I'm having trouble finding the source, but maybe 10 years ago, I remember reading a study about brain activity and computer games. The study showed that in the initial stages of a game, when the player is learning both the setting and the controls, the brain is in over-drive. Multiple areas light up with frenetic spikes in neuron usage or whatever. Then, as the player becomes comfortable with the game and settles into its mechanics, activity falls off drastically, more closely mirroring someone who is asleep than someone who is awake and engaged. That makes sense to me. There are times playing a long game like Fallout 4 where I'm essentially on autopilot. I have a hypothesis that consoles enhance this torpor, but I need to find the original study to even remember on what platforms it was conducted.
Anyway, I'd like to be able to say that the moments I prize in a CRPG are those beginning stages, where my brain is active and trying to fit everything I'm learning into its previous knowledge and experiences. I'd like to be able to say it but I can't. I hate the opening stages of a new game. I hate learning a new set of lore, a new magic system, and new controls. I love having learned those things, but I hate the process. This is why you so-often can't trust my first couple of entries on an original game. I'm having to force myself to play it rather than go play Baldur's Gate for the 15th time.
|Here, I break up the text with a screenshot of an owlbear looking like a Looney Tunes character.|
What I like is when I settle into the mid-game groove. With a PC RPG, I never quite reach the levels of drooling stupor that I do with my Xbox, but I still manage to sink into an enjoyable immersion with a constant cycle of action and reward. In these times, it annoys me to have to stop for blogging, and when I finally write something, I inevitably cover far too much material at once, losing a lot of the nuance in the process.
The Gold Box series poses a unique challenge in these moments. This is my seventh Gold Box game, and while we've seen a few interface and graphics improvements in the series during this period, they're very minor in comparison to the overall interface and game engine. Hardly anything has significantly changed since Pool of Radiance; hardly anything new must be learned with a new title. I can even use the same map templates. This means that I start each new Gold Box title already in the mid-game groove. Hours and hours go by before it occurs to me that I should probably stop and write about some of the things I experienced. Thus, this fairly long posting.
In the opening stages of the game, the plot had led me from Yartar to Nesme and seemed to want me to go from there to Silverymoon, the next stop along the river. As we discussed last time, the wilderness combats are a bit hard for a new party and the game seems to want you to stick to the river. The river plays a big role in each of the cities, with about 25% of their potential squares given over to inaccessible water.
As I left Nesme, I was experiencing something that I'd never encountered in a Gold Box game before: poverty. My characters were all ready to level up and I couldn't assemble the 1000-gold-piece cost. In every game prior to this one, the party's initial insolvency is almost immediately cured with the acquisition of the first gem or jewel. By the third or fourth map, a never-ending inflow of unneeded +1 magic items and bracers keeps the characters rich beyond the dream of avarice. This is all in addition to the enormous hauls of gold and platinum that the party gets from combats. My readers have repeatedly assured me that, as unfortunate as it was, finding 9,000 gold pieces after a battle with three ettins was somehow necessary under D&D rules and SSI's requirement to adhere to them.
Well, Beyond Software somehow found a way around those rules because the typical post-combat cache is in silver rather than gold or platinum and so far the game has been stingy with its magic items. That isn't a complaint. I rather like the refreshing experience of gold actually meaning something--of collecting leather armor and short swords to sell after a battle; of considering selling even valuable magic items to pay for basic sundries.
In Nesme, trolls are a source of potential wealth, but I calculated it would have taken me around 40 successful troll battles to get everyone (including my NPC) the money needed to level up once. By then, of course, I would have received enough experience to be able to level up again, dooming my party to a never-ending cycle and premature achievement of level caps. I wasn't interested in that so I decided to head for Silverymoon overland and see if I could make any money in wilderness encounters.
That didn't work--the combats were still too hard--but the decision had the effect of putting my party in Everlund before Silverymoon, since in this game, a party traveling overland can't cross a river. You have to cross inside cities that span the river. As it later turned out, I was clearly supposed to visit Silverymoon first, but I doubt it had any lasting consequences.
Everlund didn't have any services--all the shops seemed to indicate that robbers and poverty had cleaned them out. Goods were piled in warehouses waiting for river and caravan trade to resume, and some parties of gnolls were going through the goods. There was a bridge across the river, and large, inaccessible areas to the southwest. Some of these may be intended as water, but I couldn't see far enough to tell. In one of the buildings, a council member warned me about undead in the ruins to the north, livestock disappearing from the pens near the river, and stirges wandering the streets.
|Some fierce-looking gnolls. Where previous monster portraits were taken directly from D&D materials, I wonder if these were created original for this game.|
These notices set up the game's general approach so far. Every city has some problems with monsters, all self-contained within the map. Where in previous Gold Box games, the ruins teeming with undead might have been an entire separate map, here it's a dozen or so squares on the edges of the main map--and as we've seen, those main maps contain a lot of inaccessible squares. It feels like Gateway has a much more compact approach to its game world--less space for space's sake--than its predecessors, and that's really saying something since I never felt like the previous Gold Box games were artificially large, with perhaps the exception of Secret of the Silver Blades and some of the optional ruins in Curse of the Azure Bonds.
