was released. It seems to take place after the books (at least the first series). It has excellent graphics and some ability to move around areas, although it has the verboseness and general linearity of a book. I'm in the midst of "playing" it now, and I generally enjoy it.
I fired it up Fire on the Water for a few minutes, but nothing had changed in the interface and I'd rather just read the book. Look, we've been here a few times now; can we all agree that a literal computer adaptation of a gamebook, even with some RPG elements, isn't really an "RPG"? I don't know how many more of these I can take.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire: Final Rating

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS, 1992 for PC-98, 1993 for Sharp X68000
Date Started: 11 April 2015
Date Ended: 16 May 2015
Total Hours: 18
Reload Count: 8
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I end mostly where I started, thinking that The Savage Empire is a perfectly serviceable little game that makes adequate use of a good game engine but would have been better if the creators hadn't tied it to the legend of the Avatar. Said legend is, of course, already hopelessly muddled, so when we get revelations in this game about the ancient Kotl race and the ability of a moonstone to somehow power an entire civilization, we don't even try to mentally work it in to Ultima canon. We just shrug and keep playing.

I couldn't think of any other thematic issues to cover after the "won" posting, so let's get right into the GIMLET.

1. Game World. The Lost World-style setting of Eodon, the various tribes, and the revelations about the lizard-like past civilization are somewhat common fantasy and sci-fi tropes, but they're relatively original among RPGs. In this, the game deserves a lot of credit even if the execution was a little goofy at times. While Empire didn't always make the best use of the Ultima VI engine, it kept the open approach to the game world that the Ultima series has been rightly famous for. Empire arguably does a better job than any previous Ultimas in having the game world respond to the player's actions, with NPC dialogue changing substantially depending on various plot statuses. Score: 6.

The Avatar prepares to start the endgame on the Hill of the Drum.

2. Character Creation and Development. Probably the worst part of the game. In contrast to the multiple races and sexes offered by Ultima VI, the player has no choice but to play the Avatar as a Great White Hunter. Even worse, the backstory removes any sense of self-identification with the Avatar that previous Ultimas (IV in particular) took great pains to build up. A brief character creation process helps define starting attributes, but there's nothing else. Because the game starts you at Level 5, there is essentially no character development (barring a lot of grinding, which is unnecessary anyway) for either the Avatar or his NPC companions. There are no role-playing opportunities, no karma meter. The game barely qualifies as an RPG in this category. Score: 3.

Jimmy becomes the only character other than the Avatar to level up.

3. NPC Interaction. Always strong in Origin titles, a little weaker here because so many NPCs say the same things. Basically, every tribe has a chief, a shaman, and one or two other key NPCs, and then about 6-10 interchangeable men and women with the same dialogue. Still, the quality of the dialogue is pretty good, and you learn almost everything of importance about the game world and quest through these discussions.

I like that you have so many party members to choose from--including a Neanderthal, a lizard man, and an automaton--and that they don't cease to be individuals just because they've joined the party; you can still talk with them. Some of them have unique skills, like Triolo's magic, Rafkin's ability to make certain items, and Jimmy's notebook.

Finally, the game gets points for offering the first player-optional romance in the game. (Other games have seen a romance between the PC and some NPC, but always part of the main plot, not something that the player can choose.) There's not much to it: you just say LOVE to Aiela or Tristia, which causes their dialogues to change, and you get a couple of endgame screens. Still, it's always nice to find a "first." Or am I forgetting an earlier game?

I could have done without the unresolved Shamuru/Dokray/Triolo mystery. Score: 7.

4. Encounters and Foes. Getting through the game involves solving a variety of item-based and navigation-based puzzles, none of them terribly hard, most with multiple solutions. While the selection of enemies (giant apes, dinosaurs, sabre-toothed tigers) is original and appropriate to the setting, I never got over the sense that fighting dinosaurs should have been a bigger deal. Like all Origin games, the manual does an excellent job describing each enemy. Score: 6.

Because of course we can't just walk through the waterfall and into the cave, Gideon prepares to block the river by blowing up the boulder next to it. Don't ask.

5. Magic and Combat. The tribal magic system, with its collection of 9 spells, is thematically creative but tactically underwhelming--particularly since there's only one spellcaster. I didn't find combat particularly strong in Ultima VI, and it gets worse here with poor enemy and NPC AI and a general sense that combat is a minor part of the game. Score: 4.

