Friday, February 23, 2018

Game 281: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992)

             
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss
United States
Blue Sky Productions (developer); Origin Systems (publisher)
Released in 1992 for DOS; 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98; 1997 for PlayStation
Date Started: 15 February 2018

You almost had to be there to understand what Ultima Underworld accomplished for the RPG genre. To fire it up after more than a decade of Wizardry, The Bard's Tale, and Might and Magic is to witness--instantly, not in increments--the death of abstraction as the primary paradigm of gameplay. Tiled movement is replaced with continuous movement. Fixed views in only four directions are replaced with angular views and the ability to look up and down. Artificially even and uniform "levels" are replaced with slopes and true three-dimensional spaces. Binary lighting is replaced with dynamic (and realistically dim) lighting. Simple textures are replaced with hand-crafted scenes. All objects, monsters, and NPCs with whom you can interact actually appear in the environment; there's no more stumbling into a seemingly-empty square and having it trigger a textual encounter.

Unrealistically large mobs of varied enemies are replaced with manageable numbers of unique individuals, living in spaces large enough to accommodate them. They have beds and bathrooms. They have clear sources of food, water, and lighting. You creep, run, swim, and jump through their world, your explorations punctuated with moments of both fear and awe.
        
Note the ramp sloping downward, right in the opening room. Also, note that my view is angled downwards.
          
Underworld was not developed by Origin, but rather by Blue Sky Productions, founded by former Origin employee Paul Neurath. An article on the now-defunct Computer and Video Games web site (retrievable via Archive.org's Wayback Machine) goes extensively into the game's background, with quotes by Neurath. He conceived of Underworld while working on Space Rogue for Origin, which as you may recall featured real-time, first-person space combat. He reasoned that the same approach could be applied to an indoor environment. Dungeon Master's puzzles and real-time combat system were also inspirations. He started working on Underworld as an independent game, only later inserting it into the Ultima series after signing a production contract with Origin.

Some cursory research into the game's history suggest that some of its mechanics, including inclined surfaces, looking up and down, and jumping, appear for the first time in any indoor first-person game, not just an RPG. (We'll test these claims and fill in the background as we go along.) To some extent, these features were inevitable as computers grew more powerful and programmers grew more skilled, and their first appearance could easily have been in an unplayable curio--a game notable for its technological achievements but otherwise unremarkable. Fortunately, these "firsts" came from the hands of programmers and producers already experienced with creative, immersive RPGs, and thus the engine is only one aspect of the game's quality. Underworld is equally notable for its NPC dialogue options, its inventory system, its magic system, its character development, and (aside from aspects of the backstory) its plot.

Nonetheless, Ultima Underworld is not a perfect game, and players of 1992 could be forgiven for seeing it as a step backwards, or perhaps sideways, rather than forward. Dynamic graphics meant a general reduction in graphic quality, for instance. The sound is synthesized and low-quality. The real-time combat system depends too much on player reflexes and too little on tactics. The control scheme, which does not benefit from decades of hindsight, has some odd and uncomfortable inputs, such as dragging with the right mouse button, or using the 1 and 3 keys to look up and down. And, man, the game is dark. You absolutely can't play it with a dirty monitor or next to a window during the day.
            
The backstory benefits from Origin's typically high production quality.
          
In my opinion, its biggest flaws are pushed in your face at the outset. Even the most forgiving Ultima fan, accustomed to absurd retcons in every new title, has trouble swallowing the backstory presented in the game manual. Supposedly set 10 years after the events of Ultima VI, a lord named Cabirus has decided to establish a Town of Virtue on the Isle of the Avatar. Not on the surface, of course, which would make sense--but within the multi-leveled Stygian Abyss itself. His dream is to gather various "societies" of Britannia and have them live in harmony according to the eight virtues. In a dungeon. These societies include several races and factions making an appearance in Britannia for the first time, including goblins, lizardmen, and "mountain-folk," or dwarves ("though they detest this name"), suddenly re-appearing for the first time since Ultima III. To them are added trolls, some mages from Moonglow called "seers," and a faction from Jhelom called the Knights of the Crux Ansata. The process of settling the island is commanded by a Baron Almric, and if that title isn't making an appearance for the first time, it certainly wasn't common before.

Cabirus had gathered a set of eight artifacts representing the eight virtues (e.g., Book of Truth, Shield of Valor) and planned to distribute them among the factions, but he died before he could accomplish this. After his death, the predictable results of gathering men and monsters in a dungeon ensued, and contact was lost with the colony for 50 years. (Note that if you're taking this seriously as an Ultima game, it's the first indication that a large amount of time has passed in Britannia since Ultima VI. Such will soften the shock when we get to Ultima VII.) It probably didn't help that Baron Almric sealed the entrance to the Abyss with a locked iron door.

That brings us to the present day, in which a confusing series of events is relayed in an animated introduction using voiced dialogue. Players who encountered this game for the first time in 1992 will have to report on whether the sheer novelty of a fully-voiced, animated introduction managed to eclipse the crimes against humanity committed by what the manual laughably calls the "voice talent." Astonishingly, these individuals (apart from Richard Garriott, voicing Baron Almric) aren't credited as anything other than voice actors, meaning that they're not programmers pressed into last-minute service but rather people hired specifically for this job. You have to watch it to believe it. Perhaps the once saving grace is that the "actors'" attempts at dialogue are occasionally drowned out by obnoxiously blaring music that you have no way to adjust.
           
I hope whoever voiced this guy's dialogue found later work as a mime.
         
What you can gather from this introduction is that the Avatar is awakened one night by a ghostly apparition screaming: "Treachery and doom! My brother will unleash a great evil! Britannia is in peril!" Somehow the ghost transports the Avatar to Britannia, into a bedchamber at Almric's castle, from which Almric's daughter Princess Arial has just been kidnapped. The Avatar arrives just in time to see a shadowy figure apparate out of the chamber, remarking that "thou shalt serve to draw the hounds from the scent." Looking out the window, the Avatar sees a troll heading into the woods with Arial slung over his shoulder in a sack.

