Saturday, September 5, 2015

Antares: Langsame Fortschritte

I get the ability to travel to several new places.

Since my last post on Antares more than a month ago, all I've accomplished is the exploration of one dungeon--though as we'll see, it appears to be a pivotal moment in the game.

Before I recount my brief adventures, let's recap the plot: my crew of 5 are the only survivors of the Earth spaceship Auriga, which was shot down on the planet Kyrion while trying to figure out what happened to a previous expedition, the Hope. We soon found the Hope's survivors scattered in cave-like dwellings in the area of the planet called Lauree. The small human population is sterile and has no way to leave the planet. We received some intelligence on the alien races. The Vunoren are the iron-fisted rulers of the planet. Two other races, the Umbeken and the Questonaten, serve under the Vunoren and may be fomenting rebellion against them.

I left the opening area via a dungeon called Eriankeller, which connected to a long, linear dungeon called Philgoel-Tunnel. This latter one emerged in a new city, called Nomiris. An exhaustive exploration of Nomiris revealed two more dungeons branching off of it--Sakral and Tiefencastel--as well as a transport hub where I couldn't do anything because I lacked a PIN.

In this session, I explored Sakral, a six-level dungeon. Three of the levels were 5 x 5 squares, but two were larger, more complex diamond shapes.

The 5 levels of Sakral. I just realized there's probably a secret door that I missed in the upper-right of the last one. Damn.
Before I described what happened there, let me explain why exploring dungeons is a logistical nightmare and why I have to force myself to get started with every new session. The first set of difficulties are in-game. As you explore, you have to keep constant attention to a few things: your fatigue level, your hunger level, and your supply of lamps. Of these, hunger is the least perilous, because you can bring some food to cook and there's a good chance that you'll find some food on slain enemies.

Lighting is a little more annoying. Each character only has 6 inventory slots, and 4-5 of them are taken up by weapons, armor, and special items. I might only have 3 or 4 empty slots, total, among my party members at any given time, and a six-level dungeon easily consumes 3-4 halogen lamps.

Fatigue is the worst. It slowly drains for every character except the android and does not last 6 dungeon levels. Inevitably, the characters need to sleep. Unlike most games, you can't just bed down for 8 hours of rest and wake up refreshed. Instead, you sleep in real time, as you explore or stand still. Since there's no place safe from enemy attacks, this is a risky thing to do in a dungeon--but inevitable since this particular dungeon had a one-way door on the third level.

The game warns me that, "From here, there is no turning back!"
The internal logistics, which might just be "challenging" in a satisfying way by themselves, are complicated by external ones. To play the game, I have to have five windows open at all times: the game itself, my Excel map book, the Word document to which I copied the translation you all did, Google Translate for the small bits of text that weren't translated in the big document, and a notepad for taking notes for the blog entry. This is all tough to arrange on a single laptop screen, so I've been saving Antares for when I'm home with my second monitor, which is almost never.

While the game is tile-based, it's not turn-based. Hunger increases, fatigue increases, lamp life decreases, and enemies can attack while standing still. This makes it difficult to take notes, review translations, and add to the map during game time. Yes, there is technically a "pause" function, but the emulator captures the mouse, and anything you do to get it to release the mouse also unpauses the game. I have to remember to move to a different window, then click on the emulator window header (if I click in the middle of the screen, it re-captures the mouse), then hit the "P" key to pause.

Finally, the dungeons feature a lot of small messages in various squares, most of which weren't translated in the commenter document (that's not a criticism; I appreciate all the help you offered). This means I have to type them myself into Google Translate. Of course, while I'm doing that, there's a chance that a random encounter can appear and override the message, forcing me to fight the encounter, win, leave the square, and re-enter to get the message again. This cycle might repeat 3 or 4 times before I finish translating.

I could easily get attacked 5 times while trying to translate this drivel about needing to exercise the mind.
Overall, you can see why it's been tough to prioritize the game. At least one thing is a bit easier: commenter Anym was correct that the scroll bar to the right of the message window controls the text speed. This has been a god-send.

"Once again, you enter the empty, bare rooms of an underground labyrinth. You try to find something positive in that, but most of you are only human...." It's like the game can sense my ennui.

As for Sakral, on Level 3, I encountered the skeleton of a dead inhabitant of Kyrion, chained to the wall. The encounter noted that I found a small steel plate on his wrist that said "KOMC40." I guessed immediately what this was for--more in a bit.

