Thursday, December 29, 2016

Game 239: Silmar: Volume I - The Dungeons of Silmar (1991)

Silmar: Volume I - The Dungeons of Silmar
United States
Independently developed and distributed as shareware
Released in 1990 or 1991 for DOS
Date Started: 27 December 2016
Date Ended: 28 December 2016
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 27
Ranking at Time of Posting: 118/238 (50%)
Silmar is a decent "roguelite"--a game clearly inspired by Rogue but which removes too many elements to make it a "roguelike." It features the type of quest you typically find in roguelikes, plus a randomly-generated dungeon, but it lacks permadeath and greatly simplifies the interface and inventory systems. Too many games offer too-similar an experience to recommend it specifically, but it does a decent enough job for shareware, and it kept me amused for a few hours.

The base module--The Dungeons of Silmar--features 30 randomly-generated levels to explore. As in most roguelikes, the character finds treasures, fights monsters, gains experience, and presses ever downward towards an elusive goal at the bottom level. But if you die along the way, the game isn't over: you simply reload from the moment that you entered the most recent dungeon level. And since dungeon levels don't last very long, you don't really lose that much progress when you die.
Exploring the Dungeons of Silmar. My barbarian character is Level 6 and on dungeon Level 12. He's just opened a door to find a couple of monsters and a fountain waiting for him. A treasure chest sits in a room to the right. In the hallway to my southeast, a trap is barely visible (little black symbol in the middle of the tile).
Silmar does show some originality in its character creation system. Players choose from a staggering 25 character classes, including such oddities as werewolf, biodroid, baseball player, mortician, sub-vampire, gymnast, and percussionist. The differences among them are starker than in Nethack and other typical roguelikes. Some of them, like werewolves and sub-vampires, come with inherent weapons and armor that last them throughout the game; they can't pick up or wield normal weapons. Some have abilities that negate some of the game's logistical difficulties, such as the biodroid's ability to see without torches or the ability of several classes to go without food. Still others have special abilities, like the crusader's "Damn" ability, which destroys undead, or the pixie's ability to teleport enemies away. And a number of them come with weaknesses to balance their strengths. Some of the monstrous classes might be denied entry to the shop, for instance, and paladins tithe any gold they have remaining when they leave a store.
The strengths of the "percussionist" class.
On the negative side, you don't even get to name your character. After selection, the character receives 13 points in each of five attributes--strength, intelligence, judgement, agility, and endurance--and the player can redistribute them as he sees fit. After that, it's off to the first dungeon level. Every character starts with two "teleport beads" in their inventory and nothing else.
Distributing attributes during character creation.
The game's framing story places it in the land of Gormarundon, where an evil mage named Syrilboltus once waged war against the peaceful dwarves of the town of Silmarii (an obvious derivation from Tolkien). When he was on the verge of defeat at the hands of the dwarven armies, just before he disappeared, he somehow cast a spell that created the 30-level dungeon and populated it with evil monsters--a curse to plague the town until some adventurer could reach the bottom level.
The backstory is told in a few screens.
Each level is 30 x 30 tiles, randomly generated as the player goes down the ladders (once you go down, you cannot return to earlier levels). If the character dies and restarts from the last save, the level is re-generated. Secret doors are prevalent, and you spend an awful lot of time searching for them so you can find all the level's treasures and encounters, plus the ladders down.
This closed-off area is actually reachable. Any block that has an empty space on the opposite side from where the character stands will disappear when you push on it. I just need to slowly chisel away enough blocks.
The game uses an extremely simplified list of commands: get, drop, fire, view character information, use a special power, toggle sound, and quit. The inventory is also simplified from the typical roguelike. There's no concern about identifying items. You have an active weapon and one suit of armor--no helms, boots, belts, amulets, rings, and so forth. There are treasures like crowns and medallions that are simply for selling, plus a handful of items that offer one-use protection from certain effects. For instance, a "blood talisman" will negate poison and a "nerve amulet" protects against paralysis. The only ambiguity is in scrolls and potions. Some have positive effects (e.g., temporary invulnerability, revealing the map of the level) and some have negative effects (e.g., poison, forgetting the part of the level you've already explored) but there's no way to identify this ahead of time; you just use them and hope for the best.
A scroll clearly inspired by Nethack's Scroll of Genocide.
Each level is sprinkled liberally with treasures and monsters, and like most roguelikes, you can fight monsters by shooting them at a distance with ranged weapons or bashing them in melee range. Even at high levels, the typical combat only lasts a couple of rounds. Monsters are not named within the game, but you can figure out by their icon what they are, and you soon learn which ones have special attacks that you want to avoid. As you kill them, you gain experience and level up (characters start at Level 3, for some reason), which confers extra "injury points" (the specific number dependent on class) and for some classes extra attacks.
My barbarian attacks a vampire on the diagonal.
Key to the game is the ability to warp to a store using "teleportation beads." Unlike some roguelikes in which such devices take you to the top of the dungeon, in Silmar they simply call up a store menu, leaving your position in the dungeon unchanged. I learned the hard way that after you use a bead, the first thing you want to do is buy another bead; otherwise, you might get stuck with no ability to return to the store unless you happen to find a bead, and they're very rare. Some classes have a chance of getting rejected when they try to enter the store, but their bead disappears anyway, so they need to keep several on hand as backups.

