Sunday, May 31, 2015

1990 Loose End #1: Legend of Faerghail

Legend of Faerghail was an early representative of a clear 1990s trend: an explosion of interesting RPGs from German developers. I played it in the fall of 2013 and called it, in my "Final Rating" post, an "interesting misfire." Starting with a base reminiscent of The Bard's Tale, it added a bunch of innovative features, including a combat mechanic that drew from both Wizardry and Phantasie, and excellent graphics and sound--including some of the first ambient sound. Alas, it had too many mistakes and half-developed ideas to rate very highly.

I still would have finished it except for a bug I encountered that made an entire castle disappear, preventing me from continuing the game. That was in the Amiga version. The DOS version was already bugged beyond belief, so my only option would have been to re-start with the Amiga and hope the bug didn't recur or attempt the Atari ST version, which is only in German. I decided to simply quit, even though it ended a very long winning streak.

There's supposed to be a castle here.

Last summer, 6 months after my final post, I heard from Olaf Barthel, one of the three principal developers of the game, who started our correspondence by saying, "your observations and assessment of the game's merits and shortcomings are spot on"--a quote that some of my regular commenters should feel free to repeat more often. We traded a series of e-mails in which he offered a wealth of information about the game's development. The exchange made me feel a lot better about Faerghail, and based on it, I fully intended to re-engage the game, peppering my new posts with information from Olaf's e-mails. But every time I went to fire it up, I was reminded that I still faced the same bugs and probably wouldn't be able to finish it.

Now that I'm in 1991, I suspect I won't ever return to Faerghail, but the least I can do is offer some of Olaf's insights on the game.

Olaf, Veith Schörgenhummer, and Matthias Kästner were the creators of Faerghail. They started development when they were in school together and all 18 or 19 years old. The scenario was based on a Dungeons & Dragons campaign that Schörgenhummer had designed. At first, they were simply trying to create something for the German domestic market, which was a bit light on RPGs at the time. But their publisher saw potential in the international market and insisted on an English translation and DOS and Atari ST ports.

I had long wondered about the game's name, and particular whether it was intended to evoke the earlier Fargoal. Apparently not. In 1986, Olaf was studying in England as an exchange student and bought a book called Irish: A Complete Introductory Course. Later casting about for a name for the game, Olaf pulled the book from his shelf, flipped to a section that listed common Irish surnames, and stabbed his finger on "Ó Fearghail." They dropped the "O" and switched the "a" and "e" so no one would read it as "fear." The funny thing is, this is the second game I know of to get its name in this exact way; the first was Eamon. I love the idea that we nearly got The Legend of Flaithbheartaigh.

The page from which Olaf took the game's name.
Olaf confirms that the game was built on a foundation of The Bard's Tale, Phantasie, and first edition AD&D rules (the second edition wasn't translated to German until the game was already finished). Inspired by the ability to dig through walls in Moria, they added the "smith" class with his demolition abilities (something I never really explored). This part I love and leave in Olaf's own words:

The reason why there is a monk, but no female counterpart, was in that we couldn't quite picture how it would look like. It is something of a stretch to imagine how the monk, wearing a cloak and hood, could be capable and effective in unarmed combat. It would have been an even greater stretch to imagine a nun, wearing cloak and veil, in the same role as the monk. Because we did not have a female monk, we added the female-only healer class instead.

Something I didn't realize while playing the game is that monsters, while randomly roaming the hallways, actually pick up treasure. This accounts for why I didn't find chests in the same places sometimes when I had to re-load a level, and why some monsters inexplicably offered more treasure than others. As for the monsters themselves, the generic "ghost" images were a late-game addition. Originally, the game was going to be like The Bard's Tale, where you just stumble upon enemies but don't see them ahead of time. Eventually, after playing Dungeon Master, the team decided they wanted to see monsters in the environment, but they didn't have enough time to create images for every one.

Olaf agrees about the inferiority of the DOS version. It was an awkward time to develop for DOS, right in between the CGA and VGA standards and the AdLib and SoundBlaster capabilities. Ultimately, they just didn't have the time and resources to invest in better graphics or any sound. A fundamental weakness of the DOS version is that you can "clear" monsters in the wilderness areas, which makes it impossible to later grind for food. You end up spending most of your gold keeping the team fed.

My comparison of Amiga (left) and DOS (right) graphics.

As for the translation issues we encountered, Olaf says that the manual and game text were translated professionally, but by people who didn't understand the context of RPGs and had trouble with terms like "dungeon master." He recalls having the same "riddle trouble" that I did when he played Wizardry VI in German, got nearly to the end, faced a riddle whose answer should have been "pen" or "quill," and yet couldn't get the game to accept any appropriate German word. Ironically, Olaf wrote to me in absolutely flawless English. In a few years, he could have done the translations himself.

Faerghail was Olaf Barthel's last game, but he has had a long and rewarding career in the computer industry. (This interview goes over many of his contributions.) Veith Schörgenhummer also called it quits after Faerghail, and Olaf lost touch with him. Matthias Kästner, on the other hand, went to art school and has continued to work in the German games industry as a designer, animator, art director, and project leader. His credits include graphics on Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991), Neocron (2002), Back to Gaya (2005), Mata Hari (2008), Black Mirror II: Reigning Evil (2009), Black Prophecy (2011), and The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief (2013).

Olaf offered a lot more about the game, and rather than try to work it into paragraphs, I'm going to paste his own words below for anyone who's really interested in the details of graphics, sound, and programming.


All text below except for the bolded headers, image captions, and text in brackets is directly quoted from Olaf Barthel's e-mails to me between 12-14 July 2014.

On the development process:

At that age you can move the world, just by sheer force of ignorance and sticking to your guns. In retrospect, that type of approach must have made it harder for everybody who was involved in making the game.

Not only were the three of us pressed for time, as the final exams were approaching (we passed -- working on the game did not have a negative effect on our marks), our producers and collaborators at reLINE software must have been tearing their hair out, given the complexity of the game.

