Friday, January 19, 2018

Deathlord: Resurrection

The party, quite appropriately, wanders a graveyard.
Deathlord is just a really hard game to get into, as evidenced by the fact that I'm four entries and 20 hours into this game and can only barely say that I've "gotten into" it. After putting it on the back burner in July, I've spent the last half-year trying and failing to come up with reasons to abandon it. A couple of pesky commenters have made it clear that it's not just going to slip out of everyone's mind.

To recap, Deathlord is the product of a group of first-time game developers who fused elements from several sources. From Ultima, they took the top-down, tiled interface, NPC dialogue, many keyboard commands, and the shape of the main continent. From Wizardry, they took the combat system and permadeath. From Dungeons and Dragons, they took the races, classes, and spells; from RuneQuest, the attributes. After Electronic Arts agreed to publish it, they made the developers put a Japanese skin on everything, "translating" races, classes, spells, and other proper names into Japanese equivalents. 

The story concerns an "outcast wizard" who has raised monstrous forces and attacked the kingdom of Kodan. The emperor offers a reward to a party who can defeat this "Deathlord." The party's quest is going to somehow involve collecting seven words and six items.

The game is famously difficult. You have only one save file, which gets over-written every time you transition areas and, most importantly, every time someone dies. It doesn't even wait until the combat is finished; in fact, it saves so quickly after death in combat that the blank screen that accompanies disk access is generally how you find out that someone died in the first place. It also auto-saves when you do something in a town to turn the citizens hostile. It does not auto-save when good things happen.
Resurrection is expensive. But you definitely want "Resurrection" unless you feel like losing a point of constitution every time.
Wizardry had permadeath, too, but it was a much smaller game in which the action was self-contained in one dungeon with a menu town on top. If a character died, it sucked, but you could replace him without a lot of difficulty, and eventually, given enough funds, you could resurrect him. Deathlord, on the other hand, takes place on a huge continent with only one healer that resurrects. Moreover, there's no way to boot a dead character and create a new one once the game has started. You have to accept the death until you can afford and find resurrection, unless you want to start over with a new party. Since new characters have hit points in the single-digits, it's near-impossible for a player playing "straight" to get through the first few hours.

Still, the difficulty doesn't bother me nearly as much as all the ways that they made the game . . . inconvenient. To enumerate some of them:
  • The towns are indecently large, making it very difficult to determine if you've visited every location. You have to make maps to be sure, and it's always tough to map top-down games.
  • There's no simple command to "open" a door. All doors must be picked or smashed, both of which have a greater than 50% chance of failing. Smashing causes hit point loss when it fails.
  • Towns are full of deadly creatures behind locked doors, so you can't fully explore them at early levels.
  • Towns don't have obvious names. NPCs sometimes refer to town names, but there's no clear "Welcome to Whatever" when you enter a town. You have to figure it out like a logic puzzle.
  • Most NPCs don't have names. And instead of one command to just talk with them, there are separate sub-commands for chatting, talking, and inquiring.
  • It's often not clear which NPCs run shops. You have to use the (B)uy sub-command to make sure.
  • You can pool gold but there's no command to divide it.
  • When you find new weapons and armor, you have to immediately decide whether to replace your old ones without testing effects on armor class first.
I don't know if anybody will.
  • Since the spell names are all in Japanese, you have to constantly refer to the manual.
  • Both towns and dungeons are full of secret areas. There are two types of secret doors: illusory ones, where you just walk through the wall, and hidden ones that you have to search with the "F" key. Thus, you pretty much have to walk into and F-search every wall. Oh, and the F-search might "fail" even if there is a secret door, so you have to try it on every wall multiple times.
  • Outdoors, swamp squares, containing deadly poison, look barely different from forest squares.
  • One I just discovered this session: there are neither spells nor healers that can restore levels lost to vampires and other level-draining creatures. A bad combat could send a super-character back to Level 1, permanently.
Note that there's no "restoration" option here.
To all of this, you have to add the size and scope. It was tough enough when I thought the main continent and its handful of dungeons was going to be the entire game. It turns out that there are over a dozen separate continents and islands. The manual isn't kidding when it promises to fill a "few hundred" hours. 

The answer to the difficulty is obvious enough 30 years later: I can use save states. I have been. But that just means I have to spend a few hundred hours feeling like I'm playing like a jackass. There's no question that, back in the day, I would have played this game with the disk drive open so it couldn't automatically overwrite my save game. I probably would have also backed up that single save game after every session, something that the manual mentions but says is "not the most honorable." You know what? Screw you, Deathlord manual. You haven't earned the right to lecture me on "honor." I'm the goddamned Avatar.

Since it's been 6 months, I spent most of this session re-visiting the cities and towns, checking them exhaustively for secret doors, talking with all the NPCs, and taking a new set of notes. I also peeked into a dungeon in the eastern part of the first continent. I had explored it before but missed a secret door.