Guards soon burst into the room and, using the worst accents ever, blame the Avatar for the kidnapping. Dragged before Almric, who must be awfully old to have a young daughter, the Avatar learns that the soldiers pursued the kidnapper to the Stygian Abyss, where goblins and other monsters ambushed them and foiled the rescue. Almric is skeptical at the Avatar's story, and he commands him to rescue Arial from the Abyss. A guard escorts the Avatar to the doors and locks them behind him.
           
The baron passes judgment.
            
The fun begins at this moment, so I won't ruin it by complaining more about how poorly the backstory, physical setting, magic system, method of arrival, and so forth fit within the rest of Ultima canon, or how senseless it is that the Avatar is yet again the hero instead of just some random Britannian, perhaps one of Almric's soldiers. (Seriously, are these people capable of doing nothing for themselves?) That it was originally developed as Underworld (without the Ultima) seems clear to me, although I don't know how far the game had come when the producers made the decision to merge it with the Ultima mythos.

(Aside: I first played this game back in 1994 or 1995, and I would have sworn that the introduction was completely different, depicting the Avatar arriving through a moongate, at night, in the middle of a rainstorm, and pounding at the door of Almric's keep. Am I remembering some other game, or did the intro differ across releases?)

Character creation is more extensive here than most Ultima titles. You can choose a male or female Avatar, your "handedness" (which only affects where you put things on the paper doll, not your actual controls), and your class. The full set of character classes from Ultima IV has returned here--fighter, mage, bard, tinker, druid, paladin, ranger, and shepherd--though with some adjustments, such as no weapon and armor restrictions (by class) and every class being capable of magic. Attributes are strength, dexterity, intelligence, and vitality. Strength controls carry weight as well as combat power. Intelligence controls the number of spell points.

I experimented a bit with the different classes. Every time you try a new character, you get 60 points distributed among strength, dexterity, and intelligence, so there's no point in re-rolling incessantly to try to get high values in all three. (Oddly, the shepherd only gets 56 points.) I decided to favor strength, since I tend to be a hoarder and get annoyed quickly with messages saying I have to drop things. I found a pretty good balance with a tinker and went with that.

Underworld adds a twist to the Ultima character template by including a set of skills for each character and a numeric score assigned to them. You get a few skills when you select your class, and then you can pick two more. My tinker got attack, defense, and repair and could select from among unarmed, sword, axe, mace, and missile for his first round and picklock, traps, search, appraise, and repair for his second. Other skills include acrobat, appraise, casting, lore, picklock, search, sneak, swimming, and track. I'm not 100% sure how you add new skills after character creation, but I presume it can be done. Normally, I would tend to favor exploration and interaction skills (e.g., search, track, lore) over combat skills, as I'm more concerned about missing content than making combat easier. (I just re-started Fallout: New Vegas on my console, and despite a pledge to do things differently this time, I ended up with 8 intelligence, 8 charisma, and a skill focus on science, lockpick, and speech.) I wonder if it's better to specialize in a weapon or just use the best weapon available and pour your skill points into the generic "attack." In any event, I went with axe and picklock.

The next choice is the character portrait. It would be interesting to hear from various people about how they make their selections. When I (rarely) play a female character, since I'm not female myself, all bets are off and I mostly go for someone who's going to be interesting to look at for 50 hours. I guess I have a bias for red hair. When I play a male character, I gravitate a little towards someone who looks like me. This translates into a slight bias towards white characters, but I have a much stronger bias about hair. Specifically, I don't want a dude with facial hair (I could put up with an unobtrusive goatee, but not a full shaggy beard or a 1970s porn star mustache) or a dude with long hair. Thus, black guy it is.
          
The top guy isn't so bad, but what is he trying to prove with that stupid curl?
           
The final decision is whether to play on "standard" or "easy" difficulty, which I typically interpret as "are you real man or some kind of tofu-eater?" and select accordingly.

The character starts unarmed, unarmored, carrying nothing, in the dark, with the iron door shut and locked behind him. An inscription on the wall nearby recounts the doom of some other party, led by a guy named "Elsmore," which was unable to escape. (One wonders how the troll got out and back in with Arial.) A sack on the floor nearby offers a badly worn dagger, a torch, some food items, and a map that serves as the game's automap. Some bones litter the ground and some weeds grow up through the dirt floor.
             
Looking at an inscription on the wall.
         
My first 20 minutes were spent just getting used to the game's controls You can do everything with the mouse, theoretically. Left-clicking in the main window and moving the mouse allows you to look, turn, and move forward, but so do the WAXD keys, and I generally find it easier to move with the keys and use the mouse for actions. Because left-clicking is for movement, you need to right-click on objects in the environment. The actions performed by right-clicking depend on the icon selected on the left (game options, talk, pick up, look, fight, pick lock); if no icon is selected, the game does the thing that contextually makes the most sense, and it's generally pretty good about it. If you just right-click on an object, for instance, it treats it as "look"; if you right-click and drag, it treats it as "pick up."

The 1 and 3 keys let you look up and down; 2 reverts you to a normal view. Since so many objects are on the floor, however, I find that I spent most of my time walking around with the view slightly angled downward.

Down the hallway, I decline to pick up a broken axe. (I don't know if broken weapons can be repaired at all.) A pull chain opens an otherwise-locked door and leads to a room strewn with bones. Another sack holds some candles, a mushroom, and a worn cudgel, which replaces my dagger. Since you only have 8 inventory slots, sacks and other containers are clearly going to be necessary to keep things organized.
       
A Dungeon Master puzzle already!
          
