Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pools of Darkness: Welcome to the Party

The new party does some good deeds.
    
When I was a kid, I would have been too sentimental to blithely drop party members--party members who had been with me since the beginning--just because their dexterity wasn't high enough. It would have filled me with some kind of ineffable saudade. My loyalty to these fictional party members would have ensured that they stayed with me to the bitter end, even if it meant that I couldn't conquer the final battle.

But I've grown hard and jaded over the years. Karnov is gone, replaced with Festia, a human fighter who started at Level 14. I immediately dualed her to a thief. Brutus is gone, replaced with a mage (Navarre) who I immediately dualed to a cleric. Cesario and Viola hit the road in favor of Dromio and Dromia, brother-and-sister clerics who I immediately dualed to mages. Every new character has 18s in dexterity as well as their primary attributes. The characters who wandered into the sunset did so after giving up their equipment first, although it was interesting to note that new characters in Pools of Darkness start with +3 weapons and armor.
     
My new thief is dualed immediately from a Level 14 fighter.
    
Bolingbroke the paladin and Goldeneye the ranger remained. I thought this gave me a tenuous thread back to Pool of Radiance before I remembered that paladins and rangers didn't exist in Pool of Radiance. I had created them in Curse of the Azure Bonds. My entire party has now been recycled.

I did all of this before all the opinions had arrived in response to my last post. I guess in the end it might have made more sense to create all the new characters as fighters and then dual them to spellcasters, or perhaps dual my paladin and ranger, too. (Until a recent comment, I didn't think that was possible for paladins and rangers to participate in dual-classes, but I guess I was thinking of AD&D2 rules.) Even if it isn't perfectly optimal, I think I'll go with this combination. Once Navarre, Dromio, and Dromia exceed their old levels in their new ones, I'll have three spellcasters capable of "Delayed Blast Fireball" (plus several regular "Fireballs," "Lightning Bolts," etc.) and "Heal," plus three solid fighters, including one with a devastating backstab.

Starting the game anew with all my spellcasters at Level 1 did pose some early challenges, but it wasn't too bad. The ogre battle in Phlan got them all immediately to Level 2. The hard part, after the game started in earnest, was finding a training hall so I could keep up with their rapid leveling. Eschewing my previous pattern of exploration, and saving Vala's quest for later, I explored a couple of promising icons before I found, in the top-left of the map, a giant fortress that had a stable training facility.
    
Guffaw all you want. My spellcasters will soon be able to cast "Fireball" again.
   
It was a good map for grinding low-level party members, as there were only a few mage battles. Most of the combats were with giants who could do physical damage only. My ranger, under the influence of a Potion of Speed and armed with a Long Sword vs. Giants, cut through them like tissue paper. By the time I cleared that map, all the new characters were up to Level 10 and the mages were starting to pull their weight with "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt" again.

The fortress seemed to be a kind of rallying point for the forces of evil, all seeking to prove themselves to Bane. Its various rooms held all kinds of giants, ogres, ettins, human fighters and mages, Fire Knife assassins, and otyughs. Fights among the groups were apparently common, even encouraged, by the ruler of the fortress, a hill giant shaman. At first, we could explore only half the map--consisting of a few places to rest, many fights, the training hall, a store, and a tavern.
   
My spellcasters slowly advance in their new classes.
    
In the tavern, a fighter named Kardal approached me and said he was working as an agent for Sasha. He's heard rumors of a massive army assembling and a "Gathering," and he recommended that I defeat some nearby cloud giants to gain the shaman's admiration, thus allowing me access to the second half of the fortress.
    
This is supposed to be a tavern. By 1991, this kind of sparsity in graphics is becoming a bit laughable.
    
I did as he suggested and began exploring the upper part of the map. I soon came across Kardal being tortured by giants. Before he died, he told me that the "Gathering" is of dragons in "unheard of numbers," led by Thorne. I guess he must be the red dragon from the opening screens.

The series has always offered minor role-playing choices like this, but I think there are more in Pools of Darkness than in most previous titles.
    
There were a couple of dragon battles later in the fortress, neither large enough to be considered the "Gathering." One had three white dragons and one red dragon; another and one white and one black dragon. Both occasioned a reload as I better prepared/buffed for them, and it occurred to me how much better the Gold Box combat system would be if there was an automatic "buffing phase" before each battle, because there's just no way that you're going to cast six "Resist Fire" spells and six "Resist Cold" spells in the opening rounds of combat. Either you use the spells before combat--which means having some warning that a combat requiring them is coming--or you don't use them at all. Since the Gold Box games rarely give you any warning about the composition or existence of an impending combat, a "buffing phase" would end the tiresome cycle of entering combat unprepared, getting killed, reloading, and then casting buffing spells.
    
I don't remember dragons "terrifying" my party members in previous games.
   
