Friday, February 17, 2017

Fate: Gates of Dawn: Summary and Rating

   
Fate: Gates of Dawn
Germany
reLINE Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for the Amiga and Atari ST
Date Started: 21 April 2016
Date Ended: 3 February 2017
Total Hours: 272
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Fate was conceived as a successor to Alternate Reality, which had promised much--a city, a wilderness, an arena, a palace--but delivered little. In that, Fate succeeded. Not only did it retain most of the logistical considerations of Alternate Reality--hunger, thirst, fatigue, nutrition, encumbrance, disease, and so forth--as well as the complex NPC interactions, it allowed multiple characters in the party, created a full game world, and added a main quest.

The problem is that the game didn't know when to quit. I recommend that modern players, if they want to play Fate, end when they solve the Cavetrain quest. Up to that point, it's a great game. Different NPCs create a very different experience in combat and exploration, as in the beginning each one only has one or two spellbooks. You get to explore a large city, a large wilderness around it, a smaller sister city, and a large, complex, 7-level dungeon with a variety of navigational puzzles. Leveling is relatively swift and rewarding, and the economy still holds some value. Hints are plentiful, and the main quest is adequate. Seriously, play it this way. Don't read the backstory. Some mage has cut the city of Larvin, enclosed by mountains, from the outside world. Winwood is the son of a tavernkeeper whose family was murdered by marauders looking for supplies, since no goods are coming in from the outside world. Your only quest is to restore the function of the train. You'd have a 60-hour RPG with decent mechanics, and you'd walk away happy.

Instead, the game continues for another 200 hours, with senseless plot developments, character development that becomes less and less important (my characters ended the game with dozens of improvement slots), and combat that becomes either mindlessly easy (outdoors) or absurdly deadly (indoors). Equipment upgrades slow and then stop, the economy spins out of control, and the player spends dozens of hours just getting from one place to another. What would have been high GIMLET scores for Fate: Quest of the Cavetrain start to bleed away as the game get more spawling and pointless.

Yes, I got seduced by the map. It's happened before, often at work. With major projects on my "to do" list, I'll get sucked in by some boring, menial, seemingly-incompletable task and I'll have to tear myself away from it. "Chet, that report was due last week!," I'll hear, and respond, "Sorry! I'm busy coding some variable I'll probably never use across 200,000 records!" The process of filling in those little boxes became an opiate. I'm glad I stopped myself before insisting that I finish. I will admit that the map is pretty cool. The developer could have set an excellent RPG there, full of lore and side quests. He just didn't.

The plot of Fate starts out intriguing. Winwood is transported to the real world and current year to an alternate Earth in the year 1932 in which magic is real and other races exist. The agent behind his transport seems to be an evil wizard named Thardan. Thardan uses one of his followers to disable the Cavetrain and block Larvin's access to the rest of the world, ostensibly to keep Winwood from escaping the starting area.

It's not a bad beginning, but from there the game doesn't develop the plot at all. Thardan's motives are never revealed. Unlike the much later Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader, Fate doesn't try to put real-world analogues into its alternate Earth. (And I'm not suggesting that Lionheart is a particularly good game; it's just the only other one I know set in an alternate history.) Neither the maps nor the names of the cities suggest an alternate Earth. The only real "plot twist"--having Winwood whisked to the dungeons beneath Cassida via the wand on Naristos's body--isn't explicitly part of Thardan's plot. If it is, it was a stupid idea, as it was the only way that Winwood came into contact with Bergerac and Morganna.

Morganna, the deus ex machina, comes out of nowhere with a compelling back, but no compelling backstory. Thardan comes to a swift and ignominious end without even the traditional villain's exposition. He remains a passive villain the entire game.
    
Fate officially jumps the shark.
   
The hint system, which starts out strong in Larvin, requiring only that the player find the right class of NPC, completely disappears by the end, where the player has to make several nonsensical leaps of logic.

The name of the game remains a complete mystery throughout. What are the "gates of dawn," exactly? What "fate" is at stake here?

I don't even know what to expect from a GIMLET at this point.

1. Game World. The backstory of the alternate Earth is clumsily explained and never referenced in-game. As noted above, Winwood's part in the world starts out intriguing and ends stupid. On the other hand, the developer did a good job with the design and mechanics of the game world. The cities feel like huge places, populated with hundreds of NPCs. The map is exquisitely detailed, if light on the thematic content. The day/night cycle and changes in the weather pattern have meaning and consequences in the game. A mixed bag overall, but I suppose a step up from the typical RPG of the era. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. There's no creation, but the game gets some credit for the variety of ways that you can develop your party by selecting different NPCs. The strengths, weaknesses, and abilities of the various classes create a fundamentally different game for each player, particularly in the opening stages.

The races are entirely unreferenced and unused. The guild-based development system, supplemented with boosts from the altar in the Alarian Vaults, is only "okay." I saved my development slots the entire time I was in Larvin because commenters told me it was more efficient to use the better guilds outside the city. Once I did so, I really didn't notice that much improvement in my characters' performance, even though in some cases their attributes (like strength, dexterity, and skill) went from the 20s to the 90s. Acquiring spells is the more important mechanism of development, but even this stops being important after each character has 3 or 4 books.

I also give the game credit for the multiple-party system, which I really didn't exploit the way I could have. For instance, instead of circling my single party around the world to look for hints, I could have kept several parties in convenient locations. Since all party members get experience from all kills, it wouldn't have diluted my leveling very much; in fact, it would allow you to develop a party explicitly for grinding and to keep them in a convenient grinding location (near an inn and tavern in Katloch would have worked well), switching to them periodically to add a couple of levels while everyone else explores.

I don't know whether to regard the various logistical challenges--hunger, thirst, nutrition, fatigue, sins, conditions--as part of character development or not. Either way, the game made them too easy. Trivial amounts of money and time take care of them, and by mid-game you can deal with them all with various spells. Score: 5.
     
Fate features a large number of attributes and statistics to develop.
     
3. NPC Interaction. NPCs make up a major part of the game. You need them to join your party, give hints, train your characters, and further a variety of steps on the main quest. A complex system of gaining their favor with various chat options is undermined by a system that allows you to simply bribe most of them. Like most things, it's stronger in the beginning game than the ending.

I do like that once characters join the party, they have some wants and preferences of their own. They occasionally pipe up with hints or random comments. They may refuse to give their money in bribes, to hide in combat, to yell, or to go off on their own in taverns. I look forward to later games that develop these unique personalities deeper and allow more role-playing encounters with the NPCs. Score: 6.
    
A party member refuses to follow orders.
    
4. Encounters and Foes. There is a huge variety of monsters in the game, and it follows the old Bard's Tale tradition of using the same graphics for many different monsters, some of which are trivially easy and some of which are bafflingly hard. The inclusion of monsters that never die from any hit point loss, no matter how many rounds, was inexcusable, as was making an initiative system in which some groups of enemies always go ahead of the party. Overall, the various strengths and weaknesses of the foes never really impressed me or led me to create different tactical templates for dealing with them, beyond simply bashing weak monsters and using my few NUKE options against tough ones.