I started in Tokushima in the northwest corner, thinking it was the town I had originally explored first but it turns out that was Kawa. Tokushima has the largest selection of stores on the continent, with shops for food, weapons, armor, and missile weapons, a shipwright, and a trainer. I don't really understand the purpose of missile weapons since you can't use them from the rear rank.

Behind a door I hadn't previously opened was a lava area shaped like a skull, and beyond that were fights with two stacks of zombies. I had just acquired "Turn Undead" (tsuiho, which Google translates as "addendum"), so that was a good excuse to use it, and it worked well. But in a room beyond that, with some treasure chests, a couple of ghouls came out and paralyzed two of my lead characters in the first round. I won't get a "Cure Paralysis" spell for another two character levels. I declined to hike all the way to the healer and reloaded instead, marking the area for later exploration.
Getting ready to turn some zombies.
From NPCs in Tokushima, I learn that ruins are rich, kobito hide gold, there is a group of mages staying at the palace, don't get caught outside at night, look to the north, seek the seven, find the words, map dungeons, the yakuza of Kawa are famous, and Kawahara awaits below the palace. No idea who that is. A plaque in a tower reads "Due south of the second stone."

I realized I had enough cash to buy some weapon and armor upgrades. You have to carefully watch the game when it comes to armor. Each character can only have one set at a time. If it's a type of armor they're allowed to wear, they automatically wear it; if not, they just carry it. You have to look at the armor class statistics to see what's happening for a particular character.

I'm a few thousand shy for a boat. That will have to come later. It looks like there's a section of the city only explorable once you have a boat. I smash my way into a cemetery in the south of the map and find a large mausoleum, but I can't figure out anything to do with it or the tombstones.
I move on to Kawa, a large horseshoe-shaped city ringed by forest. I explore the forest exhaustively but find no one. I decide to smash my way into the chambers of the "Daimyo" or "Diamyo" depending on which text you read, and it's here that I have the unpleasant revelation about vampires and their ability to permanently drain levels. Fortunately, I get lucky with a couple motu ("paralyze") spells in a row and only my lead character is drained while the rest kill the vampire. A secret room full of treasure chests next door seems to make it worth it.
Level drains with no "restoration" ability is the apex of evil.
The vampire isn't the "Diamyo," though. The moment I smash open his door, he kills my second character in one hit, then kills two more the next round. I again reload and mark his chamber for a later visit.

In another chamber to the northeast, I smash a door and find myself in battle against 10 kobito. Thankfully, they're as bad at hitting us as we are at hitting them (my fighters miss at least 75% of attacks), and we're able to defeat them with the help of a mass-damage spell and a sleep spell. A chamber beyond holds a bunch of chests with almost 500 gold pieces; we might be able to afford that boat soon. (This area is probably the source of the NPC line about kobito hiding gold.) I'm feeling good, but the next door I smash has 6 shisai behind it, and within two rounds everyone is paralyzed.

Annoyed at getting my butt kicked every three minutes, I abandon my explorations and head to some caves to the east of here that I've already explored, figuring I'll grind a couple of levels. It turns out that I missed an entire level the last time I was here--one of those illusory doors--and it has an area full of pillars and a bunch of treasure chests. Awesome! I start opening them, and I release a vampire, and he kills us.
Just before the vampire. Note that the grinding worked, and everyone can level up.
I think my grinding idea was a good one. I'll just stay on the earlier levels of the caves. My only concern about that is that if a vampire is going to drain me either way, maybe I'd rather have him do it when I'm Level 3 rather than Level 6. But that's probably going to be an issue throughout the game, so I can't let it stop me from leveling here.

My apologies for the paucity of screenshots in this one. I started playing it right after a session of Eye of the Beholder II and forgot that CTRL-F5 doesn't do anything in VICE. I had to go around and recreate some of them from earlier saves.

The game is frustrating as hell, but I don't want to give up on it until I've at least finished exploring the main continent and purchased a boat. We'll see how long that takes. In some ways, it's convenient that this game will probably outlast Eye of the Beholder II, as it keeps a 1992 game from creeping into the second game slot before I make the 1991/1992 transition post. I'll be impatient for it to be over soon after that, though.

Time so far: 20 hours

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Eye of the Beholder II: Descent

Not barbarians--just interrupted while sleeping.
The area one level below the main entrance turned out to have several guard barracks. When I opened them, I got attacked by guys in loincloths. I assumed they were barbarians or something, but after I defeated them, I entered their rooms and found beds with messages that they'd been recently slept in. The attackers were regular temple guards, and I interrupted them sleeping in their underwear.
Bugsy was wrong about the "long abandoned" part.
I even found a little bed character to put where there are beds.
The first time I rested after picking him up, the thief Insal ran off in the middle of the night, stealing Marina's Ring of Wizardry, Bugsy's Ring of Adornment, Starling's long sword +5, and several potions and rations. (Oddly, he left a few things behind, too, like the armor I'd given him and his own lockpicks.) I was tempted to reload and boot him from the party, but generally I believe in rolling with the punches, so I sighed and gave Starling a spare +4 long sword and continued.
This is where charity leads us.
In his departure Insal left me a note that hinted a secret door near where I'd originally found him. I checked the area and found what he was talking about: a tiny button on the wall that opened the way to a staircase. More on secret doors in a bit.

