Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Summer Update

I'm sorry it's been so unforgivably long since my last update, and particularly since I've made any substantive progress on a game. The bottom line--which I didn't fully realize until a few days ago--is that I just needed a vacation. It's been a trying 2016, for several reasons, and I needed to spend the summer doing things away from my computer, including making my new house in Maine livable.

This isn't the end of my blog, and I promise I'll be back with gusto at some point during August. I'm just as dedicated as I've always been to making progress on my list. I just needed a longer break than I thought.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Best RPG of 2017: Downfall

Occasionally, writing part-time about CRPGs has its benefits. Developers frequently write to me asking if I'd like to take a look and comment on their RPGs in development. I usually say no to such requests--I don't generally have the time--but this one sounded so good from the one-paragraph description that developer Henry Lancaster sent me, I decided to give it a try. Even though it isn't finished, it's one of the best RPGs I've ever played. Henry's company is currently shopping for a publisher, but they have a lot of interest and the game will probably have a 2017 release.

I couldn't get permission to show any screenshots, but I did get permission to offer the first preliminary review on the Internet. I can guarantee that I'm going to plan a week off for this game's release date.

This is my preliminary review of Downfall: End of an Empire by Lancaster Media.

******

Xaoje: empire of despair. Five hundred years after Xanmaran, the God-Emperor, conquered and unified the 17 kingdoms, most people live without hope. The Precept of Maran teaches that mortal life is meant solely to strengthen souls for the Great War in the afterlife, and to this end, the church enforces a strict caste system, brutal working hours and conditions, and crippling taxation. Many would oppose--even overthrow--the corrupt and merciless Empire, but how does one resist an enemy who can read minds?

Many people have reason to revolt: a child of wealth, disgusted by her family's abuses of its position; a dock laborer whose family was slaughtered by the ruthless Zaüd Seekers; a city guard, haunted by the orders he has carried out; the last survivor of an older religion destroyed by the Maranians. But only one will--through design or luck--come into possession of a vessel containing the soul of Nakata, an assassin of an ancient order. Not strong enough to possess the character, Nakata can only impart some of her will and power. Finding they have common goals, the player and Nakata join minds, skills, and resources to bring about Downfall.

Downfall: End of an Empire takes place in a large city--the capital of the Maranian Empire--and its surrounding environs. The player takes on two roles: the origin character (drawn from one of the scenarios above) and the character he or she becomes when he or she puts on Nakata's cape and cowl and takes to the streets in disguise. The player can choose any name from the origin character but chooses from one of seven names for the assassin; this allows the in-game dialogue to refer to the character by name while still preserving some sense of freedom in character creation.

Although standard weapon-based combat is possible, the game stresses assassination and stealth as its primary mechanic. After the origin story, background, and possession by Nakata, the game becomes completely open. The player must topple the empire by assassinating (or otherwise eliminating) its leaders and functionaries, from the lowliest tax collector to the Emperor himself, but it's completely up to the player to determine who those people are, and in what order to target them. Through research, scouting, reading, listening, NPC dialogue, and other means of acquiring knowledge, he learns who controls what in the Empire and develops his own plan for working his way to the top. The story changes dynamically and plays out very differently depending on the order of execution.

The key is that every assassination produces a reaction. An individual guard may simply be replaced, although the Empire has a limited pool to work from. A mid-level bureaucrat might be succeeded by a more cruel and efficient one--though if the player assassinates several holders of the same office in a row, the Empire may have to leave it unfilled. Eliminate the captain of the guards, and the resulting confusion on the streets may give you a few nights of breathing room--or it might lead to a squad of Zaüd Seekers scouring the poor quarters and killing indiscriminately.

Like any good RPG, the main mission isn't the entire plot. The player needs funds, resources, allies, and practice, and to that end, he or she can take quests from a variety of factions with compatible goals, including a feeble but growing Rebellion, agents from the neighboring Ulanic Republic, the Great Houses, the Merchants' Guild, and the Custodial Confederacy--a secret alliance of mid-level bureaucrats who resent the power of the Zaüd Seekers. As the character gains influence within these factions, he can send them on various economic and military missions, not unlike Dragon Age: Inquisition's "war table," but based on game time rather than real time, and with consequences for specific NPCs the player might care about, rather than just abstract results.
 
In tone, the environment is similar to George Orwell's 1984 or Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, with a palpable sense of oppressive despair that comes from an immortal ruler who keeps a populace under constant surveillance. In mechanics, the game merges some of the best titles of the recent decade. Think of open-world first-person exploration and inventory similar to Skyrim, an origin story similar to Dragon Age: Origins, NPC dialogue and relationships similar to most Bioware titles, and a stealth and combat mechanic reminiscent of Dishonored.