Anyway, the mentioned undead, gnolls, and stirges might attack three or four times randomly, and once you've dealt with them, the map is clear. But unlike previous games, you never seem to get any acknowledgement or reward for doing so. I kept returning to the buildings housing the leaders of the cities, expecting them to acknowledge that I'd largely solved their problems--expecting the familiar, unpunctuated "Congratulations the party has gained experience" notice--but nothing ever happened.
|You have to love a member of the Council of Elders who wears overalls. And is also the identical twin of Lord Nasher (see below).|
Amidst my explorations, I found a hidden area with a man chained to the wall, menaced by owlbears. After I killed the owlbears and freed him, he delivered what is perhaps the longest journal entry in a gold Box game so far--nearly two full pages. It began by saying, "We told [him] how some Banites believed that only he could stop the forces of Zhentil Keep from conquering the lands of the Savage Frontier," something that I, in fact, had never heard from any Banites because I didn't go to Silverymoon first.
In any event, he introduced himself as the wizard Amanitas, and he said that he'd learned about the Zhentarim plans from an escaped slave to General Vaalgamon. The Zhentarim have taken over an ancient city called Ascore in the far northeast of the game map. In ancient times, Ascore was protected by four statuettes--named after the four cardinal points of the compass--that protected them from enemies in those directions. Eventually, the statuettes were lost and scattered about the Savage Frontier. The Zhentarim have been searching for them because "they believe by returning the statuettes to Ascore, they can open a safe path through the Great Desert" through which "they intend to send armies to conquer the entire Savage Frontier."
I had to pop out of the game and into the Forgotten Realms wiki to understand how this even made sense geographically. Zhentil Keep is some distance from the Savage Frontier, but there is indeed a great desert, called Anauroch, in between. A map made it clearer. I'm not entirely sure how the statuettes are going to have anything to do with the desert, which contains all the perils of the lost ancient Netheril empire, but whatever.
|Ascore is in the northwest, Zhentil Keep and the Moonsea in the far east, and the Great Desert in between.|
Anyway, Amanitas's "magical investigations" had revealed some clues to the locations of the four statuettes.
- The Statuette of the East is in a great tower with many spires
- The Statuette of the West is in a small chest carved from the pearl of a great oyster, on an island somewhere
- The Statuette of the North is in a place "to which people do not wish to go." It is far away but in a place that many travelers must pass
- The Statuette of the South "lies both high above and far below the surface of the land"
Amanitas then gave me a magic ring and said that if I brought along with the statues to the ancient plaza in Ascore, somehow it would "turn the Zhentarim's planned triumph into total and irreversible defeat." He finished by giving me some kind of magic card that would enable the vaults in Yartar, Neverwinter, and Silverymoon to "save and exchange your valuables as if they were really just one place" and told me he'd be in Secomber if we'd like to seek him out again.
|I forgot that he said this about Yartar until I just uploaded this screenshot. I was already there! Maybe I have to search more carefully.|
Not a lot to go on for the four statuettes, but I remember a big tower in Luskan in Neverwinter Nights, so I suspect that's where the first statuette is. The only island is likely to be out in the ocean to the west, perhaps accessible from Port Llast, Neverwinter, or Luskan. Before I headed out, however, I went north to Silverymoon to see what I was supposed to have learned there.
Unlike Everlund, Silverymoon had a full set of services. By the time I reached it, I had been playing the game for nearly 7 hours without leveling up because I couldn't afford it. I had found a few gems and one jewel in the final Everlund battles, but even they weren't enough to take care of all my characters. Thus, I finally caved and sold my Ring of Protection +2, which brought in 15,000 gold pieces. That may seem like a lot, but it costs 8,000 to fully level-up my party, including my multi-classed fighter/thief and my NPC fighter. I suspected that I'd find some huge treasure haul moments after selling the ring, but that never happened on this or any subsequent maps.
|This hurt a little.|
Meanwhile, a magic shop in Silverymoon teased me with things I might actually want to buy, including Gauntlets of Dexterity.