The store sells a variety of items, including torches and food. Unless the character is of a class that doesn't need these items, you have to buy them frequently throughout the game, but they're very cheap and it's more of an annoyance than a true challenge. Mostly, you use the store to sell excess merchandise and then to convert your gold to experience points (at a rate of 1 experience point for 10 gold pieces).
Visiting the store early in the game.
Characters can only carry 10 x their strength in gold pieces, so you have to warp to the store frequently--sometimes after every individual chest--to make sure you don't waste the excess. The store sells a Bag of Carrying that allows you to carry up to 30,000 gold, but it costs 15,000 gold. Since you can't carry that much, one of the logistical challenges of the game is to assemble the right collection of high-value sale items, sell them all at once at the store, and then buy the bag.

The game is very hard until you find a weapon (if the character doesn't come with claws or whatnot), then easy for a few levels, and then quite hard in the second half as enemies start to develop special attacks. There are slimes that dissolve weapons and armor, invisible enemies, and monsters with the ability to poison, paralyze, drain levels, steal items or food, and teleport you away. Some only respond to "holy" weapons like holy water or a Mace of Purity. There's at least one monster--some blob-like creature--that seems to be completely invulnerable, and you simply have to run away from it and hope it doesn't trap you in a hallway.
Some kind of ooze destroys my armor.
The game also features a variety of special encounters in the same vein as the D&D or Wizard's Castle variants, where by sheer luck either a good thing or a bad thing happens. An altar will take your money and then either raise or lower an attribute. A fountain might do the same. A magic lamp will either release a genie who boosts your statistics or an efreeti who fights you to death. The only encounters that are always positive are trainers, who will boost attributes for 1,000 gold pieces, and statues, which will give you a random item if you have a gem.
An orc character gets a boost to his strength.
And a barbarian gets lucky in this encounter with a genie.
There are copious traps--a few too many, really, although what I like about the game's approach is that you can see them before you step on them, if you look carefully. An extra bit of vigilance on the player's part can avoid pits, spiked pits, poisoned spiked pits, and teleporters.

Spells are under-developed. Only a few of the classes have them, and even they only have one or two each. The druid can cast "lightning" to damage enemies and "recall" to return to the store (she needs no teleport beads). Paladins and crusaders have spells that heal and turn undead. Wizards have "fireball" and "teleport." None of these spells cast from a pool of spell points. Instead, when the player invokes them, the game rolls against the relevant attribute (usually intelligence or judgement) to determine success or failure. Thus, for those spells that aren't cast in combat, like healing or "recall," failure really has no consequence since you can just keep doing it until you get it right.
My character prepares to "damn" a skeleton.
In theory, I think the character classes are supposed to be balanced in their strengths and weaknesses. In practice, some of them have bonuses that make the game much, much easier. In particular, classes that automatically regenerate hit points (barbarian, troll, sub-vampire) or have a special healing power (paladin, crusader) have a much easier game than those who have to rely on potions to heal. (Unlike some roguelikes, the average character doesn't automatically regenerate by moving around.) The sub-vampire is almost laughably easy. He regenerates quickly, needs no torches or food, is immune to poison and paralysis, and doesn't have to worry about weapons and armor because he comes with his own.
And he takes 0 damage from lower-level enemies.
But both the lack of permadeath and the nature of the game's winning condition make it ultimately pretty easy for any class. To win, you simply have to reach the down ladder on the 30th level. Since the game regenerates the current level every time you die and restore, inevitably--no matter how incompetent the player--it will generate a level in which the down ladder is right in front of you. You don't even need to wait to die--you could just keep hitting "(Q)uit" and then reloading. A Level 3 character can reach the bottom, find the final ladder, and win the game without killing a single foe.
My werewolf, who has yet to gain a single level, gets lucky when he arrives on Level 6 and immediately finds a ladder to Level 7.
The only real difficulty, I suppose, is that you can no longer visit the store after the 23rd level. The game doesn't give you any warning about this, and if you hit Level 24 low on torches (and your character class isn't one that can see in the dark), you could put yourself in a situation where you can't see to continue. You could also starve to death if you're low on food when you pass this level. Beyond that, patience will always lead to victory.

