Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Phantasie II: Dragon and Princess

The game comes down firmly on the side of "torture doesn't work." In this case, a tortured guard is giving me directions to a trap rather than the real princess.
For some reason, I thought that Phantasie II would only take a few hours. I must have been influenced by my Phantasie coverage, in which I won the game in three postings. Sometimes I forget that I summarized and elided a lot during my first 6-8 months of blogging. It's a little painful to read those postings today.

Not that I'm complaining--the game remains fun. It's far less linear than I expected. I thought I remembered Phantasie and Phantasie III ushering you from dungeon to dungeon in a obvious order, discouraging you from getting off the path by generating difficult monster encounters in places you weren't supposed to explore yet. Even if that memory is correct, Phantasie II is the exception. Not only was it unclear where I should go after the first dungeon, it doesn't really seem to have mattered. I had received a quest there to find the "Book of Beasts" in the Netherworld and bring it to Filmon the Sage. I haven't found the book or the sage yet, despite exploring two more dungeons and four more maps.
A machine in the laboratory brought me to the Netherworld, using a code obtained in the first dungeon.
The game opened up quite quickly. For my second dungeon, I explored Senog's Laboratory, where an ancient wizard had reportedly found a way to access the Netherworld. I went there because some scrolls I'd found in the first dungeon had talked about it. Laid out like a castle, the laboratory did ultimately lead to a portal to the Netherworld, which I entered, immediately finding a new set of screens, towns, and dungeons. At the same time, I acquired the "Transportation" spell, which allows you to teleport from town-to-town, much sooner than I expected. Between the portal and the spell, the entire game world was open to me within the 6th hour.
My brief foray to the Netherworld. For some reason, entering and exiting that city returned me to the upper world.
The opening screens in the outerworld had shown me all features, towns, inns, and so forth. As I explored, I found some screens partially or completely obscured, as I had remembered from the other games. None of the outdoor monsters have been unusually hard, at least not since my characters topped Level 4.
The "Monster Reveal" spell tells you the relative level of monsters in your area. Level 6 is the highest I've seen so far.
Scrolls continued to fill in the story. A previous scroll had described how Nikademus executed Ferronrah's royal family, but a new one said that the princess was still alive and being held in the Summer Palace. Since the Summer Palace had held the Orb (the object of the main quest, it seems) until Lord Wood's invasion, the scroll suggested that the princess might know something about the Orb.
I feel like I've heard this story somewhere...
I found the palace west of the town of Llithfaen, which I had reached somewhat randomly by testing the "Transportation" spell. It's possible I was here a little early. I had to retreat back to the town only twice in my explorations of Senog's Laboratory and I never died, whereas the Summer Palace took me 7 forays and 2 reloads.
Your first dragon in any game always feels like a major milestone.
The palace had a few role-playing encounters in which I could kill, torture, or just walk past sleeping guards; I tried torturing once just to document it, and I got directions to a false version of the princess rather than the real one. There were a number of tough spellcasting monsters in the dungeon plus one encounter with a dragon that nearly wiped me out. There were a lot of nice weapon and armor upgrades, too.
It's not like this aspect of an RPG has reached its zenith here, but I still appreciate these frequent encounters and choices during dungeon exploration.
The princess was found in a torture chamber amidst the remains of slain innocents. She said that to destroy the Orb and break the curse on Ferronrah, I would need to feed the Orb to Pluto's ice dragon, which I can only approach if I have obtained the "eight beast runes."
The princess is, fortunately, not in another castle.
This quest that sounds similar to the rings I had to obtain from the Black Knights in Phantasie. I assume I'll encounter these "beasts of Pluto" in the Netherworld.
The third game made it clear how the planes work in the Phantasie universe.
As I battled creatures on the overland and dungeon maps, a few combat quirks became clear. First, my fighters seem to do only 1 damage an awful lot of the time. I don't know what the underlying math looks like, but it's almost as if when the game says a weapon does 1-16 damage, in truth there's a 50% chance it does 1 damage and a 50% chance it does 2-16 damage. Some creatures seem to be almost immune to physical damage and always take only 1. I seem to remember that from the other two games, and I essentially had to have every character casting "Fireflash" by the end. (Fortunately, almost every class can eventually acquire it.) Monsters may also have resistances against particular weapons.
At that rate, this battle is going to take a long time.
I have no problem relying on magic, but I don't remember having so few spell points in the other two games. At Level 7, my wizard only has 13 spellpoints, enough to cast a high-level spell like "Fireflash 3" only 4 times. My two clerics only do slightly better, with 15 and 16 points at the same level. There are potions that restore magic points in the dungeon, fortunately, because the only alternative is to leave and sleep in an inn.