Most of the important stuff was to be found on the final level, where a series of squares brought me face to face with the same Projektion that helped me in the first dungeon. The projection asked me three questions in different squares. In general, they seemed to be tests of the game's lore. For instance, the first was: "Once, she was Kyrion's most important city, but she fell victim to a Vunorian act. She was destroyed, utterly. Only a ruin tells of its former glory." Now, there's some back story here that I didn't know, but overall, I guessed correctly that the answer is LAUREE, the opening, trench-filled map.

The second question, "What does everything on Kyrion revolve around?," was even easier. The answer is the star for which the game is named: ANTARES.

This was a freebie.

It was the third one that stumped me: "They exist as particles--if not in this, then surely another dimension. They have a name--if not in another, then surely in this dimension." At first, I thought the answer must be SCHEMEN, the game's name for those ethereal party members that don't seem to have any physical form. (It translates as "specter.") Alas, that was not it.

Tell me this doesn't seem to fit perfectly.

After trying a few more options, I fear I couldn't help caving in. The translator of this section had put the correct answers in ROT-13 after the text, and it turned out that the answer was TACHYONEN, or "tachyons." Now, I understand what tachyons are, or are supposed to be, but I don't know if this was a straight riddle (if so, a difficult one) or whether I was supposed to find the answer in-game. The translated document doesn't mention tachyonen anywhere else, so I suppose it's the former.

Whatever the case, after I answered the three riddles correction, the projection (which the game seems to call a "she") congratulated me:

Congratulations, you have proven that you're intelligent enough to persist in more dangerous areas. I think that together we could succeed in breaking the dominance of the Vunorians. I possess the knowledge, you possess strength and stamina. And please, don't fret too much about my appearance. I cannot and don't want to divulge my real identity yet. This is safest for me and you as well, rest assured! As a sign of trust I will help you onwards: Travel to Akrillon and seek out an Umbeke named Ranishtar. He counts himself among the most tenacious opponents of the Vunorians and their eons-old friendship with the Umbekes. If you manage to earn his trust and survive long enough, he'll be a great help. But first you'll have to reach him. That he is still alive is proof enough that he's a force to be reckoned with, and a sign that his Questonates will confront you with serious challenges.

The helpful projection moves the quest forward.

As for traveling onward to Akrillon, the path was as I suspected: When I returned to the surface, I re-visited the transport hub and typed KOMC40 when prompted for my PIN. I then got the ability to travel to three new locations: Akrillon, Remoria, or Sistar City. I still have Tiefencastel to explore in Nomiris, though.

Entering the PIN.

A few notes: 

  • There are dozens of odd items found at the end of combats and in stores. Although I've translated some of them several times, I keep forgetting what they are and what they do: megaphon, tokero, poisodan, isolierband, krach-bonbon, marmorbuddha, schutzanzug, refraktor, and so forth. To figure out what they do, you have to ask a technically-skilled character, whose answer of course must be translated and is often somewhat cryptic. Because of these issues, and because of very limited inventory space, I'm probably not getting all the use out of the game's items that I could be. 

A megaphone does mass psychic damage in combat. I'm not sure what the other two items are.

  • As I discussed before, the types of weapons you can carry are limited by your physischer kampf skill. My first two characters are currently brandishing Walther PPKs, which never run out of ammo.

My lead character's current inventory. I'm not 100% sure what any of the first three items are for.
  • Sakral had a lot of secret areas that, in Wizardry tradition, could be entered by walking through a wall. I don't remember any such secret areas in the previous dungeons; I should probably return and check.
  • Nomiris has no items for sale that heal physical or mental damage. I either need to find the items on slain enemies, wait a long time, or trek all the way back to Lauree if I want to get my party to full health.

Although apparently, according to this message, there will be healing available in Remoria.

  • Combat is extremely variable in difficulty, but in general not overly deadly. I've lost more characters to traps than to battles. When a character dies, I've just been reloading rather than make my way all the way back to the beginning of the game and resurrect him in the landing craft.
  • My characters are up to Level 8. I don't really know what leveling does for you. Neither statistics nor skills seem to increase. I suppose maximum health must increase, but you don't see that numerically.

I haven't otherwise included a combat shot in this posting, so here's one.

I remain a bit confused and lost as I play the game, much as I often am when visiting a foreign country. In this case, I haven't been able to determine if my confusion is related to the foreignness of the game, or if the game is just a bit inept. I'd really love to see a native speaker's account of the game and to see whether you have the same issues I do with inventory and the abruptness of the storytelling. Can I persuade any of you to fire it up?

Time so far: 17 hours 
Reload count: 23

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Questron: Won! (with Final Rating)

The respect that Lord British never gave me.

