|The futile quest begins.|
Playing a Gold Box game is a little like wandering into a club on Frenchmen Street: What you experience might not be the best show ever, but you're certain to have fun no matter what. This is one of a small handful of games for which I'm slightly annoyed when I have to stop the momentum of the game to take time and blog about it.
Despite enjoying it, I'm not enjoying it as much as either Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds. The game is far more linear than the previous outings, with Sir Karl leading you from quest to quest on a leash, providing the game a more novelesque feel than its predecessors. I tried to buck the prescribed order by making a beeline across the map to the large city on the east side, but it didn't go well.
|It's hard to imagine that I'll be able to win this in just a few more levels.|
Mostly, however, it's the combat I'm not enjoying as much. I still think the Gold Box engine is one of the best tactical combat engines ever offered in RPGs, but the nature of the enemies I've encountered makes it more difficult to fully appreciate it. This is for a few reasons:
1. My melee fighters might as well be blind. I realize I handicapped myself by eschewing the fighter class and making so many of my characters multi-classed, but damn. At Level 5, my knights' THAC0s are 13 and 14, meaning they'll only hit an enemy with AC0 7 or 8 out of every 20 times. In practice, it seems like even less. I think the THAC0s are comparable to what I saw in the previous games; the issue is that in this game, enemies have much lower ACs than in Pool or Curse. Even spellcasters.
A common scenario is that I'll use spells ("Hold Person" primarily) to get a party of fighters and clerics down to a manageable number, like two fighters and a cleric. A new round begins. Confident that I can hit the cleric before he can cast, thus preventing having to waste any more of my spells, I send Midsummer at him. She misses. I send Dutch at him. He misses and the cleric starts casting a spell. Grave charges him and misses. Coral fires her hoopak at him and misses. He casts "Hold Person" and holds three of my characters. The fighters knock out two of them. I finally sigh and "Hold" the cleric if anyone is still standing who can cast it.
|My characters surround the elvish curate but fail to hit him even once.|
2. Not being able to rely on melee fighters ever hitting puts a strain on available tactics. I can't say "you take the one on the left, I'll take the one on the right" because there's a decent chance both will miss; success or failure thus comes down to spells. But...
3. Because I multi-classed all of my spellcasters, I've been slow to acquire useful spells. I just got "Fireball" towards the close of the last session.
|One day, I will increase the challenge of a Gold Box game by not selecting "Fireball" as my first third-level spell, but not today.|
4. The game isn't pulling any punches as to the enemies it offers. Recall that in Pool of Radiance, I didn't fight my last dragon until the final battle and everyone was Level 8. In this game, I've had dragons at the apex of two maps. In Pool, the worst encounter with spellcasters maybe had one priest and two mages; this game routinely serves up combats with four or five clerics plus both mages and elf fighters also capable of casting "Charm" and "Magic Missile." I've had my entire party wiped out by ghasts and Kopak Draconians, both capable of paralysis, and giant snakes capable of instant-death poison.
Still, I don't mean to suggest that the combats aren't fun or challenging. They are, and I've enjoyed them more than the average RPG, just not more than the average Gold Box game.
In terms of plot, I've explored three areas since I last blogged. When I arrived at the second outpost, Sir Karl gave me two quests: retrieve a silver rose from a graveyard in Jelek, and chase down rumors of a Dragonlance in the Tower of Gargath. I chose Jelek first.
|You wouldn't perchance be diverting resources from a war so you can give a gift to your girlfriend, would you?|
The gate guards at Jelek saddled me with a multi-classed fighter/surfer named Skyla who had a habit of disappearing just before each random encounter and returning with a suspicious story just after. He kept pressing me to see his "friend" in one part of town.
|Someone forgot to tell SSI that it was the 90s.|
His "friend" turned out to be a group of guards who tried to kill me as Skyla ran off. A halfling--sorry, Kender--thief aided me during the battle and explained that a group of evil guards had taken over the city, taking orders from a "Sir Lebaum," a corrupted Solamnic knight who was supposed to be dead. The guards had been digging up every grave in the cemetery, stirring up undead, for an unknown reason. I thought it was to find a buried Dragonlance, but later it seemed that the lance had come from somewhere else.
Anyway, the map culminated at the silver rose, which I picked, causing me to be attacked (for some reason) by two black dragons. Capable of spitting acid, they did a number on my party the first two times I tried to fight them. I only won by using a couple Potions of Speed and a lucky casting of "Stinking Cloud." I suppose I should be lucky I killed them at all, since my understanding was that in this universe, only Dragonlances allow mortals to kill dragons.
There didn't seem to be any way to permanently return control of the town to the townsfolk, so I left. I was a bit annoyed that I never encountered Skyla again to kill him, but maybe he shows up later.
The Tower of Gargarth consisted of a town around its base and a multi-leveled tower in which the levels shrank as I climbed up, pursuing the elusive Myrtani, putative leader of the evil forces, and his stolen Dragonlance. Myrtani's forces had completely taken over the town, and it was full of fighters but also oddly clerics leading giant rats and snakes. "Snake Charm," which had previously been helpful in only a single fight in Pool of Radiance, was invaluable here, since snakes can cause instantaneous death. (Technically, this can be reversed with "Neutralize Poison," but that's a Level 4 spell and no one has it yet.)
