Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dragonflight: The Glass Ceiling

The best that Andariel is ever going to get.

For about 40 hours, Dragonflight offered a middle-of-the-road, inoffensive game. It was sometimes slightly interesting, sometimes slightly boring, sometimes slightly annoying, sometimes slightly amusing. It was never on the extreme of anything. Then it did the one thing that is 100% guaranteed, in every circumstance, no matter how good the game, to absolutely enrage me.

Experience caps.

More specifically, experience caps that are set well below the level that you would expect to reach in a normal game.

Until I hit the cap, leveling in this game had been reasonably rewarding. It happens so subtly, and at different intervals for the different characters, that you often don't notice. Then, suddenly, you realize your character has 100 more hit points than before, or has an extra combat move. The combat moves were particularly welcome, making tough combats easier and easy combats faster. My archer capped at the highest move total, with 6 (9 with the "Speed" spell), and it's been fun to watch her take out 3 enemies in different rows with a move-shoot-move-shoot-move-shoot combo.

But now I won't get to experience that any more, and I still have four dungeons completely unexplored. The last dungeon--12 levels--took me almost another 8 hours. I might have as much as another 40 hours of gameplay where I won't experience any character development at all. Screw you, Dragonflight!

There are two primary reasons that I hate experience caps:

1. They remove the noble, age-old process of grinding as a mechanism to make the game easier. The earliest RPGs, starting with PLATO and extending into games like Wizardry and Might and Magic, reached an accord with players, offering two basic avenues for completing the main quest. You could embrace the difficulty, meet challenges head-on, and triumph through tactics and strategy (with a little bit of luck), or you could grind against Murphy's Ghosts and triumph through over-leveled characters. You could, in short, choose a path of intelligence or a path of brute force.

2. They make you feel like the game world is completely determinate. Obviously, the plot is going to end the same way (or in the same limited number of ways) for everyone. The only choice you have as a player is who your character is going to be when he gets there. Then, you run into a level cap and realize that every character is going to be pretty much the same. Any individual advancement you felt you were doing was illusory; any grinding you did was wasted.

I guess there won't be any more of this, either.

There are two ways to get around these concerns. The first is to implement a complex system of skills and abilities so that even if there's a cap, each character is unique at the endgame in his strengths and weaknesses. Experience caps still piss me off in such games, but it's slightly mitigated. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Dragon Age: Origins are good examples of this mechanism.

The second is to ensure that the cap is so high that a character is unlikely to reach it in a regular game. This makes grinding a still-viable avenue. Quest for Glory, the Ultima games, and most of the Gold Box titles follow this option. Skyrim implements both solutions (and then effectively removes caps entirely with the "legendary" option starting in some recent patch).

Without either of these factors, experience caps mar good games (Pool of Radiance, Baldur's Gate), make average games bad (Dragonflight), and make bad games absolutely horrible (Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation, Don't Go Alone). In the case of Dragonflight, I don't even understand the reasoning. The experience cap is set to 20,000, so it's not like it was about to experience a stack overflow. (Is that the right term?) And why are there extra, unused 0s in front of both hit points and spell points if the experience cap was going to stop any further development in those stats?

Argh.

Okay, aside from the experience cap thing, I finally started to feel like I was making progress in the game. For the first three dozen hours, I felt I was just wandering around somewhat aimlessly, with no clues on the main quest to find out what happened to the dragons and restore magic to the world. But the last session was marked by the resolution of a number of side quests (or perhaps steps on the main quest) that offered a few pointers.

First, I found the two secret caves of "The Shadow" and recovered a couple of quest items. When I last blogged, I had just entered one of them in the dragon's tail. The other was at a bend in the dragon's neck. Based on that description, I started in the northernmost mountain square and determined to search my way southward, but I found the dungeon in literally the first square.

That was a freebee.

Both dungeons consisted of a long corridor with several rooms (the first one had a bunch of pit traps and teleporters, but it would be tedious to recount it) and an encounter with "The Shadow" in the final room. In both cases, "The Shadow" disappeared when I hit him one time, leaving his treasure unguarded. The first treasure was something called a "Staff of Stone" and the second was the magic sphere stolen from the elves, containing the souls of the elven high council.

I want to make fun of "The Shadow" for his pink cloak, but I'm not sure it's pink. Irene is away for the weekend.

With the sphere in hand, I returned to Nimraviel and gave it to the grateful queen, who rewarded me with another "Piece of Eltam" plus a magic bow for Andariel.


One side-quest solved in Brindil-Bun: I gave a few healing potions to a sick guy, and he rewarded me with yet another "Piece of Eltam."

My god, these people really have been deprived of magic.