6. Equipment.  The sandbox nature of the game means that there's a ton of stuff lying around with no reason to take any of it, including jars, baskets, pots, tools, extra totems, rocks, sticks, and so forth. I don't mind this. It makes the world seem more real. The selection of armor and weapons is less interesting, particularly since the game doesn't tell you the relative damage of weapons or the relative protection of armor, and since combat isn't hard enough to bother with upgrades anyway. Towards the end of the game, I just equipped my new companions with whatever was most convenient, and they did fine. I didn't care for all the unused equipment slots.

A lot of the items are for solving puzzles, and many of these work together in creative ways. Tar can be collected in a bucket, then applied to strips of cloth (themselves made by putting scissors to whole cloth) to make "tarred cloth," which can then be wrapped around branches (pulled from trees) to make torches or used as a fuse in a bomb. Dropping a tree branch onto an open fire makes charcoal, which can be combined with phosphorous (scraped from crystals) and sulfur (screened from sulfur pits) to make gunpowder. Using a knife on a slain mammal gives you a pelt and some meat. There are a lot of these types of interactions, and they'd be a lot more fun if they were more helpful. Score: 5.

I think using a knife is the only way to do this.

7. Economy. There are plenty of valuables to find in the game, but only a couple of places to spend them, and essentially no reason to spend them in those places, since everything you need can be picked up for free. A very under-developed part of the game. You could argue that it's not necessary for The Savage Empire, but I still like my RPGs to have an economy. Score: 1.

8. Quests. Empire has a multi-staged main quest. It's interesting, but it doesn't offer choices, alternate outcomes, or really anything that qualifies as a "side quest." I did think that the "uniting the tribes" plot was a bit fun, particularly since (just like the map-piece-finding quest in Ultima VI) it offered such a variety of difficulties and lengths to the individual tasks. Score: 4.

I forgot to show the lizard guys last time, so here they are.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics are well-drawn, but from my colorblind perspective, the palette used by Empire was awful. I couldn't discern a lot of objects, NPCs, and enemies against their backgrounds. The day/night cycle was a constant annoyance. On the other hand, I liked the frequent use of full screen graphics at key parts of the story--there were more of these in Empire than any Ultima game I can recall. There were some fun sound effects but no way to separate sound from the incessant music, so I left it off. (The music, I should add, is good--creative and thematic--but I still didn't want to hear it all the time.)

The giant Avatar prepares to trample a company of puny villagers.

The interface is generally excellent. Like any good game of this era, it offers the ability to move flexibly between keyboard and mouse, with major commands mapped to a single letter. The ability to designate an "active" character is essentially unique to this game and Ultima VI, and it's just what this type of RPG needs. One drawback to the interface: my characters kept getting stuck on things, and I didn't notice for a long time. This required a lot of effort to reunite the party. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. Nice and non-linear. Even the major quest stages can be done slightly out of order (e.g., you could reunite most of the tribes before rescuing Aiela). The non-linearity and availability of different NPC companions makes it slightly replayable, though not very. The overall pacing is good--neither too long or too short--but like Ultima VI, it suffers a bit by being too easy. And despite using the same engine, it doesn't offer quite the same "screwing around" possibilities of its parent. Score: 5.

I don't often discuss a game's packaging and manual, even when they're good, but The Savage Empire deserves a couple extra bonus points for going the extra mile. The manual (may the MOCAGH never die) is presented as an adventure magazine written, in part, by the Avatar, Jimmy Malone, and Dr. Rafkin after their adventures in Eodon. It's full of clues hidden in sections like "Letters to the Editor" (one gives a hint about the importance of a fire extinguisher; another discusses bomb-making) and advertisements.

The "pulp manual" is part story, part instruction, part description, and part fun.

The manual also has one of the best and most obscure Easter eggs I've ever seen. In a (fictional) advertisement for an upcoming Savage Empire film, the cast is given as Richard Corlane, Bryan Swade, and Faith Selburn. You would have to be the most incredible film geek to know that these are the three (fictional) stars listed for a (fictional) Broadway musical called A Day in New York, featured in a single screen in the 1949 Gene Kelly/Frank Sinatra film On the Town.

All in all, fantastic work by Aaron Allston (credited for both the overall game story and the game manual) and worth an extra 2 bonus points for a final score of 48. That's considerably lower than the 68 I gave to Ultima VI, but still in the top 10% of 1990 games, and the third-highest rating I've given in the past year.