There's no final battle or encounter before winning; you just find the ladder on Level 30 and go down once more. The game ends on an unsatisfying (and somewhat nonsensical) cliffhanger:
The dungeons disintegrate around you but you are protected by some kind of shimmering magical field. Before you, a spirit rises up from the earth and ruble, shouting vulgar things triumphantly in a powerful voice. It is Syrilboltus! Once high above you, you see his spirit taking on a human form once again. The mage then flies away, but to what aim?
The story promises to continue in the next two modules--An Everpresent Magic and The Forward Terminus--which advertise new items, special encounters, monsters, and settings. To get these additional adventures, the developer asked for $12. I haven't been able to find them online, and in any event, I think I've played enough of the game to understand it.
The "winning screen." I won with a barbarian.
Based on The Dungeons of Silmar, I award it:

  • 1 point for the game world, a simple framing story unreferenced in-game.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. The strengths and weaknesses of the different classes are clever and original; otherwise, there's not much here.
A full list of available classes.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 3 points for a standard selection of encounters and foes.
Gee, thanks for making the situation worse.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Other roguelikes offer more tactical combat through more interesting inventories.
  • 3 points for a basic set of equipment.
  • 4 points for an economy that, since you can convert gold to experience, never stops being relevant.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 4 points for decent tile graphics, a few sound effects, and a very easy-to-use keyboard interface. I like how each character class has its own icon.
  • 4 points for gameplay. It gets credit for not lasting too long and for offering a fair amount of replayability given the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. On the other hand, it's a bit too easy.
That gives us a final score of 27, very respectable for a roguelite shareware title. A little more of Nethack's complexity would have been welcome, and perhaps some reason to defeat monsters other than "they're in my way." I do rather like its approach to saving--automatically, once per level--which doesn't punish you as severely as the typical roguelike yet still offers some consequences for death.

Silmar is credited to Jeff Mather and David Niecikowski of Tucson, Arizona. Its copyright says 1990, but the files all have 1991 creation dates. Mather is also credited on an earlier shareware RPG called Ranadinn (1988) that I somehow missed on my first pass but will catch when I swing through the year again.
A side-scrolling combat game called Navjet was distributed on the same disk as Silmar.
Silmar was packaged with two other titles: Dunjax and Navjet, both side-scrolling action games, the former involving a gun-toting dungeon explorer and the latter involving fighter jets bombing missile bases. Beyond these games, I can't find evidence that Mather or Niecikowski worked on any other titles. They did update Silmar for Windows in the late 1990s with revised graphics and a fully-explorable town level, but apparently without the selection of character classes that make the original worth playing. Mather offers it for sale on his web site, which also features a browser version of Dunjax.
The Windows version, from the game's web site.
The game was a nice diversion from the sprawling gameworld of Fate and the translation issues and bugs in Fer & Flamme, but it also had the effect of arousing my roguelike appetite without bedding it back down. Maybe if I get started on the 3.1 series of Nethack now, I'll have a "won" posting ready for when the game comes up in 1993.


OrbQuest: The Search for the Seven Wards (1986) is off my list unless someone turns up with a copy.

And I'd appreciate hearing from anyone with experience with Heimdall (1991) or Obitus (1991) whether they're RPGs under my rules. I can't quite tell from the descriptions whether they have character development during the game. (Heimdall does seem to have attributes, but that's not quite the same thing.)

