Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty: Summary and Rating

I confess I never thought of the candle's prisoner as roasting in the candle. That makes what we did to Dreax seem cruel.

The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty
United States
Mindcraft (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS
Date Started:  3 April 2017
Date Ended: 21 May 2017
Total Hours: 71
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

The Magic Candle II is far from a bad game--it has most of the strengths of the first game, really--but I didn't enjoy it for reasons that are hard to quantify. It hits all the right notes in a technical sense, and should get a relatively high GIMLET score because of it, but there was something ineffable that made me not look forward to my sessions. Was I just in a bad mood during the last two months? Or are there subtle issues of balance that my approach to rating games doesn't address?

I'm inclined to think that it's more of the latter, and I addressed some of the issues a few entries ago. Combat is either too easy (with the appropriate mushrooms in your stomach, casting "Sense" as you explore) or too hard (no mushrooms, lots of ambushes), and unlike games in which you're at least rewarded with experience for battle after battle, The Magic Candle series imparts so little in the way of actual character development that it feels like you're fighting for nothing. As a consequence, there weren't many battles in the game that I actually enjoyed.
Ambushes like this were all too frequent and frustrating in the later parts of the game.
My overall indifference to the game can be seen in the numerous things that I didn't explore, do, or take the time to learn. For instance:

  • The game gives you "mindstones" to communicate with party members you've left in other areas of the map, but unlike the first game, it's so easy to get around the game world--and there's no time limit--that I didn't feel it was necessary to communicate over large distances.
The "mindstones" are a good idea that I did nothing with. I don't even know who the first two people are.
  • A new music system allows characters to learn half a dozen songs which are supposed to enchant or stun various types of enemies. I couldn't get it to work and didn't really care since it's easy enough to just kill those enemies.
  • I didn't wake up half of the gods in the game. It turns out that one of them would have demanded Brennix, and another would have demanded that the sorceress Somona was in my party, so he could kill her. I could have run around talking to NPCs a second time and ensuring that I had the gods' passwords, but the extra attribute points just didn't seem worth it.
  • I only bothered to use trainers a couple of times. Some skills advanced by use alone, and for others, the need just wasn't there. 
I honestly don't even know what "stealth" is for. Fewer wilderness encounters?
  • There was something called the "Horn of the Tundra" that I could have found in Maratul and used to call nomads to my side as allies. I never even heard about it.
  • There were a few other magic weapons that I could have found if I'd been more careful in my dialogue notes.
These issues are all the more notable given that I played with a sub-optimal party. I suppose the best way to make the game truly challenging would be to play with a single character, or just two or three.

The story is okay. This is an era in which most games didn't invest much in stories at all, so for that alone, I'm grateful for the detailed backstory, paragraph book, and NPCs. At the same time, aspects of the story didn't make any sense. Why did Zakhad's forces slaughter the forty guardians of the candle and kidnap the Eldens anyway? Why imprison the Eldens in magic candles? Why did Zakhad think that he had successfully led us into a trap when it depended on so many elements outside his control? Consider, too, that freeing the Eldens was only necessary to defeat Zakhad in the game's own Rube Goldberg plot. Otherwise, they were completely unconnected to the Orb of Light.
This didn't quite "ruin" the game, but it came close.
Before we get to the GIMLET, let's consider some of the paragraph book entries that I didn't find. I assume most of them are fake, but it's hard to tell; I might have just missed some. Unlike the fake entries in the Gold Box games, which are purposefully designed to lead you astray, most of the ones here could easily have been part of the game: a tavernkeeper calmly discusses his city's resources as a brawl breaks out behind him; the party frees some halflings, who immediately start looking for food; Zakhad taunts the party from atop Rebnard's throne (offering more text here than he does in the real game); the nomad king pretends to be enraged at the party but then turns out to be joking; a goblin tells the party about Deadwood.

There are only a couple that are directly misleading, and both would have you think that the elves of Llendora are evil. One of them depicts the party being captured by the elves and forced to survive for 7 days while the elves hunt them. Another has the sorceress Somona warning the party about the elves' treachery.
I never even found the "real" Somona in-game.
On to the rating!