The half a dozen sectors (including an underground) that make up the capital aren't large, but they're dense. Imagine a city the size of the Imperial City in Oblivion but with as many enter-able structures as the entire game. You find yourself revisiting the same areas frequently, but it's not boring the way it is in, say, Dragon Age II, because you get to experience the visible and audible changes that your efforts have wrought.

As the player is successful in objectives, he or she gains experience, which can be spent directly on skills and abilities. Although a composite character is possible, the game encourages the player to specialize in one or two of five "paths":

  • The Path of Blades stresses traditional weapon-based combat, including melee weapons, archery, and defense.
  • The Path of Traps has a number of skills that allow the player to set both simple and complex traps for the chosen targets after studying their routines and movement paths.
  • The Path of Poison allows the player to specialize in alchemical skills, including poisons of direct and indirect effect. Pour a toxin in the target's drink, dust some powder on his front door knob, frenzy an innocent guard into attacking him for you, or frenzy the target into attacking an innocent--and leading him to be cut down by bewildered guards.
  • The Path of Guile is about speechcraft and persuasion. Get unsuspecting allies of your target to spill secrets and convince others into doing your dirty work. Eliminate targets by planting evidence that gets them fired, arrested, or executed rather than drawing suspicion to you.
  • The Path of Sorcery is about recovering Kata's memories of the arcane arts in the ancient kingdoms. Magic is not flashy and destructive in Downfall; there are no fireballs or meteor swarms. Instead, magic imparts subtle but effective bonuses to the actions taken in the other paths, such as improved weapon skill, more dangerous traps, more deadly poison, and more persuasive cajoling. Different arcane talents can cause distractions, weaken staircases, and even read minds (why should the Zaüd Seekers have all the fun)?

Common to all paths are skills necessary to stay alive and hidden, such as pocketpicking, sneaking, and lockpicking, all of which are handled with controls that blend character attributes with player skill. In between missions, the player can burglarize homes and businesses for equipment and gold. Thefts from the Empire itself, of course, count against its resources and further the player's goals.

The game is not organized into "missions" but rather "nights." Each night, the player has a fixed amount of time to accomplish whatever objectives he or she has set. The next day, the Empire reacts to what he or she has accomplished. That reaction might help set the plans for the next night.

Surviving a night can be difficult. The game bucks the typical RPG by providing few ways to quickly heal. There are no healing spells, and healing balms, salves, splints, and bandages don't work instantly. The character has a health meter, and individual parts of the body can be wounded or broken, with consequences such as slowed movement and reduced visibility. These wounds heal slowly on their own--faster than in real life, of course, but extremely slowly in typical game time--and it's easily possible to bungle an objective early in the evening and have to cut the night short, or do something with limited risk for the rest of the night. Players are encouraged to role-play injuries and other misfortunes rather than simply reloading. Since the player can only save in between nights, reloading isn't as useful as in other games anyway.

Fortunately, there's plenty to do that doesn't involve combat, as the player must use stealth, eavesdropping, burglary, and dialogue to uncover the Empire's secrets. And there are plenty of those. As the game goes on, the player learns that not all is as it seems in the Empire; new facts and perspectives call the very backstory into question. A player who doesn't care about this kind of thing can ignore it, but if you're the type of player willing to commit 4 hours to a burglary mission just to get your hands on a scroll filling in a bit more of Xanmaran's secret biography, this is the game for you. 

While creeping about at night, the player also has to keep up his primary guise. The Seekers are constantly trying to identify the mysterious assassin, probing the minds of anyone who might know anything, and a "Discovery" meter keeps tabs on how close they're coming to fingering the player. Remember: the Empire operates by a strict caste system by which everyone has a job and a place. If the nobleman's child is absent too long from the home and fails to meet social obligations, if the guard stops reporting for guard duty, and so forth, people around him or her start to get suspicious, and it's only a matter of time before the Seekers read that suspicion. Other actions, like getting spotted by guards or Seekers during missions, also serve to increase the "Discovery" bar, while taking a break for a few nights, taking off the cloak and cowl, and checking in to "home base" will cause the "Discovery" bar to drop. Checking into home base also serves as a mechanism for advancing an origin-specific plot and series of quests in which the player will have to make difficult role-playing decisions if he or she wants to maintain the disguise.