There were three staircases down from the dungeon one leading to a dead end where a skeleton held a scroll of "Lightning Bolt." The second went to a small corridor that went down again, into a level I've labeled "D-3," or three levels below the main temple.
This level was full of priests and undead. It was the largest level so far, at almost 300 used squares. A northern room was so full of skeleton warriors that it took me almost two hours to fully clear them all. Towards the end, I was convinced they were respawning, but I eventually got rid of them all.
Just part of the horror awaiting in that room. I had to lead them out a few at a time.
The southern section housed a series of jail cells. Most of them just had bones, but I found living NPCs in two of them. One was a dwarf cleric named Shorn Diergar, who said he came exploring after he had visions of an evil temple. He found clerics who pretended friendliness and offered him hospitality, and then he woke up in a cell. I gladly took him, feeling I could use another cleric, but he didn't have his holy symbol with him and thus couldn't cast spells. I later looted it from a couple of guards. I gave him a sling and a bunch of rocks.
The game offers "good" and "neutral" options but no truly "evil" option.
The second NPC was a female fighter named Calandra, whose sister had been looking for her when I first entered the temple. I didn't really need another fighter, but I figured it couldn't hurt. I stuck her in the back with a spear and some daggers to throw.
But now the other sister is missing.
Calandra wasn't in the party long. Elsewhere in the dungeon, we found a set of bones that the game made a point of saying was a "complete set." I figured that meant I could get them resurrected. At the end of the session, I took them back to the ankh on the upper floors, and sure enough they resolved in to an elven mage named San-Raal. He didn't have anything to say as he joined my party, but a mage is more useful in the back ranks than a fighter, so I let Calandra go.
San-Raal mutely joins the party.
That covers my experiences in broad strokes, now let's get to some of the details. First, the unresponsiveness of the keys is maddening. I'll have an enemy attacking from my right, and I simply can't turn right. Or I want to back up down the corridor to flee, but the "back" key won't work. I think perhaps what the developers did, perhaps in an effort to combat "waltzing," is to make a system by which your movements don't activate until enemies have completed their own actions or movements for the round. There was something of this in the first game by which the game effectively froze until a spell animation completed. Now, it's like it freezes until any animation is completed, and regardless of whether the enemy is actually in view. But that's not quite it, because I definitely have more problems turning than strafing from left to right, and more problems moving backwards than forwards. [Edit: This turned out to be related to the NUM LOCK key. Toggling the key stops the unresponsiveness from happening. I still don't know why.]

As for combat waltzing, it is indeed impossible here, but not just because of the keys. Rather, the AI has changed. Before, if an enemy faced you and you side-stepped, he would reliably step forward on his next step, then turn to face you. Now, he doesn't do that; instead, he mirrors your action by side-stepping with you. You just have to attack, step to the side, attack, step to the side, and so on. On the other hand, it doesn't work well for every creature. Some, like clerics, seem to enter the square already executing their attack. It also doesn't work well for large groups, as they don't move in lockstep here the way they did in the first game. But for single or double skeleton warriors, it was still an effective strategy.
The new combat dance isn't a waltz; it's a two-step.
Still, the unreliability of combat trickery means that I've had to rely a lot more on spells, particularly buffing spells, than in the first game. This is a good thing. And of course it's more in line with AD&D rules. None of that makes up for how infuriating it is to pound the "9" key four times to turn once.

I haven't encountered any serious puzzles yet, just a lot of locked doors for which I had to ultimately find keys in other places on the level. There are also quite a few secret doors, and of different varieties. Some are illusory and you just walk through them. Others require activation with a tiny button that it take some serious scrutiny to see. There was a new type on D-3, in an area where I kept getting messages that the walls were weak. There was one place where I could bash down the wall and find a staircase behind it.
A "secret door" identified by bashing a wall with weapons.
My approach is basically:

1. Map out an area without worrying about secret doors. Mark all locations that I cannot pass (for instance, because I lack a key) in yellow. Mark all untested staircases in yellow. Mark any puzzles that I'm not sure about in yellow.

2. Once I'm done exploring every direction I can, look for places that might have secret doors and test them.

The Eye of the Beholder series uses the "worm tunnel" approach by which every corridor has 10 feet of wall space on the sides. Moreover, every doorway takes up a 10-foot block of physical space; it's not just an opening it the wall. Knowing these facts helps you limit where you need to search for secret doors. For instance, in the diagram below, there's no secret door that can open up into "A" because that would create shared walls. There's also no secret door that could open into "D" because even in the middle, where it wouldn't create shared walls, there isn't enough room for the door itself and something on the other side that doesn't create a shared wall. The "B" squares have the same problem.
Thus, the only interior walls that could house secret doors are marked with "C." (I actually missed a couple, in the northeast section of the middle room and in the corridor going south, but I didn't save the diagram and don't feel like re-doing it.) Obviously, most of the exterior walls could have a secret door, too.