Eventually, I reached the shaman's chambers. By then, he must have decided that my party was too dangerous, because instead of granting us an audience, he just attacked. It wasn't a difficult combat. When it was over, I looted his vault and found a note indicating that some kind of fire giant leader, and fire dragons, would likely be found in the next map. A doorway led from the fortress to a set of caves. I decided to leave this for later exploration and return to my previous pattern.
    
Games never give you follow-up dialogue when the big boss realizes how badly he's underestimated you.
    
I repeated my explorations of Vala's caves, blocking the Vassan army, and then resumed my pattern of exploring west-to-east in north/south strips. My first encounter was in a crater than had formerly held the City of Melvaunt. An army encamped there led me to a Temple of Tyr, now inhabited by "dark forces," preventing the army from accessing the armory within. The leader, Priam, asked if I would help them re-take the temple.
   
Easy there, Tex.
   
The temple consisted of four small 8 x 8 levels that I didn't bother to map. Right as I entered, a soldier on guard sprinted upstairs, and I had the option to follow him. I did so, and the game controlled my movement as we ascended a couple of levels, right to a large battle with warriors, Banite clerics, black mages, and a vampire cleric.
     
It was an occasion for "Fireball," and "Fireball" rose to the occasion.
   
Though small, the temple had a neat story and some fun role-playing encounters. A book told a story about an Elven maiden named Laurellin and her human lover, Brimwulf, a knight of Tyr. Laurellin was betrothed to an elven lord, so when she made plans to run away with Brimwulf, her father raised an army and besieged the Temple of Tyr. Refusing to abandon his brothers, Brimwulf died in the ensuing battle and Laurellin killed herself by jumping from the tower. Now, Brimwulf's spirit haunts the catacombs and Laurellin's haunts the bell tower.
     
Not an awesome role-playing choice, but a choice nonetheless.
     
Through a series of role-playing encounters that required me to pay attention to the journal entries (to successfully perform a ritual) and to not do obviously-bad things like loot the temple, I restored Tyr's altar, re-lit the braziers, reunited the two lovers in death, and created a beacon to summon the good armies to the area. I'm sure it was a completely-optional area, but it was a satisfying one.
    
That sounds really uncomfortable after about 20 minutes.

I guess an evil party would say "no"? I should have experimented. If the game wasn't such a pain to reload, having to go through copy protection questions every time, I'd be more inclined.
    
The next area I explored was a "large farmhouse" where all the people had been slaughtered by vampires. My party killed the vampires and buried the family. "One small blot of evil has been destroyed," the game noted. Pools of Darkness is shaping up to have a lot of these little side-quests and encounters.
  
Systematic exploration is necessary to reveal all the special encounters.
   
As I wrap up, I've just entered a fortress in the middle-north of the map, which promises to offer more giant battles.
  
Miscellaneous notes:

  • Sasha has agents scattered around the Moonsea, huge armies have gathered, and fortresses have been built to accommodate them. Just how long was my party in Elminster's Limbo?
  • The game suggests a default icon for new characters based on race and sex, much preferable to the old method of always starting with an unarmed, long-haired human.
  • The previous games would allow you to try to sleep anywhere, often interrupting sleep with encounters. This game simply doesn't offer sleep options in clearly-dangerous areas.
  • Most of the encounters in the wilderness are with undead. My characters are generally capable of turning all of them within 2 rounds.
  • When you first fire up the game, if you don't choose "(P)lay" within a few seconds, the game goes into "demo" mode and no key-mashing in the world will allow you to escape it until it's finished, about 10 minutes later. You have to kill the emulator.
   
The long "demo mode" concludes.
    
Do I even have to mention the economy? As usual, it's broken from the beginning. Yes, there's a "magic shop" in Phlan, but the Wands of Magic Missile that it sells under-perform physical attacks by spellcasters, and in any event, there are only so many that you need. So far, I've only needed money for item identification. My characters came to the game with thousands of gems and jewels, and I've left thousands more just sitting on dungeon floors after each battle. On the plus side, this topic segues into a couple of interesting guest posts by a long-time commenter. I'm going to offer them this week in lieu of my own entries (I'm going to a conference), and by the time I return this weekend I should be back on a regular schedule for the rest of the fall.

Time so far: 8 hours
Reload count: 4

Monday, September 19, 2016

Game 230: Pools of Darkness (1991)

    
There is an inescapable pull that invites us to tread familiar pathways again, to reminisce, to note what's changed, to note how much we've changed since we last visited. It's why we periodically revisit where we grew up. It's why I can return to the same 10 blocks of the French Quarter several times a year and never get bored. More to our purposes, it's why Origin Systems can set four consecutive games in the same geography, and we still love visiting.