I do admire the various pre-combat options, which allow some limited role-playing and additional encounter tactics. Again, though, these are terribly unbalanced. "Prayer" shouldn't work as often as it does, nor should it be necessary as often as it is.

Then we have the various non-combat encounters with objects and buttons and such, all of which use the same set of menus. Since the correct selection is often nonsensical, you learn to just try every option, often with every party member, before the solution is revealed. The various button and lever puzzles never rise to the level of even the weakest Dungeon Master knock-off. Score: 4.
    
These types of special encounters were nice, but rarely offered much in the way of role-playing.
     
5. Magic and Combat. "Overblown" is probably the best word to describe the combat and magic systems. I like systems that have lots of options, but only when those options come together to create real tactical decisions. I never found any use for "Grope," "Steal," "Warcry," or "Mock," even when they worked. Many of the spells, as I covered extensively, are essentially useless, or duplicates of each other. Straight attacks become overpowered when you get "greater melee weapons" that damage all creatures in one attack.

And yet, we have to give credit for the sheer number of options, even if they don't all work. As with everything, the first third of the game does best here, as you gingerly approach each new party and try a variety of actions to create "tactical templates" to use against different foes. When each character only has a couple of spellbooks, you find yourself experimenting more than when all characters have half of them. Some of the spells are highly-original and fun. Score: 5.
    
Towards the end of the game, combat difficulty got pretty nutty.
    
6. Equipment. This category is perhaps Fate's strongest. I always like games in which you regularly get equipment upgrades, and this only happens when the game offers numerous equipment slots or numerous characters. Fate does both. Each character gets two weapons, two pieces of body armor, a helmet, gloves, and boots, plus a variety of potions and special items. Multiply that among 7 characters in a single party and potentially 28 characters in all parties, and you find that the game never stops giving regular rewards except in the final act.

Fate also has solid mechanics here. Examining each item tells you most of what you need to know about it, including who can equip it and how it affects your statistics. Encumbrance becomes a real concern as the best armor tends to be quite heavy. My strategy was generally to equip the best item and deal with the encumbrance effects by discarding other things, but it's possible I could have done better by equipping lighter armor and keeping a greater variety of weapons in inventory, for instance.

Fate gets the highest score here that I can offer without complex item interaction (a la NetHack), detailed item descriptions (a la Might & Magic VI-VIII), or item crafting. Score: 7.
    
Rarely do games give you this kind of detail to help with equipment choices.
     
7. Economy. I like games that give you plenty to buy. Early in the game, Fate sets a tone like Alternate Reality in which you need gold just to survive. You might find yourself murdering a peasant for enough cash for your next meal, or a night in the inn. If you find a nice weapon, it's a real dilemma whether to keep it or sell it for enough rations and water to keep you going for the week. Above those basic needs are a variety of shops selling weapons and armor, healers, chapels selling indulgences, and of course new spells and character upgrades. Offering "alms" to NPCs also burns through the cash very quickly.

But having a lot of things to spend money on is only fun if money itself is scarce. From the moment you wander outside, kill your first dwarf, and get 1,500 "piaster" for the deed, you generally have as much money as you need the moment you need it. There was never a point in the game that I worried about going broke, and because of that, I never bothered to sell a single piece of equipment--I just dropped it when I was done with it. You saw how I bought about 6 redundant ships (perhaps the most expensive item in the game) and shrugged off the loss of over $7 million towards the end.
     
Towards the end of the game, when you have millions of piaster, the most expensive potions--such as this one that restores all spell points--only cost a couple of thousand.
    
The imbalance in the economy is perhaps best illustrated by the uselessness of the banking system. The developer spent a lot of time positioning banks with various investment opportunities throughout key cities, but you'd have to be daft to bother with them. Just go kill some more dwarfs. Score: 3.

8. Quests. The game only gets credit for having a main quest, and a rather stupid one at that. There are no alternate paths or outcomes, no opportunities for role-playing, and worst of all, no side quests throughout the enormous game territory. Oh, I suppose you could argue that it has some "side-areas" that improve character development, but anything it would gain here would be lost in light of the idiocy of the main questline. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The graphics and sound are perhaps the best that they could have been for the era. The developers put a lot of effort into well-composed monster and NPC portraits, outdoor settings, and little mises-en-scène in the taverns, shops, and train. They certainly pass the "good enough" point that I require for this category. The sound effects go beyond that; not only are the clashes and zaps of weapons and spells done well, the game is one of only a few to offer evocative background sounds, so well-composed that I sometimes confused them for the real thing.
     
A diverse group awaits the Cavetrain.
     
The interface is the only place that I had real trouble. The game is meant to be used with a mouse--which makes me hate it already--but even worse, you have to click on very small menu options and frequently double-click by accident. Although you can use the keyboard in a limited sense, you have to mentally number the menu options to select the right key; an explicit numbering would have partially redeemed it. Too many options that you might want to use in concert are on different menus. All told, a bit of a nightmare. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. Fate offers extensive map non-linearity but not plot non-linearity, and I prefer to see both together to really enjoy myself. (The 7-part Moonwand quest, which you can do in any order, was the exception and probably the high point of the post-Larvin part of the game.) I definitely would not call it "replayable." You'd have to be insane. In difficulty, it starts with a nice moderate level but goes off the rails after the Cavetrain quest, alternating between very easy and very hard. For "pacing," we of course award a big, scrawled "F" for being way, way too long. Score: 2.

This gives us a subtotal of 45, which puts it fairly high on my existing list. I'm not sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, the game does so well mechanically that you absolutely have to recommend it. For 1991, it is a wonder to behold, and when I first started it, exploring Larvin and its environment, every hour I discovered some new nuance that led me to admire the developer even more. On the other hand, the inability of the developer to know when to quit seems like it ought to count more than a few points in the final GIMLET category. And it's especially bad for offering an ending that isn't worth reaching, and for hints and directions evaporating towards the game's end. In the end, comparing it to the other games on the list, I feel better knocking off 3 points and kicking it down to the level of Knights of Legend, which had similar problems, at a final score of 42.

But let's talk for a moment about the game-within-the-game: Fate: Quest of the Cavetrain. Not only does it not lose those 3 additional points, it gains 3 more in the "gameplay" category for not being too long, 1 more in the "quests" category for not being stupid yet, 2 more in the "economy" category for not having gone out of control, and 1 more in "character creation and development" for development being more significant, and 1 more in both "combat" and "encounters" for not yet becoming bland and rote. Fate: Quest of the Cavetrain is a solid 54-point game, 9th-highest on my blog so far, better than everything except titles that offer extensive side-quests and more detailed role-playing options, and an obvious candidate for 1991's "Game of the Year." Don't cheat yourself out of this excellent game. Just don't worry about where the Cavetrain leads.