The orc king wanted me to have the leaders of humans, elves, and dwarves sign his treaty. The elf queen and dwarf king signed it with no problem, but it took me a while before I realized the human leader was the king in Port Pylon. (I had expected it to be the town council in Pegana.)

With the treaty signed three times, I returned it to the grateful orc king, who loaded me up with gold.

After this, I stopped encountering orcs as wandering monsters. That was pretty cool.

This was good because it was clear I needed to buy a new ship. Three unfortunate things about traveling by ship in this game:

  • Depending on where you charter the ship, the crew will only go so far.
  • If you walk too far away from the boat, you have to give it up. There's no way to get back to Pegana, for instance, while retaining your ship.
  • If you crash it into land three times, the crew mutinies.

I had crashed into land twice, and I was getting sick of having to reload every time it happened a third time. More important, I needed to explore the continent to the east, Dorithannon.

I grew up in an orphanage in a landlocked city. Why are you letting me navigate at all?

I chartered a more expensive ship in Scatterbone and headed east, stopping at the antarctic continent on the way, but unable to get into the dungeon because I lacked the password (see below). Dorithannon was surrounded by impassable smaller islands, but I found a landing spot on the north next to a temple. While I was there, I decided to try the "Temple Teleport" spell, which I had recently acquired. You have to stand on a temple to cast it, and it will take you to another temple, as long as you know the name. I tried visiting one called FAROUT which I hadn't otherwise discovered. It worked, and I found out why I hadn't found it: it was on an island in a lake, along with a little city named Sotul. (There's no way to cross inland waterways in this game.) I figured something major would be there, but the only thing of interest was a store selling magic chain. I bought a couple of sets.

It's good they have this shop to sell armor and protect the inhabitants against all those enemies who have no way to get here.
  
Regrettably, I saved after this, and I returned to the temple on Dorithannon to find that the crew had sailed my 8,000-gold-piece ship off into the sunset.

There was a dungeon in the area, but I couldn't get in for reasons I'll describe below. So I explored south and found myself funneled into a narrow passage between the mountains with what looked like some kind of hut.

  
The moment I stepped on the hut, I got the "game over" screen with absolutely no explanation.

I guess that was like Sonny Corleone's toll plaza.

Okay. Using "Temple Teleport," I returned to the mainland near Nimraviel, walked from there to Scatterbone, and spent pretty much all the money I had left on another ship. This time I managed to find a way to the southern part of Dorithannon, to a city called Bagnol. There, the "mogul" gave me a magic crystal sword and two magic chainmails in exchange for 4 diamonds. I'm glad I hadn't sold all the diamonds because the crystal sword ended up being important.

I had two other missions in Bagnol. One was to deliver a letter to a guy named Grednak. He took it and gave me a package to return to Sonok in Luthag. The second was to visit Ostul at House #5 for a map piece. No matter how many times I banged on the door, though, no one would answer.

Yes, I tried moving around and coming back. Repeatedly.

At this point, I had almost run out of ideas. Aside from returning the package to Luthag, I didn't know where else to go. I had one note to give a poison potion to a woman in "Negame," but I hadn't found that town yet and didn't know where it was.

My problem with five dungeons.

There were five dungeons I hadn't explored because all of them wanted some kind of password right at the entrance:

  • In the desert on the main continent
  • On an island to the south of the main continent
  • On the antarctic island
  • In the mountains on Dorithannon
  • In a swamp on Dorithannon

I didn't know where I'm supposed to get this information. I'd been to every town I could find, knocked on every door I could find, solved every quest I could find, and I didn't have a single clue. I reviewed the documentation and all my notes to no avail.
  
I had just finished typing up a posting, ending with a call for hints. (Yes, I know the site that's been linked several times already has the passwords. I didn't want to know the passwords; I wanted to know how to get the passwords.) Just before I hit "publish," I decided to make one last quick scan of my inventory, and what do you know, I had something called "Note Dungeons" that had every single one of the passwords. I think perhaps it came from the elf queen; there was something in her speech about giving me "a list of the names of the old schools of magic," which I guess these "dungeons" are supposed to be.

Well, hell.

With this in hand, I decided to try a swamp dungeon on Dorithannon, and I ended up spending about eight hours there. It was 12 levels with lots of secret doors and teleporters to confound navigation. One level consisted entirely of logic riddles in the "one always lies, one always tells the truth" tradition, though I thought they were a bit too easy.

Imagine how easy the justice system would be if everyone either always lied or always told the truth.

The dungeon presented me with an enemy I hadn't fought before: a "statute." Although the game indicated that it was taking damage from my attacks, no amount of damage I could do was enough. It just wouldn't die.