If you try really hard and get lucky with the weather, there's a certain mountain peak you can visit in Skyrim and see, faintly, the spire of White Gold Tower in the distance. Even knowing how much content Skyrim has to offer, the pull of that spire is incredible. Even though I know the answer is, "Nothing, because it's not a real place," I ache to know what's going on in Cyrodiil. Is the statue of Martin Septim still presiding over the Temple District? Is the Dark Brotherhood still lurking beneath the same abandoned house in Cheydinhal? (Have they changed the password?) Will I still find Count Hassildor wandering the halls of Skingrad? Setting Dragonborn on Solstheim was genius for this very reason--and yet it's somehow not enough. I gaze from the south coast at the plume erupting from the mountain on Vvardenfell, and I want to go there.

Rolf gives us a tour as we arrive in Phlan, just as he did in the first game.
   
Pools of Darkness taps into this atavistic desire to return in two ways. First is in the engine itself. Every time we play a Gold Box game, we are in a sense "returning" to the first Gold Box game we played--in my case, Pool of Radiance--to see what's changed. The answer here is: not very much. Pools of Darkness brings together the best improvements on the engine that we've seen in the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance series--VGA graphics, SoundBlaster support, targeting skips your own party members, previously-cast spells are re-memorized by default, and there's meaningful overland exploration--but fundamentally we're looking at the same experience as the first game in the series. This isn't exactly a complaint, because it's a great engine, but in some ways its improvements serve to emphasize its weaknesses. For instance, improvements in wall textures only serve to highlight the emptiness of the environments.

(A quick side-note in case you've come into this entry without Gold Box familiarity. Pools of Darkness is the fourth Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game by Strategic Simulations, Inc. set in the Forgotten Realms. It is the 8th or 9th game using the "Gold Box" engine. The engine is notable for featuring first-person exploration but a top-down tactical combat system, with all actions controlled by menus. The games thusfar use AD&D first-edition rules but perhaps with some second-edition allowances.)

The second way that Pools of Darkness brings you home is by literally bringing you back to Phlan, 10 years after your party liberated the city from Tyranthraxus and his forces. The gap seems too long--I have no idea what my characters have been doing since Secret of the Silver Blades. They haven't actually aged (on their character sheets) nor gained any experience in the intervening years. In any event, the game begins its references to Pool of Radiance with the text of your arrival:

As your ship arrives, you see the towers of Phlan, where before only ruins stood. The slums and decay have given way to new growth. Boats bob in the harbor under the watchful protection of Sokal Keep. In large measure this prosperity and success was born of your defeat of Tyranthraxus so many years ago.

The heroes step off the boat in Phlan and can take a tour, just like they did at the beginning of Pool of Radiance. It's even given by the same NPC--Rolf, now serving as the city's harbormaster. The explorable area of the reconstructed city consists of two 16 x 16 maps, both full of call-backs to the first game, including the basic orientation of Phlan, the park, a "Traitor's Gate" named after Porphrys Cadorna, the councilmember from Radiance who sold the party out to the Zhentarim.

The map of "New Phlan."
The same area 10 years ago They've really simplified things.
   
In the former "slums" area, the fortune teller has a shop roughly in the area that she resided in the first game. Ohlo, who gave the party a quest to recover a potion (if you didn't kill him), now has a magic shop. And the most difficult battle in the opening hours of Pool of Radiance is commemorated in the "Troll Toss Tavern," where you can fight ettins for sport.

This feels somewhat cruel.
    
My party imported seamlessly from Secret of the Silver Blades with all gear and wealth intact. The entire party had been beating against level caps at the end of Secret, so not only were they able to immediately level up, they were able to level up a second time after fighting the ettins in the tavern. My spellcasters got 8th level spells for the first time, including "Otto's Irresistible Dance," "Mass Charm," and "Power Word Blind."
   
Memorizing spells before I set out.
    
Sasha, the clerk who gave the party quests in Pool of Radiance and had to be rescued in Secret of the Silver Blades, is now a council member. You visit her early in the game, and she insults the party: "I say these things first so you will know there is no trouble to be found here in Phlan, and second, so you will not think you can manufacture your own."

At least she got this part right.
   
But of course Sasha is wrong. There is plenty of trouble to be had in Phlan. The opening scenes have set it up, suggesting that the evil god Bane has gathered his top lieutenants--a couple of demons, a dragon, and a naga, judging by the screenshots--to exact vengeance on the Moonsea region for the success of the party in the previous games.
   
Bane schemes.
   
Sasha is due to "inspect our forces in the land of Thar" and asks the party to accompany her. No sooner have you left the city--the game mentions the party passing through Kuto's Well and Podal Plaza--than a storm erupts "from horizon to horizon," Bane's voice booms that he "claims this land for my own," and a spectral hand literally scoops Phlan from the surface of the world, leaving a crater behind.
    