I say all of these things coming from an era in which 200- or 300-hour games are hardly uncommon. Steam tells me that when I last played Oblivion on my PC, it took me 213 hours. Skyrim took 278. (Neither totals count the multiple times I played both games on my console.) But of course these titles are packed with content, including so many side quests and faction quest threads that it's hard to keep track of them all. Even if you don't take a single quest, simply exploring each dungeon or structure and learning its individual story provides more rewards than the totality of Fate's plot.

On top of this, I have a sneaking suspicion that Fate was actually supposed to take even longer. I base this on the horribly unbalanced initiatives of the monsters towards the end of the game. Certainly, the developer didn't intend for the player to "pray" away every fight, right? Certainly, he didn't intend every encounter with the wandering demons to completely wipe out the party. Given that Morganna joins the party at Level 105, I wonder if the party wasn't supposed to be of a comparable level (my characters topped at around 60) before braving the Cassidan dungeons in the first place. That would have required an insane amount of grinding, but the game is already pretty insane.
   
Before any of my characters even had a chance to act.
    
I was therefore curious how reviews of the time treated a game of such unprecedented length. I scanned reviews offering both the best rating (89/100, from Amiga Joker in March 1991) and the worst rating (26/60, from Aktueller Software Markt in November 1991). Of the two, the Amiga Joker reviewer seems to have gotten the furthest--screenshots show scenes that could only be in Mernoc or Katloch, plus hit-point totals that suggest Level 50+ characters, which is pretty impressive. While recognizing that the game will involve "months of play," he doesn't seem to attach much quality to that, though he does warn of the game's overall difficulty. He particularly seems to enjoy the graphics and sound, and like me, he praises the background effects. (I only translated parts of the review, so if any German-speaking readers would like to read the entire thing and offer more details, I'd be grateful.)

The ASM reviewer, on the other hand, manages to make most of his negative points not about the gameplay or length but about the very graphics that everyone else seems to like. Only Amiga magazines would take a game with graphics as well-composed as this and find some way to bitch about them--in ASM's case, the complaint is that they're not animated. This is the 1991 version of modern reviews that, faced with a game like Fallout 4 where you can count individual blades of grass, conclude that the graphics "suck" because the blades don't cast individual shaodws. ASM also seems to have issues with the scope of the game, at least in terms of numbers of party members, spells, and dungeons.
 
I'm hard-pressed to find any contemporary reviews of the English version. I understand reLINE was going out of business (although later recovered) just as the English version was published. It's possible that it barely made it to English players' Amigas, let alone American ones. This is unfortunate, because--no offense to my European readers--American players had the most experience in 1991 with actual RPGs, and it would have been fun to see their reactions to both the length (Scorpia surely wouldn't have been able to finish the game before turning in her review, which would have galled her) and the clear foundation in Alternate Reality mixed with The Bard's Tale. Most European reviews focused on its relationship with Legend of Faerghail (1990), reLINE's previous RPG, which also showed a heavy Bard's Tale influence and also featured graphics by Matthias Kästner.
  
   
Fate's auteur was Olaf Patzenhauer, who apparently began working on the game around 1986, after some experience with Alternate Reality, The Bard's Tale, and some of the Ultima titles. I otherwise haven't been able to find very much about the man, such as age, education, or previous employment. He died in late 2011 or early 2012, some sites say from a heart attack but I was unable to find a specific obituary. Fate and a 1992 strategy game called Dynatech seem to be Patzenhauer's only non-adult games, and as we've seen, even Fate had plenty of adult material. His post-Fate credits include Penthouse Hot Numbers Deluxe (1993) and Biing!: Sex, Intrigue, and Scalpels (1995), described by MobyGames as "an erotic hospital-management simulation," which raises a number of questions I do not want answered.

From what I can gather from message boards, mostly in German, sometime in the early 2000s, Patzenhauer wrote a Fate 2 but never published it. Instead, he sent a personalized copies to friends and fans with the stipulation that they not share them. Accounts suggest that the game was never finished and had no main quest. (If any German-speaking reader would like to browse the forums here, you might find more information about the game than I did.) I've seen some sites that say the source code was destroyed upon Patzenhauer's death, as per his will, and others that say he lost the game in a computer crash before he died. (On one message thread in 2006, Patzenhauer talks about a computer crash but later says he recovered his data.) What everyone does seem to agree on is that the game featured plenty of manga-influenced graphics and nudity, if not outright hentai gameplay. (By his own account, Patzenhauer developed a deep interest in all things Japanese in the post-Fate years.) The image below, minus the black bars, came up in an RPG Codex thread in 2008, for instance. (As for the black bars, the images in my "won" posting are as explicit as a I dare get without worrying that Google will require me to turn on the "adults only" flag.) There are some rumors of a fan sequel in-progress called Fate 3.
     
Purported screenshot from the privately-distributed Fate 2.
    
It's going to be weird not having the occasional Fate session on my "to do" list, and I have a feeling that my memories of the game are going to be wrapped up in my memories of a weird year in which Irene and I moved 4 times. I played Fate in the cramped study of a temporary apartment in Boston, and on the porch of a beach house we rented for a few months on the North Shore. I had it going on the kitchen table of a one-bedroom in Portland as the summer breeze came through the window, and in the comfy office of the condo we eventually bought near Bar Harbor, as the snows fell on the harbor outside. Perhaps the instability of my living situation explains why I took refuge in the stability of mapping square after square of the huge game world. And perhaps it also explains why I was so personally offended at its shaggy-dog ending. Despite a relatively high score, I'm glad to be done with it and moving on.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Game 241: Neverwinter Nights (1991)

     
Neverwinter Nights
United States
Stormfront Studios (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS. Hosted on AOL from 1991 to 1997.
Date Started: 2 February 2016
Date Ended: 3 February 2016
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5) for single-player offline
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I never stop being amazed at how quickly the world incorporated both the Internet and wireless communications technology. In just over a decade, we went from a tiny portion of the population "online" and mobile (c. 1990) to almost everyone having instant access to the world's information and people. If you had told me in 1990 that within 20 years I'd never be lost again, I'd always be able to reach any of my friends and family members at a moment's notice, that within seconds I'd be able to look up the answer to any question, listen to any song, watch any video, get the latest news and weather, and do thousands of other things, I would have called the men in white coats. Yet here we are. Somehow all that awesome technology, put before us in a decade and a half, seemed "gradual."

It's hard to believe that at one point, I was a functioning adult before I had the Internet or a mobile phone. How did I get places? I worked for a security company from around 1991-1994, while I was in college, and I was a "floater"--they sent me to a different facility practically every day, all over eastern Massachusetts. How in the world did I find where I was going? I can't remember for the life of me. How did I book airline tickets? I remember a period in about 1995 when the alternator on my car was squirrely and I had to call AAA for a tow maybe 5 times in 6 months. How did I do it? Did I walk to a payphone every time? I don't remember.