1. Game World. I covered this above. The sheer amount of text is impressive, and I love when the backstory integrates well into the actual gameplay. It was just silly at times. The physical world is well-designed, with Gurtex separated into various logical sections. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. I loved the ability to import the heroes from both previous games, but there otherwise isn't very much to character creation. Development occurs in a few ways, by getting attribute boosts from awakened gods, by training characters in their skills, and (for some skills) by employing those skills. In all cases, the development is extremely incremental, barely felt in the game, and (for weapon skills) too-easily maxed. I suspect I could have won with the starting party even if they hadn't developed at all. I did like that there were a few places in which the party composition mattered to the plot, but in general there weren't any role-playing options related to class or race. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. Definitely a solid part of the game. Talking with NPCs is vital to advancing the plot, and an impressive number of them can be recruited to the party. Even though party-splitting options were reduced for this one, it's still neat that you can spin off your party members to have them study, develop skills, or earn a wage--I just wish there had been more actual reasons to do this. It's also fun the way NPCs comment during exploration; we're almost at the "banter" era perfected in the Infinity Engine titles here. If the game overall were better, it would be fun to replay it with different party combinations. I have no idea why you'd ever favor a hireling over a regular NPC companion, though. Score: 6. 
The party learns about the final areas from some NPCs.
4. Encounters and Foes. This is one of the areas that sounds better on paper than in the actual game. There is an impressive array of original monsters, well-described in the manual, each with their own special attacks and defenses. But having your shields maxed, eating Gonshis and Mirgets before each combat, and using the "Jump" spell in combat work so universally that none of these special attacks and defenses really matter. Outside of combat, there really aren't any special encounters or puzzles that provide role-playing options. Score: 4.

5. Magic and Combat. Again, good at face value. You've got a tactical combat grid, different types of weapons and attacks, considerations of deployment, movement, and terrain, and an impressive variety of spells. Perhaps if the mushrooms weren't so effective, or if the party didn't always act first in every round, or if any number of other variables had been better balanced, I would have entered combat eagerly each time instead of groaning. Score: 5.
The pre-combat options were a welcome addition, but they almost always backfired.
6. Equipment. Weapons, armor, clothing, helms, mushrooms, utility items (shovels, picks), and quest items pretty much exhaust the equipment list. I liked that there were more artifact weapons and armor here than in the first game. The "wear and tear" system doesn't really add anything to the game since it takes a trivial amount of time to repair items. Score: 4.

7. Economy. As with most CRPGs, this category starts out well. You have limited funds and lots of things to buy, including equipment, mushrooms, spellbooks, and training. There's a real incentive to have some characters work an "honest" wage, or to engage in multi-city trade. But after a few successful dungeon crawls, the party is swimming in funds and can keep a stock of 99 of everything. Score: 4.

8. Quests. The main quest is relatively well-done. You start off with one mission (find out what happened to the four-and-forty) but soon find that it's dovetailed with another: help Rebnard conquer Gurtex. While there are no real role-playing options, branches, or alternate endings, there are enough optional elements that I would consider them authentic "side-quests." Score: 4.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The iconographic VGA graphics look fine; the bloopish sound effects are only okay. While I appreciated the keyboard interface, there were elements of it that continually annoyed me, such as the in ability to pool no more than 99 of an item (and thus make even distribution among all characters impossible), the cumbersome system of transferring items between players, and the need to save the notepad independently of the game (I almost never remembered). There were a number of oddities with the way that text scrolled and/or the way you have to read dialogue that continues off the screen that had me missing half of it most of the time. There were other quirks that I didn't talk about in my postings because I had a hard time nailing down what was happening, but I'd frequently use some pre-memorized keyboard combination to do something common, look at the screen, and find I was in a completely different section of the interface. I'd go to eat a Sermin, for instance, and realize that somehow we had camped and I was in the spell memorization screen. Overall, it was somewhat frustrating. Score: 4.
The notepad was a good feature. Losing it every time you reload was not.
10. Gameplay. I have to give it a lot of points here for being open and nonlinear. It's at least somewhat replayable (with different party combinations). But I also found it too easy and just a tad too long. Score: 5.

Add them up, and we get a subtotal of 45, but I feel the need to subtract a couple of points. One area that my GIMLET doesn't handle very well is the quality of dungeon exploration. When I've wanted to award points for the creative puzzles of a game like Dungeon Master, I've had to shoe-horn them into "Encounters and Foes" or offer bonus points at the end. Here, I have to do the opposite. Although I liked them in the beginning, by the end of the game, I thought The Magic Candle II's approach to dungeons just sucked. They're too big, they take forever, and they're a nightmare to navigate. To ensure you don't miss an important object or encounter, you have to hit every room, and because teleporters are so common in the dungeons, you have to step on practically every square, which involves a lot of "Repel" and "Walkwater" spells as well as creative party configurations. All the teleporters and ambushes got old fast, and the rooms are all relentlessly predictable--it would have been nice to occasionally enter one with no combats.

Thus, subtracting 2 points, we get the final score of 43, 6 points lower than the original Magic Candle but still not bad. There are enough good elements that it deserves to be in my "recommended" zone; it's just oddly unsatisfying.
More than usual, I was curious how the reviewers of the time felt about the game. I was gratified to see Scorpia, in the June 1992 Computer Gaming World, expressing much of the same angst. While expressing admiration for many of the game's elements, she found dungeon-crawling a "tedious chore," largely because of all the ambushes. She also found the music system "too complicated to bother with." Overall, she found it "an uneven sequel" that needed "more some areas." It sounds like the original release was terribly buggy, too.