But...I just spent all kinds of time liberating that city!
    
Bane's voice designates his lieutenants as Kalistes, Tanetal, and Gothmenes, and he suggests that anyone living surrender themselves to their graces. He then blots out the sun, leaving the Moonsea region in darkness.

Before the party can react, they get sucked through a portal and into the plane of Limbo, where they meet Elminster, the famous Forgotten Realms character, although I don't really know why he's famous since I haven't read the Forgotten Realms books.
    
In case you don't know: you're not Gandalf. You'll never be Gandalf.
   
Elminster says that Bane seeks to conquer the world and has made "a crossroad between the dimensions for the use of his allies," somehow using various pools of darkness, and Elminster can do the same for the party. At the end of his speech, you get tossed back to the Plains of Thar and the game really begins.
   
The game world.
   
The game takes place on a map that encircles the Moonsea, though it doesn't appear that you can cross from north to south on the east side. Since you start near the northeast, I figured I'd go east as far as I could, then start exploring in a counter-clockwise manner. I soon ran across a cave in the mountains. Entering, I ran into Vala, my Silver Blade companion from the last game. She explained that "Vaasan" forces were using elementals to tunnel under the mountains, hoping to join with Bane's army. She believed we could stop them by assembling 4 artifacts found in the caves, which would allow us to control elementals.
   
Fire elementals attack as I find one of the artifacts.
   
The artifacts were easily found in the small map, and after a number of easy battles, we went to fight the final battle against the Vassans (I have no idea who they are). After we used the devices to remove the elemental threat, Vala took them and dove into a collapsing passage, promising to hold off any reinforcements.
    
The men in my party feel suddenly unchivalrous.
   
I was taken by surprise by the difficulty of the final battle. There were about 7 wizards along with a couple dozen high-hit point fighters. In my first attempt, they got the drop on me and "Lightning Bolted" my spellcasters before I could act, repeating this strategy every round. (As a reminder, spellcasters who are hit by any damage cannot cast spells during that round, so whichever team can damage the other team's spellcasters first basically dominates the round.)  It wasn't long before my team was wiped out. I reloaded and better prepared with buffing spells. My spellcasters started with the initiative and I fared much better.
   
Being able to cast first makes all the difference.
   
I never found out what happened to Vala. I exited the cave and began my journey westward. Three of my party members can level-up again, and I'm concerned about how long it will be before I find a city with a training facility.
    
One woman is holding off an entire army?
   
At this point, it wouldn't be too hard to start over with some changes to the cast of characters. I say that because I have some concerns about my existing party, particularly since I've heard the final battle is nearly impossible and depends heavily on initiative, which is in turn controlled by dexterity. This is who I have, in detail:

  • Bolingbroke, a lawful good male human paladin of Level 17. Un-augmented, he has 18(89) strength and 17 dexterity.
  • Karnov, a true neutral male dwarf fighter/thief of Levels 9/17. Because of racial restrictions, he can no longer rise as a fighter, so half of his experience points are being wasted. But those 9 levels as a fighter do make a big difference when he backstabs. He has 18 strength and 17 dexterity, and for some reason 99 charisma.
  • Goldeneye, a chaotic good female human ranger of Level 17. She has 17 for both strength and dexterity.
  • Brutus, a chaotic good male cleric of Level 17. He previously served as a fighter but was dualed at Level 8 (meaning he stops advancing in his fighter class, but unlike the multi-classed Karnov, experience points are not wasted on the old class). He has 18 strength, 18 wisdom, 17 dexterity.
  • Cesario, a lawful good male human magic user of Level 17 who had previously dualed from a cleric at Level 9. 18 intelligence, 16 dexterity.
  • Viola, a chaotic good female human magic user of Level 17. 18 intelligence, 16 dexterity.
   
I'm not sure Viola is ready for the rigors ahead.
   
What changes would you recommend while the game is still new and I still have enough time to develop a new character?

Some other miscellaneous notes:

  • The perspective seems to have changed a bit to make it look like doorways and walls in front of you are a bit further ahead than in previous games. I keep trying to walk one square too far.
  • A new "death scream" accompanies the slaying of monsters. It is high-pitched and goofy, like a Wilhelm Scream, and I hate it.
  • Helms appear for the first time. Regular ones don't seem to have any affect on armor class, but I found some magic ones in the first map.
  • In the wilderness, my characters fought a "bulette," or "landshark," for the first time in a D&D game.
  
     
  • In some of the cavern fights, I was able to directly control Vala. I don't really know why.
  • My party started the game way overloaded with potions, arrows, and scrolls. I need to significantly pare down my equipment list.

A very serviceable Gold Box experience so far. It feels like it's going to be very linear, though.

Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count:

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fate: Dialogue

Man, life must be rough where you come from.
    