Quest Software (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released 1984 for Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 28 August 2015
Date Ended:
02 September 2015
Total Hours: 15
Reload Count: 12
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 

After the last post, I did what I said I was going to do and pillaged chests and coffins in the previous two dungeons for a while. I soon found that hit points cap at around 30,000--at least from coffins. But you can still buy more beyond that. Once I had enough gold, I bought around 50,000 and stocked up on "Fireballs" and "Stone Spells." During my trips, enchanted armor and long bows became available in the shops. At that point, I felt I was ready to take on Mantor.

Entering the final dungeon.
Mantor's Mountain, on its own island to the northeast of the Land of Evil, opens with the diamond ring from the Dungeon of Doom. It turned out to be a whopping 17 levels, but they were only 9 x 9, so progress was swift. However, I ended up having to make the trip twice. The first time, I opened a jar that destroyed my best weapon on one level, then a few levels down opened a coffin that was "booby trapped" and reduced my hit points from 45,000 to 10,000. I wasn't having any of that. I reloaded and vowed to just press through the dungeon without opening anything.

Chet learns to avoid opening things in Mantor's Mountain.
The dungeon had the same kind of monsters as the other two, but I dealt with almost all of them with the copious spells I had brought. I wanted to make sure I got to Mantor's place with as many hit points as possible. I was recalling the endgame of Questron II, where every time you took a step, you took damage. This game's analogue was a periodic message that "Mantor hits with magic fireball!" while exploring the dungeon levels. There's no way to avoid this and the 200-500 hit points damage that it causes.

On level 17, I was approached by some crystalline creature that offered to show me "the way to the safe" for 11,000 gold. I paid it, and he opened a secret door.

Curiously, this is almost exactly as much as I have.
I groaned when I saw the safe. I thought I was heading for the endgame, not retrieving another artifact. I worried I'd have to retrace my steps back up 17 levels. But the safe turned out to conceal a pit that led to Mantor's fortress.

When I arrived, some announcement said, "intruder" and warned the guards that I was "armed and dangerous." Mantor announced that the "death device is activated" and "Questron will be destroyed."

The castle wasn't big, but I had to plow my way through dozens of guards. They wouldn't let me lead them to me one-by-one; instead, they refused to step out of certain formations, ensuring that multiple guards could attack me at once. Maddeningly, my bows wouldn't work in such circumstances; I only got a lame message that "projectiles don't work here."

They won't move out of this formation, so I have to walk into a square where 5 of them can attack me at once.
Mantor was sitting up in his throne room, and I couldn't figure out how to get to him at first. It turned out that his doors opened with the same gold key that opens the doors in the Royal Castle. I have no idea why that would be.

Once I reached Mantor's room, things got hairy. He immediately destroyed the weapon I was carrying. As I made my way towards him, he blasted me for around 500-700 hit points with every step. Just crossing his room, I went from almost 24,000 hit points to less than 19,000. I soon found that he was invulnerable to melee attacks. Every time I tried to equip a weapon, it was immediately destroyed.

Just as I was about to spray him.
Casting about for some item in my inventory, the only thing I could think of was Mesron's magic powder. It worked. One use and Mantor immediately died. I don't want to know what was in that powder.

Upon his death, I received his book of magic, which I used to destroy his doomsday device, then used again to teleport myself out of the castle. I found myself outside the royal castle on Questron (for some reason, my eagle, which I had left outside Mantor's Mountain, was there with me). A single pit screamer decided to block my entry to the castle and ended up being the real "final battle" of the game.

Destroying Mantor's doomsday device.
Inside, I made my way to the throne room, where literally the best ending that we've seen in my CRPG chronology so far commenced. Guards lined up and escorted me to the throne, then filled the hall behind me as King Aaron and Princess Lucane came marching down the aisle. Two trumpeters whipped out their instruments and played a victory tune for about two minutes. The king spoke:

For many years, I have awaited the emergence of a mighty warrior. Until you came, I had almost given up that dream. The oracle said that the one who takes the silver trumpet shall be wise enough, and strong enough, to destroy the evil Mantor. Many before have tried; all before have failed.

Chester, I appoint thee Baron! For thy victory, I award thee all lands within 10 days of Geraldtown.

Baron Chester, Mesron requests an audience.

That's like everything you see here plus one more screen to the north and east.
After the king's speech, the guards departed the throne room in orderly ranks, followed by the princess, and I was able to control the character again.