As we've noted several times previously, by the early 1990s, CGW wasn't letting Scorpia have the final word on anything, so they published a follow-up review by Stefan Petrucha in the August 1992 issue. His experience with CRPGs is so limited that the review is almost embarrassing to read, far too concerned with graphics and sound, annoyed that he occasionally had to break immersion by looking things up in a paragraph book. (An editorial interpolation helpfully noted that such attitudes are not universal.) This line is particularly irksome: "Those who want a great musical score and the capacity to push the limits of their new 486/33 boards with SVGA graphics will be sorely disappointed." What you mean here, Stefan, is that non-CRPG fans will be sorely disappointed. But even though he clearly didn't win the game, he expresses the same praise I did for the world-building and NPC contributions.

The series has been good enough that I'm curious to see how it evolves in The Magic Candle III (1992) and Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale (1993), which I understand use the same engine. 1992 year also saw the release of Siege, a strategy game set on Gurtex, which I'm hoping doesn't have a lot of plot elements necessary to understand the series. Magic Candle creator Ali Atabek moved to Interplay in 1994, taking more of a management role, and he seems to have departed the industry later in the 1990s, moving to the medical software field.

Up next on the 1991 list, we have our first Italian CRPG, Time Horn.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War: Summary and Rating

A victory screen that I didn't get, courtesy of Old PC Games's YouTube review.
Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War
Kogado (developer and publisher); Brøderbund (U.S. distributor)
Released in 1987 for PC-88; 1988 for MSX, PC-98, and FM-7; 1989 for DOS
Date Started:  19 May 2017
Date Ended: 23 May 2017
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

It's possible that this one wouldn't have taken too long to win, but it was already getting pretty boring after the first space station and got even more so in the second. You have to be so quick-on-the-draw to hit SPACE the moment enemies appear that I ended up just holding down SPACE as I moved around the levels. There are really no tactics beyond that, at which point you watch your enemy's health slowly drain away. What killed my enthusiasm was watching a YouTube video of the endgame in which the enemies have thousands of hit points and it takes like a minute to kill some of them. The combat is no more dangerous during these encounters--just longer and more annoying. I wasn't interested in subjecting myself to it. As I think my track record shows, I will be challenged, even frustrated, even infuriated beyond my six hours, but I will not be bored.
Combat got boring fast.
I explored four levels of the section station, Sivad, found a "VIP Card" in one room and a locked door I couldn't get past on one of the levels. Judging by a walkthrough I consulted after giving up, the space stations are all fairly small, but multi-leveled, with numerous interconnected elevators that form a maze. The departure pad is always in a different location than the arrival pad, so you have to find that at the very least. Progress is slowed by enemy attacks, which occur both at fixed points and fixed intervals.
One of the space stations, from a Japanese walkthrough. The numerous up and down elevators create a vertical maze.
The rest of the space stations would have delivered a variety of passcards, passwords, and NPCs with special powers. At some point, I would have found a "turbogun" needed to kill "biochemical" monsters; this just adds one more key that you have to hold down to the combat "tactics."

Eventually, the player finds his way to "Melser," the final space station. There, he disables something called a "psycho-shield," navigates a maze, and inserts crystals found throughout the game into a computer to destroy it. (One wonders if this was influenced by Exodus: Ultima III.) At that point, he has limited time to escape the station before it blows up, and apparently this must be done with the "Mind Jump" abilities of an NPC named "Zupreen" as well as some object called a "Beefun." Upon achieving the victory screen, the game's NPCs do a happy line dance along the bottom of the screen.
Destroying the evil machine had something to do with slots.
As I was preparing this final review, commenter Daniel Spitzley helpfully provided the game manual. It offers a longer backstory than I covered last time, but most of it is just padding and unrelated to anything that happens in the game. Attempts to be dramatic come across as laughable in translation ("The 'ESP Battle of the Galaxy' destined to be talked about for many years to come will now begin"). A section called "secret information" provides outright spoilers for the game, including the locations of key items, and there are even maps of each of the stations so you can just annotate them instead of drawing them from scratch.
In the GIMLET, the game earns:
  • 2 points for a bare-bones framing story that's not really referenced in-game. I could have been anywhere, fighting anyone, for any reason.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Characters do get notably more powerful as they level, but that's about it. There are no creation options and no role-playing.
  • 3 points for NPCs who will join the party or impart some hints. Different types of NPCs have strengths and weaknesses I didn't fully get a chance to explore.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are distinguished by icon and not much else. Puzzle-solving is relegated to finding the right card to pass the right door.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Combat couldn't be more boring: one button for psychic attack, one for blaster attack, one for shield. Just hold it down. And I'm not sure when you'd favor "Shield" over an attack. The non-combat psychic powers--basically spells--adds some small interest to those portions of the game.
  • 3 points for equipment. Mostly plot items and navigational aids. I guess there are some armor items and psychic enhancers, too.
Since "yontry" is both a healing/mana potion and occasional currency, this is an important find.
  • 1 point for the economy. There are a couple of times you can spend healing potions, which also act as a currency.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I don't like the graphics at all and there are no sound effects, so it gets both those points for an interface that isn't hard to figure out.
  • 2 points for linear, non-replayable, boring gameplay, but I suspect it would have at least been short.
That gives us a final score of 22. As I suspected at the outset, it underperforms its Japanese counterparts from this year that also had western DOS releases: Sorcerian (25), The Ancient Land of Ys (35), and Zeliard (37).
The cover to the Cosmic Soldier manual looks cooler than the game.
I can't find much evidence that the west took note of the release, but then again it was handled by Brøderbund, which had no experience with CRPGs by 1987 and wouldn't have much more in the after that. If it was ever reviewed or even publicized in a western magazine, I haven't been able to find it.