I spent more time than it took me to write this post debating whether I should keep going or start over. The arguments for not starting over were that I already had 29 hours invested in the game, I still remembered most of what was happening despite not having played in several months, and I had spent a lot of time in boring dialogue and combat getting to where I was. The arguments for starting over were that most of those 29 hours had been spent mapping, which I wouldn't have to do the second time, that I hadn't faithfully recorded all of the hints at the beginning of the game (because I didn't understand the system yet), and that I could use the excuse to assemble an ideal party earlier in the game. A commenter warned me that new party members are scaled to Winwood's level but don't have the training points they would have accumulated if they'd been leveling up with Winwood all the time.

Of desired party members, I was primarily lacking a witch. I decided to return my existing party to Larvin and wander around for as long as it took to find one and add her to the party. Winwood was Level 9 at the time, and I decided that if in the process of trying to find a witch, he hit Level 10, I'd start over. In fairly short time, I got a banshee, whose spells I like better than my magician's, but the witch remained elusive.

I used the time to try to codify what I know about interacting with NPCs. As I noted in previous posts, any humanoid creature can potentially be an NPC, even ones that would normally be hostile, like robbers and black witches. You just have to talk with them. Usually, they spit on the ground or demand your money, but sometimes they'll be happy to have a chat. Other classes, like commoners, noblemen, priestesses, valkyries, and mercenaries, are always friendly, and attacking them counts as a "sin" that you have to pay to absolve yourself of.

Occasionally, normally-friendly NPCs will accidentally wander into a party of evil creatures and end up fighting alongside them. It doesn't appear to be a sin if you kill them in such circumstances.
    
That "swordsman" would normally be friendly, but he's hanging with the wrong crowd.
     
There are three beneficial things that NPCs can do for you: give you a hint, train you (thus increasing one or more attributes), and join your party. But to get them to do any of these things, you first have to get the NPCs to like you. Sometimes they don't do what you want even if they like you, but they never do what you want if they dislike you.
   
A commoner hates me.
   
There are a number of things that you can do to get an NPC to like you depending on the NPC class. For instance, giving "alms" (basically, just handing over money) almost always works, although it insults knights, gladiators, swordsmen, valkyries, and perhaps some other classes. Simply introducing yourself works on everyone. Almost everyone responds to "adulation" (flattery), although it occasionally insults them. Bragging, telling jokes, and telling fibs are riskier strategies--they only work about 40% of the time--but you need to try something if the NPC won't take alms. You can give alms as many times as you want, but other actions you can perform only once.
   
Bragging fails to work.
   
Each successful action adds to some behind-the-scenes score, and with luck, you eventually trip the threshold to "like." What I don't know for sure is whether liking and disliking are binary measures or whether you can get some NPCs to like you more than others, thus increasing your chances of getting some beneficial result.
   
Winwood tells a fairly stupid lie. These people don't have access to your world's literature, Winwood.
    
The hint system works by giving you a series of hints in a specific order. A certain NPC class always has the next hint in the list, so you have to talk to a lot of NPCs before you find the right one. Eventually, the topic is exhausted and you have to do something in the game world if you want to move on to the next topic. No one has given me a hint in a long time, which I suspect means that I need to solve the Cavetrain quest before I get any more topics. I also need to find my way to the "southern isle" in a walled-off part of Larvin, where there's a druid named Mulradin.

The other thing I figured out about NPCs is that when you're "done" with one, even if you immediately dismiss him after talking to him, he disappears from the game and the game seeds the area with a new one. Thus, if I want to find a witch, rather than bypassing all the non-witches, I need to talk to them and get them out of the game to increase the chances a witch will show up in the next random selection. Since Larvin is so large and the "new" NPC could show up anywhere, I decided to head to the smaller city, Laronnes, instead.

Literally as I was approaching Laronnes's front door, a combat with a snake put Winwood to Level 10. But by this time, I was so comfortable with my existing party that I decided to press on. This was a good decision, because minutes after entering Laronnes, I got my witch. And yes, she has the "magic ears" ability, though this hasn't done anything for me so far.
     
Well, I'm glad that you think so.
   
Later, I filled the last slot in my party with an assassin. (So overall, I have a fighter, a witch, a priestess, a banshee, an assassin, and a warlock.) I'll dump either my fighter or my magician when I to take on a specific NPC.
    
Perhaps I should have held out for an assassin with a name other than "Derek."
   
With my party complete, I finished mapping the starting area. This took me about 6 hours. The resulting map represents only a small portion of the game world, and it's hard to imagine that I'll fully map the rest of the world, once I get to it. Fate really is quite enormous. In a regular game, the "opening area" of Fate would still be quite large.
   
The entire opening area.
 