In general, I need to do more experimentation with spells. I always have trouble convincing myself to cast buffing spells if I can't cast them before combat (as in the Gold Box games). Once I'm already in combat, I have difficulty favoring a spell with effects that I can't directly see (e.g., "Strength," "Confusion") over those that do direct damage ("Mindblast," "Fireflash"), or that offer an immediately-visible effect ("Sleep"), or even a physical attack.

I started having a lot of success with a slightly-odd combat option that's new to this game--one of the few things that didn't exist in the original Phantasie. The first game had no missile weapons; the third had a selection of slings and bows. This one has an unusual halfway point in which any character can hustle up a rock and throw it at any rank. The thing is, I'm finding that these thrown rocks are more accurate and do more damage than melee weapons in a lot of cases, and you can use them to target enemies in the third rank who normally can't be hit (or hit you) in melee combat. If you have a troll in the third rank and a bunch of worthless kobolds in the first two, there's no reason not to pelt the troll with rocks until he's dead before mopping up the kobolds.
Seems like a weird way to deal with a demon, but whatever works.
My big problem right now is a lack of money. If I had to start over again, I'd eschew the monster classes and focus on better charisma. The difference is huge. My gnome fighter with 17 charisma had to pay about 1,000 gold pieces to go from Level 8 to Level 9; it's going to take my sprite thief with 11 charisma 15,000. I'm chronically under-funded. I suspect my characters could all level up 2 or 3 more times, right now, if I just had the money. The only silver lining is that training costs seem to cap at 15,000 no matter what. They're not just going to keep getting worse and worse.
That is not enough gold to pay for the training available for that much experience.
I still enjoy the process of distributing items and getting weapon upgrades. Everyone got things like halberds +3 and swords +2 from the last dungeon. The game's ranking is sometimes odd; I have trouble believing that cloth +2 which protects against 3 points of damage outranks regular splintmail, which protects against 8. 

Miscellaneous notes:
  • The game can only hold the map of one dungeon at a time, it seems. So if you need to return to an earlier one, you have to explore it anew. This isn't entirely a bad thing; you can re-acquire some of the best items and treasures.
  • I have no idea why the game bothers to ask if you want to take the items that you find. There's no downside, since there's no encumbrance system. The worst that happens is you end up selling them.
I don't even know what it is. Why would I say no?
  • Even if I kick the emulator into "warp" mode, it takes a long time to transition from towns and dungeons to the world map. I guess part of the reason is that it's saving each time.
  • Each town has a "mystic." Even though I feel like I've accomplished a lot in the game and hit a few key plot points, the mystic keeps telling me that we're novice adventurers and our score is 0.
What do you want from me!?
  • I can't help but wonder why there's a large, unused black area on the combat setup screen and what the developers might have originally intended for it. The DOS version of the first game doesn't have this.
The C64 version of Phantasie II.
Compared to the DOS version of Phantasie.
It's hard not to compare the two games I'm playing at the same time. I wouldn't mind if Fate's dungeons were more like Phantasie's: just the right size, with combats somewhat infrequent and each one challenging enough that you have to pay attention. Fate, in contrast, has ridiculously huge dungeons and you either sleepwalk through combats or fail to note that a single "bane giant" has appeared among all the rabble, and you get one of your characters killed in the first round.