|And of course we have the usual +1 arrow "money sink."|
The river in Silverymoon is crossed by a magic bridge that you can't see. There was talk about lizardmen hanging around the docks in town, and indeed I found some there. Notices proclaimed a weekly Festival of Mielikki (a goddess of the forest) coming up in 6 days, and I recalled that the note I had found on the slain Cleric of Bane had asked the cleric to meet the writer at some shop during the festival.
|I always imagined the Moonbridge to be a little more majestic.|
A blacksmith's shop announced it was closed until the festival. I waited until the festival and entered the shop, where the blacksmith turned out to be an agent of Bane. Believing I was his ally, he expressed horror at the Zhentarim's plan to "send armies across the Great Desert" claiming that this would destroy "the historic balance between the Zhentarim and the Banites." He finished by telling me of the great wizard, Amelior Amanitas, currently visiting the Vault of the Sages in Silverymoon. He though that Amanitas had some information that might stop the Zhentarim.
|This is the first time so far that there's been anything like an "encounter option" in the game.|
I kept getting kicked out of the Vault of Sages when I tried to enter, but I suspect if I'd visited here before Everlund, I would have found some information indicating that Amanitas had been captured and taken there. I was thus content that I was back on the main path again.
|The "town leader of Neverwinter?" Isn't that selling him a little short?|
Neverwinter next. It was disappointing. Unlike the sprawling metropolis I remembered from later games, it was just another 16 x 16 collection of shops and water. I spoke to Lord Nasher in his palace--I guess anyone can just wander in--and I want to offer his speech in total:
I'm afraid you've come to Neverwinter in a time of great troubles. Many people were moving to the outskirts of the city to escape the troubles. The older, inner areas were becoming havens for criminals and all forms of monsters.We converted several blocks of the old city to indoor gardens to help bring people back to Neverwinter. But now monsters have invaded the indoor gardens. Instead of bringing people in and helping the city, the gardens are scaring them away!
This seems like an obvious metaphor for "white flight" in many U.S. cities in the mid-20th century, leading to clumsy revitalization efforts that, often as not, made the problem worse. I don't really know what point the writers were trying to make by tying a similar scenario to Neverwinter, but in any event, although I was able to clear the indoor gardens of monsters--displacer beasts and manticores, primarily--nothing else plot-related happened in the city, and Nasher never acknowledged my help.
|The manticore here stands for the heroin epidemic.|
Port Llast was a tiny map, only 5 x 15, most of it taken up by an abandoned ship called the Gallant Prince that had been found adrift off the coast. The ship was full of undead, but by now my Level 4 clerics were capable of turning skeletons, zombies, and ghouls instantly, so the battles were no trouble. A couple of "Hosttower mages" seemed to be responsible for the fate of the ship, but they succumbed quickly to a couple of castings of "Hold Person." There wasn't a lot that was plot related, except a note (which confirmed what I otherwise suspected) that one of the statues was at the Hosttower in Luskan.
|Believe it or not, that's supposed to be a ghoul.|
I leave you on the streets of Luskan. I keep getting into battles with margoyles, but they only respond to magic weapons and I only have one of these in my party, making me think I perhaps should have gone in a different direction first. I just had to reload after two of my characters were killed by said margoyles--I don't have enough money for resurrection. Maybe I just need to head back to Silverymoon and spend some money on +1 daggers.
|The pirates die quickly enough, but only one of my characters has a weapon capable of defeating the margoyles.|
Some random notes:
- Every tavern so far has only offered "fight" and "leave" options, making them rather pointless. It feels like the team just didn't finish programming them.
- Unlike previous Gold Box games, characters in this one get full experience for turning undead and for foes who surrender.
- I tried just wandering around the wilderness maps to explore, but I haven't found any hidden locations so far. There seem to be a lot more outdoor squares here than in Pool of Radiance or Death Knights of Krynn, and I wonder if it makes sense to try to systematically explore them all, or if this game is more like Champions of Krynn where the outdoor map is kind of pointless and all the useful locations are clearly annotated.
|I explored that whole area between the rivers and there was nothing there.|
- I like the variety of monsters so far. I don't think any are appearing here for the first time, but ankhegs, trolls, ettins, giant snakes, owlbears, and manticores aren't exactly common in the earlier games. Giant snakes, incidentally, leave a bunch of leather armor behind when you kill them. Is the idea supposed to be that you're turning their skin into leather?
So far, a pleasant enough experience, and the game might be the first Gold Box title to get the economy right. The plot isn't very compelling just yet, and the combats (excepting some of the outdoor ones) have perhaps been a little too easy. But the game has me in its groove, and it's certainly easy to fire it up at the end of the day. Taking a break from it to explore Dragon Slayer II isn't going to be easy.
Time so far: 9 hours
Reload count: 4
Time so far: 9 hours
Reload count: 4