What originally started out as a more modest product evolved into a multi-platform game (Amiga, Atari ST, PC), in two different languages, using unproven technology (reLINE software wrote all their games in assembly language; Legend of Faerghail was written in 'C'), by an unproven designer/programmer team.

Legend of Faerghail was the first, only and last big commercial game the three of us collaborated on. We all were hobbyists/amateurs, who were self-taught and learned the craft through writing software for and painting on the C64.

On monster AI:

The monsters roaming the dungeons follow simple A.I. rules. When a dungeon level is loaded, the monsters are always reset to start positions, and then proceed to roam the halls. They will patrol the hallways, search for treasure (and pick it up, if they feel like it: if you encounter and kill these monsters, the loot will include the treasure they found) and try to follow the player if they can spot it. You can even bait certain types of monsters, which will then stop following the player and stick to the bait. The A.I. is not particularly good, though (Pac Man has stellar ghost A.I. compared to Legend of Faerghail).

On saving the game:

Saving the state of the game to disk and later restoring it evolved over time, with auto-mapping getting squeezed in very late in development. Because of memory constraints I was unable to store the positions, attributes, etc. of all roaming monsters and the level auto-map states for all dungeons the player had visited up to this point. This is the reason why upon reentering a dungeon level, monsters respawn and the level auto-map is reset.

On the Amiga version:

-The game was originally designed specifically for the Amiga, which is why there are sound-effects and, for its time, modest graphics effects. The prototype dungeon crawler even used the Amiga-specific high resolution graphics mode (640 by 512 pixels in 16 colours). These platform-specific features and resolution were eventually scaled back because of the Atari ST port. The PC port arguably had even more restrictions than the Atari ST version. The Atari ST version even supports a 640 by 400 pixel black and white mode.

We never realized that we might have been one of the first computer role playing games to feature ambient sound and day/night cycles in 1st person perspective ("Ultima III" certainly had day/night cycles, but the on-screen visuals never reflected the gradual change of time). Building this feature into the game seemed natural, given the capabilities of the Amiga.

The three of us designed the ambient sound of the game. The Amiga offered four channels of 8 bit digital stereo sound, and we tried to make the most of it. For the sound effects we must have watched (or rather "listened to") just about every adventure movie that was available on VHS tape at the time. I recall that most of the combat sound effects came from Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers.

The Amiga version had to work well on the standard type of Amiga at the time, which had only 512 KBytes of main memory available. Because of this restriction, the game may at times choose not to load monster portraits or sound-effects. However, the game adapts if you have more memory to spare, giving you more monster portraits, sound effects, etc. and it will even cache assets (just set your Amiga emulation to use 512K of fast memory, or more).

The game covers three disks, in the Amiga version, and can be installed to hard disk in order to speed up disk access (it has no on-disk copy protection). The game even supports multi-tasking, which means that given enough memory, you can use the Amiga for productivity software and play the game at the same time.

The reason why saved games can be corrupted is likely because you did not wait for disk activity to finish after saving the game to disk. Because of how floppy disks work with the Amiga operating system, there is a small delay after the last write access before the file system concludes the write operation and spins down the floppy disk. This delay is independent of the floppy disk emulation speed. Hence, if you save to disk, wait 1-2 seconds before you restart the emulation or switch it off.

On the DOS version:

The game itself was designed and "prototyped" on the Amiga, and at some point had to be ported both to the Atari ST and the "IBM PC compatible" platform. This proved to be challenging on many levels: the game was not intended to be ported when designed, game design was still evolving and ongoing, and at reLINE software nobody had the necessary experience in programming the PC in the 'C' programming language.

This was at a time when the IBM PC compatible platform started to become relevant as a gaming platform, both in Europe and internationally. reLINE software had already acquired a development system, with AdLib sound card and EGA graphics. By comparison to the Atari ST and certainly the Amiga, the PC was not a mature platform, because it lacked an operating system. The development tools in particular were immature: the Atari ST had an excellent Turbo 'C' compiler, but the 'C' compiler used on the PC by reLINE software had so many quirks that porting code from the Amiga almost always amounted to a rewrite.

Holger Heinrich at reLINE software took on the challenges of porting Legend of Faerghail to the PC, and from what I recall this was an exceptionally difficult task. Not only did Holger have to port a game which was not intended to be portable, he also had to learn programming the system from scratch.

The PC development platform itself was by no means uniform or stable either. Back in 1988/1989 the term 'compatible' in "IBM PC compatible" had claws and teeth. How you programmed the graphics hardware varied greatly by manufacturer, and since there was no operating system to help you along, you had to use low-level operations to get it to do something useful. I recall that reLINE had to test the game on a special IBM PC compatible machine manufactured by Tandy, which had both a significant market share in the U.S. and which had its own peculiarities to account for.

Porting the game to the PC amounted to rewriting the game code, both because of the quirky 'C' language development platform, and because the code was not particularly portable to begin with. What worked well on the Amiga had to be adapted for the PC, and you probably saw the side-effects of this approach play out.

On the challenges of mapping from a 3D perspective:

The "3D" view was the first tough problem to crack when we designed the game prototype. We had to find a way to make both the perspective work, and find a system for building the image from components (walls, doors, stairs, special illustrations). What Matthias and I arrived at was what you see in the finished game. Each element in the perspective layout was designed according to a template (this [image] is from my original 1988 archives). The game uses a central perspective, and the visible space is three steps deep.

Both the background (floor and ceiling) and the foreground elements are slightly asymmetrical. This was a deliberate design decision: whenever you turn or take a step forward/back, the game redraws these elements by mirroring them horizontally. This makes the view appear slightly, but noticeably different from how it looked before, supporting the fact that something has changed when you moved.

The basic "3D" view design was adapted from The Bard's Tale, but it never occurred to us that our version did not give the player a sense of what is left or right of the wall he or she is currently facing [This was something I had complained about in my reviews].