When it comes to games with plots as thin as this, I like to imagine that the story is being told in a more conventional way, perhaps around a fire or at the knee of a loving grandfather.
Storyteller: Once, an evil empire built an evil machine. But a cosmic soldier infiltrated the space station and destroyed it. The End.

Listener A: Okay, that isn't much of a s--

Listener B: I must hear more about this cosmic solder! I love him so much!
If it wasn't for Listener B, we wouldn't have half the sequels that we do, including Psychic War 2: Great Ash (2001) for Windows. A good article on the entire series at Hardcore Gaming 101 describes the plot as so:
There's now a cold war with the Quila Empire, which seems to never die. A terrorist group has obtained "great ash", which is something important, and wants to sell it to the Empire unless they get their demands met. The Alliance sends out 4 scantily clad women and an android to sort things out.
The same article notes that the universe of Cosmic Soldier is shared with a "text-heavy space strategy game" series called Schwarzschild (1988-1993) and that the Japanese computer magazine POPCOM briefly offered an unsuccessful comic based on Psychic War, "mainly featur[ing] naked drawings of the android."

At this point, I've played almost a dozen RPGs from Japan, but I've yet to play a classic "JRPG," with a heavy focus on plot using pre-defined characters. It's possible that with my PC-only rule in effect, I'll never encounter them. By 1987, we're not seeing enough similarities in games developed in Japan to consider them a "genre"; the four 1987 games are as different as any four titles could be: a side-scrolling single-character platformer, a side-scrolling multi-character dungeon crawler, a first-person dungeon crawler, and a top-down action RPG. As I said in my first post on Cosmic Solder, each title has been innovative in its own way, but not always in a good way. I've never seen anything quite like Cosmic Soldier's combat system, and I won't be disappointed if I never do again.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Magic Candle II: Won!

What would victory be without food?
In a comment on last week's entry for my 250th game, Tristan Gall thanked me for "250 LPs for people who enjoy being part of an adventure when they don't have the time or energy to go on their own." My entries on a game don't quite constitute an "LP," of course--I don't cover every twist and turn--but I do try to be somewhat detailed and hit upon the major plot points.

At times like this, I feel bad for readers looking for something like an LP. Towards the end of a game, impatient to finish, I often push myself well past the point that I should have stopped and written one, two, three, sometimes even four entries. Then, when it comes time to write something, I balk at the idea of covering so much detail and end up summarizing more than I intended. This will be the case with the remainder of The Magic Candle II, which took me just shy of 20 hours to finish after my last entry, most of that time navigating several maddeningly-large dungeons.
A party member summarizes why winning the game took so long.
Let's do a quick plot recap. The Magic Candle concerned a quest to shore up the titular prison of wax and tallow in which the demon Dreax had been kept for thousands of years, after he tried to invade the peaceful land of Deruvia from his homeland of Gurtex. That game started just after the "four and forty" warriors and mages guarding the candle suddenly disappeared.

After that quest was completed, King Rebnard of Deruvia decided to take the fight to the enemy, crossed the eastern ocean, and established his court on the island of Oshcrun, just off Gurtex's western coast. At the same time, the hero from the first game (Gia, in my case), decided to join the expedition and search for the fate of the 44 guardians. I assumed Gurtex would be a demonic hellscape, but it turns out that it has enclaves of humans, elves, dwarves, Eldens, and Aletsens (the latter two both ancient races presumed dead). Even the monsters, like goblins, orcs, and trolls, are organized into towns and villages.
The demon Zakhad rules from Castle Katarra.
Over the course of the quest, we've learned that 40 of the guardians were slaughtered during the attack on the original magic candle, but the most powerful 4--all Eldens--were taken prisoner by the demon lord Zakhad, shipped across the ocean, and imprisoned in candles of their own. One of them, Zidoni, escaped during the journey.

During my quest, I've found three ghosts from the slain "forty" occupying various rooms in various dungeons, each with a scroll that, when researched at one of the game's three libraries, imparted the information necessary to free the associated Elden from his candle. In the middle of my quest, Zakhad sacked the king's throne room at Oshcrun, blinded the queen, and demanded Prince Jemil as a hostage. Zidoni showed up in the middle of the fight and disappeared with the prince. Later, I discovered a prophecy which indicated that the prince would defeat Zakhad, but would need the fabled Orb of Light to do it.
Freeing one of the "four" from a magic candle.
As I was wrapping up my last entry, I had just found the necessary tools and information to complete the rest of the game, including the gray scroll, which I needed to free an Elden from the Candle of Anguish (in a dungeon I'd already cleared) and a magic conch shell needed to calm the southern waters and allow my party to sail to some uncharted islands.