The endgame is triggered when the "Discovery" bar reaches the maximum and the identity of the character is revealed to the Empire and everyone else. The player can force this outcome relatively early in the game (by, for example, openly attacking a group of Zaud Seekers); otherwise, a few plot paths will make it inevitable. The nature and difficulty of the final missions, as well as what kind of city arises from the ashes, are dependent entirely on what the player accomplished during the game--number and type of assassinations, number of resources drained from the Empire, and allies made in other factions. When the cry goes up that the assassin is going for the Emperor himself, who will be in front of him, and who will be behind him?

****

Now that you've read all that, I hope you're as excited for Downfall as I am. Unfortunately, I lied above. There is no Henry Lancaster, and the game is not in development. It exists solely as described on this page. This was the result of a challenge from Irene to conceptualize the type of RPG that I would most like to play. I made up the proper names on the fly in seconds; they could be improved.

Did you like it? Someone go and make it. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Fate: Combat in the Wilderness

Talking to snakes produces an expected reaction.
    
I kept getting killed in the catacombs, so on advice from readers, I returned to the outdoors to explore the area, find treasures, and level up. I had no idea what I was in for. The starting area, encapsulated by mountains (that's why I have to solve the quest to fix the "Cavetrain"), occupies about 100 x 100 squares, giving me 10,000 squares to map. Now before you argue that Fate doesn't actually use all those squares, consider that the twisty, irregular-shaped, impenetrable mountain ranges and copses of trees take considerably more time to map than empty space or rectangular corridors.

The wilderness so far. I've mapped all the roadways and I'm trying to get the perimeter.
   
In fact, the game fundamentally seems too big to map--and yet I've found just enough stuff in those pockets of wilderness that I feel like I have to keep doing it. Among my discoveries in the roughly 1/3 of the starting outdoor area so far:

  • A deep pit with a dead man lying at the bottom. My characters can climb down the hole, but none are strong enough to bring out the body. (I assume I want to try to resurrect him.) I need to build strength or find a stronger NPC to join for a brief time.
   
    
  • A fountain that heals all wounds and conditions.
    
       
  • The ruins of the inn whose destruction started the game. There were some miscellaneous treasures nearby.
   
   
  • A "station" that probably won't be accessible until I solve that Cavetrain quest.
  • Another city, called Laronnes, much smaller than Larvin. I explored and mapped it but didn't find any additional hints or quests.
  
The odd-shaped Laronnes.
   
  • An area called "Herman's Wood" where a banshee roams as a protector. I couldn't get anything to happen here but I assume it's important for a later quest.
   
Kenny, you're up.
    
  • Numerous magic treasures, including the Icesword, Icegloves, a crystal bow, and a magic helm.

Every time I'm about to say, "this is ridiculous" and give up, I find one more thing that keeps me mapping.

As I mentioned before, the game's use of sound is excellent and atmospheric, with realistic thunder and rain effects during storms, and birds, crickets, and frogs depending on the time of day. One particular looping tree frog effect sounds like the frogs are saying, "That's basic hazing" over and over. I might be going a bit mad.

Winwood is up to Level 9 and most of his companions are close. Combats in the wilderness are feast or famine. I might go an hour or more without encountering a single enemy, but then all of a sudden the game will fall in love with one particular type of foe--thieves, mages, rats, or snakes--and just keep hammering you with them. I'll typically win 6 or 8 of these encounters before someone gets an unlucky roll and dies, and I'll reload, which causes the map to reset, and the monsters leave me alone again for a while. 
  
Winwood levels up after a battle with some rats.
   
In a typical longer game, I might offer one blog entry that primarily covers combat. I'm doing that here, but with the understanding that with a game this long, I'll probably have to offer another midway through the game, as more options and tactics become available. Right now, I'm not using a lot of the options.

Combat is only one potential outcome of an encounter. The other major possibilities are a conversation--the mechanics of which I'll discuss next time--and just walking away. Aside from obvious rules, like you can't talk to animals, the game draws a blurry line between "enemies" and "NPCs." I routinely find that classes who are clearly primarily supposed to be enemies--robbers, thieves, padfoots, murderers, assassins, gral wizards, rain witches, and so on--are happy to occasionally have a chat instead. Some even offer hints or help one my characters increase an attribute. I rather like the approach and wish more games adopted it. It seem silly that literally every bandit or forsworn in Skyrim comes charging at you the moment he sees you.
   
Usually, this is what happens--but not always.
   
The initial encounter menu gives you three options that correspond to the three major outcomes described above: "Fight," "Talk," and "Disengage." "Disengage" brings up its own sub-menu, with options to "Run Away," "Ignore," "Hide," "Pray," "Bribe," "Chant," and "Joke." I haven't really spent a lot of time exploring these options, mostly because I usually want the experience or benefits that come with talking and fighting.