As I close this session, I just found a scroll in the town of Ferron that describes Filmon the sage. It indicates that I should find him south of the city I'm currently in. Maybe finding him will get the mystic off my back.
Time so far: 9 hours

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Fate: Spells

Winwood prepares to enter the Chamber of Lhanis.
Fate has 200 different spells organized into 20 different books, giving it more spellcasting classes than any game I've experienced so far. Spellcasting characters generally start with the same class as one of the books--magician, conjurer, sorcerer, wizard, archmage, fairy, witch, enchanter, valkyrie, cleric, priest, angel, warlock, nymph, druid, alchemist, monk, banshee, elementary, and master. (The last two are exceptions, having no particular class.) But each class can learn additional books in a fixed progression. Once the enchanter or enchantress acquires the 10 spells of her initial class, for instance, she can learn witch, conjurer, magician, angel, nymph, alchemist, monk, and banshee spells. I'm not sure about the exact order, and I'm not sure if characters can ultimately acquire all 20 classes (9 is the maximum that any of my characters have), and I'm not even sure if the ladder is the same for all characters of the same class. But whatever the case, once the character has acquired 4 of 5 spellbooks, he or she is pretty well-rounded.

Spells in each book are acquired by paying guilds for one spell at a time, and they basically go in order of power.  The banshee book starts with a "Mindzap" that costs 6 points and hits one creature, and it ends with "Mindcrack" that costs 40 points and affects every creature in every enemy group, often killing them. The cleric progresses from a 3-point "Heal 7" that only works on one party member to a 36-point "Healall" that restores all hit points to all party members.
The manual tells you a little about what each spell does, but you have to figure out a lot on your own.
Spellbooks tend to be organized around a theme. Aside from a couple of "Light" spells, for instance, the conjurer's book is all offensive spells, and all of them have something to do with casting status effects on the enemies: "Nuts," "Greed," "Weaken," "Scare," and "Entangle," for instance. Wizard spells are also entirely about enemies (not one targets the party), but in a more directly damaging way: "Poison," "Iceball," "Icefist," "Shock." In sharp contrast, every angel spell affects the party or a party member, with several types of "Heal," "Cure," and "Protect." Cleric and priest spells are similarly weighted towards healing and undesirable effects. The valkyrie gets a set of spells that all improve melee combat, such as "Deprotect" (destroys enemy armor), "Surehit," "Longthrow," and "Weapon!" (strengthens the power of all party members' weapons).

Spells in the elementary book are largely about exploration: "Light," "Rain," "Zaptraps," "Zaprain," "Invisible," "Teleports" (turns them off), and "Storm" (for sailing) highlight the book. "Rain" and "Zaprain" are quite unusual, even unique for the era. Rain does have the effect of suppressing the number of enemy parties, but for the most part its effects are seen and heard. Very few games give you spells to manipulate the nature of the graphics on the screen for purely aesthetic reasons; perhaps the "Clear Skies" shout in Skyrim is the closest I can think of. Between "Zaprain" and "Storm," I must really be messing with this world's ecosystem.
"Calm winds" sounds great unless you're trying to sail. Looks like it's time for "Storm."
More than half of the druid's and alchemist's spells involve creating potions. For these to work, the caster has to have a water bottle (purchased at taverns) in his inventory. The idea isn't bad, but the potions are so underpowered that it's laughable, and almost all of them have redundant non-potion spells in other books. Since potion spells require creating the potion, then trading it to the character you want to have drink it, and then drinking it, they're far more annoying than other spells. Even at the beginning of the game, "AC Plus 1," "Heal 4," or "Dexterity +1" would have been more trouble than their slight advantages provided. (Attribute and skill boosts from created potions are temporary, I should clarify.)

There are quite a few redundancies so that early-game characters of any class can make a go of it. For instance, a bunch of classes start out with a weak-to-moderate spell that does direct damage to a single enemy, like the wizard's "Poison," the archmage's "Acid," the witch's "Stormfist," and the valkyrie's "Blast." Later, they get spells that damage an entire enemy group (e.g., banshee's "Firestorm," warlock's "Mindfire," witch's "Fireball") and from there maybe one or two that affect all enemies at once. A lot of classes have a spell that removes an enemy group from combat for a few rounds, like the Nymph's "Calm," the druid's "Passout," the wizard's "Sleep," and the enchanter's "Tornado." There are a handful of spells meant to soften enemies for other characters' melee attacks, and several classes have some variants of "Heal," "Cure," and "Cleanse."