There are two locked doors in the room, and while I have a lockpick skill, I don't yet have a pick. You can bash locked doors with weapons, but it damages the weapons, and I suspect it doesn't work with metal doors anyway. I make a note on my automap and move on.
          
Yes, the automap allows custom notes.
          
A little further down the hall--and the hallway is dark enough, even with the torch, that I have to careen from side to side to make sure I'm not missing anything--I find two spell runes, Ort and Jux. A little beyond that, amidst bones and bloodstains, is an adventurer's pack containing a key, four more runes (Bet, In, Lor, and Sanct), and a love note from "Sandra" to "Alfred." The implication is that Alfred was exiled to the Abyss by the Baron for some kind of crime and died there.

A full discussion of the magic system will have to await a later entry. For now, suffice to say that to cast a spell, you need runes and a rune bag. Once you have them, you click on the runes to line them up on the "rune shelf" (to the right of the compass) then click on the shelf to cast the spell. Casting depletes mana. Spells are organized into eight "circles," or levels, and half your character level, rounded up, must equal the spell level. With the runes I have, I can cast In Lor ("Light"), Bet In Sanct ("Resist Blows"), or Ort Jux ("Magic Arrow"), all in the first circle. I'll need to find a Hur stone to cast Sanct Hur ("Stealth") and both Mani and Ylem runes to cast In Mani Ylem ("Create Food"). I need no new runes to cast Bet Sanct Lor ("Conceal") or Sanct Jux ("Strengthen Door"), but as they're third-circle spells, I'll need to hit Level 5 first.
           
Stringing together the runes for a "Light" spell.
          
The system is similar to that in Ultima V, where you had to string together syllables, but is unique in requiring runes rather than reagents. The backstory hand-waves the inconsistency with some nonsense about magic behaving differently in the Abyss than on the surface. I don't know if there are "hidden" spells that you can find yourself with logical combinations of runes. There are some spells here that have existed in no previous Ultima, including "Fly," "Levitate," and "Telekinesis."

My first combat is with a rat. To fight, you activate the combat icon, then right-click on the screen and hold down the right mouse button. Where you click determines the nature of the attack, from an overhead bash (top third of the screen), sideways slash (middle), or thrust (bottom third). The longer you hold down the right mouse button before releasing (up to a point), the more power. I can already tell that I'm going to frequently forget a) where you click on the screen, not the enemy, matters; and b) you just need to right-click and hold down, not move the mouse. It's also going to take some time to get a feel for where the enemy needs to be relative to the center of the screen for the blow to hit. I killed the rat, but only after whiffing an attack and accidentally picking up one of my bags in the process.
          
Great. Another game that requires mouse acumen.
          
I'm having two persistent annoyances, one the game's fault, one not. The one that's the game's fault has to do with sound. As you walk, there's a constant "bing-bong" sound effect, sounding nothing like footsteps, to accompany your stride. In general, sound is a lot poorer in the game than I remembered. There haven't been any atmospheric or ambient sounds so far, and the attack sounds are only a few lines of code removed from beeps and boops. If it's supposed to sound better, let me know. I'm using the configuration supplied by GOG, and it looks all right to me.

The second issue has to do with tabbing out of the game widow to write notes for my blog entries. This causes the cursor in the game window to do crazy, flying back and forth even when I return to the window to play. I can generally make it stop by leaving the window and re-entering a few more times, but it's annoying. Turning off cursor capture solves the issue but creates new problems.
          
"Wow, that's pretty--hey, do you feel something?"
        
This entry is getting pretty long, so I'll save a full account of Level 1, including NPC dialogue and inventory interactions, for next time. For now, suffice to say that within a few more minutes, the cavernlike nature of the dungeon changed when I emerged onto a platform and saw a river roaring several stories below. This must have been awesome in 1992. I was so caught up in admiring the view that I failed to note a goblin hurling sling stones at my head. That happens to me routinely in games like Skyrim these days, but here it's definitely a first.

Time so far: 2 hours

******

Bob's Dragon Hunt is going to be the first 1992 game to fall to the axe. When I researched, I thought it was an RPG, but instead it's one of at least three games produced by Neurosport, an independent Texas developer, to showcase their "VirtualDungeon" technology. The other three were Majik Adventure, which I've been unable to find, AntKill, and Crystal Deception.
              
             
The technology allows for quasi-continuous movement and action combat in a three-dimensional game, which is noteworthy given that we're praising Ultima Underworld for the same thing. The problem is that Neurosport's technology hasn't aged well, if it ever worked right at all. The vector graphics draw at molasses speeds, even when the CPU is cranked, and any movement sends the character into an endless spin.

Even if it worked, there's no character development. Instead, every new character is assigned a random class, level, and inventory (justified by the backstory in which the character has found a magic ring that turns him into a different legendary hero every time he puts it on). The goal is simply to kill as many dragons and score as many points as possible. It's an interesting curio of its age but not a full RPG. It and AntKill disappear from my 1992 list.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Legend of Blacksilver: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

         
The Legend of Blacksilver
United States
Quest Software (developer); Epyx (publisher)
Released in 1988 for Commodore 64 and Apple II
Date Started: 7 February 2018
Date Ended: 16 February 2018
Total hours: 22
Difficulty: 2.5/5 (easy-moderate)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

When I said at the end of the last entry that I thought I was half done, I was forgetting that there was an entire second continent. Nonetheless, I pushed forward and finished it anyway. I enjoyed the second half much less than the first, and the developer's attempts (I'm guessing) to address some criticisms of his previous titles resulted in some very weird choices towards the end.

As I wrapped up last time, I was contemplating taking a boat to the second continent, but it turned out it was too early for that. Instead, I had to take a portal to the dungeon of Marthbane from the Archives in the Hawk Temple. The Hawk Temple had its own set of Archives, just like the Owl Temple.
         