Once I'm confident I've found all the secret doors there are to find, I fill in the color on the map. It's entirely possible that a staircase will later cut through some of those spaces and I'll have to render them transparent again.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • There is clearly some respawning happening on D-1. Every time I walk through the level, I face a couple of guards.
  • At one point, I found a dagger by clicking on a washbasin. You have to really search the environmental objects in this game.
And it was a magic dagger!
  • San-Raal came with an "Identify" spell in his spellbook, something I would have loved to have for the first game. 
  • Still enjoying the object descriptions as I click around.
The party comes upon a torture chamber.
  • I've found two horns that I think will be necessary to break the "Seal of the Four Winds" back on the temple level.
  • If you choose to heal the party when you rest, resting can take a long time. I'm glad these characters don't have ages or time limits.
That's quite a while to be studying spellbooks in a damp corridor.
  • Picking up all your daggers, arrows, and rocks after a missile-heavy combat is as annoying as ever.
  • I found a couple of journal pages belonging to the missing Wently Kelso, but they weren't a lot of help. One suggested that he might have died on a fireball trap.
Some of Kelso's comments.
Late in D-3, Khelben Blackstaff contacted me telepathically. We told him what was going on, and he asked us to keep adventuring while he consulted with the Lords of Waterdeep. I can't remember another RPG where the quest-giver periodically checks in on you.
I'm not sure if this was triggered by location or experiences.
As I close, I'm exploring the third way down from D-1. Starling thinks it's "a secret passage long ago forgotten." Giant spider webs are stretched across some of the corridors, making me grateful for my several Scrolls of Neutralize Poison.
I don't want to hack at it with my sword. That's how Frodo got in trouble.
So far, I'm enjoying the mapping part a lot, the combat somewhat less, and I'm still waiting for the first really tough puzzle. Of course, it's not impossible that I've overlooked it and am missing half the squares on the mapped levels. Feel free to drop me a hint if that's the case.

Time so far: 7 hours
Reload count: 2

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Shadow Keep: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Shadow Keep
United States
Independently developed and distributed as shareware
Released in 1991 for Macintosh
Date Started: 30 December 2017
Date Ended: 5 January 2018
Total hours: 10
Difficulty: 3/5 (Moderate)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

Shadow Keep was an eminently satisfying experience. It wasn't an epic game, and it won't get epic scores, but finishing it feels like finishing a filling, inexpensive meal at some family-owned restaurant from which you had no expectations going in. It's probably the best shareware RPG that I've played. It has a few good ideas, understands its limitations, and keeps to a reasonable size, scope, and time frame. There were times I got stuck, but I always had enough clues to un-stick myself. The interface was clear and consistent, and I didn't experience a single bug. If Glenn Seeman responds to my e-mail, I'll be happy to send him his shareware fee.
I find a key artifact.
When I wrapped up last time, I had just finished mapping the overworld and identifying the entrances to all the dungeons. I had also explored the dungeon beneath the castle for the first time. After a brief rest break and re-stock of potions, I returned to the dungeon. It was a good thing I did, because on the second trip, I found the Amulet of Guidance that I needed for the labyrinth. I had assumed it would be in the catacombs.

A secret door in the dungeon led me to an NPC named John. Several other NPCs had spoken about him. He was raising giant chickens and said they were for the king's "lance corps." Anyway, he was supposed to respond to the keyword HINT, but he only told me that he didn't feel like giving me a hint. The manual warns that he's not always in the mood. I eventually left and never returned, so I don't know what his hint would have told me.
Sure, no problem. It only took me 45 minutes to find you.
I had heard that the mermaid bobbing off the northern coast would know how to defeat the evil overlord, but I didn't know how to get her to talk to me. I asked a sailor in the castle about MERMAIDS, and he said they favor orchids. Asking NPCs about ORCHID, meanwhile, gave me a hint that a hermit on an island knows about them. Having found no hermit on the island in the Sea of Serpents, I figured he must be in the middle of that eastern lake. I explored its shores for a while but still couldn't find a pirate ship.