I went to visit Mesron, who rained on my parade by telling me that destroying Mantor was only the "first step." His book of magic, which I was carrying, was "immensely evil" and must be destroyed. He told me to enter his teleporter--not telling me where it would take me. I did so, and found myself invited to continue my adventure in Questron II.

Man, making me a baron and giving me a bunch of land really didn't cost the king anything in the long run, did it?
I was sure there must be a recording of the endgame on YouTube, but I couldn't find one, so here it is. This takes the game from Mantor's dungeon through the endgame sequences.

Okay, two things about the endgame before we get into the final rating:

1. As we discussed, Questron took a lot from Ultima, but Richard Garriott could have learned a couple of things from Questron--like how to treat a winning player. Am I still irked at not being invited to my own victory party? You bet I am.

2. Questron II is exactly the same game, just with better graphics. You start off weak with a hit point cap. You slowly amass gold. You play minigames to increase attributes. You go through major plot divisions that lead to attribute increases. You have to find a succession of keys and other items to progress through the various dungeons. You massacre castle guards to find a lot of these keys. Mantor starts destroying cities and you have to stop him. You get a selection of time-dependent weapons, armor, and transportation options, culminating in a tamed eagle. You reach the endgame through a 3-D trap-filled dungeon, where Mantor has a bunch of attacks that sap your hit points with every step. You kill him in an indirect way and use the Book of Magic to finish the game. Questron II is basically Questron remade.

Despite this, I seem to have enjoyed Questron more than Questron II. I can't see any mechanical reason way, so it must solely be the nostalgia factor. The game kept triggering memories all the way through the end. I'm pretty sure I had another friend with me when I won the first time--not the same one who introduced me to it. I think we were at his father's condo when we finally won, and I seem to remember trading off dungeon levels.

So how does my first CRPG rate? Let's check it out:

  • 3 points for game world. The backstory is a little bland and derivative, and not well-reflected in the world that you can explore. (For instance, Princess Lucane, who gives the PC a note in the manual, never really has anything interesting to say to him.) I do like the slow destruction of towns at Mantor's hands, though.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Questron just does this all wrong. The only "creation" is the designation of a name, and development is mostly through fixed plot points instead of player action. You can increase attributes with the mini-games, but these are overridden by the plot developments so they don't end up meaning a lot. Plus, it's never clear what most of the attributes (particularly stamina and intelligence) actually do. You never really feel like you're getting stronger in the game--for every increase, there's a new foe waiting to do 10x the damage as the last one. On the role-playing front, I'm going to allow one point for the ability to progress by killing and robbing, even though I tried to avoid it.
  • 2 points for a handful of NPCs that impart quest information, and all of the wandering travelers and prisoners who give you one-line bits of intelligence (although mostly unnecessary).
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. The enemies are well-described in the manual, but they're really not on the screen long enough to be consequential. Having different monsters respond to different weapons was a good idea, but in practice it's easier just to pound away with less effective weapons than to juggle 6 different ones and have to swap between them. The special attacks of some of the dungeon monsters lend an additional challenge.

Some bastard lives up to his name.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. For most of the game, you only have the option to (F)ight; later, you get a couple of spells. You get no real rewards from combat, so it's mostly an annoyance.
  • 2 points for equipment. As with character development, I don't like Questron's approach, making weapons and armor slowly available based on game time. A handful of special items don't quite redeem the system. It's kind of funny that it's a major event when you get a short bow.

Switching among my available weapons.
  • 4 points for economy. The economy is reasonably well done. It's the major form of development throughout the game, and it never stops being relevant, with the need to purchase hit points and expensive spells. If you don't save-scum and cheat at gambling, it's also reasonably tightly-controlled.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no side quests and no alternate outcomes or role-playing.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The redundant keyboard/joystick interface is flawless. Graphics and sound are both serviceable for the era.
  • 4 points for gameplay. Although quite linear (except for the order in which you explore the islands), the game benefits from a brisk pace, a moderate challenge, and an overall game time suitable to its content.

The score adds up to 29, but I'm going to boost it to 32 with 3 bonus points. The first is for the minigames, which are fun by themselves even if they don't lead to much in the way of character development. I give two more for the excellent ending. In an era where too many games simply dump you do the prompt upon completion, Questron deserves a lot of credit for making the end a true ceremony.

The box doesn't lie. You can ride an eagle.
I'm going to do something beyond that, too, and I don't think this is just youthful fondness talking. Although flawed, this little sub-series represents some of the most notable Ultima-inspired games, and I think Questron deserves a place on my "must play" list for anyone who wants a full sense of the history of CRPGs.