Previous experience with the "Staff of Stone" suggested that it was a missile weapon, but I couldn't get it to work. Fiddling around with it, I figured out that the staff has to be "loaded" with precious stones like rubies, emeralds, and opals (thankfully, I hadn't sold all of them), which it shoots like missiles. So charged, it was capable of taking out the statue in one blow.


Anyway, the entire dungeon only had a single unique treasure: a "Dragonring." It seems to act as a high-level ring of protection, but other than that, I don't know if it has a unique use. It was about this time that I noticed the experience cap, so I was pretty miffed during my long slog back to the surface. (Supposedly, there's a "Leave Dungeon" spell, but I haven't found it yet.)

Starbucks ought to adopt this classification: small, medium, large, dragon.
   
Back on the surface, I wasn't eager to go into another dungeon again, so I returned to Luthag and delivered the package to Sonok. He, in turn, asked me to go to Franklin in Scatterbone. I did. My "reward" was just a bunch of prattle about magic mushrooms in a nearby dungeon I hadn't yet explored.

But it was what happened between Luthag and Scatterbone that made me think the game might be finally coming near an end. At some point, I had discovered that going off the edge of the map would wrap me around to the other side. The shortest passage from Luthag to Scatterbone was this way, but I was surprised to find an island in between. (It's in a dark part of the world map.) The island turned out to be the Dragon's Vale mentioned in the back story.

An NPC finally has something useful to say.

It was on this island that I finally found the city of Negame, where I'd had a longstanding side quest regarding a woman named Cynthia who dabbles in poisons. I had a stack of of poison potions I had no idea what to do with (you can't poison weapons or throw them). When I showed one to her, she was delighted, and she finally gave me some information on the main quest:

I'm aware of your great interest in the long-lost dragons! Yes, of course, you are! Listen: Should you be foolish enough to actually want to visit The Dragon Valley, the unicorn will block your way. Yes, of course I know myself that unicorns are the symbol for sweetness and beauty, you young fools! It's still beautiful, this unicorn, but it's condemned, corrupted by the Shadow's magic. A giant spellcrystal was necessary to change a unicorn into the valley's devil, but the Shadow managed it! And the only chance to free this unicorn and to get into the valley of the dragons is to destroy the crystal! So go and don't try to fight the unicorn, but displace the work of evil.

Great! Well, how do I do that? The answer seemed to come from a wandering NPC: "did you know that crystal destroys crystal?" No, I didn't! Thanks!

Thinking that the endgame might be near, I wandered west from Negame and found myself at the entrance to the Valley. I was taken to combat with a "banned unicorn" and a giant crystal. I figured all I had to do was maneuver Bladus, with his crystal sword, over to the crystal and attack it. Unfortunately, that didn't work. He couldn't get close enough, and the blade didn't work like a ranged weapon.


And that's where I am now. I figure there must be some mechanic that will allow me to destroy the crystal with the crystal blade, but I haven't found it yet.

In the meantime, I have four dungeons unexplored and several outstanding mysteries:

  • What are these Pieces of Eltam? I have three of them (out of four, according to the elf queen). If I look at them or try to "use" them, I just get a message saying that it's incomplete.


  • Does the dragon ring have a special function?
  • Which is more important: the dragon ring or the pieces of Eltam? I ask this because there's a guy in Negame who wants to trade me a dragon ring for a piece.
  • Why can't I get into House #5 in Bagnol? There's supposed to be a guy named Ostul with a map piece there.
  • Where are the rest of those map pieces? For a while, I was recovering a couple per dungeon, but they all dried up. I still have six to go.
  • What is the use of all these "common" spells like "Heal a Tree"? The game hasn't called upon them once.
  • In a city called Trolian, there's a long maze through water--the locals call it their "water garden"--that culminates at a house where a guy won't speak to me because he only "sees adventurers with an open mind." What does he mean? Do all of my characters have to be neutral in their magic position (e.g., not leaning towards black or white)? If so, I need to find some black spells for three of them.

Hey! I've been pro-gay marriage since the 90s!

I'll take light hints--not spoilers!--on any of the above. In the meantime, here are some other miscellaneous notes:

  • I didn't realize until hours after I had it that Dobranur's magic "battlehatchet" is a missile weapon as well as a melee weapon. This would have saved a lot of time.
  • In my descriptions of cities, I'm eliding a lot of time spent knocking on doors and being greeted by NPCs who simply say things like, "Welcome, adventurers! What do you want?" or "You should visit the blacksmith!"

Every city has a bunch of houses like this.