A few classes are mysteriously worthless. The monk is foremost of these. He comes with a couple of very weak healing spells, and a handful of offensive spells that do less than the typical melee attack to a single enemy. His most powerful spell is "Slimefist," which costs 15 points and does a whopping 5-20 damage to a single enemy group. The master class is the opposite of this, with one spell that by itself costs 70 points and does 5,000 to 9,000 damage to all enemies on the screen. But none of my characters have yet achieved this book.

By the time you have several spellbooks, things get really complicated and you find yourself wishing you could delete some of the lower-level ones to save time and space. Fairies, clerics, priests, angels, and nymphs all come with healing spells that heal less than 10 points of damage to a single character. I'll never cast them again. Ditto all of the single-enemy offensive spells from the bottoms of several lists.

I should also point out that once you complete a few books, you no longer have to pay attention to a lot of the logistical considerations of the game. Early on, any number of "Light" spells obviate torches--and once you have the enchanter's "Flare," which not only lights things up but also reveals secret doors, you'll never cast a regular "Light" again. The cleric's "Zapsin" means you can murder friendly NPCs without having to pay for absolution at chapels anymore. The priest's "Zaphunger" and the cleric's "Vitamins" and "Rejuvenate" make resting, eating, and drinking a thing of the past (although I'm not sure if they're perfect substitutes, and I only use them when I can't stop for the night in a town). A priest with half a dozen spellbooks and a few "Restore" potions (which restore all magic points) substitutes for almost all of the taverns, inns, chapels, healers, and potion-sellers in the game.
The enchanter's "Locate" is easily the most-cast spell in my game.
Finally, there are a handful of starkly original spells among the lists. Oh, you'll tell me that they have analogues in other games, which is fine, but I've never seen them before, and they must be unusual if not unique. I guess I'd start with the enchanter's "Reveal," which "exposes an opponent's treasure." You cast it during a battle, and when the battle is over, you get more gold than you would have originally. For getting rich, there's also the alchemist's "Goldrain" which literally creates a few hundred gold pieces out of nowhere. Since the average mid-game combat might deliver 10,000 gold, the spell is hardly worth casting, but at the beginning of the game it can make a difference.

"Invisible" appears in many games, of course, but rarely like it does here, where you use it to avoid tripping encounters with enemy or friendly parties. You just walk through them as if they were ghosts. Several "Time Stop" spells are unique because of the effects they have in the game: not only do they prevent enemies from acting, but they also prevent a bunch of environmental effects, like teleporters, from operating.

I've covered "Getback" before, which retrieves characters' thrown weapons in combat and allows them to continue using them. Another odd one is the druid's "Mummy": if you want to revive a dead character, you have to do it within a time limit or they're too decomposed. "Mummy" preserves them until you can get to a healer (of course, once you have "Revive" yourself, that's moot).

My favorite pair, in the early part of the game, is the warlock's "Berserker" and "Candor." "Berserker" turns a single character into a humanoid monster with 99 strength, dexterity, skill, and stamina, but only 1 intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. He acts on his own in combat, performing devastating melee attacks, and he has a way of attacking friendly NPCs, too, without your consent. As fun as he is, he ignores his equipped weapon, and once you have greater melee weapons (which damage all enemies at once), you'd rather he didn't do that. "Candor" (an odd name) restores him to regular form. I wonder if the German developer wasn't translating offenheit, which I believe can mean something like "plainness" in German.
The "1 charisma" thing makes sense....this is a female character.
There is one particular oddity to spells that I find half-vexing, half-relieving: enemies don't seem to have particular resistances. Or if they do, they're quite rare. There are some enemies highly resistant to magic in general, no doubt, but fire-based enemies don't seem to have any special resistance to fire attacks, for instance. Enemies without "minds" to speak of (e.g., snakes) will still be affected by mental spells. Undead will respond to "Itch," "Cough," "Sleep," and "Scare." In some ways, this is good--I don't have to learn a bunch of resistances along with the spells themselves--but it's also uncomfortably weird. Because of this quirk, damage spells are just damage spells--whether the manual tells you the damage is caused by fire, ice, acid, or whatever, they all have the same effect.
This is almost embarrassing.
A lot of my time lately has been sussing out which spells work reliably against NUKEs: "nigh-unkillable enemies." These include the bane giants of Katloch, the dracs in the Valvice grottoes, and the ingols in Mernoc. These creatures seem invulnerable to physical damage. The combat screen will tell me that I've dealt it to them, but no matter how much I do, they never die. They have some kind of Wolverine-like regeneration going on between rounds, I guess.