These types of thoughts came flooding to me as I reviewed the history of Neverwinter Nights, the first graphic online role-playing game, which resided on the servers of America Online from 1991 to 1997. I remember AOL quite clearly: it was my first online experience. For a period in the 1990s, you couldn't walk 10 feet without tripping over one of the disks that they mailed to everyone, everywhere. I was introduced to the service in probably 1993, when I could scarce afford the ridiculous hourly fees, but like everyone else, I paid up, because I was enchanted with e-mail, chat rooms, news, and the various features of the online portal. This wasn't the full Internet yet, you understand--just AOL's proprietary content.

Yet somehow I missed the existence of Neverwinter Nights, thank the gods. If I'd known about it, I would have played it. I was already a CRPG addict by 1991 and I had experience with the Gold Box games, which I loved. I would have played it incessantly, probably during my security shifts. All of my money would have gone to it, and I probably wouldn't have met Irene.
     
You could play for one hour a month for free. Anything else cost money.
     
For those of you not alive at the time, you have to understand that in 1991, you got "online" by using your modem to dial in to one of your ISP's proprietary phone lines, a service for which they charged you by the hour. The AOL materials that came with Neverwinter Nights shows that they were charging $5 per hour for non-peak usage (18:00-06:00) and $10 per hour for peak daytime usage. To save money, those of us who used AOL primarily for e-mail would compose our missives offline, dial in, quickly send and receive, and sign off (AOL eventually created something called a "flash session" for just this purpose). They needed services to keep customers consistently online, paying those hourly rates, and online games were part of the answer. Thus, if you wanted to play Neverwinter Nights for 4 hours between 16:00 and 20:00 some Monday night, you paid $30 (almost $55 in today's money) for the privilege. You could have bought a new game every day for that kind of money. But people happily paid it. When Neverwinter Nights launched, it was capable of supporting 200 online players at a time. Eventually, that number grew to 500. But over 100,000 members had characters. There was a line waiting to get in to the server almost every night. Imagine paying that kind of hourly rate not to play the game but to wait to play the game.

Neverwinter Nights was developed by Stormfront Studios and published by SSI. It uses the same Gold Box engine and graphics that we've seen on this blog a dozen times by now, starting with Pool of Radiance (1988) and most recently in Pools of Darkness (1991). Most of the Gold Box titles were written in-house at SSI, but SSI paid Stormfront to develop the Savage Frontier series, including 1991's Gateway to the Savage Frontier, set in the same basic area as Neverwinter Nights
   
The game shipped on disk with a rulebook and journal, but made it clear you needed an AOL subscription (disk also included) to play.
    
Surprisingly few changes had to be made to adapt the Gold Box engine to online play, and at first glance an experienced Gold Box player might not notice any differences. (I'm relying on online testimonials for the following, of course, not having had the experience of playing online myself.) Character creation is virtually identical, including the by-now antiquated rules on race/class combinations and level caps. There's no "modify" command to jack up your statistics, but that's about all that's different.

Each player controlled only one character. During online gameplay, multiple characters showed up in the window where other Gold Box games showed the multiple characters of the single player's party. Players who wanted to adventure together could choose a command to follow a lead character as he controlled navigation around the 3D maps and decided when to camp. During combat, each player controlled his character independently, but combat options are otherwise unchanged.

The game world consists of 29 maps (all first-person, no overland ones like in the Pools series) of the standard 16 x 16 Gold Box size. The core of the game is the city of Neverwinter and its various districts, but other maps allowed you to explore the surrounding wilderness, and the cities of Luskan, Port Llast, and Vilnask among others. 
    
Exploring a wilderness map.
    
The games even shipped with roughly the same documentation as the other Gold Box titles, consisting of an adventurer's journal and a rulebook. (There are no "journal entries," though.) The setup of the game world is kept purposefully broad: Neverwinter, where the river never freezes, is ruled by the firm but benevolent hand of Lord Nasher. (Reportedly, when AOL chairman Steve Case would play the game, he played as Nasher.) Lately, monsters and raiding parties have been troubling the city, and many people suspect the five pirate captains of Luskan are behind the troubles. Nasher dispenses various quests to adventurers to quell the threats.

There are a million things I don't know or understand about how the game was played. For instance, I don't know how loot was distributed among characters at the end of combat, or how quest experience was divided. I'm not sure exactly how quests, fixed fights, and special encounters worked. Were the developers constantly creating new scenarios and plugging them in to particular coordinates? I know that there was a chat capability, but I don't know how it worked with the game interface.

Mostly, I don't understand why an offline version of the game existed and how it worked with the online version. What happened when you were offline and you finally connected? Did you appear in your offline square, or did you get transported to the central hub? Was it seamless, or did you have to stop the game offline and resume it online? What happened to your character if you killed the offline version, since there's no "save" feature? These are questions I can't figure out from the web sites and documentation I consulted; I'm sure commenters will have some of the answers.
     
Exploring the docks in the city center.
    
What I can tell you is that offline gameplay is somewhat pointless. It's a shell of a world with no content. You can create a character, visit shops, explore the maps, fight random battles, and train, but you can't get quests or engage in any special encounters or fixed combats. I don't know what those quests or special encounters looked like when the game was live--how complex they were, what resources they required--and I'd love to hear from anyone who played it.

I don't even know if the offline version I'm playing is the same as what was available when Neverwinter Nights was active. A couple of issues give me pause. First, you can't name your character during creation--every character is dubbed "NW Knight." Second, there's a menu that I'll cover in a bit that enables some terrific cheating. Certainly, it wasn't possible to use this menu offline and bring the resulting character online. It makes me wonder if characters could transfer between online and offline play at all.
    
    
I created a half-elf magic-user/cleric, figuring that if I was going to play one character, he'd need some healing ability. The game starts in the plaza of Neverwinter Square, facing Nasher's palace. If you walk in, Lord Nasher welcomes you but doesn't offer you any quests. There's a blank screen after his generic welcome, however, which I assumed was filled with content in the online version.
    
Nasher offers a generic greeting.
    
Neverwinter Square is a safe area, with no random combats, that offers several weapon and armor stores, inns, general stores (mirrors, oil flasks, holy water), stores that sell silver weapons, jewelry stores, temples, and training facilities. There are several of each, and I wonder if you were playing online, could only one character visit at a time? Characters start with about 50 gold pieces, so I used them to purchase some basic equipment. If there's a magic shop anywhere in the game, I didn't find it, making non-cleric gameplay difficult since you can't buy potions.
    
The central area of the city.
    