  • Bagnol had another "tribute statue," this time to fantasy illustrator Rodney Matthews
  • A lot of doors in the dungeons seem designed specifically to waste keys. You unlock them (sacrificing a key) and there's literally nothing on the other side. The 12-level dungeon near Bagnol required so many keys that I eventually had to "key scum"--reloading if I found nothing useful on the other side--so I wouldn't have to leave the dungeon to go buy more.
  • Creatures incapable of swimming or flying sometimes spawn in the middle of the ocean.

Poor bear. He must be tired out.

Though not too tired to climb onto the boat and attack us, I see.

  • I haven't talked much about potions. So far, I've found eight types: healing, magic restoration, imbue a non-magic weapon with magic, strength, spirits, wine, holy water, poison, and dispel magic (the latter seems to be a unique item for that one imp quest). You can theoretically mix them together, but I don't see how that really improves anything. I hardly ever use them anyway. It's easy enough just to wait in place to restore hit points and spell points, and enemies stopped being difficult enough to require strength potions a long time ago. They'd all be more useful if you could use them in combat.
  • I also find that I rely very little on magic, with the exception of "Dispel Undead" (pretty much the only way Rinakles gets experience), "Light," and "Healing." Offensive spells in combat like "Magic Arrow" just deplete spell points for little benefit over a regular attack. I haven't found a single use for all these "utility" spells yet (e.g., "Heal a Tree," "Moulded Stones," "Glowing Stone," "Stone Hardening").

Maybe a little more Fallthru while I wait to see if hints come in. If not, I still have four more dungeons to try.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Game 151: Fallthru (1989)

I'm playing this a little late. MobyGames has 1990 as the release, but that's this version. The copyright dates are 1988, 1989, and it seems likely that version 1 was released in one of those years.

There aren't enough text RPGs. You could count the "pure" ones on a single hand: Dungeons & Dragons (1980), Eamon (1980) and its adaptations (SwordThrust, Knight Quest) . . . what else? There are several more that are hybrids, like Beyond Zork and Zyll, and of course a number of graphical games that use a text parser, like the first two Quest for Glories and Dungeons of Daggorath. After that, we hit a wall. Why? I would think that text better replicates the experience of tabletop RPGs and would be far easier to program. I'm surprised we haven't seen dozens of other shareware titles like Fallthru from the 1980s and early 1990s. Perhaps they were there, but not catalogued as faithfully in modern game databases.

While I always enjoyed text adventures like Zork and Enchanter, I always wanted more from them--more randomness in the gameplay, such as wandering monsters; a character that I could build and improve; actual tactics in combat with a variety of options. But I still wanted the quality of Infocom's writing. Among the few text RPGs we have, we don't have anything that evokes worlds as well as Zork but offers an RPG experience as well as, say, SwordThrust. I don't get why it was so hard. Imagine the kind of amazing text world that could be created today with modern storage space and even a twentieth of the budget of big titles like Skyrim.

HELGEN                  HIT POINTS: 80/100                SCORE: 1

You pull your head from the chopping block and leap to your feet. Around you is pandemonium, as citizens, soliders, and Stormcloaks alike flee the dragon's attack. A hot wind sweeps through the streets, fanning the conflagration that already engulfs half of the city's houses.

You are in the southwest corner of the city. To the east, a little boy cowers in the streets as his father beckons to him from a place of safety. To the north rises Helgen's guard tower, the top half of which has been reduced to rubble by the dragon. You catch a glimpse of Ulfric Stormcloak and his followers charging through its doorway.
The tightness of the ropes around your hands restricts the flow of blood to your wrists. You gaze longingly for a second at the sharp edge of the discarded executioner's axe, but you have only moments before the dragon unleashes another barrage. You must get to safety!

Here you see:

a dragon

> NORTH

Following Ulfric and his soldiers, you race into the tower as another blast from the dragon's throat sears the air behind you. You leap over the body of an unlucky Imperial Legion soldier just inside the doorway. His armor has been burned beyond repair, but his iron sword lays on the cobblestones. Ulfric and his men race up the stairs ahead of you.

Here you see:

a sword
a dead soldier

> GET SWORD

Your hands are still tied.

>CUT BONDS ON SWORD

I don't understand the word "Cut."

>

So far, Fallthru comes as close as any game on the quality of text, at least. The descriptions aren't long, but they're well-written, and the game has an excellent INFO command that gives you an encyclopedia-like entry on major locations, events, characters, items, and bits of lore.

Information about one of the game's cities, retrieved by typing INFO ODETN.