        
The exhibit told me that when Maelbane sank into the depths ages ago, "one mountain was tall enough to become an island atoll," and that Marthbane Tunnels were accessible from this island. Sure enough, when I got there, "Maelbane" was just a small island with a single dungeon.
        
All that remains of the "evil continent."
      
Ultimately, there were five dungeons in the game, each of between 6 and 12 levels, each level exactly 15 x 15. I resisted mapping them even though I know I missed a lot of gold and special treasures like silver coins. My basic strategy was to follow the right wall and to always take any new hole, up or down, that I encountered. Since all dungeons (except the last) require you to climb back up after finding the treasures in the depths, I assumed this would ensure that I hit almost everything, with the exception of islands in the middle of the levels, but these are relatively rare and I wasn't exactly pathological about always following the right wall. I'd look down each corridor, and if I saw treasure, I'd dart down and take it.

I soon learned to avoid little white boxes. I don't know, some of them may have had attribute increases or other special rewards, but most of them reduced attributes, or made me fall asleep and lose 2000 gold, or poison me and make me waste several elixirs. Regular treasure chests were always safe, and all the quest items were in those.
            
You only fall for this once.
          
Although I kept stocked on "Fireball" and "Lightning Bolt" spells, I didn't think they did a lot better than physical attacks, so I mostly relied on those. However, a small subset of monsters was capable of doing special and annoying damage. Toad colonies destroyed my food, for instance. Eaton eyes could blind me for a few rounds. Snap jaws paralyzed. Mind trills drained intelligence, and "spikes" destroyed armor. When I saw any of these, I would cast "Annihilate," which destroyed them and all the other monsters in the area. It was expensive to replace, but that wasn't a problem.
          
This guy destroys armor. No way am I letting him near me.
        
Success in the dungeons, as in the castles, basically boils down to how many elixirs you bring with you. You can carry a maximum of 30, and there's really no excuse not to top off before every new expedition. In only a couple locations was I in danger of running out.

I found a few new gems in Marthbane. On the bottom level, I discovered King Durek in a little 2 x 1 chamber with no exit. He told me that he could escape with his signet ring, which fortunately I had. He opened a hole in the ceiling and disappeared. On a reload, I confirmed that you can kill Durek, but that just dooms you to a long and lonely death in a small chamber. 
      
Yeah, but I have to test something first . . .
       
After freeing Durek, I climbed back to the top, returned to the Hawk Temple, returned to the castle, and was promoted to "squire," with a +5 increase in intelligence. With every promotion, Seravol gave me "laggard vapors," which (according to a prisoner's hint) are supposed to slow down guards. But they never worked for me in any castle where the guards were hostile. I guess maybe they work in towns, but there's no good reason to turn town guards hostile.
         
Somehow "squire" seems worse than "warrior."
      
In the throne room, the King Durek had replaced the prince on the throne. He told me that since rescuing him, Taragas had begun the process of raising Maelbane from the depths. The resulting disturbances caused a tsunami to destroy Beaverton, one of the towns on Thalen. Durek told me to buy a boat and scout the new continent.
         
A lot has happened in the 10 minutes since we got back.
        
I bought a boat, but I sailed it to Beaverton first. Sure enough, the peninsula on which it sat was now flooded with water. This is another Dougherty standard. In all three previous games, plot developments have led to the destruction of cities, enhancing the sense of urgency. In Blacksilver, it occurred in multiple stages. I experienced frequent earthquakes as I walked around the land, and eventually a northern peninsula containing the Eagle Temple also sank beneath the waves. A shore town called Glen Lak turned into a pile of rubble.
            
I guess you can't raise an entire continent without some environmental consequences.
         
When I arrived at Maelbane, now a much larger continent, I was surprised to find towns there. And they had fully-functioning shops and casinos. How did that happen?! The inhabitants acted just like those on Thalen; they weren't overtly "evil."

I found two more dungeons but both required some item to enter. The only place I found where I could be productive was a two-level castle ruled by Taragas, fully staffed with guards. When did he build this? Where did the guards come from? The game leaves such questions to the philosophers.

Both levels of the castle consisted of small rooms connected by teleporters. The guards attacked if I opened a chest or progressed too far in the castle. They were easily the deadliest enemies in the game, particularly the ones on the second floor, doing 50-70 points of damage per blow. There were times that I could hit them at range with "Flame Tongue" or "Lightning Bolt," but usually I had to defeat them in melee and then chug an elixir afterwards. ("Annihilate" does not work in castles.) But you want to accomplish as much as you can in one visit because the guards simply respawn when you leave the castle and return.
          
Dougherty's insistence on including the mass slaughter of castle guards in every game borders on the ridiculous.
       
For the next five or six hours, I bounced between Taragas's castle, a dungeon called the Blackmire Pits, and the Hawk Temple Archives. Each visit got me an item that would allow me to penetrate further into one of the other areas, but I had to return to all three locations at least three times each, waving a new key or gem or something. The most mysterious was the bottom levels of the Blackmire Pits. When I explored them the first time, there was a magical darkness on Level 7 that I couldn't penetrate, and I just automatically died when I tried to descend to Level 8. I was never clear exactly what object or condition reversed this problem and let me explore to the end.

The Archives had a couple of exhibits that told me about "sunken" cities on Maelbane; these were ultimately raised. An exhibit called "Morningstar" gave me that weapon. Another titled "Blacksmith" told me of a legendary blacksmith named Dalvid who worked in a town called Lost Crag and supplied me with his hammer. The final exhibit, "Crystal Tears," gave me two crystals called "Dragon Tears" that got me into the final dungeon.
         
Ah, the rare "spit-breathing" dragon.
       