Monday, December 26, 2016

Fate: Nothing to Show but the Maps

When you're trying to map the entirety of a coastline, such peninsulas are very unwelcome.
I have declared several times that I realize mapping every square of a 400 x 640 map is insane, and that there's no way I can possibly complete the entire thing, and yet every time this week that I've opened Fate, I've been compelled to continue my map rather than making more substantial progress in the game. I keep telling myself that I'm killing two birds with one stone: filling in the geography and getting hints from wandering NPCs. But the truth is that wandering NPCs clearly don't have all the hints I need, and I really need to be hitting up the cities instead.
The consequence is that another 15 hours of "gameplay" have gone by, and I'm nowhere that I wasn't at the end of the last post, except a lot more experience (from wandering monsters) and more complete maps. In terms of plot, I'm probably worse than at the end of the last post, because I had to reload an earlier save (from the corruption messages) and I don't think I got all the same hints again.

The game map is so big I can't view it in a single screen, even at Excel's lowest zoom level. Here's the west side...

And here's the east side.
Because I have nothing else to talk about, let's talk about the map and mapping. The Fate world seems to be about half land, half water. Most of the land is to the west and northwest. A long, irregular coastline runs from the southwest to the northeast. There is a small landmass in the northeast, home to the "Forbidden Zone" and what I assume are the game's final encounters. It is connected to the main continent by a very thin strip of land.

Most of the east/southeast is given to a sea, but islands of all sizes dot the waters.

Mapping land is a little different than mapping sea. For sea, I can use the in-game overhead maps to fill in large areas of water. For land, you have to physically walk on each accessible square. Otherwise, you could miss a treasure, signpost, or special encounter. Fortunately, the game has a habit of putting the latter two in obvious places, but I've learned that treasures can be anywhere. More than once, I've mapped a large area, left, then noticed I'd missed one or two squares. Resisting the temptation to just assign my standard color to those two squares, I've taken pains to return--and found a valuable treasure in one of the squares that I had missed.
It turned out to be worse than the headgear I already had, but still....
There are some land areas that turn out to be completely encircled by impassable mountains, water, or trees, making it possible to fill in those areas as a large chunk. Oddly, the in-game maps (summoned by spells or jewels) often shows different terrain in the middle of these areas that no player could ever visit. I'm not so far gone that I've been worrying about accuracy in those areas.

In fact, my map is rather simplistic. I only use six colors: water, mountains, trees, towns, roads, and "otherwise steppable squares." That last category includes a variety of grassland, swamps, packed dirt, and lightly-forested areas, but I haven't been making such distinctions. Early in the game, I didn't make any distinction between mountains and trees, either, which is why the upper-left has solid black in some areas that should be green.

I've come to regret my decision to use solid black for mountains. My wife suggested brown, but I can't distinguish that from the green I've been using for trees. I tried doing a find-and-replace using a dark grey, but for some reason Excel didn't "find" a lot of the black squares, so I just left it alone for now.

As I've covered many times previously and in my FAQ, I use Excel for my mapping. It's easy to draw borders along the edges of cells and use a variety of fill colors to represent terrain. There's no good border style for a door, but that's not an issue in the outdoors. I annotate special encounters with letters, and then I usually put a comment on the associated cell with more information. You can search comments in Excel, so that doesn't create any problems.
A combination of border and shading options plus commenting makes Excel a decent game mapping package.
I'm sure the comments will be choked with suggestions for different programs for mapping, but I've been doing this in Excel for 7 years now, and I won't be changing my platform. With Excel, I don't have to worry about the files not opening if some special software gets discontinued. I can store tables of monsters, equipment, hints, and so forth in the same workbook. Windows finds text inside the workbooks if I search years later. Except for the door issue, which isn't exactly crippling, I don't have any reason to switch.

Game developers have a few choices when it comes to the edges of their world maps. One, as we see in Might & Magic and Ultima IV and V, is to wrap the player to the other side, and as we've discussed there's no geometric shape for which this makes sense--at least, not on a square map--unless we assume the cells are of non-uniform size. The second solution, used unsatisfyingly in many open-world games like Skyrim and Fallout IV, is simply to tell the player he can't go any further. You might be able to see what looks like game terrain in the distance, but you can't visit beyond a fixed coordinate.