I started my series of posts on The Savage Empire praising Origin for re-using a great engine instead of discarding it after a single use. Thus, I was a little surprised and annoyed to find Dennis Owens complaining about the same thing in his March 1991 Computer Gaming World review. "Although once upon a time, Ultima stood for innovation and surprise," he grouses, "[they] seem to have devolved into copies of themselves--all requiring that worlds be explored...monsters be bashed, and objects be found." I mean, Jesus, Dennis--you could reduce all RPGs to such trite phrasing. Ultima hasn't lost its innovation just because the creators re-used one engine. Frankly, if they hadn't, we'd be waiting until Ultima VII for the next game. Would that have been better?

While he does have some positive things to say, his conclusion is mixed: "Compared to any except its own brothers and sisters, The Savage Empire...must be considered dazzling and successful. Compared to its peers, however, the game presents what may be a disturbing view of a possible trend in the Ultima line: caricature."

In her 1993 "survey" of RPGs on the market, Scorpia was a little more positive, concluding that it was "good for filling in the hours while you wait for the next real Ultima," with which I completely agree.

For the next Ultima game, I thought I'd have a choice between Martian Dreams and Ultima Underworld, but I was disappointed to see that Underworld is a 1992 game (really looking forward to that one), so Martian Dreams is definitely the next outing as the Avatar. I know people usually rate that one nigher than The Savage Empire, but the backstory seems a bit stupid to me. Maybe everything else will be better.


And that pretty much wraps up 1990! Technically, I still have Operation: Overkill to finish, but that's proving to be a boring slog, not unlike Dragon Sword but without the same ability to cheat. If I do finish it, it will probably be several weeks from now, after playing an hour here and an hour there in between other games. That means we'll be moving on to the 1990/1991 transition posting. I look forward to writing it.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Savage Empire: Won!

I'm always trying, but he never writes back.

Another seven hours of gameplay brought The Savage Empire to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. The major steps were to:

  • Finish uniting the tribes, including three I had not yet visted.
  • Gain access to the ancient city of Kotl, learn the secret of Eodon, and power everything down.
  • Lead the united tribes on a final assault against the Myrmidex queen.

None of the remaining tribes--the Neanderthal-like Haakur, the white Jukari, and the lizardlike Sakkhra--had any particular plot relevance. I just had to visit them, talk to their chiefs, and do whatever quest they gave me with the UNITE keyword. 

The Jukari chief asked me to recover a "sacred hide" from a cave that had recently been blocked by the same lava eruption that had killed the chief's father. To get over the lava, I had to use a...wait for extinguisher. By spraying it on various patches, I made "hard spots" that allowed my party to step across. I don't recommend trying this with real lava.

Stupid fire extinguisher doesn't even put out an actual fire.

The Haakur chief, who had some valid points to make about the Jukari's choice of homeland...

...wanted me to recover his dead son's shield from a spider-infested cave south of him. To clear out the spider webs, I had to use torches, which was more of a pain in the neck than you might imagine. Unable to find any unlit torches in the various villages, I had to schlep all the way back to Rafkin's laboratory and the tar pits nearby. Tar applied to cloth applied to tree branches created torches.

It was almost worth it. The torches, applied to batches of spider webs, produced one of the best (and most satisfying) animations we've seen so far in RPG history. 

In the cave, I encountered Myrmidex for the first time. I had expected them to be humanoid ants, but they looked more like bees. They weren't tough to kill, but they attacked in swarms.

Anyway, I recovered the shield and returned it to the chief for his allegiance.

I handled the Sakkhra after exploring Kotl, but in any event they needed me to get rid of a Tyrannosaurus Rex who was preventing them from getting to their fruit orchards. I knew from previous experience that T-Rexes can't be killed, but when I got to his location, he fortunately was loafing around under a giant boulder on a cliff. An explosive thrown in the right location brought the boulder crashing down on his head.

The party kills another member of an endangered species.

Finding the entrance to Kotl was a matter of putting Aiela's gem on a pedestal, which caused the stairway to open. It took a while to find the stairway at the bottom of the mesa, but it turned out to be conveniently located a few steps away from the teleporter hub.

In the entryway, I found a headless automaton and no way to proceed. I had to return to Tichticatl and talk to the deposed shaman to recall that the head was in the city's treasury. Once I had it, I returned to the hidden city and activated the automaton. It was named Yunapotli, and it joined my party and opened the door to the city. A few steps into the city was a hologram of a Kotl named Katalkotl.