On location design and content:

We wanted to make the individual location map layout reflect the architecture of the respective place. This is why, for example, the monastery layout looks like how you might find a European medieval monastery does, and why the individual levels of the Elven pyramid become smaller and smaller the further you ascend the pyramid. Each level can cover 36 by 36 individual rooms, but we never used all of that space, not even in the wilderness (trees and walls cover the edges).

Our idea was that each dungeon layout should be different, with respect to the location. Again, The Bard's Tale provided the motivation for this decision: we did not want use the same "one size fits all" style level design in the game.

The size of the game, with all the different dungeons and their many respective levels, came back to haunt us. We arguably succeeded at building a game world, but we struggled with making it interesting. This is why the puzzles and the game's overall campaign design (one single quest, no sub-quests and certainly no branches in the story) are not as ambitious as the technical design of the game world (this seems to be common problem even in contemporary computer game design; Assassin's Creed I and Watch Dogs come to my mind, for example).

The campaign design upon which the game was originally intended to be built did not provide enough content to fill the game world with. The world had simply become too large. Filling the vacuum proved to be very difficult, because we lacked the necessary experience and storytelling background. What ended up in the game therefore came from what surfaced when we stirred the pond, so to speak. The three-part key staff, for example, comes from Raiders of the Lost Ark (which probably borrowed it from a 1930s serial in the first place).
On combat:

We adapted the look and the basic mechanics from what we were most familiar with, this being The Bard's Tale. We tried to add some small incremental improvements to this model. Unlike in The Bard's Tale, our game shows you the placement of the enemy and your player character, and does not represent this information as numbers only.

As we discovered during development, the overall visual design of our game made how the combat played out on screen look rather bland and somewhat pointless. This was tactical combat at its most tactical: you gave instructions to your party, very much like a coach, and wait on the sidelines until this round had concluded. The text on the screen would give play-by-play commentary on what was going on.

Because we discovered these shortcomings late in development, our options to address them were very limited. We provided two variations to the basic formula. The first was the quick combat option: you do not need to read the play-by-play commentary scrolling across the screen, you just get to see the final results of the round. The second was to add minimal animations which identified who was attacking who, which type of character (fighter/magic user/animal) was involved, and also add sound effects (hit/miss/equipment damage). We affectionately called this the "Punch & Judy show" when we developed it (although it is arguably not quite as violent).

The distance between combatants does make a difference during the combat, but maybe not as much as it should. The closer you are to an enemy, the more likely you will succeed in hitting it (and the more likely you are to get hit). Missile weapons and spells should make a difference if the distance is larger.

On monster graphics:

As the game evolved, we added more and more distinct enemy types; we wanted to avoid recycling enemy portraits, as The Bard's Tale did. Unfortunately, this decision increased the workload for creating the portraits, which is why instead of one single artist, three artists eventually worked on the monster portraits (Matthias Kästner, Rainer Michael and Frank Knust). Some of the portraits were adapted from existing illustrations, sometimes by scanning, retracing and coloring what we found in the AD&D manuals and magazines.

The portraits throughout the game are extremely well-done.

The dragon featured prominently in the game's title screen, and which also happens to be the monster you meet in the end game, originally comes from the cover of an AD&D monster manual, and was redrawn by Matthias (this is Matthias' original drawing, in which the priest in the foreground wears a blue tunic).

On the language system:

We added it so that you could get out of encounters without fighting. It turned out that regular combat was somewhat uninteresting, and providing the player with options to retreat or parley instead would offer less boring alternatives.

Once we started down this road, the next logical steps were to offer bartering and recruiting as part of the language system. Recruiting is actually a variation of what happens in The Bard's Tale when you summon an elemental to fight for your party.

One reason why the language system is not as useful as it should be is that there are bugs in the implementation which I only recently discovered. In order for parley to succeed one member of your party needs to be able to speak the language of an enemy. Because of a bug (it is an off-by-one error) the parley can only work if enemy and party member *do not* speak the same language.

This is finally explained!

On "whimsy":

As development progressed and really started to drag, the tone of the game began to drift. What originally began as a serious story, built around a mystery (what happened to the Elves?), slowly started to pull in material to fill the void left by the game world being larger than the story designed to fill it.

The seriousness of the game's tone invited commentary, not necessarily in the form of parody or satire, but it was time and again necessary to lighten things up a bit. This is why there is a snarky comment about magical Elven plumbing, and an inflatable rubber dragon (which comes from a cartoon found in a D&D magazine), for example, and the end-game text featured in the final dungeon is bordering on being funny (at least in the original Klingon, but not so much in the English translation).

As we learned over time, being a D&D dungeon master does not require that you keep the game's tone strictly serious. Fun can come in all shapes and sizes, and not just in how well your character holds up in combat. Equipment can break during combat, attacks can fail. Your character may not face such events stoically, he might even curse (historical note from a foreigner: I understand that "cursing" actually used to mean the use of profanity; in the context of our game it is just the use of obscenity). This is what happens in Legend of Faerghail. When an attack fails, there is a very small random chance that the character will quietly say "sh*t!" (in the Amiga version). We did get called out for that little bit of whimsy, and strangely enough only by U.S. players. Incidentally, that is Veith Schörgenhummer's voice which we sampled for the sound-effect.

We could not resist adding easter eggs to the game. You already found the "Indiana Jones" reference--did you notice that there was a sound effect for that, too? [Alas, I did not. I was probably playing with the sound off for some reason.]

I still don't know what the "wands and sunshine" part means.

 On copy protection and the endgame:

We disliked shipping a game with copy-protected disks. For one thing, we had learned long ago that it did not take long for copy protection to be overcome (look at the contents of the many Amiga abandon-ware game web sites and judge for yourself--almost all of these games were once copy-protected), it also meant that we would have had to somehow adapt the game and its distribution media to support copy protection. We lacked both the expertise and the time to accomplish this.