Fallthru falls short on solid RPG credentials. The only "attributes" are related to health: hunger, thirst, "fatique," and injury, and the game almost misses being an RPG at all (under my rules) except for a nebulous character "level." It was only when someone pointed out this latter element that I decided it was enough of an RPG to play.

The documentation is also a bit sparse. The manual sets the game in a quasi-medieval land called "Faland" but offers little information about it, nor anything about who the player character is. The suggestion is that the PC is the player himself, having found himself in the mysterious world through mechanisms unknown, and the only main quest is to find your way "home." (Every time the word "home" appears in the manual in such a context, it has quotes around it, making me wonder if there's some twist later in the game.) The game begins in a city called Or'gn. The player's name is the only character creation option. Everyone starts with 20 "ralls" (the game's currency), and just to the west of the starting location is a marketplace with sundries like lamps, daggers, backpacks, rations, and canteens for sale.

As a foreigner, you are given the status of warrior and treated accordingly.  You cannot own property or run a fixed business. You are, neverthless, expected to make a living through your own efforts. You can buy and sell goods and can, if you choose, do quite well as a hunter. Some merchandise (i.e. wood, sand, and oil) are available as natural resources and can be claimed by anyone finding them.  It is also possible to find and salvage various items of treasure (principally religious ikons of stone, bronze, silver, or gold and various items of jewelry).  Treasure becomes the property of the finder and can be disposed of as the owner sees fit.  You may also gain wealth as a fighter, winning tribute in battle with honorable warriors or taking money from renegades.

Interaction with the world is much like a standard text adventure, with commands for navigation (NORTH, WEST, UP), combat (SHOOT, THROW, FIGHT), trading (BUY, SELL), and general adventuring (EAT, DIG, LIGHT, UNLOCK). But the game is a little too in love with logistics. To buy something, you can't just BUY DAGGER; you first have to LAY DOWN or DROP the appropriate number of ralls. In fact, to interact with anything in your inventory, you have to put it on the ground. One of your first purchases must be an expensive backpack, because you swiftly grow overloaded trying to carry everything in your hands. At one point, I had purchased a canteen and put it in my backpack. Later, I found a well where I could fill it. A reasonable game would just let you FILL CANTEEN, assuming that you removed it from your backpack in the meantime. Not this one. This is the sequence of commands I had to enter:

>MOVE FROM BACKPACK TO HAND CANTEEN
>DROP CANTEEN
>FILL CANTEEN
>GET CANTEEN
>MOVE FROM HAND TO BACKPACK CANTEEN

It would be nice if combat was similarly logistical, but it's not. You mostly just type FIGHT, or perhaps THROW or SHOOT if you have the appropriate weapons. You can YIELD or RUN, too, but there are otherwise no tactics.

A lot of the game is thus about simple survival. "Hunger" and "Thirst" scores tick down steadily every couple dozen moves, so you need to get out there and make a living.

On the road, you meet a variety of NPCs: a girl with golden hair, an old man, an unclothed child playing in the dust, and so on. Saying HELLO to them (which appears to be the game's only dialogue option) often gets you a bit of random lore, such as "black water is beneath the hill near Odetn," "against all injury, the golden amulet is a powerful moderator," and "you can see many things when you are high in a tree." NPCs often ask for a bit of charity, like water or food. Alternately, you can kill them for the valuables that they display. I assume the game keeps a karma meter somewhere under its hood.

This NPC tells me that "beyond the farms the eagen attacks the weak," then asks for some water.

In addition to random NPCs, you also frequently meet warriors. The documentation sets up Faland society as being very martially-focused, with warriors sporting identifiable heraldry and challenging each other to combat on the roads. Saying HELLO to them usually gets them to reveal their strength level, and based on that and their equipment, you can make a decision whether to FIGHT him. I haven't been able to win a combat yet; I assume I need to practice on monsters and wilderness creatures first.

 
Perhaps the game's strongest innovation is the ability to accommodate 3 players at the same time. The manual notes that they can play competitively, attempting to out-do each other in wealth or strength, but "the game is principally intended to be cooperative." It's an interesting dynamic. Each character gets around 20-25 turns before gameplay passes to the next one (I don't know if specific actions or circumstances vary the number of turns). If one of the characters types RESTORE, it restores the saved game for everyone, so the manual cautions that everyone has to come to an agreement before someone does this. That must have caused some fights back in the day. Players can individually put their characters in stasis or quit the game, too.
 
It all sounds cool, but it's hard to imagine playing the game this way in reality, in a similar way that it was tough to imagine getting a group together to play Star Saga. Jason Dyer is also looking at Fallthru over at his blog, and I briefly considered asking him if he wanted to play jointly, e-mailing the saved game back and forth or something, but after getting a taste of the size of the world, I'm convinced we'd still be playing come next Christmas.