The only way to kill these guys is through some kind of critical hit or a spell that causes an effect like stoning or instant-death. Fortunately, many of the weakness spells (e.g., the magician's "Armorzot," the valkyrie's "Weaksphere," the banshee's "Unprotect") seem to make them more vulnerable to critical hits. A few spells (e.g., the banshee's "Mindcrack," the warlock's "Stonecloud") have a chance of killing them, and the magic-resistant ones are softened by the warlock's "Zappower." Finally, while I'm testing all of these things, some of the "incapacitation" spells like "Time Stop" and "Faint" at least keep them from attacking me. Such high-level spells drain magic points quickly, so I suspect I'm going to have to stock up on "Restore" potions before the end of the game.
"Deprotect" seems to make NUKEs like ingols more vulnerable to melee attacks.
It's only late in the game that I've bothered to experiment with spells in such detail. Melee attacks are so effective, and all my spellcasters have excellent melee weapons, that it's easy to just spam attacks against everything except NUKEs. I'm now paying for the lack of accumulated experience. I'd appreciate if those who have played the game can respond with any spell tricks I might be missing.
In plot terms, a few things have happened since last time. I found the location of the Chamber of Lhanis--a paved area in the middle of the woods. My hints had only said to "linger," so I had to leave the game running for about 3 hours of real time, checking periodically as I worked on other things, before a gate opened in the middle of the area at 03:00. After some trial and error, I determined that Winwood had to enter the gate alone (in a split party) carrying each of the Moonwand pieces. When he came out, he had a re-forged Moonwand, but he noted that the Dreamstone had not been absorbed in it.
I had promised to return the Dreamstone to its owner, Rinoges, in Laronnes, and I didn't see any reason to delay that task. I boarded the Cavetrain at one of the forest stations, rode it to Laronnes, and sought out Rinoges in his usual place after midnight. He was happy to get his Dreamstone back and rewarded me with 7 ability improvement slots.
After that, it was time to use the Moonwand for its intended purpose. Unable to find where I parked my boat, I spent another $3 million on a new one, set sail, and moments later:
I stopped at Pirate Rock on the way to Katloch and stocked up on "Restore" potions. Given that these are my final "money sink," they don't really cost that much. Even having wasted money on six ships, I could purchase about 3,000 of them.
I haven't bought anything in a store since the lamps I used to explore the first dungeon level.
I fought my way through the streets of Katloch and to the "blood circle" (really just a platform surrounded by water), used the Moonwand, and was automatically teleported to a walled-off section of town. There, a set of stairs led to the fabled Agyssium.
The walls and creatures of the Agyssium.
I suspect the Agyssium is a large, 7-level dungeon full of NUKEs and plenty of opportunities to update our understanding of combat in the later stages of the game.

Time so far: 236 hours

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Phantasie II: The Same Thing All Over Again. Good.

Solving the first quest.
We often moan about how capitalism overtakes quality in art, but sometimes I wish the best developers would show a bit more avarice. Take Bethesda. Now, I realize that The Chosen Elite of RPG players have passed down from on high the declaration that Skyrim "sucks," but as I shall never be cool enough to breathe their rarefied air anyway, I don't mind admitting that I rather enjoyed it. I certainly put more hours into it between 2011 and 2016 than any game I played for this blog.

It's been over 6 years since Skyrim and it will probably be another 3, at least, before we hear word of The Elder Scrolls VI: Akavir. I've read article after article saying that Bethesda doesn't want to rush development; that they want to make sure they can use the latest technology to get it right. I'm sure that between the engine and the content, it will take thousands of hours and cost a billion dollars, and I admire them for it, but here's the thing: if they'd spent the last five years releasing half-assed titles re-using the Skyrim engine, I would have bought and played them happily. A new story set in Cyrodiil with no spoken dialogue and re-used assets from Oblivion? Shut up and take my money. An interim Fallout title set in Death Valley where the only environmental graphics are sand? I'll pre-order it today. Last year, when the Skyrim "special edition" came out, upgrading the least important parts of an RPG, I looked for any excuse to buy and play it. All they would have had to say is, "We changed a few lines of dialogue here and there and added a couple extra steps to a few side quests" and I would have bought it on the first day. "We changed it so you can kill Jaree-Ra" might have been enough.