Our solution to add a bit of copy protection was to put vital information required to succeed at the game into the manual. This is why there are numbered maps both in the manual and on the sleeve of the manual.

If I remember correctly, the end game requires that your party survives traveling through very hazardous terrain. Your party receives an amulet with a map on it early during the game, and that map is pictured on the reverse side of the manual. The map was designed so as to make photocopying it very, very hard. It is the key to traveling through the hazardous terrain in the end game. Now if only we had dropped more hints on what that map is good for, and if the numbering of the maps in the manual actually corresponded to the numbers, as used in the game text...


It's an interesting game, and I'm glad I had the opportunity make more of its backstory known to the world.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Eye of the Beholder: Made it this Far

Thanks, but who wrote this?

Two more levels mostly down! I realized just before I started writing this that I have no idea how many levels the game has. I've been assuming 10, but I don't know why--just standard RPG convention, I guess. For all I know it has 30. But given my characters' experience levels, which are all 6-7 out of a maximum of 10-12, I assume that I'm about half done.

Levels 5 and 6 have taken me about 3-4 hours each, which means I've put in the equivalent of a full day's work on Eye of the Beholder within the past two days. Not the best time management going on in Chetland, but the whole ratio is going to get flipped next week, so I figure I'd better play while I can.

There wasn't going to be an image for a little while, so I thought I'd throw in this one of memorizing mage spells.
Most important thing first: MOZA's "word of warning" about keys and locks came too late. There's an area of Level 4, accessible only from Level 5, that requires a dwarven key, and I'm out. I've now gotten into the habit of trying to pick every lock before using a key, but if there's anything vital behind that door, you'd better give me an explicit spoiler so I can start over. (I don't mind the prospect very much. With the maps already made, I think I can breeze through the levels.)

After the last post, I dragged my party all the way back up to Level 1, hoping I could figure out what the "special quests" are for Levels 1 and 3 (I figured out Level 2 on my own--it was pretty obvious). I got absolutely nowhere. Nor did I discover the special quests on Level 4 or 5. I got Level 6, covered below.

This is a secret button. Given how small and camouflaged it is, I'm not surprised I missed some stuff on previous levels.
Level 5 was a pretty easy level--just a handful of giant spiders--but it introduced a lot more plot. As I entered one large area, I was greeted by Armun, "spokesman" for his dwarven clan, which is descended from the clan that built the halls. Generations ago, monsters had driven the dwarves out of the dungeon, "into the realms of men and elves," but recently King Teirgoh gathered his people in an effort to reclaim them. (This plot seems vaguely familiar.) Unfortunately, as they explored, Drow (led by someone named Shindia) charged out of one of the stone portals and attacked the dwarves. King Teirgoh was poisoned, his son Prince Keirgar was kidnapped, and now the dwarves don't even know how to get out of the halls.

For some reason, the game didn't allow me to say, "Just go up yonder stairs," and instead prompted me to agree to help rescue Prince Keirgar. In response, Armun gave us a stone medallion and gave us the use of their cleric. Finally, I was joined by yet another dwarf fighter, Dohrum, who I also didn't have a lot of use for. As I did with his compatriot, I just gave him a missile weapon to fight from the rear. I'll hold onto these two until I find a mage or cleric among the other NPCs.

Dohrum joins the group. Pretty good stats.
There were miscellaneous dwarves wandering around the area, and there didn't seem to be any way to talk to them (dialogue pops up automatically when you enter a talkative NPC's square). I also had to be careful not to accidentally hit them. It rather reminded me of the dwarven city in Might & Magic II, where the errant press of a button could have the entire place charging you.

It soon became clear why I might want to haul around the remains of found adventurers: the dwarven cleric is capable of raising the dead. I gave him the set of bones I had, and they resolved into a woman named Anya. Alas, she was not a vengeance demon, but rather a regular fighter. Since I already had two of those, I rejected her, and she disappeared. It doesn't appear that there's any way to keep rejected or dropped NPCs around.

You're confused, Anya. You died fighting Turok-Han sent by the First Evil.
Between Armun and his gift, I solved the two mysterious from Level 4. The "Oracle" is activated by a black orb, which I imagine I'll find later. As for the stone portal, I found a similar one on Level 5, but the Level 5 portal had a symbol that the Level 4 one had lacked: a stone medallion. Meanwhile, the portal on Level 5 was missing an image of a stone necklace that the Level 4 portal had. It didn't take much effort to realize that the key to activating the portals was to place the "missing" piece on top of it.

Activation is accompanied by a pretty cool animation.
The portal takes me to a dark room full of other portals. I have no idea what level it's on. In addition to the medallion and necklace, I have two other pieces, a scepter and a dagger, but I'm lacking an ankh, a ring, a gem, and something that looks like a big ball. In any event, between the Oracle, the portals, and the cleric, it's clear that from now on, I'll be moving about the levels a little more flexibly instead of constantly pressing forward.

As for the rest of Level 5, there were a lot of secret doors (generally clued by a dwarven rune for "safe passage") and a large area where a pit opened up behind me with every step. There were a number of things to find in the area, including a suit of platemail, but I had to be careful not to get caught in a dead-end. At one point, I failed in that mission, had to drop down to the level below, and took serious damage from both the fall and a monster waiting there. I'm ashamed to admit that I reloaded instead of fighting my way out of it.

In the northeast of the level, there were a couple of rooms full of teleporters. Getting through was just a matter of careful mapping. I don't really mind puzzles like this, where care, patience, and systematic testing can save the day. That reminds me that I want to have a post on inductive vs. deductive puzzles in RPGs some day.

Time and patience.
Level 6 introduced me to a new D&D monster: the Kenku. (Is there any other CRPG in which they appear?) They "resemble humanoid hawks, with both arms and wings." They "have natural thieving abilities," the manual says, but neglects to tell you that they're capable of firing magic missiles. In the comments for the last post, we talked about the delay that accompanies spellcasting. You can't move while the spell's animation finishes, which usually means that it hits you. When you're fighting a pack of 4 Kenku, with a few others waiting in the wings, it takes bloody forever for all the animations to finish, by which point the party is at half health.