As this final session began, I returned to the first god I had awakened, Marior, who gave Lupi and Eflun the same boosts he had previously given the rest of the party, including +1 strength. This was enough to allow Lupi to wield her own bow. I then returned with the gray scroll to Telermain and researched the Candle of Pain.
Wow, 5! Don't hurt yourself with all that power, Lupi.
Hopping aboard a ship, I sailed it to the islands south of Gurtex, using the conch shell to clear the storms.
There were two islands, one quite large, and for some reason the "Teleport" spell didn't work on either of them, so I ended up fighting a lot of random combats. The largest island held a town called Pentyne, populated by the mysterious Altesens. They didn't want anything to do with the outside world and seemed upset by both my presence and that of some sorceress named Somona, whom I heard about but never found.
Lady, if I hadn't figured this out by now...
The centerpiece of Pentyne was a temple. As soon as I entered, the Altesen priest howled that I had fulfilled the prophecy, shoved the Orb of Light into my hands, and showed me the door, glad to be done with their part. They were happy enough to recite the Orb's prophecy, though, which included lines indicating we would need to "stride along the lands, [searching] for signs of pain and power...on arm, on head, on limping leg" and that by offering the Orb to the people so afflicted, "a touch transforms the glowing globe."
The Altesen washes his hands of the whole thing.
I instantly knew two of the people that the prophecy was talking about: Wartow in Wanasol, who bore the sign of the sun on his hand, and a lame boy named Timm in Telermain, who had a mark of a star on his knee. Returning to them with the Orb, I offered it to both of them, and sure enough something happened when they touched it.

I didn't know who the third person was supposed to be, but both Wartow and Timm had given me full paragraphs (from the paragraph book) when I originally spoke to them, so I reasoned that the third would do the same. Searching for "mark," I unfortunately came upon a paragraph I hadn't received in the game, indicating that it belonged to someone named "Moongold." The context of the paragraph made it clear she was in the nomad's camp. I returned there and hunted around until she appeared, gave her the Orb, and finished that bit of the prophecy. I cheated a bit there, but I'm glad I didn't have to run around talking to every NPC again.
The Orb turned out to be a pretty stupid plot device. Fair warning.
A quick return to Ruz--a dungeon I'd already cleared--freed the Elden Zulain from the Candle of Anguish. He said to meet in Wanasol Hall once I'd freed the last one. I assumed he must be in Namaz, a dungeon on the island next to Pentyne, whose password I had obtained in that city.
Entering the dungeon Namaz.
Namaz was six small interconnected levels. It was full of snakes that required the "Repel" spell, and another annoying area where I had to treat the party configuration as a puzzle and carefully thread my way through a corridor full of teleporters. In the end--and I'm glossing over a lot here--I freed Zewinul from the Candle of Pain.

Back to Wanasol Hall. There, the three Eldens told me that Zakhad had imprisoned Zidoni in the Candle of Death. Since Zidoni had been running free just a little while ago, I'm not sure how he ended up in Zakhad's clutches. They gave me a blue scroll to free him and told me to reach Zakhad's castle, Katarra, by going through the dungeon of Mandarg, for which they had the password.
Another nice summary of the final dungeons.
Mandarg was another huge dungeon, and my only goal within it was to find an iron key and then find my way to the door to Katarra. Katarra consisted of a single large level with two towers with a few smaller levels. The towers were named after Dreax and Dragos. Dragos, you probably don't remember, was the name of the villain in developer Ali Atabek's first game, The Rings of Zilfin (1986), and one of the NPCs in this game actually makes the connection, describing the events of Zilfin as happening "long ago, in a land far away."
Reis was indeed the name of the PC in that game.
Both Mandarg and Katarra re-introduced Doombeasts, who make five mirror images of themselves as soon as battle begins and permanently drain your attributes. I described the strategy I used to identify and defeat them a few entries ago. Worse was a new enemy--"Deathknights"--which seemed to be waiting at every corner of Katarra. Their ambushes were so numerous and deadly that I finally started quitting in frustration and reloading when I met them. For those that couldn't be avoided--and for all rooms--I kept Gonshis (multiple attacks) and Mirgets (first attack does 3x the damage) burning at all times.
A new and relentless foe.
By far, the more difficult part of the final dungeons--Namaz, Mandarg, and Katarra--was simply finding my way from level to level and to the dungeons' objectives. They were all full of teleporters, some of which could only be activated by particular party formations that allowed stepping on otherwise inaccessible squares. You basically have to have someone in your formation step on every square in the dungeons--which means triggering every ambush, dispelling every snake, and so forth--just to be sure. By the end of the process, I was playing like a jackass, reloading after every unwanted teleport and unnecessary combat.
This party configuration is the only one that will let me move one square to the south--where there's a necessary teleporter.
The culmination of the Tower of Dreax was a room labeled "Chamber of Zakhad," but inside was just a bunch of pathetic orcs who paid me to let them flee. I couldn't find anything else to do in the tower, so I returned to the base level of Katarra and eventually found my way up the Tower of Dragos.
This was a bit anti-climactic.
That tower culminated in an actual final battle with Zakhad and a host of spellcasting enemies. He didn't have a villain's speech or anything--just a note that he locked the door before combat so we couldn't flee. I entered the battle hopped up on every type of herb and mushroom the game offers, and I had Eflun cast "Jump" to put my best warriors as close to Zakhad as possible, although he made it hard by starting out in a corner. With a combination of "Jump" and swallowing Mirgets before each attack, I was able to take out Zakhad's allies in the first round.
Killing the big bad in the game's final battle.
Zakhad wasn't so hard despite having nearly 1,000 hit points. He made himself invisible and cast spells like "Forget" and "Acidball" and "Zapall," but with my Mirget-fueled attacks, he only lasted a couple of rounds. I was confused when he actually died. Dreax, his underling, had been set up as an enemy so powerful he couldn't be slain--only imprisoned in the candle. 