I wondered if maybe the unnamed cave would take me to the island underground. I started to explore it but was soon turned away by a new monster type: "rust beasts." Just like their D&D counterpart, they destroy metal weapons and armor. I returned to the shop in the gnome village and bought a "champion's club" and dragon scale armor, which you'd think would be amazing but actually under-performs plate. I also had to remove my helmet.
"Champion's Club" sounds like a way of upselling a piece of wood.
The new getup was helpful against the rust beasts, but the armor offered little protection against giant wasps, terrors that could kill me in two hits. I had to keep changing armor in the middle of the dungeon, which was mildly annoying.
Fighting a giant wasp in the unnamed caves. The scroll with "Unlock" is nearby.
Anyway, my guess was wrong. The caves didn't lead to the lake and didn't have a second exit. The only thing I found, besides lots of gold, was a scroll with the "Unlock" spell, which duplicates magic keys. Since keys are pretty cheap, the dungeon is really optional. The manual noted that there were some optional areas.

Returning to the lake issue, I solved it in short order. It turned out that pirate ships sail under bridges with no problem. I assumed they wouldn't. I was able to take one from another part of the lake system and sail it to the hermit's island. He said that orchids are found in the "living forest" by the Temple of Life. I was worried because I'd slain all the tree creatures there, but I was able to find the orchid at a stationary tree.
Uh, yeah, it's not exactly "living" anymore.
With it in my hand, the mermaid came right up to me. She said that the Evil Overlord could be defeated with the Black Sword, and an NPC named Sprite would know where the sword was. That was a lot of work for nothing, as I'd already spoken to Sprite, but she also gave me a "good luck charm" that made it easier to find hidden treasure chests.
My next stop was the catacombs in the cemetery. It was swarming with skeletons, who fled at "Turn Undead," but I couldn't cast that spell too many times. I had to kill a bunch of them. Aside from a lot of chests, the dungeon had a demon guarding the Grail. He wanted to know the names of the Gods of Strength, Life, and Magic. I had no idea. I left, vowing to return later.
The catacombs had a lot of areas with multiple doors in a row.
I tried the labyrinth next. I entered and equipped the Amulet of Guidance, but it didn't seem to do anything, and I soon got lost. Reloading, I consulted my notes and saw that it said I needed to enter the labyrinth with the amulet already equipped. Doing so brought up a series of arrows directing me through the huge maze. There were no monsters in the labyrinth, which was a nice change of pace.
The arrows don't appear on the way back, but I was clever and wrote them down.
I emerged in Far Land, an overland map that I'm guessing is around half the size of the main continent. There was no way I was going to map it. I just went around the perimeter hoping that was enough. I soon found the third temple--the Temple of Magic. Shortly afterwards, I found the Valley of the Unicorn and was killed when I tried to walk past the guardian.
Doing it right the second time.
Reloading, I equipped the Sacred Bone and got past the guardian okay. The titular Unicorn told me the Black Sword was hidden along the north coast, and I soon found it in a cluster of trees. It's the best weapon in the game, but not by a lot. Most enemies still take two or three hits.
With the sword in my possession, there was nothing to do but return to Shadow Keep's land and try to find the names of the gods. I asked dozens of NPCs and got nowhere. Finally, I looked back to the manual for clues and noted a recommendation to search the temples. Sure enough, that's what I'd been missing. Each of the three temples has a scroll with the god's name on it. Returning to Far Land was a pain, but otherwise I soon had the three names and went back to the catacombs.
Another visit to the demon, and I soon had the Grail. The only thing left was to enter the cave in the center of the Lake of Serpents and find the Evil Overlord. I spent my accumulated money on potions, hopped a ship, and entered.
Enemies in the final dungeon include rust beats and carrion crawlers.
The caves had the same enemies as the other cave map. I didn't feel like changing in and out of armor constantly, so I quaffed Potions of Invisibility to run past the enemies until I found the Evil Overlord.
The E.O., with a kobold hovering nearby.
The Grail protected me from instant death, but he still packed a wallop, and I had to retreat every hit or two to swallow a healing potion. I eventually killed him with the Black Sword, and he left the stolen Ankh behind.
Using more Potions of Invisibility to get out of the dungeon, I went to the Temple of Life and returned the Ankh. I immediately got a summons back to Shadow Keep and the endgame screens. The king congratulated me and made me an honorary knight. I was able to view my final statistics, and game over at just about the 10-hour mark.
Some of the panels from the endgame.
In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 4 points for the game world. The backstory is derivative, but it's self-consciously derivative, not even bothering with names for the Evil Overlord or Great Battle, as if it was a generic template. Inside the game, the world holds up pretty well.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. Not a strong point. You don't even get a name. "Development" consists solely of increases in fighting and magic ability. Frankly, these don't feel like they make a huge difference, and they max at 10.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. A great system in the Ultima style. It just lacks true dialogue options.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are nothing special. A couple have unique attacks, like the rust beasts and the beholders that drain magic. 
  • 3 points for magic and combat. It's pretty basic, but well-balanced, and there are some minor tactics associate with fleeing and the use of spells and potions. The small selection of spells would be more useful if the magic bar didn't deplete so fast and take so long to recharge. I like that enemies don't swarm you; if one enemy has you in combat, the others move around randomly instead of crowding all sides.
My final spell list. I think I got them all.
  • 3 points for equipment. There's a small but decent set of weapons, armor, potions, and special items. Relative cost tells you easily how the items compare.
  • 5 points for the economy. There's no complexity, but for the first half the game, you're always saving for an item upgrade, and for the second half, the need for potions keeps the economy relevant.
My final inventory heading into the endgame.
  • 3 points for quests, including a clear main quest and a couple of side areas.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The black and white graphics are only okay--most of the portraits are a little silly--and I have to judge the sparse sound from what I can hear online. I had no problems with the interface, with redundant keyboard and mouse options for most actions. I appreciated touches like the speed controls.
  • 6 points for gameplay, the best category. It hits the length and difficulty just right, and it's partly non-linear. It has a strong Ultima quality where you slowly piece together what you need to do via NPC dialogue and open exploration. I wouldn't call it "replayable," though, unless you want to challenge yourself to win with the lowest score or something.
My final stats. The "total play time" doesn't include reloads.
That gives us a final score of 36, enough to call it "recommended." Like I said earlier, there's nothing "epic" here, and it isn't going to vie for "Game of the Year," but it's well-constructed and easy to pick up, and it offers a satisfyingly-moderate challenge and length. It's too bad it didn't get more recognition. I haven't been able to find a single review or walkthrough. There is, however, an effort to remake it, from the intriguingly-named "Retribution Studios." (Are you okay? Do you guys want to talk about it?) Normally I only support remakes for games that were harmed by the limited technology of when they were made. In this case, though, given how hard it is to emulate the Mac, a remake may be the only way modern players ever get to experience it.
I like the game, but a few too many things smile within it.
Developer Glenn Seemann unfortunately never made another RPG that I can find, although he programmed and converted other games for the Macintosh into the 2010s, and has a site dedicated to Macintosh games.