As to that size, I can't even tell you. Just for fun, I kept going west from the starting area, but I starved to death before hitting any kind of western border; I think it was around 200 squares. Since the manual describes Or'gn as being in the "northeast," I tried going north instead and finally hit the world's edge at 125 squares. East, I went 136 moves before I was killed by a pack of hyenas, and south took me about 100 moves before I got lost in a forest maze. So we're talking about a world that's at least 225 x 336. Most of these locations are just stock descriptions of road or grass, but I guess I still have to map each one to be sure. Let's say it ultimately ends up being 300 x 400. That's a cheery 120,000 squares to map on my piece of virtual graph paper. I hope they're not all necessary to win the game.

The question you start to ask, facing such a large game that will require so much effort--particularly when playing a shareware game--is whether it's a truly rewarding game, or whether you're just indulging the lunacy of some basement-dwelling mouth-breather. So far, I haven't seen evidence of the latter. Aside from the sparse documentation (which might have been intended as a plot point), the game is well-written and serious. The author, Paul H. Deal of New Mexico, is 78 now, so he would have been in his early 50s when he started working on the game. And though he originally marketed and distributed it himself, it eventually received distribution through PC-SIG, a California-based company that marketed shareware titles between 1984 and 1992, so someone thought it had commercial potential.

Of Deal, he seems an interesting character. His Amazon profile says that he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he "writes, hikes, and tutors elementary aged children." He has about a dozen books on Amazon, all self-published, only a few of which have any ratings or reviews. One of his books is called Fallthru: The Mentat Warrior (2003), which seems to be a novelization of the game. I thought "Mentat" might be a reference to the drugs in Fallout, but it turns out it probably refers to characters in Frank Herbert's Dune universe who mimic computers.

The Kindle edition of Fallthru was only a few bucks, so I bought it, but I'll save talking about it for next time.

In this first session, after screwing around a bit to get used to the interface, I started a new character and began exploring and mapping in earnest. The city of Or'gn has a separate mini-map off the main game map, but it was only 7 squares, so not a lot of mapping involved.

In the marketplace, I went to the weapon shop and bought a knife, which an NPC suggested I get for both combat and utility purposes. Armor (of which there appears to be only one type) and swords were well out of my price range for now. Across the way at the "ikon" shop, different religious symbols were also beyond me. A use of the LORE command tells me that ikons are frequently found treasures, have "little value except as a source of income," and can only be sold in Or'gn.

I returned to the main market, READ the price list, and tried to figure out how to make the best use of my remaining 14 ralls. I settled on a backpack (7.5), a canteen (0.6), three food rations (0.36), a blanket (0.90), a lamp (2.10), a flint (0.90), and a bottle (0.30) with three doses of oil (0.27). The latter four items are all necessary for the lamp: no GET LAMP and LIGHT LAMP here. I moved form here to the well where I FILLed my canteen.

The price list in the market.

There's a huge door, bound with chains, blocking a vault in the southern part of Or'gn, but no way to get in there for now.

Right outside the front gate to the city, I met a stranger and said HELLO. He related that a place called "black water cave" is beneath a grass-covered mound, then asked for a rall for his poor family. I gave him the one rall I had left. He smiled and hurried away.


A sign at the front gates put inns in three directions and cities in all four. With no other clues, I decided just to head north until I found something interesting. The first square told me about a tall tree to the east, so I went one square over and went UP the tree, where the view showed me Or'gn to the southwest and Odetn to the northwest. Since I immediately recognized the other city by name, does that mean I actually am from here?

A few other squares to the north and a warrior named NOAQE-JE arrived and challenged me with his axe. I said what the heck, typed FIGHT, and in three strokes I was dead. When you die, you can immediately hit "C" to continue, with no negative penalty that I can see except the game keeps track of your "lives." Every resurrection or use of the RESTORE command to load a saved game adds a point to this ticker. I'm not sure what consequence it has for later gameplay.

"NOAQE-JE" has the smell of a randomly-generated name.

I reloaded and continued exploring, but after a few dozen moves, I died of hunger. I hadn't found any game and didn't have the ralls to buy more rations. I learned at this point that resurrections don't always help. They re-start you at your food, fatigue, and water levels from just before you died. I found myself in an endless cycle of dying after just a few moves.