With Zakhad dead, I read the blue scroll and freed Zidoni from the Candle of Death (in the same room). He told me to go get King Rebnard and meet all the Eldens back at Wanasol Hall.

I reluctantly gave up Lupi to make room for Rebnard. Via a couple of teleportal chambers and a boat ride, it wasn't long before we were back at Wanasol Hall with Rebnard himself in the party.
Rebnard kind-of sucks at everything.
There, Zidoni revealed a plot twist so goofy it's hard to believe I'm writing it: to protect Jemil, Zidoni "placed him inside the egg of the giant Oolau bird." He instructed me to find the Oolau's nest, use the Orb of Light to scare the bird out of the nest (like our swords couldn't have done that), and have Rebnard whisper "Jemil" to free him from the egg.
"The Eldens stared stonily at us for a few seconds, but then their facade broke. 'We almost had you!' they shrieked, amidst howls of laughter. 'Trapped in an egg! You should have seen the look on your faces!'"
Of course, Zidoni had nothing to say about where the Oolau nest could actually be found. Fortunately, I remembered researching the topic at the Telermain library early in the game, probably at the behest of some NPC, consulted my notes, and learned that the bird nests in the Gull Islands off the northwest of Gurtex. Another teleportal trip brought us close enough that I could cast "Teleport" to get us to the island.

There, we found the nest and did as Zidoni instructed, shooing the giant bird and freeing Jemil from its egg. Afterwards, Jemil expressed an intense desire to hold the Orb of Light. With no other options, I gave it to him. The game's writers hadn't been batting 1,000 in these final hours, but in this last section, it's like they completely forgot how to write. Here's a transcript.
I have a bad feeling about this.
Suddenly the demon Zakhad appears! "Just as I planned," the demon snarls. "The King, the Prince, and the despised Gia, all in my power! Prepare for your doom!"

Eflun says: "A trap! We should have known that the demon was not truly dead! But we have the Orb of Light to protect us!"

Prince Jemil raises the Orb. Its glow focuses into a beam of purest light. Jemil aims the beam at Zakhad and says: "Go far, far away!"
"The prince's lack of precision sent Zakhad back to Deruvia, where he now rampages unchecked" would have been a good setup for The Magic Candle III.
The demon shrieks and slowly fades away. "This time for good," says Eflun. "Zakhad cannot be killed, but he can be banished. His Highness did very well!"

"Better than you may think, Eflun," says the Elden Zidoni, appearing from nowhere. "It will be many ages before the demon can even approach the world of mortals again. Zakhad's pall of Darkness has departed from Gurtex completely," Zidoni continues. "One happy effect is that your human Queen can see once again."

"Was Momma blind?" cries prince Jemil. "Oh, how sad! We must go home to her at once!" 