There are two other options on this main menu: "Forward" for times when foes start further away, and "Action." "Action" brings up options to "Mock," "Warcry," (use a) "Scroll," "Suicide," "Dig in," "Close Eyes," and "Laugh." I've played with these a bit. I guess "Mock" and "Warcry" are both legitimate options to influence the subsequent statistics in your favor. I haven't found a scroll to use yet, and the rest of the options just seem to produce silly results.
   
This ought to help.
   
Once combat begins, characters and foes seem to go in an initiative order determined by dexterity. Winwood goes first much of the time because NPCs have been increasing his dexterity. During their turns, characters can attack, cast a spell, use an item, shoot a missile weapon, throw a weapon, defend, change their weapon, or engage in a number of "special" actions I'll describe in a minute. If there are multiple groups of enemies, you have to specialize the group.

The way that the game handles throwing is unique and fun. Almost every weapon or shield can be thrown a short distance--maybe 6 to 10 yards. It's a great option when enemies start outside of melee range. The best part about it is that characters automatically pick up and re-equip the items post-combat. I would have given real money to see that happen in Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder. Oh, and if I want to reclaim those weapons during combat, my warlock has a spell called "Getback" that does it.

At this point in the game, combat tends to be pretty quick. Most of my attacks hit, and most of them kill the enemy in a single hit. Unfortunately, enemies get lucky this way too, sometimes. A thief's thrown dagger might immediately kill one of my lower-hit point characters, like my cleric. But if all goes well, the typical combat against half a dozen foes generally only lasts a couple rounds and less than a minute of real time. Given the sheer number of combats in the game, that's a welcome speed, although it keeps things (so far) from getting very tactical.
  
Magic is simply going to have to wait for a later discussion. I have three spellcasters--a priestess, a magician, and a warlock. I'm still trying to get a witch and a banshee to join me. The priestess has four extremely useful status spells: "Heal 5," "Cleanse," "Cure," and "Sober." She mostly attacks in combat. My magician has "Entangle," "Armor," and "Paralyse." The latter is occasionally useful, but I really need him to get a direct-damage spell. My warlock gets a lot of use out of "Mageclub," an offensive spell, but not so much out of "Warpower."

I'm still trying to figure out if the options on the "Special" menu are worth it. Maybe they will be at higher levels. "Warcry" can cause enemies to flee. "Steal" gives you the ability to pickpocket your foe during combat--I don't know why I'd do this instead of just killing him and getting his stuff that way. "Mock" has the effect of "enraging" opponents; I assume that makes them clumsier. "Grope" has never worked, and I don't even know if I want to know. "Dupe" and "Enchant" never seem to work for me, and my characters always refuse to "Hide" ("I'm not a coward!" they say).

My priestess reviews her "special" abilities.
     
After a successful combat, you either get one equipment item or money (piaster), never both.
   
Post-combat rewards.
  
Equipment will also have to wait for a later posting, but for now let me say that the game outperforms almost every other title of the era by giving you a set of precise statistics and facts when you "Examine" items. The screen even clearly tells you which current characters in your party can use the item. Brilliant. 
   
   
Not much to report on the main quest, since that's going to involve me clearing out the catacombs and figuring out the "Cavetrain" quest first. I'm thinking maybe I'll go back to that now instead of continuing to map the wilderness.

Lots of miscellaneous notes:

  • I keep losing little bits of progress because I forget to shut down the game and emulator properly, which causes my saves to not actually save.
  • Just a random thing here:
   
   
  • Inns offer a variety of different lodging types (e.g., stables, cot, room, suite) and time periods. No matter what I choose, my characters seem to get fully restored when they sleep. Maybe this isn't true at higher levels with more hit points to restore.
  • Here's something I won't mind a spoiler about: are there ever "secret doors" outside? I'm wasting a lot of time walking headlong into every tree and mountain if not.
  • Characters get experience for casting spells outside of combat, as well as for talking with NPCs. That's a great system.
  • A fun thing happened in Laronnes. I found a fountain that immediately killed a character who drank from it. After that, none of my other characters would drink even when I told them to.
   
    
  • Although I've leveled up many times, I haven't been using the guilds to improve because I haven't figured out the best way to do it yet. Non-spoiler advice welcome.
  • NPCs only ever seem to improve wisdom, intelligence, and dexterity. Do I ever find any who improve strength, charisma, stamina, or skill? 
  • The game has a kind-of automap feature using "magic jewels" that you can find or buy. Using them and then reloading is, of course, the height of lameness.
  
Making sure I didn't miss anything in Laronnes.

  • Every time I try to buy keys in a shop, the shopkeeper says they've all been stolen by a thief. So far I haven't run into anything that requires keys anyway.  