The castle had a few encounters with NPCs who raised my statistics when I gave them gold or potions. It culminated in a weird encounter with Taragas who said he needed the "blood of a good knight gone bad" and asked for a drop of mine, promising that I could "rule beside him." I took a save state and said "yes" just to see what would happen. He took my blood, let me live, but reneged on his promise to let me rule beside him. I was expelled from the castle. I could keep playing, but the entire continent of Thalen was gone. Saying "no" just caused Taragas to flee, promising a later encounter. 
        
The "bad" ending. This is where Thalen once stood.
         
The Blackmire Pits ended with a discovery of a haul of Blacksilver. Seravol--who promoted me to "knight" at some point, then "baron"--told me to take it to the blacksmith in Lost Crag. So not only were the risen cities newly populated, they were populated with the original inhabitants. Did they just magically freeze when the land sank? Or did they rush home when they heard that their former homes had returned from the depths? Whatever the case, the blacksmith took my Blacksilver and his hammer and made me a "Sword of Hope," which simply showed up in my inventory as a "superb black blade."
 
And why are the residents of the "evil" land happily working for me?
         
I should mention that between trips to the dungeons, castle, and so forth, I would habitually restock by buying the maximum number of spells (50 for some, 20 for others) and healing elixirs (30), which collectively might cost 20,000 gold pieces. The dungeons and castles produced a lot of this gold, but I typically made the rest with blackjack. In my first entry on Blacksilver, Commentman noted that the first hand or two of "Heigh-Loagh" is scripted, drawn from just small set of possibilities. The same is true of blackjack. The first two hands are drawn from about five possibilities. Even if you're trying not to cheat, you can't help but learn the patterns. Soon, I realized that if I got dealt AA in the first hand, the next card would be a 10 (not really helping), but if I stayed with that, the dealer would bust. The next hand would give me 21. Similar patterns reliably allowed me to win every time and ensure I always had enough money.

Other notes:

  • I keep forgetting to mention the wonderful (L)eave command, which automatically takes you outside cities and castles, from wherever you are inside them, as long as the guards aren't hostile. It saves a lot of pointless walking.
  • Weapons progressed as follows: dagger, whip, staff, club, flail, broad axe, sword, leaded club, morningstar, halberd, broad sword, simple bow, crossbow. I got the crossbow too late to be useful. I wish I'd had it in the castles.
      
Some of the mid-game selections.
        
  • Armor progressed: leather, studded hide, chain mail, bar mail, plate mail. I thought "bar mail" was an invention of the author, perhaps a confused version of banded mail, but I guess it's a real type of armor used in ancient Persia and India.
  • One of my biggest complains about the previous games was how much time you had to waste fighting random creatures who delivered no experience and only paltry gold. In this game, Dougherty made it a non-issue by giving the player extremely favorable chances of escaping combat if he just keeps walking. You could easily make it through the entire game without killing a single outdoor creature.
       
No need to stop.
    
  • I forgot to mention it in previous entries, but if you die in Blacksilver, you get resurrected in a random location on Thalen with 200 gold, a random (but small) amount of food, but with double your maximum hit points and all of your equipment. You can avoid significant financial loss by keeping your money in a bank.
  • Throughout my experience, I've been mostly using save states rather than actual game saves, mostly because it's so much faster. But except to test a few things for the purpose of documenting them, I've adhered to the game rules, which allow saving anywhere outdoors or in dungeons but not in castles or towns.
  • The outdoor map wraps east and west but not north and south.
             
With my special sword in hand, I entered the final dungeon by inserting the Dragon's Tears into a dragon's face on the dungeon door. It was 12 levels but not notably hard. I used "Annihilate" liberally and got through with almost all my elixirs.

The three previous Dougherty games had led me to expect that the dungeon would spill into a deadly final area that would feature more guards and find ways to just destroy my hit points with every step. This expectation made the reality all the more bizarre.
       
It's amazing how few classic villain speeches feature the word "sparkles."
        
The final area consisted of about half a dozen large rooms connected by hallways. Each of the rooms had a bunch of glittering balls called "black sparkles" that made a beeline for my character the moment he entered the room. If they touched me, they were capable of sapping about 100 hit points per second, but they were relatively easy to outrun and dodge. This is fortunate because the interface disappeared in this final area, and all I could do was move, not fight, cast spells, or drink elixirs.
         
You can't tell from this shot, but one of the sparkles is touching me now. Three others are trying to reach me but trapped behind obstacles.
          
Taragas was located in the middle of one of these rooms behind a barrier. It took me a few minutes to find him, but it wasn't much of a challenge at all. Not only that, but when I ran up to him, he immediately capitulated. All told, it was the biggest letdown of a final area that I ever experienced. I made it to the end of the game with 28 elixirs and a full stock of spells.
        
        
The game somewhat made up for it with a typically elaborate Dougherty ending. First, I got the choice whether to kill Taragas or arrest him. It was an illusory choice because no matter which option I selected, Taragas and his castle simply disappeared and I was magically transported to King Durek's castle on Thalen.
      
Really? You're not going to fight at all?
       
A visit to Seravol got me +5 in all my attributes and a note that "Taragas is safely imprisoned, though he rants and raves in his cell." (You get this no matter what your choice above.) Returning to the throne room, I was greeted by the king, prince, and princess. Amidst multiple animated bows and cheery trumpets playing something in a major key, they delivered the final message:
             
Welcome, Baron Chester! Welcome, Hero of Legends!

Songs of your glorious victory will echo through all time!

The evil Taragas had nearly destroyed beloved Thalen in his madness, but now the tremors have lessened, the wild birds sing, and a gentle rain cleanses the land. Maelbane is gone, sinking once again into the depths of the ocean, leaving only a small tip of rock jutting into the sunlight as a silent memorial. 

In this court, your deeds will be remembered with shouts of joy and merry songs. For we are the lucky ones to live in this age of valor! No one before has provided this court with such a service, so it is fitting you be rewarded with a title that reflects your special status. I, Durek, by all the power and magic of Thalen, dub thee:

COUNSELOR CHESTER!
            