"As you wish, young Prince," says Zidoni. The elden begins to whisper, and the party is magically transported!"
What kind of mama's boy spells it "Momma"?
So let's unpack this a bit. Prince Jemil managed to fulfill the Prophecy--which, by the way, is the laziest storytelling trope imaginable--in only the most technical of senses, was completely inept at it ("go far, far away!"), and still somehow managed to banish the demon to another dimension. Eflun knew that Zakhad couldn't be defeated in combat but didn't bother to tell the party when it actually mattered. Meanwhile, it was somehow Zakhad's "plan" or "trap" to get us together at the bird's nest, except that in order for that to be true, he would have had to be working with Zidoni, which he clearly wasn't, and in any event his "plan" didn't count on us having the Orb of Light, although if we hadn't had it, we wouldn't have have all been together in the first place. The queen is magically healed of her blindness despite the paragraph making it clear that the blindness is physical (i.e., her eyes were ripped out). Oh, and Zidoni is capable of transporting us all immediately across vast distances but doesn't offer this power when lives are on the line.
For 95% of the game, I barely thought about Prince Jemil. Now, I hate him.
The final scenes redeemed the game a little bit. They depict the party at a banquet with Rebnard, who recites the names of each of the party members and says something nice about them: "Strong and trusty Eneri; the mighty warrior Sakar; Buzbazgut, the most unusual companion, but the most loyal; the Great Eflun." I half expected Buzbazgut to jump up, reveal his secret plot to get close to the king by joining Gia's party, and then stab Rebnard with a fork. That would have been a twist ending.
He was the worst fighter I had. I have no idea why I kept him the whole game.
Fittingly, Gia also insists that the assemblage toast the other NPCs who participated at various points along the way--in my case, Rimfiztrik, Princess Lupi, Lady Subia, and Perin the halfling. Unfortunately, the literal final words concern Jemil being sent to bed by his mother, at which point the player has no options but to save and quit.
These should be no game's final lines.
I don't know why I'm being so hard on it. The game offers an actual plot and a proper conclusion, which is more than we can say for 90% of the games of the era. In the summary and rating, we'll have to explore how a game like this can be good, yet still somehow unsatisfying.

Final time: 71 hours

Friday, May 19, 2017

Game 250: Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War (1987)

The title screen doesn't waste any time getting into the story.
Judging by western PC releases, 1987 was the year that JRPGs started to rival their western counterparts. Dragon Slayer (1984), Hydlide (1984), and Xanadu: Dragon Slayer 2 (1985) were all goofy affairs best described as "proto-RPGs," but 1987 brought us The Ancient Land of Ys, Sorcerian, and Zeliard. None were contenders for "Game of the Year" or anything, but I found them all fun in their own ways, and they each introduced interesting elements not seen in western RPGs. Ys is the first RPG I know, for instance, to introduce occasional boss battles in which all the rules change and you have to figure out new patterns to defeat them, a dynamic that lives today in games like Dark Souls and Lords of the Fallen. Zeliard is the only RPG/platformer hybrid that I know of. Sorcerian is a rare side-scrolling RPG.

Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War is not up to the level of its 1987 colleagues, though it does have a number of original ideas. The game is the sequel to a 1985 title (Cosmic Soldier) released only in Japan; my understanding is that they feature similar gameplay, though the sequel improves the graphics and interface. They concern the titular soldier, who takes missions from "the Alliance" to stop the evil machinations of the "Quila Empire," somewhere in a star system called "KGD" in the 36th and 37th Centuries.

In addition to the party members he can recruit along the way, the main character is accompanied by a scantily-clad android who offers various types of advice and assistance. In the first game, this included the ability to have sex with her (with accompanying on-screen nudity) in exchange for increases in power. We saw the same dynamic, though with an actual human slave, in the reprehensible Rance (1989), and I wonder if the later game copied from Cosmic Soldier or if there's another origin to this trope.
A screenshot from the first game.
Either way, I don't see any sex options in Psychic War, although it's possible they were simply removed for the western release. I can tell that the developers changed at least one related element: the android (Kayla), who inexplicably always remains on-screen, is wearing a tank top in the western release instead of a string bikini in the Japanese original.

After a brief character creation process in which the player has no choices but the name, the main character and Kayla dock their ship, Century Parody, at a space station called Samar. I haven't been able to find a manual for the game, but my understanding from various web sites is that the Quila Empire has developed some kind of machine that can read (or perhaps influence) brainwaves. It's on one of at least 5 stations in the same region, and the player can jump among them, hunting for the device and killing enemies along the way.
The "full party death" screen. I guess the Alliance only has one Cosmic Soldier.
In the hallways of the stations (or, at least, the first one), you run into both NPCs and enemies. The line between them is blurred, as you can attack NPCs and convert enemies to NPCs if they surrender. When you encounter them, the game gives you a nonsense word that I at first took as their names, but I guess it's their races or classes or something, because if they join you, you specify a name. If you're not looking for party members, you can just talk to NPCs (including surrendered enemies), and they might give you a quick line of dialogue.
Meeting a "Jiftok" NPC. I can either convince him to join me or ask for a hint.
For those who join the party (up to 3), each class of NPC has different psychic abilities, which are basically spells. These come into play during combat and exploration. For instance, the protagonist comes with "Beam," which is a basic psychic attack, and "Teleport," which allows you to escape from battle. Other NPCs might come with "Shield" or  non-combat powers like "Marker" and "Mind Jump," which together serve as a mark/recall spell. I assume some of the game's powers are developed by leveling up. There apparently are guns in the game, but I gather they either serve as amplifiers of psychic energy or alternatives against a few monsters who cannot be psychically damaged.