I can only think of one game, Fallthru, that uses a third option: just keep generating new coordinates indefinitely in all directions. As a text game, it had this luxury. Are there any graphical games that do this? I've heard Daggerfall uses procedurally-generated maps; can you walk indefinitely in any direction?

The fourth method, used by almost every dungeon crawler, Ultima VI, and Fate, is to create a "hard" border around the edges of the map, disallowing further travel because of an impassable wall, mountain, or void. In the case of Fate, the entire map is ringed with mountains. When one of those mountains shows up literally at one of the edge coordinates (0E, 0N, 650E, or 400N), I know there's nothing "behind" it, so I can fill in all of the excess border squares between such points, as in the left half of the shot below. As for the right half, it's not impossible that some further passage could bring me into the area on the other side of those black squares, so I can't fill them in just yet. (Yes, I know I can use the jewels in such occasions, but I've been trying to conserve them. Plus, the scale is so small in the outdoor areas that it's hard to see individual passages in the jewel maps.)
I've been doing this so long that you'd think I'd have a good system, but I don't. Sometimes, I walk one square and then immediately map it. Other times, I try to keep the memory of my last 10 or 12 movements in my head and then map them all at once. Neither seems to result in better accuracy. I use the "Locate" spell every 40-50 moves to make sure I haven't screwed something up, and about one-third of the time I use it, I find that I'm one square off. I probably spend more time diagnosing and undoing errors than anything else.

The developers could have made it a lot easier for mappers by creating smoother edges. If you just have a straight edge (or a long hallway in a dungeon), you just have to take a coordinate at the beginning and one at the end and fill in the walls in between. But in Fate, you rarely get lucky enough to find half a dozen continuous squares in a row. Instead, there are frequently nooks, crannies, dips, juts, small side-passages, and so forth, all of which greatly lengthen the mapping of edges and coasts. This is particularly true of the bottom edge, since it occurs in multiple sections inaccessible from each other except by boat. If having to keep boarding and disembarking from my ship wasn't enough to discourage me from mapping the southern border, I don't know what it's going to take.

Part of the bottom border. Each square marked in red is an impassable barrier on land, so I have to get back in my ship and set sail to visit the next section.
Two other notes:

  • There are encounters at sea! They happen so infrequently that I had been sailing for many hours before I met any monsters, but they do appear. Krakens, giant squids, and the like. They're not very hard. I'm surprised the game didn't make sea combat more "realistic" by setting a minimum distance to the enemies, but it didn't.
I don't know precisely how my characters are fighting these creatures from the ship, but combat is unchanged.
  • From commenters, I've learned that I need to dig or search to find treasures on some of the islands. Usually, items are found in copses of trees, but it's been a struggle not to search every step just to make sure.
One of Irene's cousins gave her a set of adult coloring books for Christmas. I've been fairly vocal in how idiotic and pointless I feel that this trend is. (I realize they play an important role in various therapies, and of course I'm not talking about that.) But as I retreated to my mapping at numerous occasions during the Christmas weekend--there's only so much attention you can pay to Miracle on 34th Street when watching it for the 35th time--I realized that what I was doing wasn't much different. Fate had long stopped being an RPG in any meaningful sense--easily-beaten wilderness encounters aside--and more of some kind of paint-by-numbers kit.

Thus, now that I have the entire perimeter and coastline finished (except for some of the Forbidden Zone), I've resolved to actually return to the game next time I play. It's clear that I need to stay within one city at a time to exhaust its Moonwand clues, then go and find the damned pieces. I'll still map when I need to enter new areas in furtherance of the plot, but it's time to get back on track and try to finish this game.

Time so far: 177 hours

Friday, December 23, 2016

Game 238: Fer & Flamme (1986)

This company will one day own the Might & Magic franchise.
I have an uncle who did some Peace Corps engineering work in west Africa during the mid-1980s. I can't remember what country, but he was stationed for a while in a fairly remote village of about 2,000 people.  I've heard him describe how the village only had one television set, and that television set only got one channel, and kids would flock to the guy's house and pay whatever they could save--the equivalent of nickels and dimes, I guess--to get to stand in his living room and watch whatever happened to be on. They didn't really care. It could be some politician giving a speech, or Mr. Rogers, or a badly-dubbed episode of Barney Miller, but the sheer novelty of the technology made them happy to watch whatever they could lock their eyes on.