That wasn't exactly what I was expecting from all that buildup, but okay. My level changed from "Baron" to "Advisor" behind the scenes. After some more words, the king indicated that the princess Aylea--whose pixelated profile suggests that she would make Sir Mix-a-Lot happy--wanted to speak.
         
No, let's just go right to the feasting.
                    
Brave soul, your face has haunted me since we met in that magic dream. I feared I sent you to your doom, for you were so young and untested. Yet here you stand, a proven warrior, a skilled magician, a wise counselor. These gifts you have given to all of Thalen in return for nothing but a single feather. My choice could not have been better!
             
And that was the end. The game lets you keep playing. The ruined cities are still ruined. I wanted to take a ship to see if I could find the "small tip of rock" where Maelbane had been, but I think all the places selling ships were destroyed.

Here's an interesting question: I think you could do things in an order that would get you the Crystal Tears and the Sword of Hope before you encounter Taragas in the castle, where he asks you to give him the drop of blood. Could you say yes to him there, witness Thalen destroyed, but then still defeat Taragas in the usual manner? If so, what happens next? I don't have a save game from early enough to check this out.

It's a long post already, but I don't want to spend another one on the GIMLET, so let's push on.

  • 5 points for the game world. Parts of the backstory were needlessly elaborate given the actual game content, but in general the lore is well-told, and it's fun to watch conditions change during gameplay and NPCs acknowledge your accomplishments so far. I like how the Archive exhibits offer additional narrative and context.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation is poor, with everyone starting exactly the same, and I don't like that the primary methods of advancement are plot-based. But Blacksilver gives you more opportunities than the previous three to add bonuses to your statistics with side-encounters and minigames. I didn't even find them all.
            
My final stats and items.
      
  • 3 points for NPCs. There are a number who help you throughout the game, including the prisoners who offer hints, the prince, the king, and Seravol. I wouldn't say that any of the have any real "personality."
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Monsters are utterly unmemorable and only a few require any special tactics. Non-combat encounters are slightly more interesting here, with options for character development but not "role-playing."
       
Noooo! I'm mildly inconvenienced!
                  
  • 2 points for magic and combat. The additional combat options aren't worth much, and only a few of the spells are helpful. Success comes down to how many potions you have, not combat tactics.
  • 3 points for equipment. The game has a weird way of introducing upgrades, but at least you have a reason to keep checking back at the shops.
  • 5 points for the economy. There are lots of ways to make money and an equal number of ways to spend it. It only stops being useful at the very end of the game.
  • 4 points for the quest. There's a main quest, a couple of side quests involving the return of objects to temples, and even an alternate (bad) ending.
                 
The "alternate" ending.
         
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The iconographic graphics and sound effects are only okay. The control scheme is superb, offering a joystick for those who want it and an intuitive set of keyboard commands for those who don't.
  • 4 points for gameplay. I wouldn't call it "nonlinear," but it doesn't railroad you, either. Hints from Seravol always keep you on track. I don't think there's any replayability, and the difficulty errs on the easy side, but it wraps up fast enough.
       
That gives us a final score of 36, putting it higher than the two Questrons but one point lower than I gave Legacy of the Ancients. Looking over my GIMLET for that game, it appears I rated almost everything the same. Legacy had a lower "quests" score, but I was more enamored of the backstory, equipment, and economy. It's honestly been so long since I played that game that I can't remember any significant differences. My methods of rating might have slightly changed, or maybe those categories honestly were better. Either way, I think it's close enough that it's not worth worrying about.
              
I feel like we've seen the barbarian with the two-handed sword a few times before.
                
As I check out Computer Gaming World for post-game reviews these days, I often find myself hoping Scorpia reviewed some games but not others. This one, I wanted her to review. You need a history with Dougherty's previous titles to understand what's happening here, and someone who had played Questron and Legacy of the Ancients would be in a better position to analyze Blacksilver. Thus, I was wary to see the March 1989 review written by Douglas Seacat, who I don't think I've ever encountered before. Fortunately, he seems to have had enough experience with the previous titles to appreciate what did and didn't change. He calls the game "fine on a technical level" but complains about how little has changed in terms of content. "There are almost no actual innovations in the game. Everything from plot to graphics [has] been seen before in other products," making the game feel obsolete. He particularly notes that combat is rote and boring "with very little feeling of growth or development" and the quality of NPC interaction is poor.

It was a tough but fair review. As I wrote when I opened this one, from Ultima, Charles and John Dougherty seem to have learned one way of approaching an RPG--top-down outside and in towns, first-person in dungeons, no experience, a bunch of towns offering similar services, slaughter castle guards, get hints from prisoners, find keys to progress--and stubbornly stuck with it for four games. Sure, they added their own twists when they wrote Questron, among them the way that weapons and armor become available, the prominence of gambling and other minigames, and plot-based character growth. But even these flew in the face of RPG conventions of the time, and while they were tolerable and quirky for one game, to me they grew tiresome after four games.

This was their last title. They contracted with Epyx to publish the game, and Epyx declared bankruptcy within the year, leaving Charles and his brother John with nothing more than their advances. Soon they were working more lucrative jobs in other industries, and they never returned to game programming. (See my interview with Charles Dougherty for more.)

I think they got out at the right time artistically as well as economically; other games released the same year (Pool of Radiance, Might and Magic II, Ultima V, Wasteland) advanced CRPGs in such a way that games like Blacksilver would not have been able to compete. But the flawed quartet fits fairly well into the 1984-1988 period, in which multiple titles were trying to establish the conventions of the genre and the eccentricities of the Questron line might have felt original rather than unsatisfying. Certainly, they were good enough to addict one young player.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

1991/1992

            
1991 was, on balance, a depressing year. It took me nearly 3 years and 1,201 hours to get through its 37 games, nearly a quarter of that spent on Fate: Gates of Dawn. When it was all over, Ultima V from 1988 still stood at the top of the list and only four games had broken a rating of 50 all year, three of them sequels to games that had higher scores. The average rating was 2 points lower than 1990 and 3 points lower than 1989.