I was continually annoyed by combats in the wilderness. As I noted last time, Fate can apparently hold only one monster type in memory at a given time, so you end up fighting variants of the same monster (e.g., snakes, giant snakes, serpents, swamp snakes) over and over until something triggers disk access again. I don't mind fighting the same creature so much as the fact that the game absolutely swarms you with them. Fate will decide, "it's rat time!" and soon you meet 4 giant rats. You kill them and 3 steps later, you encounter 6 swamp rats. You kill them, and then the game decides, "You like rats? Have some rats!" and you encounter a huge party of 7 giant rats, 8 swamp rats, and 4 regular rats. This continues until the enemy parties get so large that someone inevitably dies. You reload and the game leaves you alone for a while before deciding, "it's snake time!"
   
This is my reward for a couple successful battles against smaller groups of banshees.
     
I found a couple of new treasures but no more special encounters. I still have to solve the one with the body at the bottom of a pit. Some commenters suggested I do this by having my witch create strength +1 potions until I have enough (apparently, they stack infinitely) to get someone's strength up to around 50. That's going to require 25 potions, and my witch seems capable of creating only 3 per day before the spell just fails, so it will be a while.

Some miscellaneous notes:

  • "Grals wizards" are my most hated wilderness foe. Almost every other enemy you encounter in the wilds is survivable (except in huge numbers) but these bastards are capable of wiping out the entire party in a couple of spells, and they simply won't die.
    
     
  • I'm discovering that the game awards both individual experience (for successful actions like casting spells) and party experience. We've had games that have done one or the other before, but I'm not sure we've ever seen a game that does both.
  • Having not played in several months, I forgot that food and water was important. After many hours and several in-game days of exploring the wilds, I suddenly remembered that my characters needed to eat and drink. When I checked their statuses, sure enough they were "starving" and "parched." It didn't seem to have been affecting their combat ability.
  • There are a couple of islands in the middle of bodies of water that I wasn't able to visit and map. I believe you've all told me that there are no mechanisms for crossing small bodies of water in this game, so I guess that land will forever go untrod. Let me know if that's not the case, because it's starting to bug me.
   
How do I get there?
    
A short post, but the game-hours-per-blog-material ratio is quite high with this one. I won't write about Fate again until I've solved that Cavetrain quest and gotten out of the opening area. My next post will either focus on the equipment system or the economy. I have way too much money, probably because I haven't been spending it enough.

Time so far: 36 hours
Reload count: I give up




*****

Moonstone, which looks interesting, may have to wait a while until I get back home for a few days and attempt once again to get my controller working with DOSBox. It doesn't require a joystick, but I'm having an impossible time playing without one.

Maze Quest was supposed to be the next game after that, but I think I have to render it "NP." The game is really just a shareware tease for a full game called City Quest, but the full one doesn't seem to exist any more. Maze Quest's characters can only achieve Level 2. Moreover, when I tried to play it, it didn't emulate well. It froze frequently and wouldn't respond to my navigation commands, instead spinning my party around randomly. It otherwise seems like a competent dungeon-crawler, so if anyone comes across City Quest, I'd be happy to give it a try.

That has us starting Pools of Darkness much earlier than I intended, but hey, I'm not complaining.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Game 229: The Realm of Angbar: Elfhelm's Bane (1986)

  
The Realm of Angbar: Elfhelm's Bane
United States
Green Valley Publishing (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for Apple II
Date Started: 6 September 2016
Date Ended: 8 September 2016
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Elfhelm's Bane is one of those games that has all kinds of fan pages and tributes, with 1980s players reminiscing about how awesome it is, perhaps even the "greatest game ever," and then when you actually play it, it turns out to be an inexcusable red herring of a game that promises far, far more than it delivers.
   
The game pays homage to a much better series.
   
The author of the game, Mark Peterson, had grandiose plans worthy of the Alternate Reality series. Elfhelm, the capital of the Realm of Angbar (by the author's own account, changed from the original "Angmar" to avoid possible legal action), was to be the hub of the adventure and would occupy Side 1 of each game disk. From the city, players could visit a number of locales; these additional disks were to be called Quest of the Dragon's Run, The Mountain-Lord of Eriath, Fangwood, and The Crystal Realm. They never shipped, but that doesn't stop this game from asking for the disks when you try to leave the city at the right location.
   
   
The game is all-text and draws clear inspiration from Eamon (and, boy is there more on that in a minute), with its central hall branching out to multiple adventures. But instead of allowing flexible verb/noun inputs, Elfhelm's Bane condenses its commands to simple keyboard shortcuts: (A)ttack, (C)ast spell, (I)nventory, and so forth. This isn't necessarily unwelcome, except that the one-letter mechanics don't allow for any puzzle-solving or deeper exploration of the game's many rooms. There are plenty of times that you enter an interesting-sounding room--a room that in the typical text adventure would reveal its secrets with a little parser-prodding--and yet there's nothing to do if there isn't a monster to fight or an object to pick up.
   