Fer & Flamme is the RPG equivalent of that television set. So was Tyrann, for that matter. Neither game offers a core experience that dozens of American titles weren't offering 5 years earlier, but "globalism" wasn't a word yet, and this was the best you could do if you were in France. That it's the first RPG--perhaps even the first game--from Ubisoft (just look at the crudeness of that logo!) adds a nice layer of irony to the whole thing.

By 1986, France was in its brief "golden age" of RPGs, and Fer & Flamme is one of about 10 French-only titles that we see between 1984 and 1989. Le Maitre Absolu (1989) is the last RPG I can identify that only had a French release. Plenty of other games after that, of course, were given French translations, but overall France's strategy after the 1980s seems to have been to host multi-national conglomerates rather than small independent developers writing specifically for French audiences. (Of course, we can't rule out the alternative hypothesis that a lot of French-only titles simply haven't made it to English databases.) Ubisoft is preeminent among such companies, and it's fun to see their humble beginnings with Fer & Flamme, Le Anneau de Zengara (1987), Le Maître des Ames (1987), and Le Maître Absolu (1989). But the company clearly knew where the money was--distributing American titles in France and later developing titles for global releases--and 1989 is the last year that they fielded anything that requires a diacritical.

There's nothing here we haven't seen before. Even the backstory is written as if the author was trying to be as generic as possible. "Il y a de cela bien longtemps," it begins, a phrase that means the same thing as, and is just as cliched as, "once upon a time." The game is set it the Kingdom of Thulynte, formerly peaceful and ruled by King Ulrik from the capital of Dord, "City of a Thousand Fires." Ulrik was forced to flee when a wizard named Khaal worked some evil magic that turned Thulynte's brave defenders--the "Miniens"--into an army of undead. A resistance tried to oppose Khaal, but it was short-lived, because Khaal "knew everything, saw everything, guessed everything."

The game world as given in the in-game map.
The party is a group of mercenaries from the neighboring country of Senghar, which once enjoyed amicable relations with Thulynte, but is now worried about its own security. The party consists of 5 characters chosen from 8 classes: warriors, magicians, elves, thieves, knights, clerics, dwarves, and "tinigens," the game's version of "hobbits." Each has various minimum requirements among the game's four attributes--strength, intelligence, wisdom, and dexterity--and the game gives you 40 points to distribute among them.

I believe using elves and dwarves as separate classes rather than races goes back to original Dungeons & Dragons. Elves are basically fighter/magicians. Dwarves have some special skills related to exploring underground. Warriors and knights seem to be about the same, with warriors perhaps a little stronger and more brutal. My party consists of a knight (Bucher), a magician (Amadou), a cleric (Bruler), a thief (Lumiere), and a dwarf (Roussir).
Creating a characters.
All my characters' names are variations of "fire" themes in French. I did this because I thought that Fer & Flamme meant "fire and flame," and I was going to make fun of the game for such a redundant title. Then I realized that fer actually means "iron"; "fire" is feu. I had to delete like three paragraphs.

During character creation, you have the option to purchase weapons, armor, shields, and helms for the characters. Everyone gets 600 gold pieces, which goes a long way for magicians, who can barely wield or wear anything, but not for knights, who have a large selection. As I was purchasing weapons, I thought if you're given a choice between an epee simple ("simple sword") and an epee en fer ("sword on fire") you naturally have to go with the latter. Now, I realize it simply means "iron sword." That was a bit of a letdown.
I should have bought the sword that requires two men instead.
When the game started, I couldn't find any indication of these weapons and armor within my characters' inventories except as reflected by their armor class. Unless I'm missing a command, there doesn't seem to be any way to trade or drop these items. I can only guess that, like Tyrann, you can only have one of each type of object at a time, and when you buy a new one, it automatically replaces the old one.