Games in 1991 got longer but not better.
        
Even the highlights had asterisks. There were four Gold Box games this year--Pools of Darkness, Death Knights of Krynn, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, and Neverwinter Nights--but still none of them managed to exceed Pool of Radiance, and for the first time I began to wish SSI had better balanced quality with quantity. Might and Magic III was good but not as good as I remembered. Fate was memorable but lasted more than 200 hours beyond the point I should have stopped playing.
          
This screen was not worth the equivalent of 7 full-time work weeks.
      
I did continue to appreciate the growing geographic diversity of our developers. There were more countries represented this year than in any previous year, including Canada (Ancients 1: Death Watch), Switzerland (Antares), Denmark (Chaos in Andromeda), Germany (Die Drachen von Laas, Fate: Gates of Dawn, The Ormus Saga, Dungeons of Avalon, Spirit of Adventure), Australia (Dungeon of Nadroj), Japan (Knights of Xentar), the UK (Moonstone, Heimdall, HeroQuest, Knightmare), and Italy (Time Horn). What's more, none of these games totally blew it. In fact, they all had moments of innovation and brilliance, even if they didn't always achieve high final scores.

I'm also satisfied with my "won" rate for the year. I only gave up on Antares, The Ormus Saga, Dungeons of Avalon, and the sample game with The Bard's Tale Construction Set, and I took both Ormus and Avalon as far as I could. They both still bother me.

The only major theme I can draw out of the year is the surprising persistence of low-quality Ultima clones. Between Quest for Tanda, The Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron, The Ormus Saga, and Legend of Lothian, I've really had my fill of independent game with iconographic interfaces.

Game of the Year Nominees

Part of me wants to reach down to mid-list for "Game of the Year." Knights of Xentar--at least was different. The limited but satisfying Shadow Keep. Twilight: 2000, because no other RPG has let me drive a tank through Poland. But no, I can't nominate any of them with a straight face. So instead, here's my half-hearted list of nominees for "Game of the Year":

1. Disciples of Steel. The clear victor if I chose based on rating alone. It was the top-rated game of the year and the one I authentically enjoyed the most, despite its many flaws. In a year of blah, this one-hit wonder managed to anticipate dozens of future trends, including multiple interweaving quest threads, multiple modes of gameplay, and lots of player choice. Its character development and tactical combat systems, adapted from Wizard's Crown, are near-unsurpassed, and it gave solid attention to other mechanics of quality RPGs, including a tight economy and a diverse set of equipment. I was sorely tempted to replay it at the end of the year, favoring a completely different approach this time, seizing cities by force and maximizing the use of the optional strategy game hiding beneath the surface. My biggest quibble: it sold about 12 copies and left no mark on the future.
           
Despite hundreds of battles, I never got bored with Disciples of Steel's tactical combat system.
         
2. Pools of Darkness. Technically, as Gold Box sequels went, Death Knights of Krynn ranked higher. But Pools of Darkness took the Gold Box to new levels, maxing out spell capabilities and allowing characters to rise to god-like levels. It told a compelling story, featured one of the most memorable maps of the series (Moander's corpse), and concluded everything with a truly-epic final combat. While not the Omega of the Gold Box games, it's close, and it makes a worthy bookend with Pool of Radiance.
       
The final battle of Pools of Darkness is legendarily difficult.
         
3. Might and Magic III. I don't think it's the best of the Mights and Magics even among the first three, but it demonstrates New World's commitment to pushing the envelope and updating its interface with new technologies. The mechanics often feel unbalanced, and the game world is sometimes a little goofy, but it's still loads of fun. Between its million side quests, the dozen items of equipment that every character can strap on, and its constant sense of character development, no one else was offering anything exactly like it. The Might and Magic series has always, in my opinion, exceeded its sources (principally Wizardry) and competitors (principally The Bard's Tale), but this was the first year that it truly left them in the dust.
         
Combat in Might and Magic III is turn-based, but through sound and graphics manages to evoke a real-time feel.
          
4. Fate: Gates of Dawn. The game that embodies "go big or go home." Out of nowhere, developer Olaf Patzenhauer took an Alternate Reality base and made the largest physical RPG seen so far, with more monsters, more spells, more character classes, more items, more everything than any of his competitors. More isn't always better, of course, and in the end, Fate is ludicrously, unconscionably, almost maliciously long, with only the thinnest plot and an absurd ending, but it's hard to beat the mechanics of the first 50 hours. As whole, Fate re-defines "epic" and paves the way for Germany's ascension in the RPG world in the 1990s.
         
I managed to map most of the 640 x 400 game world.
            
5. Eye of the Beholder. It's easy to forget that up to this point, the Gold Box series has offered the only truly successful adaptation of the most famous tabletop RPG system. Every other attempt at the D&D license has resulted in something forgettable at best and execrable at worst. Eye of the Beholder comes along and, though flawed, shows that there is another way to do it. It kept Dungeon Master-style gameplay alive and managed to produce its own sequel during the same year.

Honorable mentions: Technically, Death Knights of Krynn rated higher than Pools of Darkness, but who gives GOTY to the middle game in a three-part series? Spirit of Adventure was a surprisingly effective improvement on its Bard's Tale template but didn't really leave a legacy. I had a ball with Conan: The Cimmerian despite it lacking in several core RPG areas. MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients was a poor game overall, but it was an important step to truly open worlds and lots of player choice in how to achieve objectives.