As for me, I can't say that I'm looking forward to the rest of the Mac-only games on my list, not unless they do something different with the interface. I opened my Quarterstaff coverage by noting:
The interesting thing about many Mac games is that they make use of, rather than override, the conventions of the operating system. When you play a PC game, even today, you're used to the game taking over completely, remapping your keys, seizing your mouse, changing your graphic resolution, filling the screen, and monopolizing your sound . . . . The Mac was different. It pioneered the graphical user interface. It made popular the conventions of menus and overlapping windows. And games went ahead and used these conventions. You open an RPG on a Mac, and it looks like you've never left the operating system.
I was careful not to take a positive or negative stance on this approach, having not experienced it long enough, but now I can say for sure that my reaction is negative. Take a look at the shot below.
The end panels appear amidst the clutter of the Mac OS.
It just looks unprofessional for the game screens to appear amidst the clutter of the OS, with other open windows and icons in the background. And while playing, too many errant clicks sent me accidentally to the "finder." No, thanks. I know it's possible for Mac games to just take everything over--I sure didn't play Descent in a window with a bunch of junk in the background--and I hope they start doing so soon. I have to suffer this OS for about 20 more games.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Game 278: Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon (1991)

I think this is the last time we hear about the "legend series."
Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon
United States
Westwood associates (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 2 January 2018

Eye of the Beholder II was released in the same year as its predecessor, and I have book-ended the year with the two games, but the more important aspect of Darkmoon's positioning is going to be the contrast we see with the first game of 1992, Ultima Underworld. I don't want to spoil my opening paragraphs for Underworld, but let's just say that it loudly sounded the death knell for the very sort of the game that Darkmoon represents. The genre didn't die immediately, of course. We'll still be looking at tile-based games in abstract dungeons into the mid-1990s at least. A whole bunch of them are in the pipeline right now and will be released in 1992, including Might and Magic IV, Wizardry VII, and The Dark Queen of Krynn. These will be fun games. But after Ultima Underworld (and Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM on the action side), no one's going to be complimenting "wall textures" anymore. Any serious developer is going to quickly jettison discrete movement in 10-foot blocks with only four facing positions. Eager players finding Darkmoon under the 1991 Christmas tree don't know it, but we're simultaneously at the apex and end of an era.

I will be sad to see it go. I love the immersive, realistic near-simulation dungeons that Ultima Underworld introduced. But I won't be hand-mapping them. There's something enormously satisfying about my mapping process. I love drawing walls and annotating squares, even though I know I'm recording all this detail for no one. Why do I need to know that this square had a treasure chest when I've already opened it and I'll never be coming back? Who am I making these maps for, exactly? Not you; there are already dozens of examples of the maps online, probably more accurate than I'm making. Not myself; in the unlikely event that I ever play this game a second time, I'll almost certainly throw away the maps and create them anew. But purposeless as they are, I wouldn't dream of not making them. The enticement of one more square, one more room, one more corridor is what turns midnight to 03:30 in what seems like seconds. It's possible that I'm more addicted to mapping than the game itself.
The sequel starts with a lightly-animated sequence.
Eye of the Beholder II uses essentially the same engine as I, which itself owes a lot to Dungeon Master (1987), the first first-person game to break from the Wizardry template by pairing tiled movement with real-time combat. The system allows a player's digital dexterity to make up for poor character attributes or low levels, which of course has some interesting implications when it's applied to the Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. "Armor class" almost becomes a superfluous concept when the player can just side-step enemy attacks. We've come to call a particular pattern of movement the "combat waltz": attack, side-step, turn, wait for the enemy to walk into the adjacent square, attack again, side-step before he can turn to face you, and so forth until he's dead. You have to have at least a 2 x 2 space to do it, but as long as you don't mess up the pattern, you can eventually slay a titan with a pencil. Although that might not be as possible in Darkmoon for reasons we'll talk about.