And they all drop staves when they die. Am I now carrying about 8 staves for no reason whatsoever? Yes.
And they respawn--oh, my, do they respawn. When I said I was "mostly finished" with Level 6 above, I mean that I've mapped the entire thing, but I've been (futilely) trying to clear it of Kenku before moving on. I keep running into multiple packs of 3 or 4 in areas I've already cleared. They're a serious candidate for "most annoying RPG enemy." I've mostly been fighting them with the side-step-turn, which works well enough until one of them out of a pack of 4 decides not to follow the others. Now I have two groups to keep track of, and eventually one of them gets the drop on me.

I'm pleased to say I didn't reload, though. When one of them killed Gaston, I dragged his sorry corpse up to Level 5 and had him resurrected, sucking up the loss of 1 constitution [later edit: which I guess wasn't implemented in this game, despite what the manual says]. That's role-playing, kids.

As I said, I figured out the special quest on Level 6. A lot of the Kenku were guarding rooms with Kenku eggs. Eventually, I found a small room labeled "nest." I piled all the eggs in there, I got the "special quest" message, and the room opened up to reveal a "chieftan halberd," which I gave to my paladin. It seems to do quite a bit of damage, but it takes a long time to recover from the swing.

Another area on the level had a bunch of niches on just about every wall. The first one was labeled "silverware rack," and it occurred to me to put a knife in the niche, which made the wall disappear. When I ran out of knives, I found that darts had the same effect. (There were dart traps nearby that gave me a plentiful supply of darts.) By clearing out all the walls, I opened the way to a couple new areas, one of which held a scroll of "Haste." I immediately gave to my mage to scribe.

Making a wall disappear with a dart.
Oh, by the way, "Fireball" isn't as exciting as I thought. I guess it damages every enemy in the square and nearby, because it damages me if I cast it too close, but it doesn't wipe them out the way I was hoping, and the animation isn't very satisfying. [Later edit: I guess I was wrong about this, too. I must have taken regular combat damage at the same time I cast "Fireball" and mistook it as "Fireball" damage.]

One final bit of plot on Level 6: a "dark-robed figure" in a corner greeted me with a sneer and called me "Waterdeep's saviors of the week." He confirmed that Xanathar is a beholder, and he related that Xanathar has been "undermining Waterdeep for years" and that he would "lead his minions in conquest of the unsuspecting city." To kill him, I'll need the "Wand of Silvias," which the dwarves apparently have but don't know how to use.

I once killed like 50 beholders with nothing more than some Dust of Disappearance.
The mysterious figure continued that the Drow, who are supposed to be Xanathar's allies, plan to launch a raid on Waterdeep, which would alert the city to the true threat. Anyway, the robed dude wasn't my friend: he related that he intended to stop the Drow, kill the dwarves, get the wand, wait until Xanathar conquers Waterdeep, then kill Xanathar and take over Waterdeep for himself. After his dialogue, he attacked me, and I killed him in about three blows, so clearly he was under-prepared for his master plan.

Rule #457 for evil overlords: Don't make enemies needlessly.
I know Dungeon Master purists don't care for any of this, but I'm loving the dialogues, side quests (if that's what they are), and NPCs, and I think the game is better for them.

Next up: return to Level 5 to see if Armun has any new dialogue about the Wand of Silvias. If not, I may take yet another stab at the "special quests" on Levels 1, 3, 4, and 5, especially now that my cleric's "Create Food" spell means I'm unlikely to starve to death. (I have a ton of rations anyway; Dohrum came with about half a dozen.) It was a real struggle to tear myself away to write this post.

Alas, the next week is going to see me completely occupied by work, so I'm unlikely to get another Eye of the Beholder post out for a little while. Fortunately, I have some posts on other games already drafted to occupy the interim.

Time so far: 14 hours
Reload count: 3

(There's an argument to be made that the low reload count means that the game is a little too easy. I'd have trouble disagreeing with that. The Kenku were annoying but not overly deadly, and so far it's been possible to avoid death with careful exploration and real-time combat maneuvers. Maybe it will get harder later.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Eye of the Beholder: Out of the Sewers, Into the Spiders

Stumbling upon treasure and bones in the sewers.

My first post on Eye of the Beholder produced some expected discussion on whether it is better or worse than its father, Dungeon Master. No one would seriously argue that it's a more original game than Dungeon Master, but Eye of the Beholder certainly benefits from being slightly later in the chronology, at least in terms of the DOS version. If nothing else, there's more variance in the wall textures, more ambient sounds, and the monster graphics are a bit better. 

At the same time, it's too bad that Eye of the Beholder didn't compensate for more of Dungeon Master's weaknesses. My biggest complaint about the earlier game was the inability to evaluate weapons, armor, and magic items without some kind of cheat sheet from a spoiler site. This is true of Beholder, too, where there's no way to figure out the specific damage done by weapons, the specific level of protection offered by armor, or--more important--the nature of a number of possible magic items. Some previous experience with Dungeons & Dragons helps, of course, but I still don't know the functions of several things in my inventory.

Beholder also carries forward the tradition of not identifying monster names on-screen, but at least  you can find them in the accompanying manual. Level 3 brought a bunch of humanoid creatures that I thought were werewolves before I looked them up in the manual and discovered they were "flinds," which I guess are like super-gnolls. Fish-men on the same level turned out to be kuo-toa, and on Level 4 I encountered giant spiders (I think those were the only enemies on Level 4, actually), which of course I could have figured out for myself. It was important to defeat them from afar because they can poison characters and there are a limited number of potions of "Cure Poison" on the level.