Let's be frank: Fate simply doesn't have enough features to justify its size and length. But it reliably passes the time, and I don't mind continuing to make progress in between brisker games--a designation that I hope applies to The Magic Candle II.


Time so far: 29 hours
Reload count: 28

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Swords & Sorcery: Summary and Rating

   
Swords & Sorcery
United Kingdom
Personal Software Services (developer and publisher)
Released 1985 for ZX Spectrum, 1986 for Amstrad CPC
Date Started: 31 May 2016
Date Ended: 5 June 2016
Total Hours: 14
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

It pains me to admit defeat with Swords & Sorcery because I tried my best with it and I sunk about 10 hours into it after the first post. I think I'm reasonably close to winning--if the game is even winnable--and I exhaustively documented every room, treasure, and encounter in the game. No one who's played it showed up to comment on my first entry; I can only hope that some later commenter comes along and solves the game's mysteries.
   
This message would crop up occasionally, and I had no idea what it was talking about.
   
As noted before, the "first level" (the only one present in this game) consists of 4 quadrants and 88 rooms. Your stated goal is to find four pieces of the "Armour of Zob"--two greaves and two sabatons. You also apparently need three keys. I only found three pieces of the armour--I missed a greave--but I really didn't see any obvious way to end the game anyway.

Everything about Swords & Sorcery is a bit weird, starting with its approach to character development. As you kill monsters, your combat and magic statistics are supposed to increase, but I found that the game would only increase the statistic that was already highest in the first place. If you start the game with higher combat ability than magic, your combat ability goes up with each kill but your magic never does. The same is true if you start the game with more magic than combat ability. I favored magic--the ability to cast "Heal" a lot is fairly essential--so I started with 20 combat skill and 25 magic skill. By the end of my session, my combat ability had gone down to 19 for some reason, but my magic ability was at 88.

Throughout the game, you have to watch carefully for enemy traps and effects. If you get hit with a "Weakness" spell, your strength is halved permanently, drastically affecting your carrying ability and movement speed. The effect never wears off. Poison causes you to lose a couple hit points per round until you die; it's only curable at higher levels of magic, so it's basically a death sentence at lower levels. "Curse" drops your defense statistic a few points. I generally reloaded when these things happened because they're all so irrecoverable.

It's possible that the game's many potions and items were meant to help with these conditions, but I found the system baffling. The manual suggests that you can test the effects of crowns, rings, pendants, and other wearable items by putting them on and looking at your numbers. Of a couple dozen of the items that I found, I only ever saw one effect on my statistics. A hint guide I found somewhere online refers to a Ring of Jumping, but when I found it, it did nothing to my jumping statistic. (As a side note, I had mentioned that jumping did nothing for one of my characters. That seems to have been a bug with the character, as it worked for later ones.) The manual also goes on about how you can make friends with monsters and get them to assess your items, but all they ever seem to do is to tell you how much they're worth, not what they do.
  
At one point, I found a Ring of Invisibility or something. Monsters didn't attack me until I acted first. The word "silence" would appear frequently as I walked.
   
You're supposed to be able to "taste" potions to get a sense of what they do; healing potions, for instance, are supposed to taste like peppermint. The mechanic simply never worked for me. I'd taste potions and the game would just say "OK."

The game has a pretty serious bug by which if you accumulate too many items, it crashes when you try to use one. The number seems to be close to 25.

Very few items did anything for me at all. I got one upgrade to a magic sword at one point, and a shield provided some defensive options. I found that armor was too heavy to be worth the extra defense. Many of the game's items--gold, platinum, gems, crowns--seem to be designed just to bribe monsters to get them to talk with you. This process takes so long, and produces such inconsistent results, that I cheated it: I bribed the hell out of a single monster, created save state just before asking him for information, and then asked him. I noted his answer, reloaded the save state, and asked again. With a single NPC, I thus managed to get all of the game's hints--I think. It's possible that there are special monsters that give you hints that the others don't, but I spot-checked in a few different quadrants and I didn't get anything new.
   
"Greeting" a monster is one of the only ways to find out exactly what it is.
   
I did solve one item puzzle. One of the NPCs' hints is to leave cups in The Dining Room. When you finally find The Dining Room in Quadrant 3, there's a note saying that it's closed and to use The Banquet Hall in Quadrant 1 instead. If you drop a cup in either of the two rooms, you get a message that says "ping!," the cup disappears, and your magic ability increases by 2. A hint I found online suggested that something similar might happen from dropping excess swords in The Guard Room, but when I did that, they just made a pile on the floor and nothing happened.