1992 Preview

While we let those percolate, let's look ahead to 1992. If 1991 was a disappointing year, 1992 promises to be the absolute opposite. I'm practically giddy at the list before me. Every franchise had a release this year. We get the final D&D Gold Box title (aside from the Unlimited Adventures construction set) with The Dark Queen of Krynn. The Ishar series begins. The Realms of Arkania series begins. We get the second Interplay Lord of the Rings title. We get the third Magic Candle title. We get a Might and Magic, a Wizardry, a Quest for Glory, and two Ultimas! And in between these surefire hits are a ton of titles that I feel like I've heard good things about, among them Amberstar, Black Crypt, Darklands, Four Crystals of Trazere, and Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace. Surely, one of these games is destined to unseat Ultima V at the top of the list.

Here's the bad news: there are 65 games. This is, in fact, the peak year for RPGs.
         
      
The following year, 1993, has one game fewer, and after that the number drops back to the 30s and 40s for most years, averaging 43 between 1994 and 2009. But 1992 is a definite hump, and I can only be glad that so many of the titles look promising. Given the sheer number, you'll need to understand when I'm relentless with my definitions. I'm tempted to start right now by axing B.A.T. II; the first one was hardly an RPG at all.

Despite the sheer number, there's not a lot of new geographic diversity with the 1992 titles. The USA and Germany remain strong. Canada and the U.K. contribute a few. A few more leak to the west from Japan. Hungary contributes its first RPG with Abandoned Places: A Time for Heroes, and Finland offers its first RPG since SpurguX (UnReal World). In terms of platforms, I'm going to be able to abandon most of my emulators. There are four Amiga-only games (Antepenult, Black Crypt, Dungeons of Avalon 2, and Warriors of Releyne), two Macintosh-only games (Darkwood and Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete), and a lone C64 game (Telnyr II). The other 58 have a DOS port.

We're going to be entering 1992 slowly, because I've decided to double up on 1988 and 1989 games until I clear the "old" list and can work off of 1992 exclusively. There are 38 games remaining on that "old" list, although I can tell a lot of them are destined to be cut.

Year-End Superlatives

Total games played: 37 (from an original list of 45)

Highest-rated games: Disciples of Steel (57), Death Knights of Krynn (54), Pools of Darkness (52), Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra (52), Gateway to the Savage Frontier (49).

Longest played (hours): Fate: Gates of Dawn, at 272. It's hard to write that without feeling like I need therapy. The average was 31 hours per game and the total was 1,201 hours.

Longest played (start to finish): Martian Dreams, which was on my mind between October 2015 and March 2017 despite only taking 35 hours.

Percentage won: 89%

Hardest game: Knightmare, the only game to which I've given a full 5/5 for difficulty.  I question whether it's possible to win without a hint guide. Even then, it takes more than 400 hits to kill the final enemy, who can kill you instantly if he hits once.

Highest category score: The 8 awarded to Disciples of Steel in "gameplay" for its nonlinear approach and replayability. It was a little too hard at the beginning for a perfect 10.

Best game with a bad category: The damned Gold Box games still can't get the economy right. Death Knights of Krynn and Pools of Darkness came in at 2 and 1, respectively, in that category despite breaking 50 in general.

Worst game with a good category: Playing Neverwinter Nights offline, I could enjoy all of the strengths of the Gold Box engine with none of the content. Knightmare was a beautiful-looking game that was absolutely enraging.


Game of the Year
          
          
In a year where I'm lukewarm about all my choices, I've chosen Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra less for the specific title and more as a representative of the overall series. If I don't give it here, you can imagine what will happen: IV will lose to one of the Ultimas, or Darklands, or one of the other awesome 1992 titles. V will fall to something like Betrayal at Krondor. VI, perhaps my favorite of the series, had the misfortune of being released the same year as Baldur's Gate and Fallout 2; VII came out the same year as Planescape: Torment. No way is VIII or IX getting it.

I liked Terra less than its predecessors, but I still liked it quite a bit. It continues to exemplify an approach that hardly no one else is taking: an open world that may reward or punish you for exploring in a non-obvious order; lots of side-quests (seriously, when do these become standard?); a heavy dose of lore attached to individual maps and areas ("Corak's notes" were particularly brilliant); and copious methods of character development. I love its contrast with development in, say, D&D, where a character's attributes remain (mostly) fixed his entire life and his reward for slaughtering a thousand orcs is four extra hit points and one new spell slot. A Might and Magic III character, in a fifth of the time that it took that D&D character to go from Level 5 to 6, will stumble upon a fountain that raises his strength 5 points, upgrade 6 items of equipment, gain 8 new spells, come across an amulet that doubles his hit points, and turn in a quest item for 3 levels' worth of experience points. I hasten to add that Might and Magic's approach isn't universally the better one--there's something to be said for more spartan character rewards--but it sure feels more rewarding when playing.

You also have to admire the engine, which manages to feel fast and action-oriented despite being turn-based and tactical. It offers a nice halfway point between Dungeon Master and Wizardry.
       
There are problems, of course--see my "Cabbage Theory" in my final entry. The rest of the game has long outgrown 16 x 16 maps. And the creators' inability to craft a plot with any gravitas remains a significant liability. But more than most developers of the era, you sense that New World has the capacity to learn from these mistakes and grow. We will soon see the results. Well, not soon--in like 100 more games. It is highly likely that I'll end 1992 and start 1993 with the IV/V pair. Whether I try them independently or combined remains to be Xeen.


Let's jump right in to 1992. In choosing the play order for the year, I often think of John Cusack's advice on making mix tapes in High Fidelity: "You got to kick it off with a killer, to grab attention," but it can't be the best, because you have to leave room to "kick it up a notch." Thus, I've chosen Ultima Underworld. It's a groundbreaking game that makes us feel that we've stepped into a new era, but parts of it haven't aged well, and I thus doubt it will be the highest-rated game of a very competitive year.