Most of the tiles in the Square are unvisitable, either behind doors marked "private residence" or in the backs of shops where you get stopped at the front door. Again, I wonder if in the online version those private residences were sometimes repurposed for special encounters. In the southeast corner, a 9-square "indoor gardens" has no special features.

Stairs behind the palace lead down to the sewers, where an iron golem stops you from entering the "sewer guild" unless you have a membership card. Other exits from the map lead to the Warehouse District, the Wharves, and Southwall, and from each of those to outdoor maps. Guards posted at these exits give you a sense of the relative danger level of the maps.
     
Some solid advice.
    
I was curious how the map held up against other maps of Neverwinter. It makes little sense in the context of the 2002 game, where the entrance to Nasher's palace is on the south rather than the east and the outlying neighborhoods have different names. But it is virtually identical to the Neverwinter that appears in Gateway to the Savage Frontier, the only exception being that the structures marked "private residence" in Neverwinter Nights are part of the monster-infested indoor garden areas in Gateway.

Once I started exploring the external areas, I started meeting enemies in random encounters. Combat is identical to the single-player Gold Box games--even all the spells are the same--except that you have a time limit of about 8 seconds before you lose your turn. Both player and enemy actions are excruciatingly slow, and unlike the single-player games, there's no "alter" command to speed them up. Obviously, online everyone had to play at the same speed.

My character does well against some slept thieves..

...and not so well against some undead.
      
The random combats seem to sense the size of the party, and I didn't find them overly difficult for a single character. I might get attacked by three thieves (easily defeatable by "Sleep") or a single crocodile or gnoll. Occasionaly--usually behind doors that I unwisely forced open--I met impossible parties of ghouls or ogres or whatnot, but even when they defeated me, they didn't kill me. I would go unconscious, lose some loot, and wake up next to the gate to Neverwinter Square. I don't know if online "death" was the same. Is it just because they never knocked me below -10 hit points?
    
In real life, you learn something even when you lose a fight. Not in RPGs.
     
Post-combat is much the same: you get experience, money, and sometimes items, although the items are curiously random. A crocodile might leave a shield or a guisarme, for instance. Again, I don't know how parties received loot or divided it up.

There are no fixed encounters or combats in the offline version, but there are frequent atmospheric messages that describe the setting and elaborate on the minimalist graphics. Some of them are "fixed"--they occur every time you step into a square--and others appear randomly from what must be a pool of atmospheric descriptions. Stormfront did this well in Gateway, I recall.

A fixed description of the "Southwall" neighborhood of Neverwinter.
    
And a random description from just walking down the street.
   
There's no way to save offline, unless you get a DOSBox version that allows save states, but there was little point in playing a game that only allows random combats anyway. I would have had to fight around 50 easy combats in the Southwall area before I had enough experience to level up, and I lost interest well before then. In the live version, characters could achieve up to Level 12 (unless capped below that by race restrictions) and then gracefully "retire."
    
I retired at Level 3, and only got there by cheating.
   
I did have some fun experimenting with the offline cheat menu, labeled "GM," which gives you options to teleport anywhere in the game, walk through walls, avoid encounters, edit the statistics of your equipment, and enable combat menu option called "zap" that instantly kills all enemies and gives you the experience. It was how I determined there were 29 maps, among other things.
    
Some options on the cheat menu.
     
I was hoping to find some video of online gameplay, but no one seems to have preserved any. There are some still images of battles (does anyone know why so many of them say "Charactername is stupid"?), but I can't find anything showing the exploration interface, which might answer some of my questions.

I know from online testimonials that a community of dedicated players loved the game. There were dozens of guilds, online parties, trivia contests, PvP matches and leaderboards, and all kinds of community content. Veteran players volunteered to mentor new ones and even to manage aspects of the game's development. The community must have been disappointed when the server went offline in 1997. I've read several explanations for why this happened. The most plausible scenario seems to be that by then, AOL had switched to a flat-rate monthly fee (I think I paid $20 for 20 hours for about a year, and then it was $20 for unlimited access) to compete with other ISPs and they no longer had any incentive to keep people online--in fact, it was now the opposite. AOL wanted to expand the game and charge an additional fee to play it, which SSI and Stormfront were against. The contract between the three companies came to an end in 1997 without a resolution and the server was simply shut off at that point.
     
This remains a bit of a mystery. I wonder how you joined the "sewer guild."
     
By 1997, the Gold Box engine must have seemed pretty stale anyway. I've loved the games that it produced, but I certainly wouldn't have liked to spend the rest of my RPG career starting at its bland corridors, unable to see enemies in the environment, straightjacketed by the AD&D1 character system. In six years, the game had only been upgraded twice, and the primary thing it must have offered was that it was the only online graphical RPG. This changed in 1997 with the release of Ultima Online, and titles like Asheron's Call and EverQuest soon followed, probably killing any serious incentive to resurrect Neverwinter Nights.

The name lives on, of course, in the 2002 Bioware title. It's amazing that only 5 years separate the end of Neverwinter Nights online and the beginning of the Aurora Engine namesake; judging by graphics, sound, and size, you'd think they were eons apart. The 2002 title is more of a "remake" of the original than I ever realized, with Neverwinter facing the same sort of threat and the player exploring pretty much the same geographic territory. I understand that some dedicated fans literally re-created the original game maps using the Aurora toolset and hosted a limited online community until 2012. That same year, a dedicated fan released a Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures version of the original game. 
   
The Bioware version, only 5 years after the original went offline, feels like a completely different era.
     
With only the ability to experience the offline shell of the game, it really should never have been on my list. From now on, I'll only play online RPGs if they have a purposeful offline mode, not just a possible one. Because I didn't get to experience the "real" game, a GIMLET is meaningless. I filled in some scores anyway in the spreadsheet, totaling 27 (the lack of quests, NPCs, and non-combat encounters hurt offline play), but making it clear that the score refers to single-player, offline gameplay. If you had no other RPG to play, you'd probably still enjoy the combat system (although it lacks something with only one player), the variety of enemies, and character development. The greater problem is that as you play the offline version, you have a palpable sense of what's missing. You realize the large courtyard is supposed to be swarming with other characters. Lord Nasher literally stares at you mutely instead of giving you a quest. Well-described buildings are clearly meant to have some kind of encounter rather than empty spaces behind their doors. It's like walking through a ballroom after the party's over.
    
Nasher tries and fails to find a quest to give me in his online files.
   
The process of learning about the game was more fun than playing it, and it gives me a foundation to understand other MMORPGs as I come across them. For now, let's get back to a proper single-player title.

Further reading: For the material in this posting, I'm heavily indebted to the resources on the "unofficial classic Neverwinter Nights archive." I also got a lot out of a May 2015 posting from "The Game Archaeologist."

*****

The Screamer, a Japanese RPG that has an English fan patch, just disappeared from my "upcoming" list because I apparently long-passed its correct year of 1984. I'll re-engage it in a "mop up" of a few lingering 1980s titles later.