I was hoping contemporary reviews would realize the uniqueness of the elaborate ending, and they do. In the June 1984 Computer Gaming World, James McPherson says, "The end does not fizzle. If you complete Questron, you will really enjoy an ending fit for a king." Or a baron. He also praises the look and feel of the dungeons (I guess rough-hewn wireframe dungeons were quite a novelty after the blocky ones of Wizardry), the ease of the controls, and the mini-games. In her storied "C*R*P*G Survey" issue of October 1991, Scorpia credits the game with "one of the neatest reward endings in the genre."

Slaughtering castle guards in Legacy of the Ancients.
Chuck Dougherty had a promising beginning with this game, but his next two titles--Legacy of the Ancients (1987) and Questron II (1988)--manage to offer almost the exact same experience and make the exact same mistakes. Owing to how I messed up my approach to this project, I reviewed both of those games before playing the original, giving Legacy a 38 and Questron II a 26 (links to my first posts for both games). I haven't yet played the sequel to Legacy, The Legend of Blacksilver (1988), but MobyGames's description makes it sound like the same thing a fourth time. It's too bad that Dougherty couldn't break out of his template.

Slaughtering castle guards in Questron II
Both Chuck and his brother John (who did some programming, playtesting, and other development tasks for the entire series) disappeared after Blacksilver. Chuck's LinkedIn profile indicates that when his development company, Quest Software, closed down, he went to work as the Chief Information Officer for a community mental health organization in Michigan and has remained there for 23 years. John, meanwhile, is Executive Vice President of Operations at a "risk visualization" software company in Lansing, Michigan. I tried to contact Chuck Dougherty through his work e-mail, but have not received a reply as of yet.

In the end, returning the game that got me addicted to the genre was a positive experience, and unlike my attempts to return to The A-Team, it didn't damage any of my childhood memories. It's not a perfect game, but I didn't remember it as a perfect game--just an addictive one. But while I'm not upset that the CRPG genre didn't adopt Questron's approach to combat, or its merciless slaughter of castle guards, or its approach to hit points, we sure could stand to see a lot more parades and trumpets.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Questron: Game Change

I've made some unfortunate enemies since the last post.

The Dougherty line (Questron, Questron II, Legacy of the Ancients, and Legend of Blacksilver) isn't shy about changing the rules in the middle of the game. Take hit points. At the beginning of the game, you can only have between 500 and 600 at one time, and you can only reliably replenish them by buying holy water at 75 gold pieces a bottle. Later, you get promoted, your hit point cap simply disappears, and you can buy them directly at one of the temples.

Then, you reach the Land of Evil and find that hit points are sold in regular shops at a rate of 100 per 70 gold pieces. Moreover, when you start descending into dungeons, you can get thousands of them simply by opening coffins. In most games, hit points are a measure of a character's overall power, and increase incrementally; in Questron, they jump from 500 to 5,000 to 25,000 in a few major plot-driven lunges.

In the last post, I said that I hadn't discovered a magic system. Well, there is one. In the Land of Evil, you can buy five spells directly from shops: "Magic Missile," "Fireball," "Stone Spell," "Armor Enhance," and "Wall Pass." But, taking a page from Ultima and Ultima II, they only work in dungeons.

Every town on in the Land of Evil sells magic.
The Land of Evil is about the same size as Questron but more sparsely populated. I've only found 6 towns and 3 dungeons. Just like its sequel, you can't enter all of the dungeons right away. You first have to explore the Mountain Catacombs, which gets you an iron key to the Dungeon of Death. I assume in the Dungeon of Death I'll find whatever I need to get into Mantor's Mountain and the endgame.

The creatures on the Land of Evil are a lot harder than Questron. They're kind of a pain in the ass, really. It doesn't make sense to fight them, because I found I lose about 100 hit points for every 40-50 gold pieces I earn from killing them. But you could easily lose that much just trying to escape them, too. As I explored the land, I kept having to duck into the cities and replenish hit points, which of course diminishes all the gold I brought from Questron.

Wasting time.
As I visited the towns and their casinos, I settled comfortably in to a Martingale betting system. I'd set out to win about 200 gold pieces at a time. So I'd bet 100. If I lost, I bet 200. If I lost again, I bet 400. Eventually, I would win and end up 100 ahead of where I started. Then I'd scale back to 100 and start again. Such a system wouldn't sustain more than 4 or 5 losses in a row, but I didn't have that problem yet.