So far, combat has not been a strong part of the game, or at least my approach to it hasn't been very strong. I generally fight by backpedaling madly down the corridors while tossing missile weapons at the enemies. Rarely have I let them get close enough to engage my first two characters in melee combat, and rarely have I used any of my mage's spells. I don't know why I'm fighting like such a sissy, but it almost always works. On the rare occasions that I get into a tight space, I can always do the side-step-turn, which works as well here as in Dungeon Master.

Like Level 2, Levels 3 and 4 were both 30 x 30, but without using all of the available squares. (Level 4 had a weird wrap-around thing going on with one section that for a while confused me into thinking it was much bigger.) In fact, this game's design precludes using all the squares because it doesn't allow any corridors or rooms to share the same wall--there's always a gap. This was true of Dungeon Master too. I screwed up my map of Level 3 somewhere in the upper-right corner, and as soon as corridors started touching, I should have realized I needed to start over.

My map of Level 3, with some mistakes in the top right that I didn't correct.
The puzzles are getting a little harder, though not horribly so. My general approach has been to map as much of the levels as possible without touching anything first--no buttons, no switches, no pressure plates, no keyholes--then carefully return to each one and note its effects. Usually, it's as simple as a switch operating a locked door next to it, but some of the buttons have effects on very remote parts of the dungeon. 

Level 3 had a puzzle involving the placement of four gems in four eye holes. This opened a secret area leading to Level 4.

Level 3 had some tricky teleportation traps that whisked me to opposite ends of corridors that still looked the same as if I'd been continuing on, messing up my maps in the short term. There was one room with a bunch of pits and pressure plates that I had to navigate for some treasure, and a room labeled the "Museum," full of inanimate flinds and koa-toa who came to life the moment I picked up any of the scattered treasure.

Level 3 and its deceptive "museum."

Level 4 completely changed the map texture, transitioning from something that looked like "sewers" to something that looked more like a planned dungeon. Switches on the wall were replaced with cute little grotesques whose arms could be manipulated up and down.

The entire place was crawling with giant spiders, and I had to carve through dozens of webs to make progress through the level. I reached the level right about the same time that commenters started warning me about the horrors of Level 4. Given that, I was expecting much more difficulty than I actually encountered.

Just as I arrived on the level, I met a wounded dwarf fighter named Taghor. He related that his king had been wounded, and his prince kidnapped, in a battle against some Drow. He wanted to join me to search for his prince and said that his people should be on the level below. It was a welcome addition to the game--simultaneously an NPC, a side quest, and a hint at perhaps more complex encounters to come. Since I didn't need any melee fighters up front, I stuck a sling in his hands and kept him in the rear.

Not much of a roleplaying choice, but more than you typically get in a DM-style game.

It was nice to have someone to bear equipment, because I was nearly running out of space. So far, I've been loathe to throw anything away, so I've been lugging around extra axes, maces, daggers, suits of leather armor, shields, and other items. Part of the reason is that after encountering a puzzle on Level 2 in which I had to sacrifice a bunch of daggers, I'm paranoid that some random slot is suddenly going to want, say, a mace. Also, since I know there are NPCs in the game, I thought maybe there might be somewhere to sell some of this stuff, or otherwise get some use out of it.

There's really no consequence to carrying it around. The game has no encumbrance system and items don't have weight. You can fill up each character's 14 slots whatever you feel like carrying. Only when I run completely out of room will it make sense to discard things.

Starling's inventory is filling up. She's just put on a ring of uncertain use.
I also have a bunch of mystery items that I found no use early levels, including a stone dagger and stone scepter (you can't use them as weapons), an extra silver key of the type needed to open doors on Level 3, and an extra green gem of the type needed to open some areas on Level 3. I've found two rings. One I can tell by the effects on armor class is a Ring of Protection; the other I can't determine the nature of. A medallion that I put on my mage is also mysterious.

For Levels 1-3, I'm pretty confident that all of the puzzles and encounters were self-contained, solvable entirely with items found on the same levels. Level 4 is the first level in which I'm leaving some squares annotated in yellow on my map (my symbol for places I have to return to). The first is a sign saying "Oracle of Knowledge" next to a slot in the wall. I was really hoping that putting unknown items in the slot would identify them, but it doesn't seem to do anything. I don't know what the slot wants. The second is a stone doorway surrounded by symbols, including an ankh, a medallion, a ring, and a gem. I was sure this would somehow involve the stone weapons I've been carrying, but nothing I tried to put in the associated slots seems to work.

I'm also carrying some bones I found on the level, thanks to a hint from a commenter. I left one or two other sets on levels above me.

I suspect that I need to solve these later, but if I'm wrong and they should have been solvable with items found on this level, I wouldn't mind a mild hint to that effect.

As usual, lots of miscellaneous observations:

  • It took me a while to figure out how missile weapons work in the game. For thrown weapons like daggers and darts, you need to line them up in your belt pouch. After you throw one, it will automatically replace it with the next one. A neat trick for front-row fighters is to keep a missile weapon in the left hand and a shield in the first slot on the pouch. After you throw your weapon, you automatically equip the shield. For bows, you want to stock arrows in the quiver next to the character's head. Unlike Dungeon Master, you can have over a dozen arrows ready to shoot at one time, making rear characters useful throughout combat.

My cleric/ranger's inventory. Note the 13 arrows in his quiver.
  • The ranger/cleric turned out to be a weird combination because in order to cast a spell, you have to activate the cleric's little symbol, but it's not available if the character is holding a two-handed weapon. Fortunately, I haven't needed him in combat much so far.
  • The game does a really good job with ambient sound, including miscellaneous thuds and drips as you explore. More important, each creature makes a unique sound, which gets louder as it nears. This is legitimately freaky when you're fighting something like giant spiders, capable of poisoning you, and you hear them getting closer but can't see them yet.
  • Commenters have suggested that enemies respawn, but only in certain areas after a long passage of time. I haven't encountered any respawning yet that I know of, but on Level 4, I never got to the point where I stopped hearing spiders somewhere in the distance, even when I couldn't find any. 
  • Characters get experience for doing a lot of mundane things, including opening doors and wandering into important rooms. There's no fanfare associated with leveling up; you just get a message that it's happened. At least half the time, I don't even see the message. This serves as a reminder that, in general, leveling in second-edition AD&D isn't as fun as other games, where you get to make choices about skill and attribute increases.
Two characters level up from, as best as I can tell, walking into a room.