A couple of items were just mysterious. Quadrants 3 and 4 offered a couple of buckets and brooms (oddly, one of the insults monsters sling at you is "bucket-and-broom man"), but there was never any clear place to use them. The last two quadrants also had a number of fish in various treasure chests and bags, but they can't be eaten.

Bangity-bang. I said a-bang bang bangity bang.
    
Quadrants 3 and 4 greatly increased the navigational challenges. It turns out that the "bang!" I was experiencing in Quadrant 2 was from "mine fields." These are invisible, but as long as you walk on them, you get injured. You can't jump over them. The only thing you can do is try to skirt them or run through them quickly, casting "Heal" until your spell points run out. There are a lot of pits of various sizes that you have to jump over, respawning enemies that block the corridors, and teleporters that whisk you to other quadrants or other places in the same quadrant.

My annotated map of Quadrant 4, with pits, teleporters, and mine fields. Room #81 had a key and Room #75 had a greave.

    
A centerpiece of Quadrant 3 was a section of wall that blinked in and out of existence. To make things more difficult, it was surrounded by pit traps. To get past it, you had to jump over the pits, turn, and jump off the square before the wall returned. Not unfair in general, but a real pain with this game's command system.


   
I fail to make it off in time.
   
Quadrants 1, 2, and 4 all had pieces of the quest armor in chests, so it seems like Quadrant 3 should be a logical place for the fourth piece. There's even a room in the quadrant called "A Place to Greave," which you think would be a hint. But the chest in the room just has a sandwich, a fish, and a cup. I looked everywhere.

Even if I'd found all four pieces, I'm not sure I'd know what to do with them. The manual mentions bringing them to the Hall of Ascension, but I never found a room by that name. One of the hints is that you need 3 keys to open the exit, but I also never found an exit. Finally, there's the issue of that password, which I've become fully convinced is "COAL," but was never asked for anywhere in the game.


In a GIMLET, I award the game:

  • 2 point for the game world. There's hardly anything to the back story. A few paragraphs of text describe the fate of an unfortunate adventurer, but little else is given about the dungeon or the mysterious Zob.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. Most of that goes to the creation mechanic, where you can choose from a variety of trainers to set your opening statistics and thus your basic approach to the game or "class." In-game development, as described above, is disappointing.
  • 4 points for NPC interaction. As described last time, it was an original idea that needed some additional care. The game's insults will last in my memory longer than the gameplay.
       
This never got old.
   
  • 4 points for a variety of encounters and foes with different strengths and weaknesses, decently described in the game manual. Some limited respawning of skeletons in the corridors allows you to grind if necessary.

The manual's gallery of the foes in this game.
   
  • 3 points for magic and combat. A very basic system that could have used more refinement. Too many of the results are random.
  • 3 points for equipment, with the issues I describe above.
  • 2 points for economy, which mostly consists of finding valuable items to give to NPCs.
  • 1 point for a confusing main quest that may or may not even have a resolution in the game.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. It goes to the barely-adequate graphics. The rare sound isn't worth hearing, and as I covered last time, the interface is simply awful.
  • 3 points for gameplay. The challenge is right, and I could see some replayability with different "classes," but overall it's quite linear and too long.
   
The final score of 26 puts it in the range of games that tried to do something interesting but didn't do it well enough to make it to "recommended" territory.

As I mentioned last time, contemporary reviews from the U.K. and Europe were quite good, and despite my reservations about the game, I can see why. When 1985 rolled around, Europe still didn't have many good RPGs. There was a port of Rogue that doesn't seem to have made much of a splash; the Ultima clone The Ring of Darkness, handful of gamebook adaptations that made poor RPGs, and a bunch of odd, minor titles like Out of the Shadows, The Valley, City of Death, and Mandragore. Lacking their own Wizardry or even Dunjonquest series, Swords & Sorcery might have been the first game to come along and at least try to replicate the tabletop RPG experience on the computer. Particularly given that Swords & Sorcery owes nothing to any obvious precursors, it's a somewhat impressive achievement.

I practically had a walkthrough finished before I had to give up.
  
As we discussed last time, though, the developer promised far more than he could deliver. Four additional modules advertised in 1985 never shipped, nor did the planned sequel, HeroQuest. No more titles followed in the MIDAS "adventure concept" series.

Nonetheless, the game was in no way the end for developer Mike Simpson or his publisher. Simpson remained at PSS through 1987, when it was acquired by Mirrorsoft, then worked for Mirrorsoft until it was sold in 1991. He transitioned to Psygnosis in 1991, then joined The Creative Assembly in 1996 and remains there today as Creative Director, overseeing the Total War series. We'll run two titles that he produced: Psygnosis's Obitus (1991) and Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard (1994).