Unfortunately, you can't win too much. Not only do the guards attack you if you do, just like in Questron, but the moment you kill a guard, a gate comes crashing down around the city, preventing your escape. I don't know how this is lifted. The guards in Evil are harder than in Questron and I don't think it's worth fighting them for a couple thousand gold.

After I explored the cities and it became clear that no new weapons and armor were forthcoming, I decided to check out the Mountain Catacombs. The game uses quasi-wireframe dungeons, but with irregular lines made to look like caves. The levels were all 14 x 14 with thick walls, so I didn't see a huge need to map. The game continues the Ultima tradition of traps in the corridors, and you have to (X)amine each corridor before walking down to identify and avoid them. It's surprisingly easy to forget to do this.

Levels contain coffins, which boost your hit points (something about the ash), treasure chests with gold, food, and items, and urns with clues or special benefits like an increase in attributes. I had intended to only explore the first level, but it seemed remarkably easy. The enemies weren't too hard, a handful of coffins boosted my hit points by over 3,000. On the second and third levels, I also had a major net gain in hit points, and I had soon topped 10,000 gold. I didn't see any reason not to go all the way to the bottom--which turned out to be Level 8.

Don't question it. Just go with it.
This was a mistake. Chests and coffins respawn when you leave the dungeon and return, so I should have spent more time mucking about on Level 1, building up hit points and gold, and using the gold to buy spells. Instead, I kept pressing downward, and on Level 5, I started to encounter some unfortunate facts. Higher-level enemies can drain intelligence, drain stamina, steal gold, steal food, and destroy armor. And you can't save and reload in dungeons to avoid these fates.

I'd only purchased a handful of spells, and I wished I'd brought more. "Fireball" does about 2-3 times the damage of a normal attack, and with no chance of missing. Even more useful is "Stone Spell," which freezes all nearby enemies for about 10 rounds--more than enough to kill one or two. I don't see the purpose of "Magic Missile"; it does about as much as a regular attack. Spending more on "Fireball" is a better investment.

I'd be a lot more angry if I knew exactly what stamina did for me.
Eventually, I made it to Level 8, but by the time I found the iron key, my hit points were drained to almost nothing, my few spells were exhausted, my intelligence and stamina were drained to less than 10, and my armor was gone. I never would have made it back up to the surface, particularly without any more coffins to replenish my hit points.

Where is the "Kill Self" command when you really need it?
So I kissed a couple hours' of gameplay goodbye, reloaded, and did it smarter this time. I built up my money first, bought some spells, and descended with plenty of "Stone Spells," which freeze enemies. That way, if I saw an attribute-drainer or gold-stealer come along, I could petrify and kill them before they could attack. I brought a couple of extra suits of armor to replace the ones that got destroyed. On the second try, I managed to get out with everything intact, the iron key, and over 30,000 gold pieces.

When I returned to the surface, there were a couple of welcome new items in the shops: a short bow, which does allow ranged attacks (but you have to switch to a melee weapon when the enemy comes adjacent to you), and an eagle, which replaces both lamas and ships. Eagles fly over the landscape fast enough that you don't get attacked by random creatures unless you stop and wait for them. This is a nice benefit, because I was done with those random wilderness encounters.

With my riches from the Mountain Catacombs, I stocked up on more hit points and spells and headed for the Dungeon of Doom. It was pretty much the same as the Catacombs: 8 levels of 14 x 14 squares each, full of the same types of objects and monsters.

This bastard can steal thousands of gold pieces. He gets fireballed.

It took me about 3 hours to navigate, but it would have taken me longer if I'd tried to map every level. On the bottom level, I found a diamond ring that I assume I need to enter Mantor's Mountain.

When I got out, I found that lances and magic shields had become available in the weapon and armor shops.

A few other notes:

  • You need a rope & hooks to climb and descend the holes in the floors and ceilings. At least, you need them to climb safely. At one point in the Dungeon of Doom, I forgot to search a corridor and ended up falling through four consecutive levels.

And that's why you always search before walking down a corridor.
  • Early in my dungeon explorations, I found a compass. (H)olding it makes navigation a little easier.
  • Enemies don't drop gold in the dungeons.
  • I'm pretty sure enemies respawn in the dungeon levels. I was never able to clear them. They get stuck behind walls easily, but some of the more open dungeon levels were a nightmare. I might face stacks of 6-8 enemies at a time.
  • You can't flee from enemies by going up or down stairs and pits. They follow you.
  • (R)ob exists as a command in dungeons, but it doesn't seem to do anything different than "unlock."
  • When entering the towns on the Land of Evil, the game occasionally says, "Please wait. Entrance inspection" and loading takes longer. I have no idea what this is about.