The Quest for Tanda (1991) also disappeared because I can't find an active download. I'll put it back on the list if someone can send me the game.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fate: Won.

Yes, we'll talk about this in a minute.
     
As we wrapped up my last substantive posting, I was expecting a long journey to Thardan's castle and another interminable 7-level dungeon. What I found was such the opposite that it's hard to be believed. The dungeon under Cassida (where Winwood was separated from, and reunited with, his party) was the last dungeon of the game. Some battle I fought there with minotaurs and ghouls was the last substantive battle. I almost wish I'd known at the time.

As the characters exited from Cassida, Bergerac and the rat-rabbit in tow, one new element became immediately clear. Every wandering outdoor monster in the game--every thief, mage, rat, snake, barbarian, and wisp--was replaced with parties of demons. At first, I thought they were the same old wispy ghosts and liches I'd massacred by the hundreds while mapping the contours of the Forbidden Zone. But when my entire party was dead by the end of my first encounter, I realized they were different. Though using the same images, they had names like "Thor Demons." Like the creatures in the dungeon, they always acted first in combat, and even a couple of them were able to kill all of my characters in the first round, before I even had a chance to act.
    
This was unexpected.
    
Fortunately, there weren't that many of them, and they didn't actually seem to be trying to attack my party, unlike the usual pack of wandering monsters. I was mostly able to avoid them. Perhaps some buffing spells or some more attribute upgrades would have helped protect against them, but I didn't see the point this late in the game.

Since the outdoors were a little dangerous, I spent some time riding the Cavetrain from town to town, looking for hints. I had to buy tickets for Bergerac and the rat-rabbit. There were no clues or new dialogue options in any of the towns. "Going around" in the taverns produced nothing either.

At this time, I was still under the illusion that Thardan would be found in some kind of structure. I thought maybe his little zone had a small town or castle leading to a layered dungeon. The overhead map seemed to support this hypothesis, with a large square that looked like a town in the upper-northeast of the Forbidden Zone. I didn't know if the rat-rabbit in my party was the powerful witch Bergerac had mentioned or if I'd find her in Thardan's fortress. I only knew that with Bergerac in my party, I could penetrate the inner Forbidden Zone. I decided to travel there and at least get a sense of what I was facing.

I followed various roads out of Mernoc. Most of them ended in inexplicable 3 x 3 platforms of pavement that served no purpose. But one of them wound its way to the northeast, past mountains and forest, into a dense thicket. The dangerous demon parties wafted around in my periphery, but they were far less plentiful than the lesser demons that used to occupy this area, and the few times I accidentally ran into them, Elgarette was able to pray them away.
   
Thardan's corner of the world.
   
I saw the end of the road approach and expected I'd find myself facing the door of a town or castle. Instead:
     
Thardan, I don't want to alarm you, but I think your arm is on fire.
    
Yep, Thardan was standing right there in the middle of a square of pavement. And without even the briefest explanation of how he performed the deed, the next screen showed all of my party members dead.

Okay. So I guessed the rat-rabbit probably was Bergerac's witch, and I needed to get her dispelled before confronting Thardan. I had no idea how to do this, so I scanned my map for anything promising. I noted that every location I had marked as "unknown" or "mysterious"--the monolith in the woods, the four pools of water in the northwest, the wand stuck in the ground near Cassida--had turned out to play a role in the game. Everything except a statue of a stone lion in a "memorial area" west-northwest of Valvice. Much of the game world was still unmapped, of course, but I had already used the magic jewels to scan for interesting patterns or structures in the unmapped portions and found none.

I couldn't imagine what a stone lion would have to do with anything, but I was out of ideas, so I took the Cavetrain to Valvice and walked to the memorial. I really didn't expect anything to happen, so I was surprised when Rabby stuck a paw in the lion's mouth, "the strange being vanish[ed] in a cloud of red smoke," and a woman named Morganna stood in her place. She related that Thardan had turned her into the rat-rabbit when she was a young child, "but now I have the power to destroy his evil force! Now it's the time for Thardan to quiver with fear! The day of revenge is near!" Okay, then.
     
Every child in Germany knows that you can reverse spells by sticking your hand in a lion's mouth. It's from the Aesop fable "The Man with no Hand and the Lion."
    
Morganna accomplished a lot in her youth, it seems. She's Level 105--about 40 levels above my characters--has over 1,000 spell points and comes with a dozen magic books, including the "Master" book.

Now, at risk of being again misunderstood and called a Puritan, we have to deal with the issue of Morganna's nudity, because the way it's used here is stupid and tiresome. When I talked about nudity in the context of Wizardry VI, I was not upset at the nudity itself but rather how forced it was. I was annoyed by the implicit expectation that I would enjoy it, because after all, everyone knows computer games are for adolescent boys. It's not even that the nudity was "gratuitous"; gratuitous nudity is fine. It's that it ran contrary to anything that made sense plotwise, and was being shoved in my face for no purpose except that it clearly excited the creepy creator.
    
Fate had gratuitous nudity throughout, but only at the end did it get pathetic.
    
So far, the English version of Fate: Gates of Dawn has only included stark nudity on the infrequent copy protection screens, where it's definitely gratuitous, but whatever. These aren't named characters that we know anything about. They're not even NPCs. They're just window dressing. But here comes Morganna, who has been a rat-rabbit since before puberty, so she has the mental age of a child. Her portrait only suggests a state of undress, but she explicitly refuses to put on armor.
    
    
On the Cavetrain back to Cassida--would you want to ride in a public transportation car with no clothing?--she scares the ticket inspector:
   
    
Off we go back to Thardan's castle--or, rather, Thardan's square of pavement. Look, my last few posts have stressed how tired I am with the game. I didn't really want a big dungeon. But I wouldn't have minded a small dungeon. So as I walked along the pathway--gingerly, to protect Morganna's bootless soles--I half-hoped that Thardan was simply blocking the entrance to his fortress, and now that I had Morganna, he'd run inside and we'd have to chase him a bit, maybe fight a few battles and use that "Master" spellbook more than once, and the game would come to a proper conclusion.

Alas, when we reached his square, what I got instead was Morganna turning to face the party and giving us some full-frontal:
     
     
And then she blasted Thardan out of existence.
     
    
No final battle, no confrontation. Just some pixelated nudity as an implicit "reward" instead of a proper, satisfying ending. In case anyone is still confused: I don't object to nudity. I object to nudity used in such a puerile, juvenile way, in place of a proper narrative ending.

"We've done it! Our world is free again! Thardan has lost all might and will never appear again!" Morganna exclaimed. "All his power is now in my mind! Thus I'm able to create the magical gate for Winwood's return!"

"But wait," the game offered before this return could be shown or described, "There may soon be a FATE Part II!"
   
    
And that was it, except for the option to replay the final scene over again.