Between Katalkotl and Yunapotli, they filled in the missing gaps in Eodon's backstory: The Kotl were a lizard-like race that inhabited the underground city millennia ago. Harnessing the power of a black moonstone, they created automatons to serve them. Finding that the automatons weren't enough, they genetically-engineered the Myrmidex from ants, trusting that their strength and obedience would make them good workers. Instead, the Myrmidex revolted and carried away the moonstone (which continued to power the city from a distance).

A lot of grief would have been prevented if you'd just been willing to do your own housecleaning.

Seeking more servants, Katalkotl traversed the world and lured denizens of various tribes to the city (how his travels brought him in contact with both Neanderthals and Aztecs, who existed more than 35,000 years apart, is unexplained). The human servants also grew discontented with their lot in life and eventually fled, forming the various tribes of the valley. Later, the Myrmidex returned and sacked the city. A few surviving Kotl fled to the hills and became the Sakkhra. 

The city was enormous and I'm sure I didn't explore half of it. Scattered around the various rooms were healing crystals, which instantly restore one character to perfect health, black staffs, and "devices" that turned out to be explosive devices. I loaded up on these and used them for most of my explosive needs in the rest of the game, though they had a unfortunate tendency of blowing up in my hands and damaging my party even after I had supposedly thrown them. I think this was a bug.

Finding items among the debris of an ancient battle.

In one room, I encountered a wisp, who continued the same story that Ultima VI delivered about wisps being projections from the Xornite dimension. It said it was in the area to study the power distortions created by the Kotl's harnessing of the moonstone. It indicated that Eodon was actually on Earth, but sucked outside the normal space-time continuum by the energy distortions, and it worried that if the moonstone wasn't shut down, the resulting instability would result in "destruction of large regions of the multiverse."

The evil Dr. Spector, invincible in his force field, was guarding a bridge that led to the city's control room. Unable to pass him, I had to go through a maze of teleporters and walls to access the room from another direction. My explorations brought me into combat with automatons, robotic dinosaurs, and "serpent women."

When I reached the control panel, I smashed it. This shut down the generators and all the city's automatons, including Yunapotli. He had a sad farewell.

He was replaced in my party with Dr. Spector, who had snapped back to sanity. I was a bit annoyed, as I had been looking forward to killing Spector and his puppet chief. When I returned to Tichticatl, I at least had the satisfaction of hearing that when his force field disappeared, his own people had ripped Huitlapacti apart.

Anyway, the city started collapsing, so I had to make a beeline for the exit. The entrance disappeared as soon as I left, taking probably a bunch of cool stuff with it. Next time I have to remember to finish exploring before smashing the load-bearing control panel.

I hate when I turn off the lights in my house and the walls fall down.

Spector stressed the importance of uniting the tribes and destroying the Myrmidex queen and their moonstone.

Way ahead of you.

I finished the other tribal quests in short order, then headed for the Hill of the Drum. Banging on the giant drum that some guy had created for me out of an animal skin, I summoned the tribes to war and triggered the endgame sequence.

I soon found myself in the caves of the Myrmidex. Despite all the build-up, none of the warriors from the tribes appeared anywhere, but I assume they were off somewhere, thinning the herd and making my job easier.

Battling Myrmidex. Towards the end of the game, I got lazy with equipment. I don't even think Aiela and Johann have weapons and armor.

The caverns were a huge maze, with the queen somewhere in the middle. Following one wall didn't do any good, and it took me a crazy number of hours to finally make it to the queen's chamber. Later, I looked at a map online:

So it was with great relief that I finally found the queen. There was a quick cutscene...

...and then I killed her in about two blows.

Behind her was the moonstone--much bigger than the Britannian standard--and I attacked it until it blew up. This triggered the endgame text:

You and your companions rain blow after blow down on the corrupted moonstone...and the last mighty blow shatters it into a million glowing shards! The debris showers upon you.

"Maybe we could have destroyed it with missile weapons? Or by throwing it off a cliff?"

You hear a cry: "The Myrmidex are driven mad!" The Myrmidex stumble about, confused. With the queen and the stone gone, they have lost all sense of purpose. Now is your best opportunity to escape. And so you do. Battered, cut, triumphant, you emerge from the Myrmidex caves.