  • Picking up all the thrown/shot missile items after each combat is getting a little old. 
  • It's possible to run into your own missile weapons. They fire slow enough that if you shoot and immediately walk forward, your own arrow hits you in the back of the head.
  • Combat is a little more difficult here than in Dungeon Master because the attack buttons aren't all conveniently lined up in a row. You have to dart around the screen to right-click on the weapons and make the attacks.
  • I found a "Fireball" scroll at one point, and my mage scribed it to her book. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works in a first-person game. She hasn't leveled up enough to get it yet.
  • Lots of potions in my inventory. Fortunately--unlike every other item--the game identifies these automatically. I've got a Potion of Giant Strength, a Potion of Speed, 4 Potions of Cure Poison, 2 Potions of Healing, 2 Potions of Extra Healing. Inevitably, I'll save them for that one combat that really needs them and end up never using them.
  • So far, I've only encountered a single lock that my fighter/thief was capable of picking instead of having to hunt around for a key. Hey, maybe that's why I've got an extra silver key!

This just about never works.

  • I like mapping, but it's also a little annoying, especially where (unlike a lot of games from the early 1980s) Beholder actually uses the mouse, so I have to get DOSBox to "release" it when I want to move over to the map. I'm going to head down to the CVS later and buy some graph paper; I think it would actually be easier to map by hand.
  • While I was in the midst of the entry, commenters told me about a "secret quest" to uncover on every level. I only uncovered it on Level 2, so I'm going to have to re-explore Levels 1, 3, and 4 if I want to figure out what I was supposed to do there.

I'm having fun with Eye of the Beholder, but already I'm starting to remember the things I don't like about DM-style games, starting with how fundamentally deterministic they are. Every player finds the same encounters, the same monsters, the same items in the same places. However, the discovery of Taghor gives me hope that the game has more of a plot to uncover than the typical DM clone. I guess we'll see in the upcoming levels!

On to Level 5!

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 1

Monday, May 25, 2015

Game 189: Eye of the Beholder (1991)

Despite the 1990 copyright, I don't think it received a release until 1991.

I think I picked the right game to start 1991. I chose it first because it's a Dungeons & Dragons game, and D&D-based games rarely offer bad CRPG experiences; and second because I knew it was inspired by Dungeon Master, which set the standard for real-time multi-character dungeon crawlers. I didn't know if it would be great, but I knew it wouldn't suck.

Hoping for nothing more than a competent dungeon-crawling experience, I fired up the .exe and was greeted with a great introductory sequence with exciting music, evocative sound effects, and attractive animated VGA graphics, all of which finally said to me: 1) "you're in the 1990s!" and 2) "you're no longer a jackass for choosing the DOS version!"

Yet, if there was one thing that gave me pause, it was this screen:

Westwood and I do not have a good history. Years later, I'm still mad at them about the endings to BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception and Mines of Titan. The first Westwood/SSI pairing, Hillsfar, was flawed at the outset. I like to imagine that after Hillsfar, SSI had a "come to Jesus" meeting with Westwood. "We're going to give you another contract," they said in my fantasy, "but none of your bull$%#t this time. You're going to make a good game, or we're going to bury you." I like to think that the Westwood folks left the meeting shaken, threw back a few drinks, and decided that to avoid screwing this one up too badly, they'd better just copy Dungeon Master.

Eye of the Beholder's dependence on Dungeon Master is so stark that you wonder why there weren't lawsuits involved. The similarities are readily apparent at the macro level--they're both first-person, multi-character, tile-based, real-time dungeon crawlers--and the micro level. You attack enemies in the same kind of interface by right-clicking on the chosen weapon, which makes a "whoosh" sound and requires a cool-down period before you can attack again. Only the front two characters can attack in melee; rear characters can throw missile weapons, and they have a pouch which automatically restocks them with up to four "refills" in the same combat. Picking up thrown missile weapons is tedious. You can do the same sort of real-time tricks, like the side-step attack dance and the fighting backpedal. The puzzles are also the same, involving hidden buttons, weighted pressure plates, and remote door switches. Many treasures are found in little alcoves on the wall.

Tossing a dagger at an approaching giant worm.

There are a few differences, mostly caused by the integration of a Dungeon Master mechanic with AD&D rules: classes are different, the magic system is different, and leveling is by experience rather than use of skills. And of course, being a later game, Eye of the Beholder has better graphics, sound, and animation, though not staggeringly so.

If there's one thing you'd want a developer to copy from Dungeon Master, it's the ability to crush enemies in doors. Alas, that doesn't seem to work here. Even though the door is in the space in front of you, it comes down behind any enemies in that space.

"I'm crushing your h...uh oh."

Unless I'm missing some bit of documentation, the backstory to Eye of the Beholder is left somewhat vague. Taking place in the city of Waterdeep, this is the first CRPG on the Sword Coast, and I was delighted to see Baldur's Gate, Amn, and Neverwinter on the game map. The manual goes into the long history of Waterdeep and its constant transfers of power between various guilds and factions before finally coming into the rule of the semi-anonymous Lords of Waterdeep.

Something or someone named Xanathar--I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's probably a beholder--is causing trouble for the city, but the nature of the trouble is left undefined. The problems seem to be coming from beneath the city, and so the chief Lord, Piergeiron, has commissioned a party of adventurers to enter the underworld and eradicate the threat. The game has the party start with a "Commission and Letter of Marque" giving the party "full rights of passage beneath the City of Waterdeep," as if some guard was going to come along and question our right to be in the sewers.