And that wraps us up for 1985, with the exception of a return visit to Wizard's Crown, a game I abandoned prematurely back in 2010. I continue to make slow progress in Fate: Gates of Dawn and I don't really have enough material for another posting yet. I'll spend another few hours with it before getting started on The Magic Candle II, so the next post should be about one of those two games.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Game 225: Swords & Sorcery (1985)

  
Occasionally, I'm forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that between a Japanese teenager and a Brazilian tribesman who's never seen a computer before, I'm closer on the continuum to the tribesman. This usually happens when I play some modern game like Dark Souls. I might enjoy myself overall, but there are about 50,000 things I don't understand about the game mechanics, and apparently I shout a particular phrase so often that Irene insists she's going to have it inscribed on my real tombstone: "Wha...WHY DID I JUST DIE?!"

It's rare to have this experience with a 1985 game, but here I am with Swords & Sorcery. I can't make any sense out of what happens when I'm playing it. The messages that come and go on the screen seem to be random; the dialogue with NPCs seems to have been written by an insane person; items disappear from my inventory with no warning; spells fail to cast; commands don't do what they're supposed to do; and at least once every 5 minutes, I find myself yelling, "Wha....WHY DID I JUST DIE?!"
   
It was going to be a while without a screenshot, so here's an image of an altar or table that I don't know what to do with. Note the menu selections at the bottom.
   
What I do understand, I mostly hate. Take the controls. The idiotic interface has you keep three fingers of your left hand on the 1, 2, and 3 keys. 1 turns the character to the left, 3 turns him to the right, and 2 moves straight ahead. Meanwhile, three fingers of your right hand remain poised on 8, 9, and 0. 8 and 0 cycle through menus and sub-menus on the bottom of the screen and 9 selects which command or object you want. No other key on the keyboard is used except when you're naming your character.

I have this fantasy that if I yell loud enough my voice can transcend time and space. The employees of Personal Software Services will be able to confirm this if, one day in about 1984, while they were deep in development on Swords & Sorcery, the sound of an enraged male came booming into their offices. It would have said, "HEY, JACKASSES! IF YOU'RE DEVELOPING A GAME FOR A PERSONAL COMPUTER, AND YOU HAVE LESS THAN 26 COMMANDS, YOU DON'T NEED A COMPLICATED MENU SYSTEM!! JUST MAP EACH COMMAND TO A SENSIBLE KEY!!"

Why did so many developers act as if the computer was capable of no more than a joystick? Why was Richard Garriott--inventor of (A)ttack, (B)oard, (C)ast, (D)rop, and of course (Z)stats--one of the only ones to make use of the full, intuitive powers of the keyboard? 

The controls would be bad enough even if everything happened smoothly. But it doesn't. As other things happening on the screen take up the game's attention, it fails to register a lot of your inputs. You end up selecting the wrong command, or accidentally double-pressing the "9" because it didn't seem like it "took" the first time. There's no excuse for it. It might literally be the worst interface of all time. Together, the interface and the overall weirdness ruined the game for me, although there are some interesting elements lurking beneath the surface.

I was expecting great things from Swords & Sorcery based on the reviews catalogued on its Wikipedia page. Superlatives like "the best Dungeons and Dragons version ever produced on the computer" and "Game of the Month" appear there. But we must remember that the game was published in the U.K., for the ZX Spectrum, a description that applies to maybe 6 games through 1985. The island and its favored platform were RPG-starved. Anything must have looked good.

Swords & Sorcery is similar to Alternate Reality in that the game is much more intent than achievement. It was supposed to be the first in a series called, for some reason, MIDAS. When the "game"--really just the first level--was published in 1986, the manual promised Level 2 and Levels 3 & 4 (two separate modules) available in December of that year, plus expansions called "The Village" and "The Arena" available in early 1986. These were never produced. Some later versions of the game came with a "mea culpa" letter from author Mike Simpson in which he apologized and said that "commercial necessity" had caused him to abandon the future modules. He did say that the Level 2 module had expanded in scope and would be published as a separate game--advertised by PSS as HeroQuest. It was also never released.

Swords & Sorcery is also one of the first games to come with an associated merchandising campaign, including t-shirts, posters, and "badges."
   
You might have thought about focusing more on the game first.
   
When you strip all that away, you have a one-level dungeon crawler that takes you through about  80 rooms on a quest to find four pieces of armor. Not even good pieces of armor: two sabatons (which cover the feet) and two greaves (which cover the legs). Talk about an uninspired main quest. There isn't even any real backstory. Oh, there's some doggerel about a dark wizard named Caballus and the legendary Armour of Zob, but clearly the writers were planning to flesh out the game world in later installments.