In short, if I really enjoy the interface and mechanics of a game, I have no problem with the developer re-using it for some new content--as long as the content is good. As in, re-using the Gold Box engine to tell an original but compelling story in the Dragonlance universe, not re-using the Ultima VI engine to tell goofy stories that don't make any sense in conjunction with the rest of Ultima canon, or even reality. More developers need to be like Ubisoft: churn out Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed: Revelations while we're waiting for Assassin's Creed III. Be as shameless as Sir-Tech, with five Wizardry games using the same engine, or SSI, with like 15 games using the Gold Box engine, not like Rockstar, with 7 years between Red Dead titles.

Yes, I know many of you disagree. You're the types of people who say they have no problem waiting until 2028 for Winds of Winter because "it will be better if it isn't rushed." You like Star Wars but you think Disney's production schedule is "putting money ahead of Lucas's vision" and you "don't see why we have to have a new movie every year." You're everything wrong with everything.
Why is "leave" not an option?
Here's Phantasie II--a game so like Phantasie that the developers just packaged it with the first game's manual. They didn't even bother to give it a subtitle. The only thing different about its title from Phantasie is the "II." It's like they're saying, "Literally what you're going to get is Phantasie, but a second time." And that's fine. I'm having a great time with it. I'll bet that back in the day, reviewers complained that it was "just like the first game." I want to know what they say at Thanksgiving dinner when they ask for seconds on turkey and mashed potatoes. "It's a little disappointing, ma. It tastes just like the first helping."

As I noted in my first post on Phantasie II, the original Phantasie was Game 15 on this blog. I knew I liked it, but I didn't realize how good it was until I'd played like five dozen other games from the same period and found none of them approach it on the GIMLET. 
What I particularly like is the default difficulty. Forcing myself to avoid using save states is the best part of this experience. It creates a tension that I haven't felt since Wizardry and the first Might & Magic titles, and I wish more modern games gave you the option to only "save in town" or something similar. I understand that "survival" mode in Fallout 4 does something like that, and I'm looking forward to a replay once the memory of my last trip fades.

But it did make the beginning of the game slow-going. I guess characters imported from Phantasie have enough experience to start at around Level 3. Newer characters, having to work their way up there, need to retreat from the starting dungeon after every few successful combats to make sure they don't lose their progress. Getting my own new characters to Level 3, I must have made about 12 forays from town to dungeon, 4 of them resulting in death and reloading.

Another thing I appreciate--although I suspect I won't by the end--is the slight delay in combat as you watch each character's turn come up and then his action execute. There are actually two delays. First the character icon jumps, and you have a second before the game tells you whether you hit or missed. If you hit, there's another delay before it tells you how much damage you did, and if the enemy died. These slight delays (and their associated sound effects) impart some of the tension-and-release of a tabletop RPG with its rolls of the dice*. If I ever want things to move faster, there's always "warp" mode in the emulator.
But for how much?!
(*I know this because I recently got some more experience with tabletop RPGs. I'm waiting for a good occasion to work it into an entry.) 

I even like the weird way that the game approaches inventory. Every character has a weapon, a suit of armor, and a shield. Sometimes you find better items in the dungeons, but you don't get to equip or evaluate them right away. Instead, once you get to an inn, you go through a process of "distributing" items to the party members. Every item gets thrown into a pool. The distribution screen shows you who can wield each item, and you choose who gets it or whether to sell it. By default, the distribution screen sorts in order of the quality of the item (damage or protective value), so you distribute the stuff on top and sell the stuff on bottom. While it's mildly annoying to have to redistribute everything just to equip a few new items, the interface works excellently for this approach. I just wish there were more item types, like rings and cloaks and belts. I think Phantasie III expanded the number of wearable slots this way. 
Distributing items after a long exploration session.
I had forgotten a couple of things about exploring dungeons. First, I thought that all dungeons were contained on a single screen. Either they never were, or it differs by platform. Here, the kobold village extended south across two screens.