Magicians also choose spells during this process. The screen showed 5 Level 1 spells but only let me select from among three of them: "Charm Persons," "Force Field," and a "Striking Spell" that I guess is equivalent to "Magic Missile." Oddly, I got the same screen for my cleric, but there don't seem to be any Level 1 cleric spells so I couldn't choose anything.
Choosing my first spell.
After a process of saving the party, the game begins with the characters north of a city (Dord) on a gridded map. The player is quickly exposed to what is perhaps the worst interface in RPG history--perhaps even game history.
The opening area.
As we see with so many titles of the era--although rarely to such an extreme--despite knowing that the platform on which the game is to be played has a full keyboard--you need it for characters' names, for instance--the developers assumed that players wouldn't want to be bothered with anything more complex than a joystick. Along the bottom of the screen is a series of 28 icons. They include Roman numerals from I to V, corresponding to each of the characters, 4 arrows for movement plus "up" and "down" options, and symbols that correspond with actions like enter, leave, check character sheets, check inventory, check health, look at the map, search, take, drop, steal, give, haggle, pay, and cast a spell.

The player maneuvers through the game by pushing left or right on the joystick (corresponding to the left and right arrows in the emulator) and hitting "fire" on the appropriate button. There is no redundant keyboard input. When the game asks which of your characters should complete an action, you can't just hit "3" on the keyboard; you have to scroll the icons to "III" and select it. To even move, you have to swap around the various arrow icons. This kind of gameplay is torturous. I can't believe it didn't occur to anyone to allow hitting the number keys in addition to selecting them from the icon strip, not to mention keyboard backups for all of the other options.
This just makes me want to go to New Orleans.
Moving into the city of Dord prompts you to exchange disks and then changes the interface to a first-person adventure-game style where you walk from screen to screen with the various arrows. The city consists of a number of street scenes, houses, and shops.
Let's see...I can buy chicken for 54 or 44. This is going to be a tough choice.
Occasionally, you meet NPCs who greet you with a hearty "bonjour!" You select a character to speak and then select from among options to "flatter," "threaten," "insult," or "wait." In my experimentation so far, anything other than "flatter" just makes the NPC leave. "Flatter" takes you to other simple keyword options, like "hello," "action," "me," "you," and "nothing," and each of these can continue into more options. For instance, choosing "me" leads you to a series of options where you explain to the NPC just who you are. So far, I haven't gotten anything from NPCs except pleasantries.
I get only a "hello" when telling an NPC that we're "friends."
Throughout the city, you run into doors that you can try to "enter." Usually, the game tells me that they're closed and invites me to break in. I haven't had a particular reason to do that yet.
Out in the countryside, I've run into a few parties of monsters, but I confess I'm confused as to how the combat system works. I do have the manual, but it's not a lot of help on this issue or I'm mis-translating the passages. It seems to start with a phase in which you position your characters against the monsters on a 5 x 5 grid. For some reason, the "up" action moves from character to character during this phase, which took me a long time to figure out. The monsters themselves don't move during this phase, but they might change positions entirely between phases.
The party faces a group of skeletons.
If you want to fight anyone that round, I guess the monster needs to be in the square directly in front of the character; otherwise, the game ignores that character.   
After the movement phase, the game enters the combat phase, where each character has options to attack, cast a spell and then attack, or flee. Once you choose the option, combat begins for that character. You see your character's strength, hit points, and experience, as well as the monster's, and you watch the rounds go by as hit points deplete and experience increases. At the end, one of you is dead.
Combat options.
That's the way it works theoretically. In practice, my characters are unable to strike even a single blow against any of the monsters I've encountered. I just have to watch as their hit points go down and the monsters' experience goes up, and then I get a message that the character is dead. I suspect I have to be doing something wrong, but I'm not sure what it is.
Things are not looking good for Amadou.
That's where I am with Fer & Flamme. I've hardly penetrated the game and am confused about a lot of its conventions, but I thought I'd post this and see if anyone who's played the game might pop along with some advice. In my first year, I abandoned a couple of French games too quickly because I found them confusing and bizarre, and I don't want to make the same mistake again. But barring some miracle I'm not anticipating--"Addict, you just have to hold down CTRL, and then there's a keyboard option for every game command!"--I feel like we're in for the same experience we've had with most French games: high weirdness, high frustration, low GIMLET.