One of many interesting-sounding locations that produces nothing. There isn't even any mechanic by which to interact with the copper image or its jeweled eyes.
   
Players can choose between warrior, mage, and priest characters, although since arcane and divine magic aren't distinguished, the priest is basically a warrior/mage. Healing spells are so vital to survival that I can't imagine playing as a pure warrior. Mages and priests get one new spell per level; mages start with the first three but priests only start with one. During character creation, the game rolls randomly for strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity, and magic ability.
   
Starting a new character.
   
The player is supposed to be a penniless drifter who has just arrived in Elfhelm. He has a little money but no equipment. You start in the middle of the city with no direction except vague rumors that some evil cult has recently opened a temple somewhere.

The game's lack of depth soon becomes apparent as you start to encounter NPCs--maidens, watchmen, gentlemen, clerks, musicians, artisans, even The Prince and The Emperor if you wander into the palace. There's no way to interact with these NPCs except to "examine" them. No "talk" command. No "give" command. Even worse, many of them attack you for no reason at all, and if you try to defend yourself, you get thrown in jail.
 
Almost immediately after starting a new game.

This just isn't my lucky day.
    
The city is full of twisty streets, and the developer didn't have the decency to maintain consistent distances and direction, meaning mapping it was a bit of a nightmare. I had to toss in a lot of blank squares to account for the fact that there were 4 squares along one street but only 3 along a parallel street.
   
The city of Elfhelm's Bane. The extra bit of cobblestone along Cabaret Street meant that I had to insert a blank square for every parallel street.
   
Eventually, I found my way to the equipment shop and was able to purchase a suit of armor, a weapon, and a shield. The game keeps all your money in a bank account. If you find gold after fighting an enemy, you can turn it in to the bank for equivalent experience points. A pawn shop--the only place to (H)ock looted equipment and gems--is found at the end of a "seedy" section of streets where you're likely to encounter thugs, muggers, and killers.
  
Buying weapons and armor. A "shestoper" turns out to be a type of mace.

Selling looted items at the pawn shop.
   
Combat is relatively primitive, consisting of three types of attack (regular "attack," a defensive "parry," an attempt to "bash" the enemy off his feet, and a powerful but reckless "smash"), as well as casting spells. There are a couple of problems with combat. First, I don't think that "bash" ever works. Second, I verified with save states that before you even make your selection, the game has already decided if you're going to hit the enemy, whether the enemy is going to hit you in the follow-up, and how much damage the enemy is going to do. Thus, although the selection between the four attack types is supposed to affect your chances of hitting, how much damage you do, and how much damage you receive in return, it only seems to affect the amount of damage you do. There's no reason to ever choose anything but "smash."
   
Combat with a "high priest."
   
Combat is quite deadly at the beginning of the game and remains difficult throughout, primarily because enemies have a tendency to pile into the same square. You might start facing one mugger, but in round two, an additional thug suddenly appears and you're taking damage from two enemies at once. You try to polish off one of them, but while you're in the middle of it, another one shows up, and another. There were times that I literally couldn't get out of a square because the game replaced enemies as fast as I killed them.
   
A green slime attacks me at a "grisly scene."
This battle didn't go so well. I don't even know what a "horast" is.
      
The seedy alley is a good place for grinding, but it takes about 20-30 successful combats to get enough experience points to rise to Level 2.
   
I play vigilante for experience points.
    
Even then, you also have to have 3,000 gold pieces in your bank account to train. The needed experience points and gold both rise quickly with the levels, and you basically never have enough money. I had enough experience to train for level 3 several hours before I had enough gold.
   
For some reason, you have to return to this fountain to "train."
    
Supposedly, weapon skills increase through use, much as in Eamon, but I never saw it happening with my characters.

My character sheet at Level 2. The "weapon bonuses" don't be going anywhere.
   
Enemies drop equipment, and higher-level enemies drop some pretty good stuff. Scrolls that heal, cure poison, and cure disease (poison and disease are fatal in 10 rounds) supposedly make up for the lack of spells for the warrior class, but there aren't very many of them.
   
The filth was not, in the end, very interesting.
   
There are several gates out of the city, each prompting you for a new disk. A number of exits are visitable from Side 2 of Elfhelm's Bane, including a forest and swamp to the west, an "iron castle" across the bay to the south, a "city of the dead" inside the walls, a small park, and the evil temple. An arena seems to have no purpose, and a "clanhouse" remains locked.
    
....England, The Earth, The Solar System, The Milky Way, The Universe.
    