I started a new character and saved him just inside the gates of Or'gn after he'd made his purchases. I determined to explore until he died, then reload and explore in different directions. I figured I'd play the "real" character after I got a sense of the overall map. In further explorations, I mapped about 150 map squares and found the nearby city of Odetn, plus a farm that sells rations in between. A wandering NPC told me that there were "rabir" (which INFO describes as basically rabbits) about a dozen moves to the northeast of Or'gn. I wasted a bunch of time exploring in that direction to the northwest before realizing my mistake. Heading to the northeast instead, I marched around an area "about" a dozen squares from Or'gn and still found no game to hunt.

My growing map of the world. I'm highlighting cities in the dark color that I think is blue, other special locations in yellow, and paths and roads in gray.

So far, it's certainly an intriguing game, though it shares with Dragonflight a certain vastness and lack of clues on the main quest. I also find it a bit unforgiving to the new player. By next post, I should be able to tell you if I'm having any fun.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Dragonflight: Overseas and Underground

Finally reaching the exit to the dungeon after eight hours in.

Back in 2010, when I was in the middle of Wizardry, complaining about how long it was taking, someone said, "Wait until you get to the 1990s and every game has 10 dungeons as big as Wizardry." Slowly but surely, this has been happening, but I didn't really notice it until Dragonflight. Over the last few days, I've spent about eight hours exploring and mapping a single dungeon of 10 levels, the largest occupying 28 x 31 squares (although not every space was used). Oh, it didn't take quite as long as an entire game of Wizardry, of course, owing to easier monsters and no permadeath, but it's only one of god-knows-how-many dungeons in the game.

A large dungeon level of secret doors, rooms, combats, traps, and treasure.

Dragonflight, in short, is taking forever. I just passed the 30-hour mark, which already puts it in the top 15% of games I've played for length, and I still mostly have no idea what I'm doing other than progressively getting more powerful. There hasn't been the slightest hint on the main quest. I'm supposed to discover what happened to the dragons all those years ago, and I can only hope that my random explorations are somehow, someway leading me to that goal.

When I last posted, I had just left a dungeon on the far west coast of the continent because I kept encountering locked doors after I'd run out of keys. I went back to the town of Luthag to purchase more. Figuring I'd let the west coast dungeon regenerate before I returned to it, I decided to check out the one other dungeon I knew about, in the middle of southern desert. It was tough because walking through the desert saps hit points every round and I had to make sure I was keeping up with the loss. When I finally got to the dungeon, I descended, lit a torch, and:

There's supposed to be an image here of a magic mouth demanding a password. I missed it because for about four consecutive hours, I forgot that the screen capture key in Steem isn't CTRL-F5 as in DOSBox but rather END. Here's a shot of me opening a treasure chest instead.

Great. Another magic mouth that wants some password before I can proceed. I hadn't received any clues about this dungeon from anyone, so I had no choice but to return to the surface, navigate back through the desert, and return to the west coast dungeon.

It was this dungeon that ended up being 10 large levels, full of monsters, traps, secret doors, and treasure. I say it took me eight hours to complete it, but I'd already done Levels 1-4 in the last post, so the eight hours were mostly just the bottom six levels. Notes from this exploration:

  • There were a ton of enemies. My characters slaughtered so many--including my rear two characters wiping out scads of undead with "Dispel Undead"--that everyone more than doubled their experience points.
  • As experience points rose, so did health and, most importantly, the number of movements per round. The problem I had with enemies anticipating and avoiding ranged attacks went away (or at least got a lot better) when my spellcaster and archer were able to move more than once per round. By the time I left the dungeon, the archer was up to three moves per round, which usually translates as one to get on a firing line with the enemy and two to actually shoot arrows.
  • By far, the most difficult enemies I faced in the dungeon were balrons, who have a ranged magic attack capable of practically halving hit points. They can do it multiple times per round, and I occasionally encountered up to four in the same room. There was one level where there were four such rooms in a row. I had to stop, heal, and restore my magic points between each encounter, and even then I only won by casting "Speed" before the combat and "Heal" every round during the combat.

I also missed shots of the balrons. Here are some skeletons.

  • As long as you have plenty of food, healing and restoring magic in dungeons is an easy matter of standing in a corridor and holding down the left-turn or right-turn keys. As you spin in place, both attributes slowly regenerate.
  • Enemy difficulty has no correlation with the quality of treasures found in the rooms. None of the balron rooms had a single treasure chest, whereas some of the best treasures were found in rooms with no enemies.
  • There were potions. Oceans of potions. Practically every treasure chest had at least six of them. When I got out, my characters had more than 50 healing potions, 20 potions each of spirits and wine, and dozens of others. I'm no longer so afraid to use them, though I'm going to keep at least 5 of each in permanent inventory in case I need them as quest items.
  • There were a lot of trap doors that dump you on the next level. I'm a little confused by them. You can "detect" them in a way by "looking" at each square of the corridor, but there's still no way to avoid them. There's no "Levitate" spell or anything similar. Yet I see doorways on the other sides of the trap doors with no other way to approach them. I'm not sure what I'm missing.