At the head of a long column of exhausted and victorious warriors, you return to the Drum celebrate! Members of all tribes come for the feast....the largest and most important feast ever held in the Valley of Eodon. Kurak sits beside Yolaru, Pindiro beside Barako, Haakur beside Sakkhra, and peace is sworn between the tribes. You know this peace isn't for you. Soon enough, you will hear the call to action again. But tonight, there is time for music and dance, friendship and love.

At dawn, your past catches up with you...and your future beckons. A vision of Lord British appears before you. "You have done well," he says. "But now I must take you to where you are needed. For the sake of the friends you leave behind, I am sorry. Prepare yourself."

You say farewell to Aiela. "Aiela does not know your world. Take her there," she pleads. "Teach her of your world." You shake your head. "My world would strangle you. You must stay. My heart remains with you, but my duty is elsewhere...with him."

"Also, I don't want to have to teach you about feminine products. That would just be awkward for everyone."

Tears roll down her cheeks. "Abandon duty, and you will not be the warrior Aiela loves. Choose duty, and you must leave. Either way, Aiela loses all...Farewell."

You are joined by Spector's former assistant, Fritz, who came out of hiding to fight the Myrmidex, and bears their scars. The moongate appears, summoned by the shade of Lord British. Jimmy, Spector, and Fritz gather their belongings, but Rafkin does not. "I'm staying, my friend," he says. "Someone must. I will stay here...and hope other scientists come. Farewell." Saddened, you follow your friends and allies into the moongate, leaving the Valley of Eodon. Perhaps someday you will return to those you have left behind.

And that's it except for the final screen at the top of the post. Lord British has managed to yank my chain again, ending the first serious RPG romance that I can recall. There was no explanation about Shamuru, Triolo, and Dokray despite Lord British's shade providing an obvious excuse. Origin missed a real opportunity for the three of them to start cracking up at the end of the game, revealing that they'd just been faking amnesia all along.

Notice that the three pseudo-Britannians are not among those departing through the moongate. And why is the moongate red, by the way?

When Lord British said that he was taking me "where I'm needed," I assume he means to Martian Dreams, which I'm 99% sure was the next Ultima game. 

When the game was over, I looked through my notes and found that I had numerous unsolved mysteries:

  • The wisp in Kotl said that if I gave it valuable information, it would present me "with information of true value." What did it want from me, and what would it have delivered?
  • I ended the game with a "crystal brain" in my inventory. Fritz had given it to me. I never used it anywhere; is this what the wisp wanted?

This is going to haunt me, and no site seems to have the answer.

  • I carried a bunch of other things the entire game that sounded useful, but I never found any use for them. They included a digging stick, a key, a vine coiled as a rope, orchids, and a bunch of valuables--a pile of diamonds, gold pieces, a jade neclace, and a tooth necklace.
  • There were inventory slots for rings, boots, and helmets, but I never found any of these things. Were there any?
  • I believe you can get into the Myrmidex caves at any point from the Haakur spider caves. What would happen if a player started a new game, headed right for the caves, and killed the queen without doing any of the other quests first? Is it even possible? Does it change the endgame screens?
  • If the moonstone was keeping Eodon in a space-time pocket inaccessible from Earth, why didn't destroying the moonstone return the valley to Earth?

Looking through some walkthroughs and other material (particular thanks to Dino's Guide to the Savage Empire), I discovered a few things that I missed. First, apparently it was possible to enter into a romance with Aiela's bratty adopted sister, Tristia. If you're dumb enough to do this, she completely slams you during your farewells.

The Avatar looks appropriately wounded.

Also, it was apparently possible to find Seggallion, the expatriate from Knights of Legend who appeared briefly in Ultima VI, hiding out on his own plateau. His dialogue doesn't indicate any past familiarity with the Avatar, consisting mostly of Origin in-jokes prompted by various Origin employees' names.

Finally, I'll mention that only two of my characters--the Avatar and Jimmy--ever leveled up, and each of them only leveled up once, towards the end of the game. Character development definitely wasn't a major part of The Savage Empire.

My one screen shot of leveling up.

I'm going to see if I can wrap up Operation: Overkill and 1990 over the next few days as I ponder The Savage Empire's final rating.


Like many of you, I've been eagerly anticipating Corey and Lori Cole's Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption. Corey notified me this week that the project has gone into a second round of Kickstarter funding to make up for a budget gap. If you're keen for a Quest for Glory-style game in the next few years, I recommend visiting the page and supporting the project. The project has come a long way, and the official site has some great examples of artwork, dialogue, and gameplay.