From the opening animations.

Character creation is all standard AD&D. You choose from the six usual races (human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling) and six classes (paladin, fighter, ranger, cleric, mage, thief) including multi-classes. The rules for non-human races are a bit less draconian than in the Gold Box series; for instance, elves and half-elves never hit a cap in any class they're allowed to select, and dwarves only cap as clerics. Oddly, gnomes can't be mages; I had thought the "gnome illusionist" was a well-established trope by now.

Even though you can get two NPCs to join you later, I decided to get every class available in my four-character party, so I went with.

  • Starling, a female human paladin
  • Bugsy, a male dwarf fighter/thief
  • Marina, a female elf mage
  • Gaston, a male half-elf cleric/ranger

With Gaston having some ranger skills, this gives me the ability to swap him in as a fighter if Starling or Bugsy (otherwise in the front ranks) get too wounded.

Beholder offers the same ability to modify a character's attributes that the Gold Box games offer, theoretically so you can bring a favorite tabletop character into the setting--not that you can modify levels, equipment, spells, or anything else. Resisting temptation to ratchet everything up to 18 wasn't hard, since a few clicks of "reroll" got some pretty high statistics anyway. Characters start at Level 2 or 3 already depending on race and class.

The game begins on Level 1 of the dungeon, with the party facing the rubble that has crashed down behind them, sealing the exit and trapping them inside. I pick up a couple rocks to use as missile weapons. Nearby, the bones of a slain halfling hold a set of lockpicks that I give to Bugsy. A lever opens a door and we begin exploring the level.

Finding the remains of a previous adventurer adds a nice bit of realism.

Level 1 ends up being quite small, 171 used squares in a 22 x 22 grid. There are only two types of enemies on the first level: kobolds and giant leeches. They don't seem to respawn; this might become a problem for my multi-classed characters if no enemies respawn

The first two levels of the dungeon.

There are some light puzzles on this level, consisting primarily of finding hidden buttons and weighing down pressure plates with rocks to keep doors open. Nothing terribly difficult, but of course on this level the game is just introducing me to mechanics.

Level 2 is much larger, over 400 used squares in a 30 x 30 grid. The only enemies on the level appear to be skeletons and zombies, but there are a lot more puzzles: spinners, keyed doors, secret doors, arcane messages, teleporters, slots on the wall that accept daggers and open remote areas of the dungeon, pits that close based on pressure plate--some of which must be weighted down, and at least one of which must be weighted down by throwing something on it from across a pit.

Tossing a rock across a pit to land on the plate on the other side, which will close the pit. Dungeon Master taught me this.

There are buttons that seem to reconfigure the wall pattern, and at least one keyed door for which I can't find the key. Although I've mapped almost all of it, I need to take another pass through the level to make sure I didn't miss anything. There are also a few buttons that I don't understand, and I need to more thoroughly investigate their effects.

The party contemplates entering a teleporter.
A dagger placed in a slot on the wall produces a non-helpful message.

I don't find much in the way of equipment upgrades--just a few daggers for throwing weapons, a single shield, a sling, and an axe that replaced my fighter's initial short sword. One unfortunate adaptation from Dungeon Master is the inability to tell anything about your weapons and armor. Familiarity with the standard D&D equipment list will probably help a little, but why couldn't the game have displayed weapon and armor statistics when you right-click on them or something?

Miscellaneous observations:

  • One thing that I like much better than Dungeon Master is the redundant keyboard and mouse controls. You can do everything from either controller, so it's easy to settle into a pattern based on your own preferences. This is also one of the first games I've seen (maybe the first) to allow you to turn off music independent of other sound.

You can also replace the "bar graphs" for hit points with actual numbers.

  • Floor drains occasionally show pairs of eyes, and clicking on them often produces a message like the one below. I don't know if I'll ever find anything in a floor drain, but I suspect I'll click on every damned one of them.

  • I'm not sure if food is going to be a problem. Each character has a food meter that depletes a tiny bit with each action. You have to eat to restore it. So far, I've found just enough food (packaged rations, not loose ears of corn or hunks of cheese) to restore what I've been losing. But the locations and amount of food seem to be fixed, so I wonder if I eventually get into trouble by doing things like taking a second look through the same dungeon level.

Marina finds a ration package just as her food level gets low. I don't know what the "special quest for this level!" was all about.

  • So far, I haven't done much with magic, mostly because restoring spells involves resting for a long time and exacerbates the food issue. My mage has a few "Magic Missiles" and "Melf's Acid Arrows" (appearing for the first time?) and my cleric has some "Cure Light Wounds" and "Hold Persons."

Preparing to blast some zombies with a "Magic Missile."

  • I like that the maps create irregular wall patterns and don't feel compelled to use every space. It makes it feel like more of a real place.
  • Like Dungeon Master, the game appears to have no economy.
  • Unlike Dungeon Master, the game requires no torches or "Light" spells. The dungeon is just naturally light, I guess.
  • You seem to get experience here for solving puzzles as well as killing enemies.

Gaston levels from finding a hidden area.

  • I have no idea how you resurrect, or if it's even possible before you get the fifth-level cleric spell "Raise Dead." Fortunately, combats have been easy enough that no one has come close to dying. Just for fun, I let some skeletons kill me to see what the "full party death" screen would look like.

Four Level 3 heroes is all that the city had to stand against the Minions of Evil?

  • There are apparently NPCs in the dungeon, but I haven't met any yet. When I do encounter them, I hope they're distinguishable as such and I don't end up killing them by accident.
  • You can save anywhere, but there's only one save slot. That gives me the heebie-jeebies just because of corruption issues. I think I'd better back that up occasionally.

So far, Eye of the Beholder is exactly what I was looking for: not a highly original game, but one that's exceedingly competent at a standard set of RPG tropes. Oh, there are weaknesses to this type of CRPG, and I'm sure I'll grouse about them before the end, but for the moment I'm having a lot of fun.

Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 0