OrbQuest, an early Mac game, is coming up, but I can't seem to find a viable copy anywhere. As usual, help is appreciated.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fate: Moonwandering

To this party, calling something the "Forbidden Zone" is like making a triple-dog dare.
My journey through Fate has turned somewhat aimless, as I wander around collecting hints as to the locations of the seven Moonwand pieces (a quest, I feel compelled to add, that would take up the entire game in a more sensibly-sized title). I got bored just hanging around cities, trying to find the right NPCs, so I basically decided to hit up wandering outdoor NPCs for hints as I filled in more of my ridiculous, never-to-be-completed map. Since there are fewer dialogue-friendly NPCs in the wilderness, my collection of hints is small, even after an additional 11 hours.
Winwood somehow knows how the days in Fate translate to the calendar back home.
From what I can gather, each piece of the Moonwand has its own name and its own magical properties. The summary of my knowledge about them is:

1."The Dreamstone." By the end of the last session, I knew I needed to find Rinoges in Laronnes. Wandering around Laronnes, I heard that Rinoges is a "strange mage" who only comes out for one hour between midnight and 01:00 (clued as "the witching hour"), and I'd find him at the "southern cross" (a fairly obvious geographic area in the city).

Rinoges was where he was supposed to be, and he freely admitted to having the Dreamstone. He said that it gives him the power to "travel around in [his] dreams to any place that [he] wants!" Unfortunately, he wasn't interested in giving it to me.
I tried a bunch of dialogue options to no avail. I even tried killing him--just to see if it would work--but all I found was money. I figured I'd try him later or, failing that, get a hint from readers.

2. "Marbeye." This one is supposed to be "part of the legendary treasure of Captain Bloodhawk," so I'm guessing I need to do more digging around the seas and islands.
3. "Crimcross." No idea where it is, but it's "invisible most of the time," and I'll only find it "in the darkest night." To learn more about it, I need to find the Oracle of Demon Tower, but I'll have to "make a special offering to make the Oracle speak."
The most useless hint in the game so far.
4. "Spiralgem." In the possession of fairies on "Fawn Island." I don't know where that is yet.

No word yet on the last three pieces, but I know that when I have them all, I need to seek the "Chamber of Lhanis."
My latest map. I know I'll never finish it, and yet I can't seem to stop making it.
In assembling these things, I mapped several new areas, including all (or almost all) of the northern border and the area of a large northern lake. More important, I wandered into the "Forbidden Zone" just to see what would happen. I had this idea that I would die immediately, but nothing special happened except I was attacked by wave after wave of undead. Eventually, it got to be too much and I left, but otherwise the area didn't live up to its reputation.
When this started happening every step, it got old fast.
The Forbidden Zone had a couple of geographic oddities, including a long road that ended at a 3 x 3 square with nothing in it, and another road through the mountains that ended in a 7 x7 square of pavement, surrounded by water, with a small lake in the middle, and a one-square island in the lake. I couldn't find anything to do in either location; perhaps they'll be important later.
Something must be important about those two trees.
It's been a long time since any monsters in the outdoors were actually dangerous. Now that my characters have weapons that affect all enemies in all groups, and they usually go first, I rarely have much to fear even from huge packs of undead, wolves (they tend to attack at night), or mages. Thus, I started using the experience to try to buff some of my non-combat statistics. The game keeps track of how many hits you've made, spells you've cast, and special actions you've successfully made like thefts, tricks, enchants, and hides. From experience and your comments, I have a sense that the altar beneath Larvin rewards you based on these statistics. Thus, I generated a random number table to guide what each character does in each combat round, to produce more variety in combat actions and spells.
Some of Winwood's statistics before embarking on my new plan.
That's a relatively short recounting of almost a dozen hours of gameplay. Unfortunately, we have a problem. A few sessions ago, I started experiencing a crash and error message every time I tried to enter a city after adventuring for a while:
I was generally able to solve this by saving and quitting the game, then reloading. However, at the end of this session, I found myself unable to save and quit without getting this error message:
At this point, the emulator didn't register my final save, so when I restarted, the saved game was the last one I'd saved before quitting the previous session--maybe 6 hours earlier. I can reload a save state from the end of that session, but I can't successfully save in-game, nor can I enter any city.

I have earlier save states that I can reload, if I'm willing to give up hours of progress. But without knowing what caused the corruption above, I have no guarantee that those save states won't eventually just devolve into the same problem.

I'll wait and see if anyone can interpret these messages and give me some advice before deciding what to do. In the meantime, it's on to Fer & Flamme and my French dictionary.

Time so far: 162 hours