Second, I had forgotten about the little dots. They're how you know that the room has a special encounter. Could be a combat, could be an NPC, could be treasure; you don't know until you step on it.
An NPC gives me a tip. Note that there are several special encounters in this area.
Finally, when you leave a dungeon, the game asks if you want to save your progress. Basically, you get to choose if the dungeon respawns. This allows you to hit beneficial encounters multiple times--but of course also the many combats in between.
The first dungeon here, just steps from the opening city of Pippacott, was the "kobold village." Swarming with orcs and kobolds, the various structures in the village included an armory, barracks, kitchens, and houses for captains and the chief. A "detention area" held several special encounters, including a dwarf who rewarded me with 1,000 gold pieces, a gnome who screamed "47!" before running off, and an imp who wanted 1,000 gold pieces to tell me a secret. That last encounter was a bit obnoxious because the only options were to pay the imp or fight him, the latter option putting me in battle with multiple imps, each of which was capable of killing some of my characters in one round. I had to reload and just not visit him.
Slowly revealing the kobold village.
A couple of treasure rooms, including one protected by numerous traps I had to disarm, held several equipment upgrades. Some stairs led to a "second level" (really just a room on the main level) in which various slimes and giant ants prowled a garbage pit.

The dungeon held two more scrolls. One of them filled in the recent history of Ferronrah, describing how Nikademus destroyed the capital, executed the royal family, and put a curse on the island that causes anyone entering or leaving to be "greatly reduced in mental and physical capabilities." In the game's lore, he did this to prevent the continent from raising an army and going after him; functionally, it explains why characters imported from Phantasie lose almost all their experience. The scroll continued with an account of Lord Wood of Gelnor's expedition to Ferronrah to seize the "orb" in which the curse is somehow contained. Although he was initially victorious, Nikademus counter-attacked, drove Lord Wood back to Gelnor, and hid the orb in an unknown location. Lord Wood is a key NPC in all three games, basically creator Winston Wood's avatar in the game.
More about the backstory and main quest.
The second scroll described Senog's laboratory, the former lair of an ancient and powerful wizard, on a small island near Saxligham. An imp had taught Senog the secret of traveling to the Netherworld, and Senog died there.

Finally, there was the Oracle, whose presence was attested by one of the first scrolls in the game. I had to give her some gold and walk through a wall of smoke, which did a heavy amount of damage to my characters. The Oracle advises me to visit the Netherworld, find the "Book of Beasts," bring it to Filmon the Sage, do whatever he wants, and then return to the Oracle. Filmon is also a key NPC in all games, basically a Gandalf/Elminster-like character.
Exploring new overland squares.
After exploring the dungeon, I wandered to some other overland screens. A little mini-map on the right side of the outdoor screen keeps track of which outdoor "rectangles" you've already visited. It looks like there's 32 such outdoor squares, each with some combination of towns, dungeons, and inns. I've explored only one so far, but I expect the pace will pick up now that my characters are around Level 5. I remember from previous games that you have to be careful which directions you march, however. Some of the random outdoor combats are devastating to lower-level parties.
Those are some awfully large zombies.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I'm already encountering a problem I remember in Phantasie and Phantasie III: having too little gold to pay for leveling. Having two monster classes with low charisma doesn't help.
  • The game really wants you to put your money in the bank. Every time you return to town or save the game, you have to divide gold into shares, all of which goes into each character's account. But since you need gold in hand to pay for training and spell acquisition, you're constantly withdrawing it immediately.
  • The hit point disparity among characters is quite strong, from 65 for one of my fighters to 13 for my thief.
The "health" screen keeps track of everyone' s current status.
  • Despite having some low attribute rolls at the beginning of the game, all of my characters seem to be pulling their weight, and I don't have plans to replace any of them.
It's been nice to play a game in which new pieces of equipment and new levels have a tangible effect on characters. I like watching my fighters slowly go from an average of 2 HP damage to 4 then 6. (My Fate characters, meanwhile, never seem to get palpably better no matter what I do.) More on magic and combat next time.