Enemies increase in difficulty considerably when you leave the city, and if I hadn't been using save states, I would have reloaded dozens and dozens of times. (You can also get resurrected after death at a cost of half your bank account, but that just ensures you'll never be able to level up.) I explored as much as I could, but as I noted above, you soon realize that none of the interesting-sounding areas are going to deliver anything in the way of puzzles or even quest rewards because the interface doesn't allow it. There are no special items to find and use in other areas, no clues to piece together.
    
The inventory screen. The flaming axe +6 was a nice find. It was just sitting outside the arena.
    
The only thing interesting that might happen as you explore is that "(F)ind" might reveal a secret exit from whatever room you're in. These secret exits might open up large new areas to explore. It's just too bad there really isn't anything to do or find within these areas. The game supposedly offers keys to unlock a number of locked areas, but I never found any in the 6 hours that I played.
    
I never found a way to get past areas like this.
   
After spending 6 hours with it, I'm reasonably convinced that there's no way to "win" the scenario despite what sounds like a main quest to invade the evil temple and plunder it. I mapped the entire temple, but only one square had what seemed to be a fixed encounter--something called a "wormlord"--and there were no special items that seemed there to be retrieved. (Admittedly, I didn't get through the locked doors.) After exploring, fighting, and plundering as much as I could, and finally managing to kill the "wormlord," I returned to the surface and visited the emperor, but there's no way to actually interact with him. Oh, and the emperor attacked me for no reason. Later, I examined the game disks, and I couldn't find anything that suggested dialogue with the emperor or any winning or congratulatory text. Maybe you're just supposed to pat yourself on the back once you defeat the wormlord and imagine a victory parade.
   
The dungeon of the evil temple. This is where I think the main plot would happen, if it had one.
   
There are other fixed (non-respawning) encounters in the game, with Poseidon and Satan himself, but they don't seem to produce any winning conditions, either.
   
Apparently, the publisher's concerns about getting sued didn't extend past the name of the game world.
   
To make things even worse, the game punishes you for character development by throwing harder monsters at you (and more of them) the better your statistics are. I noticed this after I grinded a few levels, hoping to defeat Satan. Places I had encountered 1 skeleton before suddenly served up 3 wraiths. To test it further, I hex-edited my save game file. I gave my character 255 in every attribute (up from around an average of 70), 255 hit points (from 70), 99 magic points (from 13), and bonuses of 99 on attack, defense, and different weapon types. Such a herculean character would have mopped the floor in most games, but what happened here was the moment I stepped into a square, enemies began piling into it and didn't stop until I was dead. The enemies were all higher level and hit much harder. For fun, I tried lowering various statistics to try to figure out which one the game was using to scale the monsters, but I wasn't able to identify a specific variable. It seemed to have somehow been considering all of them.
    
Seriously?!?
    
In short, we have a text RPG with decent mechanics and writing but ultimately no point to either exploration or character development. I'd leave it at that, but there's one more thing that we have to consider.

Mark Peterson seems to have been more famous for a BBS game called Swords of Chaos (interestingly, the name of one of the higher-end weapons in Elfhelm's Bane), which is still available to play today. In a long article on the Swords of Chaos site, Mark Peterson talks about his game development history. He discusses how, in 1985, he got a job with the Minnesota-based Green Valley Publishing, by Peterson's own admission  a purveyor of "cheap software." If the company sounds familiar, it's because we just visited them in my review of The Adventure: Only the Fittest Shall Survive. The company wasn't just "cheap"; they blatantly plagiarized popular games and re-sold them. We saw in my review how The Adventure was plagiarized from Eamon.

As I noted in that review, one of the few things that the unnamed plagiarist had added to The Adventure was a jail cell with some goofy writing: "Gumby hath no mercy." That same phrase is in the text of Elfhelm's Bane, supposedly found in a locked cell in the palace dungeon. (I never found it in-game, but I found it through my inspection of the game files.) Thus, either the silly phrase was dropped in to both games at the insistence of some deranged Green Valley executive, or Mr. Peterson is the "author" of The Adventure as well as Elfhelm's Bane. Peterson doesn't mention Eamon or The Adventure in his account of developing the Angbar series, which is curious given how much this game owes to the Eamon lineage. I can easily imagine Peterson being given the task of "adapting" Eamon as one his first jobs at Green Valley, and getting inspired enough by the project to create his own series. I'd of course like to have Peterson's direct account, but I haven't been able to track him down. I do apologize if I've suggested anything here that turns out not to be true.
  
The title of the developer's next game is found in an equipment drop in this game.
   
Elfhelm's Bane GIMLETs at 20, almost the same as The Adventure, with 2s in just about everything. By 1986, text games were largely on their way out, and if you're going to develop an all-text series, you really need to improve upon, rather than reduce, what was done with Eamon. This game offers a much bigger world than the typical Eamon adventure but so thoroughly dumbs down the mechanics that there's just no point in playing it. On to the next one.