What a ridiculous letdown. Almost 300 hours of gameplay ends with a stunted confrontation in which my characters play no role, the big bad is defeated by a deus ex machina character whom I never heard of until 98% of the way through the game, no explanation is offered for Thardan's bringing me to this world to begin with, and I'm supposed to forget all of this because I got to see a fuzzy pair of B-cups.

I want 250 of those 272 hours back.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

Fate: Very Long Game

Fate is the kind of game that makes you wait in real time while your characters take a train.
    
I think I might have mentioned it before, but this game is very long. Very long. Indecently long, really. I mean, I could come up with adverb after adverb to put in front of "long," and I'm still not sure it would adequately convey how long Fate is. 

And large, too. I guess that's a function of "long," or vice versa. We're talking 400 x 640 squares, 9 cities that each have a 56 x 56 grid (even if they don't use it all), and 5 dungeons of 7 levels each, each level of which has its own 56 x 56 grid. Even accounting for unused squares, if you mapped everything, you will have mapped over 200,000 squares. 

Speaking of mapping, I don't believe I'll be finishing mine, although I did make a few updates. This is where it ended up:
     
     
Mapping the rest on top of a nearly-300-hour game probably wouldn't be the best use of time.

Not much else to add right now. One wonders why I even published such a short post.

Time so far: 268 hours

Friday, February 10, 2017

Phantasie II: Summary and Rating

    
Phantasie II
United States
Winston Douglas Wood (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1986 for Commodore 64, Apple II, and Atari ST; 1987 for Atari 8-bit, FM-7, PC-88, PC-98, and MSX
Date Started: 21 January 2017
Date Ended: 11 February 2017
Total Hours: 25
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 39
Ranking at Time of Posting: 193/238 (81%)

[Ed: When I originally wrote this posting, I thought I couldn't win because I couldn't find the final monster. Later, I did. An addendum at the end of the posting has the winning information.]
     
Well, I can't win Phantasie II. Something is askew with my game and I can't figure it out. (My best guess is that I started playing an existing game by accident instead of re-initializing the first disk.) As much as I like the game, I've decided it's not worth fretting about. I got most of the way to the end and enjoyed myself along the way. These last few days have delivered an object lesson about obsessively playing every CRPG to its conclusion, and it wouldn't be worth the time to re-scout every inch of the game for what I missed, or to start over with new characters.

The problem is the mising Beast #1, the "giant constrictor," theoretically the easiest of Pluto's eight minions. He's supposed to be wandering the overworld somewhere, but I've gone over every square in the overworld, the underworld, and the dungeons, and he's just nowhere to be found. I've otherwise cleaned out every dungeon, slain every other beast, collected every other amulet, and acquired the Orb, so that's "nearly won," at least.
     
I have everything I need to win except Amulet 1.
    
Pluto's Smallest Castle was, despite its name, a fairly large castle with eight separate entrances. Seven of them led to an unwinnable battle with Pluto (oh, I'm sure he's killable with enough levels and luck, but I didn't have the patience to try). But a scroll alerted me to use the western entrance and look for a secret door, leading to the rest of the cavern network. There, amidst multiple battles with demons and devils, I defeated Pluto's Giant Wyvern.
     
In Pluto's castle.
     
One odd encounter had my party following a troll throughout the dungeon until he finally gave us a scroll. We then had to beat our way back through half a dozen monster parties. But the scroll outlined a path through the lava to Pluto's Menagerie, so it was worth it.
    
Making my way across lava.
    
Pluto's Menagerie was also swarming with demons, devils, giants, dragon kings, and high-level spellcasters. Even though I stocked up on magic potions before visiting, I had to retreat a couple of times, which was annoying because it involved hiking across two screens of lava to the nearest town. A long, winding corridor packed with encounters led to a teleporter with six numbers, each leading to a different section of the Menagerie.

One of them led to Beast #8, the most difficult of the lot, the Demon-Dragon. It took me about 10 tries to kill him without losing most of my party, and even then the best I could do was two members killed. (Fortunately, I have the "Resurrection" spell.) He had more than 350 hit points, got about 10 attacks per round, and did more than 50 points of damage with each hit or breath.
     
This demon-dragon isn't taking any of my $#@*.
     
That was as far as I could go. I found the way to the Ice Dragon, but without all eight of the beast amulets, the game said I was too scared to approach.

In general, the late game featured a lot of battles with individual, high-level enemies like cloud giants, dragon kings, high demons, and high devils. They might have one or two allies, but there are very few large parties. "Fireflash 4" becomes the most important spell; a player would be extremely hard-pressed to win without it. By the late game, both of my clerics, my mage, and my thief were capable of casting it. I let it do a lot of the work, gulping potions when my spell points got low.

Judging by what walkthroughs tell me and what I can extract from the text on the disk, if I had been able to acquire all 8 amulets, I would have been able to approach the Ice Dragon in Pluto's Menagerie. Although the game gives an option to attack, the game apparently has the party think twice after hearing a threat from the dragon. If you choose to talk to the dragon, you have the option to try to feed him gold or "the weakest party member," but he's not interested in either. If you feed him the Orb, he crunches it down. Somehow, destroying the Orb destroys the evil possessing the dragon, and he gratefully flies away.

Filmon teleports the party out of the dungeon to his hut and confirms that destroying the Orb broke the curse on Ferronrah. He then tells of Nikademus's forces marching on a continent to the north, presumably Scandor of Phantasie III, and invites the party to continue their adventures in the sequel.

In a GIMLET, the game earns:

  • 5 points for the game world. The backstory and lore aren't as expansive as other titles, but it's well-plotted, tightly-written, and generally free of plot holes or logical inconsistencies. The in-game scrolls, the manual's backstory, and the physical features you find in the landscape all work well together.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. It's fantasy boilerplate. I generally forgot about the skills--they play a passive role in the game. The first and third titles had some needs for particular races and classes, which this one didn't, and I generally forgot I was role-playing gnomes, monsters, and halflings. Leveling slows down markedly in the second half of the game.
    
My character aged 9 years during the course of the game.
    
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. Named NPCs play a key role in the game and impart information about the lore of the land and the quest steps. There are no dialogue options, but there are some encounter options with these NPCs.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. In their strengths and weaknesses, special attacks and defenses, the enemies of Phantasie II are only average compared to other games of the era. The titles do a better job with the miscellaneous role-playing options, encounters, and small puzzles that you get while exploring the dungeons. They don't quite rise to the level of good role-playing--most options are either "good" or "stupidly evil"--but they're a start.
  • 4 points for magic and combat, basically a Wizardry-derived base with animation, but the animation adds a layer of tension and fun. As with Wizardry, the developers did a good job tightly controlling magic use through limited spell points. A little too much rests on just a couple of spells, though, and physical attacks become undervalued in the late game.
    
Battling one of the bosses.
    