The tower gave me the first encounters with Kapak Draconians, capable of causing paralysis in their melee attacks. They also dissolve into pools of acid when killed, which can screw up the battlefield.
As I battled up the tower, I met the old castellan, who said he'd hidden the Dragonlance in a secret area. But when I got there, the weapon had already been looted by Myrtani. I finally encountered him in a room where his forces were packing up copper dragon eggs, presumably for later transformation into Draconians.
I killed scores of his minions as I chased him up the tower. I figured the map would end in a battle with Myrtani and my recovery of the Dragonlance, but instead he escaped with it on the back of a red dragon.
Upon my return from Gargath, Sir Karl--without taking the rose or anything--sent me to recover an "item of great fighting prowess" from the tomb of Sir Dargaard, an ancient Knight of the Rose, who I guess appears in the books. The tomb's ghosts put me through a series of moral tests, such as bravely walking through rings of fire even with low hit points, fighting difficult enemies, refusing to take treasure from the tombs, and finding and immediately relinquishing a long sword +5.
|What, all the tithing I've been doing isn't enough?|
When I passed the tests, I got Solamnic plate for my knights, a Girdle of Giant Strength, and a bunch of experience points.
|Only knights can wear Solamnic plate. The developers must have included six in case the player had a party of six knights. that would be a heck of a challenge.|
On the way out of the tomb, a party of Draconians attacked (they'd been trying to get into the tomb for a while but couldn't get past the ghosts). It was here that I first faced a Bozak Draconian, spellcasters who explode when slain, damaging everyone around them.
When I returned to the outpost again, it was then that Sir Karl congratulated me on Gargath and thanked me for recovering the silver rose. He gave me some intelligence about a nearby base occupied by "renegade ogres" who might be trying to ally with the good armies. Some of Myrtani's assassins are on the way to kill the leaders, and I guess I have to put a stop to them.
A lot of miscellaneous notes:
- The copy protection system is mega annoying. When you first load the game each time, you have to answer a question that involves looking up a word in the Adventurer's Journal. That's fine. But at random times when you're saving the game, it demands another word from the rule book, a different document.
- In a few places, I've found platinum pieces. I don't know if these exist in the Dragonlance world or if it's a programming error. Either way, they convert to steel pieces the next time I visit a shop.
- Speaking of money, I've learned the hard way no to have the good stuff--jewelry and gems--in the pockets of my knights when we enter an outpost because they "tithe" almost all of it.
- I haven't found many magic weapons yet. My lead knight has a long sword +2, but my second knight is still using a regular two-handed sword. The only magic two-handed sword I found turned out to be a cursed one.
|This is why we wait until we get back to town to identify things before equipping them.|
- I've promoted both of my knights to Knights of the Rose, the highest level available. I was surprised how quickly this was possible. The manual didn't really suggest any downside to these promotions (except the money thing, which I've solved by just transferring it out of their hands before entering outposts), and I thought it made sense to take them for role-playing reasons.
- I found Gauntlets of Ogre Power in some cache and gave them to my Kender thief. It's really improved her backstabbing ability.
|I love a successful backstab almost as much as a fireball.|
- The number of spell slots available to mages waxes and wanes with the moons. White mages and red mages get an extra two bonus spell slots (usable at any level) when their respective moons are full. This makes a big difference. For my red mage right now, it's the difference between memorizing three "fireballs" or only one.
- You can drink all you want in taverns and you won't get drunk. The "tavern tales" you get are mini journal entries that give rumors and hints as to the world. The previous two games also featured them, but I don't think I really mentioned them.
|"I hear they're going to be hiring mercenaries down in Sanction. I say we get out of htis hick town and go down to where the real action is."|
- Wilderness battles are as annoying here as in the previous two games. The enemies start too far away and it takes too long just to find each other.
- I've been mapping every area. I really like mapping.
|My map of Jelek. The large open area is the graveyard.|
- Jelek had a magic shop. Everything was too expensive for me right now, but it's nice to know that all my riches won't go to waste.
|I'll be back.|
- At one point, the game told me that I was "attacked by minions of Takhisis." Considering I hadn't heard anything about Takhisis (the evil goddess from the books) so far, I think that's a bit of a spoiler.
|This guy and Skyla need to form a band.|
What I like most about the game is the frequent role-playing choices that it provides. I think there have been more so far than in all of Pool of Radiance. The series of screen shots below shows some examples.
|Instead of just saddling you with NPCs, it gives you the option to refuse them. Not that I'd refuse her. Hubba hubba.|
|There were several places in both cities where I could try to bluff my way past guards.|
|Do I trust this guy who says he works for Sir Karl?|
|Given my position, it's hard to imagine that he doesn't already see me.|
|Instead of fighting these evil guards, I had the option to gamble with them. I lost and then killed them.|
These choices, though they all lead to the same place, are welcome in an era when "role-playing games" offered precious few role-playing opportunities. I hope that an increase in such choices is a major theme of the 1990s. Don't disillusion me if it's not.
I'm particularly curious if there was a way to approach the tom of Sir Dargaard "evilly" by looting it or refusing to give up the long sword +5. I have to remember to write all these things down to look up in a walkthrough later.