I suppose the next step is to take on Mantor. At least, that's what Mesron says:

But I remember doing this prematurely in Questron II and finding that I didn't have enough hit points and other resources when I reached the endgame area, so I'm going to spend some time looting Level 1 of the dungeons for gold and hit points before heading off to face Mantor. I hope 50,000 hit points is enough; I'll set my target for that, and 99 of each spell.

My character at the end of this session.

Time so far: 11 hours
Reload count: 10

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Questron: Some Messed-Up Values

That's because I killed everyone else.
Well, given this was a Charles Dougherty game, the outcome was inevitable: at some point, I emerged from the royal castle, my mace dripping with the mangled blood and brain matter of several dozen castle guards...a hero. Knighted, even. It's a brutal world we inhabit, and only the strong survive.

As I closed from my first post, I was making my way around the island continent, visiting each city and cathedral, fighting monsters along the way. My fortunes waxed and waned as I won a hand of blackjack here, lost a spin of the roulette wheel there. If money got too low, I did my "Double or Nothing" trick until the guards attacked, and it turns out it's not very hard to kill them. I felt a little bad about that, but they were clearly in the wrong. I mean, we'd all be in an uproar if the Atlantic City Police Department tried to kill everyone who won a few keno hands at Harrah's, right?

A mace appears on the list.

Weapons and armor slowly improved. Armor availability went from rawhide to shields to chain mail to plate mail. Weapons upgraded from a flail to a club to a mace to a cutlass. At each city, I talked to prisoners and slowly built a lore book of hits and tips. A sample:

  • There are keys for every door
  • Find the trumpet at all costs
  • The treasure room can make you wealthy
  • Cathedrals reward only the good. [If killing guards doesn't do it, I don't know how to be bad.]
  • Find the castle to find Mesron.
  • You must travel through the northern fog, but only when ready
  • You should put money in the bank in case of death
  • You can steal, but plan your exit carefully
  • The phazor spiders hate the whip
  • There is a leaden key in the castle. Steal it.
  • Only the club kills the piercing pungie easy
  • Give to the evil priest--or he will kill you

A prisoner imparts a bit from the lore database.

As I got stronger, I found myself getting attacked by multiple copies of the same monster at once, and their hit points seemed to increase, too. But despite this, combat slowly became easier and less deadly.

Eventually, I started getting the same message every time I bellied up to a shopkeeper's counter: "MESRON WANTS TO SEE YOU." Around the same time, Geraldtown was destroyed. All shops and people were completely wiped out.

I returned to the castle, explored a bit, and found Mesron in a place I'd missed during my first explorations. When I spoke to him, he promoted me to soldier, increased my strength and stamina by 5, and gave me 5 jars of magic powder. He said that "one use" of the powder was to slow down guards in the castle. I'm not sure what the other is. He also confirmed that Mantor had destroyed Geraldtown.

When I spoke to him again, he said, "You're missing one piece of the puzzle. Find it, and I'll help you continue."

Sigh. I knew what was next: looting and killing. I built up some more funds and returned to the Swamp Cathedral, trading everything I had for about 25 holy water potions. Each gives you 100 hit points, but the starting character has a cap between 500 and 600 hit points. 

Returning to the castle, I found my way to a random treasure chest and opened it. This put every guard in the castle on alert, and they all headed my way to attack. I learned quickly that I wanted to channel them to me one-by-one, and let them come to me so I could get the first attack. Sometimes, I got lucky and killed them in a single hit. Other times, I missed 4 or 5 times in a row and a single guard knocked more than 100 hit points off my total. I drank the holy water when I got low. I saved the magic powder for when my holy water ran out, but fortunately that never happened.

There must be a better way.

I lost track of how many guards I ended up killing. It was more than 50. Among the chests, I found ruby, silver, emerald, lead, and gold keys, and more than 8,000 gold pieces. The keys opened various doors to special encounters. Namely:

  • A doctor offered to increase my strength for 10 holy waters. I was reluctant to sacrifice that many, but I ultimately said yes and my strength went from 20 to 40. This made the rest of the guards a little easier.

  • A princess increased my charisma from 15 to 35 for 2,000 gold. Thanks to her father's coffers, I had plenty!

  • In a "map room," I paid 500 gold pieces for small images of Questron and what I assume is the Land of Evil. I used the Questron one to annotate the cities and cathedrals I'd found.

The Realm of Questron.

  • A treasure room held a couple thousand gold pieces but automatically spawned 8 more guards I had to kill.