Eye of the Beholder had a party of up to 6 characters (a mixture of player-created characters and NPCs) explore the sewers beneath the city of Waterdeep to destroy the threat posed by a beholder. During the process, they found some pretty cool equipment and went from Level 1 to at least Level 7.
"...and the three other losers accompanying my friend."
The sequel starts with the victorious party enjoying a night in the tavern, when all at once they're summoned to the residence of local archmage Khelben Blackstaff, who tells them that a threat is emerging from nearby Temple Darkmoon. Several people of disappeared in the area, including an archaeologist named Wently Kelso. His journal was discovered by a captain of the city guard, investigating the disappearances, and it describes Kelso's search for a village named Torzac, which had been conquered by the Drow long ago. Khelben sent a scout to investigate Darkmoon, and she never returned. He now asks us to take over the investigation and teleports us to a forest near Darkmoon.
Do you think I could get a fireplace like that constructed for my house? For how much?
The game gives you the ability to create new characters or to import the victorious party from Eye of the Beholder. (And you can import the four characters you created or any of the NPCs in your party at game's end.) If you create your own, you have the usual AD&D races (human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling), classes (fighter, ranger, paladin, mage, cleric, thief), attributes (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, charisma), and alignments. You have the usual race restrictions, such as only humans can be paladins and only non-humans can be multi-classed. The game uses AD&D second edition for its rules, so there aren't any level caps based on race. You choose a portrait from a small selection.

As usual, you can "modify" your starting attributes "to match a favorite AD&D® character," which of course no one ever used to cheat every attribute to 18 or higher. Re-rolling (or manually modifying) can get you some pretty high hit-point scores, too. I only had to hit "reroll" a few times to get offered 69 hit points for a Level 7 paladin, compared to 55 hit points for the Level 9 paladin I imported.
Cheesing up a new party member.
An imported party starts with a reasonable advantage in power and a significant advantage in equipment. New characters begin with 69,016 experience points, enough for Level 7 for single-classed characters and Levels 5 or 6 for multi-classed characters. My imported characters started with 179,000 experience points, enough for Levels 8 or 9 for single classes and 7 for multi-classes. The cap in this game is Level 13.
As far as I can tell, the only things I lost were "luck stone medallions," plus a bunch of keys and quest items.
New characters get some packets of food and potions, plus a mixture of appropriate weapons and armor, most regular, some enchanted at +1. The imported party, on the other hand, starts with almost all of their equipment from the first game, including some very high-leveled magic items. I'll cover what I have below.

My party from Eye of the Beholder consisted of:

  • Starling, a lawful good human female paladin. She has a long sword +5, banded armor +3, regular leather boots, shield, and helmet, and a Ring of Protection +3. Rings of Protection don't seem to stack with magical armor, so shortly after the game started, I gave it to Gaston.
  • Bugsy, a chaotic good dwarf male fighter/thief. His primary weapon is a +5 polearm, but somehow that doesn't stop him from carrying a +1 shield, too. In his inventory, he has a +3 long sword, a +3 axe, a +3 mace, and a spear. I don't know why I'm carrying around so many extra weapons except that it seemed wrong to just drop +3 stuff. He also has a Scepter of Kingly Might, which can be wielded as a weapon, but I have no idea how it compares to other weapons. It doesn't register as magical when I cast "Detect Magic," so maybe it's just useless. Another mystery is a "Ring of Adornment," which is magical but seems to have no effect on statistics.
My fighter/thief and some of his inventory.
  • Marina, a neutral good elf female mage. She's wearing a magic robe, a helmet, leather boots, Bracers of Protection +2, and a Ring of Wizardry that confers extra spells. There's a long sword +4 in her inventory even though she can't use it. Her weapons are a bunch of daggers and knives that she can throw, including a dagger +3.
  • Gaston, a chaotic good half-elf male ranger/cleric. Oddly, he doesn't have a single magical weapon or armor item, just regular plate mail, helmet, leather boots, and a bow with 21 arrows in the quiver. He's wearing another mysterious Ring of Adornment and a Ring of Feather Fall and an amulet that doesn't even register as magical. He has a bunch of scrolls that I never used from the first game. If I ever need him in melee, he can wield many of the extra weapons that the other characters have, including the swords--I guess his ranger abilities override his cleric restrictions.
After I started playing, I checked the original game and saw that many of my magic weapons had names there. My long sword +5, for instance, is called "Severance" there. The import process kept the weapons' pluses but not their names.