Mostly, NPCs serve as living shields for the PC. When combat begins, the player holds down the SPACE bar to simultaneously execute the "Beam" attack or ENTER to execute a "Shield" defense. The cowardly PC hides behind everyone else, so all the NPCs take any enemy damage first. Since there seem to be no other combat tactics, I guess you just have to hope that your NPCs and hit points hold out against the enemy's. The dynamic feels more like some kind of tug-of-war than traditional RPG combat. Speed is vital in the combats, particularly as the enemies get more difficult. If you don't realize you've entered combat and hit the SPACE bar immediately, the enemy gets a few free seconds of unfettered blasting.
Simultaneously blasting, and taking damage from, a "Paluka."
Slain enemies don't seem to drop items, but perhaps I just never found the "search" option. As far as I can tell, there isn't any economy in the game, except perhaps the "yontry" that also serves as a healing potion. Judging by a few sites I translated, inventory also seems limited in the game. Most of it consists of puzzle items like ID badges and VIP cards that you need to progress through the levels.

Kayla seems to be useless at the outset of the game. There's a menu command for "Ask Kayla," but it provides no options. My understanding is that later in the game, you can find special items like mappers, sensors, and decoders that Kayla can operate, but overall a lot of screen real estate is wasted on someone with such limited functionality.
The repair shop owner hints that Kayla will become useful later.
I didn't hear any sound effects during my session. It does have music, changing from exploration to combat tunes. Both wear out their welcome quite fast, as does the game's fondness for 1980s California slang: "Bogus!" it cries, when describing an attack by an enemy or "Bodacious!" when you find a useful item.
"Most outrageous!" upon finding a card.
The graphics don't break any ground. The corridors all adopt the same futuristic pseudo-Death Star look, the protagonist and his allies are goofy and cartoonish, and if Kayla is supposed to be attractive, then I congratulate the 1980s teenagers who found her so.
A map of the first station level.
I started my session by exhaustively mapping Samar. The base level was 16 x 16, but with a lot of unused space. Most of the rooms are generically titled "press rooms" or "radar rooms" and such, with nothing in them, but you run into the occasional "bio room," where you can get healed, and other special places like the space dock.
I'm not sure why I have to "think fast" to use the elevator.
Elevators went both up and down, but to a variety of much smaller levels (or sections of levels), some only a couple of squares. There was an equipment repair shop on a lower level section and a "relic shop" on an upper-level section where a guy wanted 3 "yontry," basically a healing potion, but I hadn't found any so far. He also suggested that I bring him the "PY map."
The weird relic store dealer.
During this period, NPC hints told me that the relic shop owner "keeps a secret"; that I can find yontry in "Zellwal's NRS Room"; that I should learn how to use the "bio-sleep" rooms; that I should free someone named Houzz from jail on Sivad; that Sivad also has a "VIP Room" and the station's defenses are weak; and that our mission (or at least that NPCs) is to "destroy Melser."
An NPC offers a hint.
I burned through a lot of party members during this period and noticed that every new one started at 0 experience points, so I suppose it's probably better to heal the ones you have rather than letting them die as meat shields. As for my own character, I seemed to get exactly 1 experience point for every enemy we killed, but none for those who surrendered and we let live.

When I ran out of places to explore on Samar, I entered the launch pad and blasted off for Sivad, station of the supposed "weak defenses," where I was killed immediately by a much tougher enemy than I'd faced anywhere on Samar--some kind of robot, I guess. Either the intention was that I grind for a while on Samar or I'm missing some other dynamic in the game.
Chet levels up.
Playing around Samar some more, I finally leveled up when my experience hit 20, doubling my maximum power and ESP. Around this time, I realized that killing relatively helpless NPCs offered the same experience rewards as dangerous enemies, so I just circled the outer rim of the station, blasting everyone I came across. It took me 80 more kills to get to the next level.
Sorry--I don't get stronger by you surrendering.
At this point, I was able to navigate Sivad without dying. The enemies there continue to deliver just one experience point per kill. In a room past a maze of elevators, I found a safe with a "Map PO." Later, in an "enemy office," there was a "VIP card." About this time, I hit my six-hour minimum and had to decide whether to continue with the game.
I guess heroes don't just turn around and leave.
Oh, there's a place for games like this, I guess. They offer a break from the standard high-fantasy dungeon crawler, with their swords and armor and magic missiles. The problem is, I like that kind of game, not weird sci-fi titles with bare-bones plots and goofy cartoonish little protagonists. Still, lacking the manual, I might be missing out on some cool features, so I'll at least give my commenters a chance to offer what they know about the game before cutting it off.
Blasting off to other ports.
You may have noted that this is my 250th game. That's something of a landmark. I probably should have arranged for a more meaningful title to take the spot, but there was nothing obvious in my upcoming list, and I was having a hard enough time finding time to play and blog in May without adding the pressures of some kind of commemoration, too.

Still, it's a big number. When I started this project, I'm not sure I was even aware that this many RPGs existed. I'd probably only ever played 30 by that point--some addict!--which means in the last 7 years, I've increased my RPG experience by more than 700%. At least the blog gives me something to show for it.