How do I get to the door at the end of this corridor? Is it just a mirage?

  • There were so many secret doors that I ultimately had to adopt the practice of scanning every wall. Unfortunately, in this game you can't find secret doors just by walking into them. You have to "look" at the wall first.

If you say so.

  • There were two map pieces in the dungeon. I still have six to find, but I can confirm that the main continent is indeed shaped like a dragon.

The map shows a lot of places I haven't explored, including everything above the dragon's neck, the island between his legs, the island above his back, and "Antarctica." Fortunately, I now have a ship.

On Level 9, I encountered a magic mouth that said there were special potion bottles meant for dispelling creatures beyond. It asked me what type of liquid was in the bottles. I had no idea that this dungeon was the solution to the quest I'd received in Scatterbone, where the king is plagued with an imp constantly buzzing around his head. Consulting what he told me (made easier by the "notes" the game gives you after each major dialogue), I found the answer: LIQUEUR OF RAISINS. The mouth let me pass to retrieve the special potion in a room beyond.

I got it wrong a couple of times first. I always forget how to spell "liqueur."

Level 10 was a "reward" level--not a single combat, just copious treasure chests. Of course, I still had to deal with this nonsense:

Time to reset the emulator, re-start the program, re-load the game, and hope that this process re-seeds the random number generator.

It was a relief to trek back up and finally exit the dungeon. I immediately made my way to a temple, where my max magic points, for Rinakles, went from 20 to 100. Returning to Pegana, I sold my mushrooms and excess equipment. Fiddling with some of the rings, I discovered that they were Rings of Protection (they just say "ring"), so I'm glad I didn't sell them all.

A bunch of stuff that I'm afraid to sell now.

I sold a lot of the other gems and jewelry--bracelets, earrings, pearl necklaces, brooches, opals, diamonds--but kept a few pieces in case I needed them for quest items. I learned the new scrolls and turned in the ones I'd already found to the University for karma.

30 hours in, and I've solved this one side-quest.

When I returned to King Scatterbone, he happily took my potion. Free of the imp, he rewarded me with gems and a "Piece of Eltam," If I try to equip or use it, it says it's "not complete" and some "pieces are missing." I otherwise have no idea what it is. Maybe all these other side quests result in more "pieces of Eltam," and when the thing is complete, a dragon will pop out of it, and that will be the endgame.

In fact, except for the compass, I have no idea what any of the stuff on this screen is for.

The dungeon exploration accomplished the thing I had most hoped it would: it gave me enough money to "charter" a ship at Port Pylon. When I paid the fee, the game did as I hoped and gave me a ship to sail around freely, not just "passage" to some other location. With it, I was excited about exploring some of the locations on the map that I couldn't reach overland, starting with a dungeon on a nearby island. 

The creators made a combat backdrop for the ship. This makes me want to go downstairs to my Xbox and play Assassin's Creed IV.

The moment I walked in, I got another magic mouth looking for a password. Bollocks.

 
I soon found out another restriction to owning a ship: the crew won't sail very far from the home port. Mine refused to go very far east. I suppose this means I'll have to buy other ships in other ports.

Is the crew aware that I'm capable of casting "Lightning Bolt"?

The crew had no problem sailing west around the main continent, though, which was good because near the dungeon I'd spent so much time exploring, I found an "orc village" that I'd missed before. (It blends into the background a bit, at least for me.) There, I was surprised to meet a friendly orc king who spoke the human language. He explained that he was trying to civilize the orcs, and as part of this effort, he wanted me to take a contract around to the human, elf, and dwarf cities and see if I could get the leaders to sign.

I give the game credit here for a fairly original side-quest.

This side quest reminded me that I hadn't done much about the elf queen's request that I find the stolen sphere containing the souls of the elf elders. One of the possible locations was in the "dragon's tail." I sailed up to the series of islands that make up the tail and didn't see anything, but I hit upon the idea of getting off the boat and "searching" the mountains. I'm glad I did, because I found a dungeon on my second try.

And there was no magic mouth looking for a password!

I leave you having entered this dungeon, and I'm trying to decide whether to explore it or to do the orc chief's quest first. I suppose I'll try a few levels and see how long it takes. It would be nice to return to Nimraviel with the sphere.

My opinion of the game hasn't changed. There are no great moments or awful moments, just moments. I'd happily give it up except for not wanting to break a long winning streak. You'll probably see a post on FallThru and perhaps a 1980s game before I post next, though.