The character names come from "Best Picture" nominees for the Academy Awards in 1991. I guess I didn't have room for The Prince of Tides.
The small forest map.
The game begins within a small forest, which in some reviews gives the game extra credibility for featuring an "outdoor area," but it functionally isn't because the trees serve as "walls" and you can't really roam very far. It's a dungeon with outdoor wall textures. The forest is crawling with dire wolves, which are easy but respawn frequently. In the northeast section of the forest are a bunch of shallow graves which may mark the burials of the recent missing persons; if so, it was awfully nice of their murderers to erect grave markers. A secret passage through one forest path leads to a small underground area with a "Blur" scroll and some magic leather armor.
Dire wolves supply grinding opportunities in the forest map.
We meet an old woman in the forest who offers to take us to the temple, which is accessible from two different directions. At the temple entrance, we meet two friendly priests named Nadia and Joril, who invite us to stay and relax. Nearby is a troubled woman looking for her lost sister, Calandra. The sisters are probably the two "warrior women" mentioned in Kelso's journal.
You just know these guys are evil.
It turns out that Nadia and Joril won't let us penetrate far into the temple, so it's clear that we're going to have to kill them to proceed. I don't like the idea of being the aggressor, but fortunately the game solves the problem for me when I accidentally smash some stained-glass windows while fooling around with the controls. The two priests attack and we kill them.
I was trying to capture the lightning bolt killing Nadia, but I was a split second late.
The map with the temple entrance turns out to be very small--only 17 squares. There are stairways up and down, a teleporter, and something called the "Seal of the Four Winds" that's either a decoration or an actual "seal" we'll have to open later. The stairs up go to a corridor with a guard and two locked doors, neither of which respond to lockpicks.

They were only useful about three times in the first game.
The teleporter goes to a small area with an ankh cross and a promise to resurrect slain characters--up to three times.
I think those words are antonyms.
That leaves the stairway down. It leads to a larger dungeon area with several guards to kill. The game starts to introduce its puzzle conventions, offering keyed doors, levered doors, and doors that open when you weigh down a pressure plate.
Weighing down a plate with a rock to open a door at the end.
In a jail cell, I find halfling thief named Insal the Quick, and he joins my party. Insal is mentioned in Kelso's journal as a guide that Kelso hired but later fired so he could move more quickly. I give him some knives and rocks to throw in combat and leave him in the rear ranks.
Insal's statistics. You really can't trust these chaotic neutral types.
There are a lot of barrels that we can smash in this area, most of them providing food. Every character has a food meter, but since one casting of the cleric's "Create Food" completely fills it for everyone, there isn't a lot of point in carrying food.

Combat, which I'll cover in more detail in a later post, has been easy enough that I get a bit cocky and stop paying attention to my characters' health meters. This came back to bite me when I opened a new door, entered into combat with a couple of guards, and suffered a wholly unnecessary death. I hadn't saved for about 10 minutes, so this seems a good place to stop my first session.
Time to waste one of my three resurrections!
From my initial foray, I can report:

  • It may be an emulator issue, but the game is horribly unresponsive to my keypresses, particularly when trying to turn. There are times I have to pound on the "7" or "9" keys on the numberpad (to turn left and right, respectively), half a dozen times to get one turn. This is going to have some implications for "combat waltzing."
  • So far, NPC interaction has been more verbose than in the first game. I also like that most enemies have a line of dialogue or two before just attacking you, creating what I called a "contextual encounter" in a long-ago post
Contextual encounters are so much more fun than simply being attacked.
  • This game also has a lot more dialogue from your own characters. They make frequent remarks that fill in bits of lore or provide hints like the locations of secret doors. For instance, when we entered the dungeon beneath the temple, Marina noted that the entire place had been built by the Drow, although they disappeared a long time ago.
Some interesting, if ultimately unhelpful, dialogue.
  • The series still doesn't require any light sources.
  • Clicking on things often gives you a little description. I don't remember this happening in Eye of the Beholder.
"I hope nothing happens to it."
So far, the game seems to be destined to feature a lot of small interconnected areas rather than large levels, but perhaps this will change as I move forward. I'm curious if there are hidden "special quests" in this game the way there were in the first.

I'm also curious, of course, whether a beholder is going to have anything to do with the game, or whether they're just capitalizing on the first game's popularity. The Gold Box games avoided what TV Tropes calls "artifact titles." (Although Curse of the Azure Bonds did briefly feature the Pool of Radiance and thus had a legitimate claim to Pool of Radiance II.) There's no way SSI is going to keep a beholder relevant for three straight games, right?

 Time so far: 3 hours