  • 4 points for equipment. You only have weapons, armor, shields, and potions--no accessories--but the distribution mechanic is fun, and I like the way that the items are randomized in the world, not found at fixed locations. The series suffers from a lack of special or "artifact" items.
  • 2 points for the economy. Save for potions (which are cheap), the store is mostly wasted--you start with a decent set of equipment and find the rest. You're either saving every gold piece for training (early game) or running into the maximum value for the gold variable (late game).
  • 4 points for an interesting main quest with some randomization (which sank me, unfortunately), multiple steps, and even some small "side quests" (killing Pluto, rescuing Filmon's friends).
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The first two are era-tolerable but nothing special. I didn't care for having to scroll around menus when there was a perfectly-good complete keyboard in front of me. I'm rating this category for the C64 version, so mentally increase it a couple of points if these elements are notably better on your preferred platform.
    
The Atari ST version was more colorful and elaborate. I wish I didn't hate the emulator so much.

     
  • 5 points for gameplay. Although there's a natural order to the dungeons, it's mostly non-linear, and you're encouraged to visit some of the dungeons multiple times. I wouldn't call it "replayable," but the pacing and difficulty are right on the money. 
    
Wow. Without even looking at my reviews for Phantasie and Phantasie III, I managed to land on the exact same score of 39 that I gave to the other two. This raises the question of why Phantasie III didn't earn a higher rating given that it added several new elements. (I did rate it higher for combat, where most of the elements are found). Looking over my review, I think I failed to realize that the three titles were intended as a trilogy, building on the same story. Instead, I thought that the developers kept using Nikademus as the villain because they lacked imagination. I also apparently thought that the third game dragged a bit. Still, I won't worry about a few points. 39 is a pretty high score for any era (so far). 

I'm debating whether to subtract points for whatever bug failed to bring me the encounter with Beast #1 so I could win the game. Normally, I would, but I can't find anyone else talking about the same problem, so I'm going to have to assume that I just messed something up.

In these early days of limited graphics, storage, and processing power, the best that a game could do was sketch the outline of a dungeon and prompt your imagination to fill in the rest. I don't have any issue with that--I enjoy it, in fact--but a lot of titles do a poor job of developing the skeleton of their worlds. They don't provide enough walls on which to imagine the paintings and curtains. Wireframe dungeons are fine, but they're best when they have a logical structure, a theme, and occasional atmospheric messages to tell you what's happening. (Of the 3D games, The Bard's Tale does a poor job with this; Wizardry does better; Might & Magic does it best.)

This is where the Phantasie games excel. The dungeons aren't a random configuration of rooms and corridors: the developers gave some thought as to the layout of castles and dungeons. A palace is going to need bedrooms, kitchens, servants' quarters, and a dungeon, for instance, and they designed it accordingly, giving each room a name and maybe even a paragraph of text as you entered. When you meet monsters, it's not some random hodgepodge of bats, priests, zombies, and goblins all traveling together. You fight kobolds and orcs in the kobold village, insects and vermin in caves, and demons and devils in the Netherworld. In other words, the series pays attention to setting the same way that a good tabletop RPG module might.

It makes sense, of course, that developer Winston Douglas Wood was a veteran of Dungeons and Dragons and RuneQuest campaigns. According to a 2013 interview at RPG Codex, he was a sophomore in college when he began working on Phantasie, and he was in graduate school by the time it was published. This was an era in which SSI, lacking a lot of RPG experience of its own, readily published titles submitted by independent developers such as Tom Reamy (Galactic Adventures) and Chuck Dougherty (Questron). Ultimately, none of these independently-developed titles (including Phantasie) had the staying power of SSI's internally-developed games (Wizard's Crown, Pool of Radiance), which built upon the company's wargaming expertise.

As the various ports above indicate, Phantasie became very popular in Japan, leading to the Japanese-exclusive Phantasie IV, which I unfairly brushed off at the end of my Phantasie III review. I assumed it had been developed by an unscrupulous Japanese company taking advantage of the name. In fact, Wood says in the interview that he designed Phantasie IV himself, although Japanese programmers at Starcraft wrote the code for the PC-88, PC-98, and MSX. There were vague plans to port it to western PCs, but its release corresponded with the decline of the classic Phantasie platforms like the C64 and the Apple II, and by that time Wood was deep into his "real" profession working for his father's pipe network analysis software company, of which he is now a co-owner.
     
Phantasie IV clearly shows the series lineage, but it has little squiggles instead of actual text for game options.
    
Wood developed one other title for SSI--Star Command (1988)--and designed Starfire (1994) for StarCraft (another Japan-only title). At the time of the RPG Codex interview, he was working on and off on Phantasie V, but that was almost 4 years ago, and there doesn't seem to have been any news since then.

In the interview, Wood suggests an uncertainty about the game's legacy. While it's true that third-person games largely won the interface struggle (at least until the late 1990s), you can see a clear homage to Phantasie in some of the diskmag titles we looked at in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In both combat and exploration, John Carmack's Dark Designs triology (my reviews start here) could easily be mistaken as having been written by Wood. I suspect that the author of the two Legends of Murder titles was also a player. And of course we saw an adaptation of the character ranks and character leaping in Legend of Faerghail.

As I said when I started this series, I'm glad I had a chance to return to the Phantasie universe and look at it properly, not just in the rushed way that I covered I and III and everything else during the first two years of blogging. They are stand-outs among 1980s titles and still fun in any decade.

****

Update: based on some commenters' messages, I decided to run around on one of the wilderness maps and give myself one more try to find the first beast, the giant constrictor. I found him almost immediately. He was so easy I forgot to take a screenshot of the fight.

When he was dead, I had the last amulet. One by one, I had my characters examine them and gain their associated "beast runes."
    
 
With the eight beast runes, I returned to Pluto's Menagerie. I had to slog across dangerous lava, healing myself as I went, and fight about a billion combats against fixed monsters in the dungeon's hallways.
   
Combat with a cloud giant and minions.

Eventually, after exhausting most of my spell points and potions, I found my way to the dragon's cave again.
    

This time, the game didn't tell me I was too scared to face the dragon. I walked up to it and fed him the Orb.
    

As noted above, the dragon flew away after destroying the Orb, saying that the curse was lifted. Filmon teleported me to his hut and confirmed the same, then led me outside for a victory party in which each of my characters was introduced and the crowd cheered.
   
I assume it said "from Gelnor" if you used an imported party?

The final screen has Filmon setting up the third game.
  
   
No change to the GIMLET, but a reasonably satisfying ending. I'm glad I don't need to carry it as a loss.

****

Martian Dreams may or may not be the next new game. I need a stretch of time at home when I don't need to close my computer or kill the emulator to make sure the saving/crashing problem doesn't recur. The next time I have 3 or 4 days off the road, I'll play it.

Realms of Darkness was coming up on the list, but upon examination, it appears to have been released in early 1987 rather than 1986.