They were particularly dutiful guards. They wouldn't cross the threshold into the treasure room.

When I was done looting, the gold key got me into the king's throne room, where I killed about 10 more guards to reach the king. He was understandably unhappy.

But I needed to be there. Behind his throne was a small room with a chest containing the Trumpet, an artifact that I needed to find "at all costs"--according to the word of some random prisoner in a jail.

It turned out to be true, though. This was the other "piece of the puzzle" Mesron wanted me to find. When I re-visited him, he told me that I was now "the most powerful soldier in Questron" and asked me to take on the quest to destroy Mantor. Since I had recently saved, I decided to see what would happen if I said "no." He told me that was wise, then called me a wimp, then petulantly took his magic powder back.

I reloaded and said yes. He told me that I would have to go through the northern mists to find Hidden Port, and from there take a ship across the sea to the Land of Evil. Holy water would be useless there, he said, so I would have to find some way to buy hit points. He dramatically finished with, "Your quest: Seek out Mantor. Destroy Mantor!" He finished by increasing my dexterity from 20 to 40 and suggested I go get knighted.

After I spoke to Mesron, the guards (who had respawned) stopped attacking. I went back to the throne room where, unbelievably, the king called me a "worthy adversary" and said I deserved to be in his service. He knighted me, my stamina went up by 15, and my hit point cap was removed.

Is that your way of saying that you're scared of me?

On the way out, I noticed that guards still beat me and took my gold if I spoke to them. What is wrong with this place?

I had one more stop to make before heading off into the northern mists. The map from the map room showed an island in the middle of Questron, and sure enough I was able to buy a raft in Lake Centre. The island held the Island Cathedral, where I was able to buy hit points directly from the priest--no need for the holy water intermediary.

Having a character refer to them as "hit points" in-game kind of breaks the fourth wall.

Moreover, the cathedral had a fun minigame that increased my intelligence. It was a variation of Mastermind (a variant of which also appeared in Galactic Adventures, another SSI game) where you have to guess the placement of 4 squares of up to 4 colors among 8 slots. After each guess, the game tells you how many you got right in both color and placement and how many you got right by color alone. Slowly, you deduce the pattern--but you only have eight guesses. I'm pretty good at Mastermind, but I also got lucky with my first few guesses, and I was able to beat it in 6. My intelligence increased by 8 points.

After 4 guesses, I knew I was going to make it. The white squares indicate both correct color and placement; the gray squares indicate correct color only. If you use save states here, you lack the character to be reading my blog.
I was just about to head off to the Land of Evil when I got a message that Mesron wanted to see me again. I returned and learned that Mantor was currently attacking the city of Lagoon. I recalled that this exact same thing happened in Questron II, at Seaside. But unlike that game, where I drove Mantor away and saved the city, by the time I got to Lagoon, it was too late.

I'm sorry. I tried.

The "northern mists" are a series of squares that lead from the mainland along a narrow isthmus to the city of Hidden Port. Every step you take in the mists has a chance of moving you in a random direction instead of the one where you were going. After a period of frustrating bumbling about, it occurred to me that the Trumpet might have some use here. Sure enough, blowing it cleared the mists. I made my way to the city.

The trumpet clears the mists and allows me to pass.

There, I was dismayed to find that a clipper cost over 2,000 gold pieces, and I had spent so much on hit points that I only had 1,300 left. I briefly thought about wagering it on an all-or-nothing blackjack hand, but I first decided to see what happened if I tried to take just a raft across the ocean. It turned out to be no problem at all. I might have consumed some extra food, but that's all.

Fighting a whale from my raft.

There were lots of combats with water creatures along the way, but ultimately I arrived in the Land of Evil, where presumably the king will knight me for rescuing maidens and the guards will pat me on the back when I win at roulette.

In the Land of Evil!

This session, though brisk and fun, reminded me of some things I don't like about the Dougherty series. It's not so much the slaughter of castle guards--I can hand-wave that by pretending that they were traitors working for Mantor--but rather the intertwining of character and plot developments. Attributes and hit points increase more from achieving the next stage of the plot than from all the fighting and grinding you do in between. We also have the issue with weapons, armor, and transportation becoming available only after passage of time instead of when you can afford it. At the same time--and frankly just like in Ultima and Ultima II--hit points are all over the place. Their maximum isn't dependent on your overall character strength, but rather how many you can afford. It's a bizarre, slightly uncomfortable dynamic.

I look forward to seeing what the Land of Evil has to offer. I assume I'll find the first dungeons here, but I otherwise have no memory of this place.

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 9