Character creation begins with a name, after which the character has to spend 14 days training with 12 teachers, each session taking one day. Each trainer teaches you a different thing, and you don't know what that is (the manual doesn't tell you) until after you've trained. Thus, you basically have to waste a character just figuring out the different training options. Four different trainers focus on swords, spears, staves, and unarmed combat respectively. One gives you extra strength for carrying things, another improves your skills as a thief, and another improves your skills as a mage. A guy named "Hubris" improves the chances that you'll detect things like traps; "Grieves" improves each NPC's starting disposition towards you, and "Jack" helps you jump better.

Finally, YAMA gives you the ability to resurrect if you die. You only have to take his training once, and that one training gives you 99 "lives." You'll need them.

I don't mind the character creation that much, aside from the lack of good documentation. It's one of the few early games in which the concept of "class" is more an assemblage of skills than a nominal category. You can spent 10 days training in "sword" and start out as an awesome fighter, do the same for magic, or try to achieve more of a balance of skills. The problem is I was never able to come up with an optimal combination. Combats are so deadly that you need raw weapon and spell power, but you need thieving skills to disarm traps and jumping skills to get over pits and "instinct" development to avoid traps in the first place. The only obvious thing is to not specialize in more than one weapon type.
 
Creating a character by choosing training options.
  
After finishing your training, the game offers you the ability to spend a limited pool of starting money on items: a sword, a spear, a staff, a shield, a helmet, armor, gold (for bribing NPCs), bottles of wine, and pies. I learned the hard way that you basically want to spend all your money on pies. You can find starting equipment in the dungeon rooms--especially if you start with a lot of spell skill--but starvation is a constant danger in Swords & Sorcery. There's precious food to be found in the dungeon, and if you don't eat every 15 minutes or so, you lose hit points until you die--at which point you'll be resurrected but still starving, thus doomed to a vicious circle until all 99 lives are gone.
   
Note that I don't need food, but rather "pie" specifically.
   
You start in "Quadrant 1" of a four-quadrant dungeon level, each quadrant consisting of about 20 rooms and hallways in between. You navigate with a top-down map on the right and a scrolling 3-D view on the left--a reasonably original navigation system at the time. Each room has a combination of monsters, traps, and treasure. Specific rooms in each quadrant warp you to the next one.

Combat with the monsters is pretty basic, even though it takes a while to figure out what the computer is doing. Essentially, you and the monsters trade blows based on whatever attack and defense options you've pre-selected. The options available have to do with the weapon you've equipped and your skill level; for instance, a novice with a sword might just have an option to "HACK" while a more experienced fighter has a second option to "LUNGE." Your defensive settings work the same way. Initial characters can either just "STAND" and try to absorb the damage or "ATTACK," which basically means "counterattack" and return part of the damage done to the attacker. Once you get a shield, you have the option to use that for your defensive round.

Anyway, the rounds flash by slowly, with you and the enemy trading attacks--which can miss, deliver a "glancing" (non-wounding blow), wound, or kill instantly--until one of you is dead or flees. There really isn't any input from the player during this process unless you want to change your attack and defense stances or cast spells.
  
Our initial attempts at greeting having failed, we are now engaged in combat.
   
Magic works in a similar way. Every character gets "Firebolt" at the beginning. As your magic power grows, "Heal" comes next, then "Fear," and 13 more that I never saw. Each casting depletes spell points, but points recharge as you move around (unlike hit points--see below), so I'm convinced that focusing on magic is the key to winning the game. But just like everything else in Swords & Sorcery, things happen with spells that seem to make no sense. For instance, during combat, the game lets you cast a spell at any point, and as many times as you want in a row. There have been times that I've opened a door, let loose a "Firebolt," and killed an enemy before he can respond. But there have been an equal number of times that I've cast 6 "Firebolts" in a row in the middle of combat, had the game tell me that they all achieved "full effect," and yet seen no drop in the enemy's hit points.

Amidst all my complaints, I should recognize that the skill/spell system is, for all its faults, fairly original. Combat, magic, and thieving skills increase as you use them, offering more options to the player as the game goes along. In this, Swords & Sorcery anticipates Dungeon Master by a couple of years. I can't otherwise think of an earlier game that has quite this combination of elements. I just wish they had been implemented as part of a better package.

That statement also goes for the NPC dialogue system, which is highly original and coincidentally mirrors Fate: Gates of Dawn, the game I happen to be playing at the same time, even though I don't think the two titles have anything to do with each other. Both games feature encounters that could be combats or could be NPC dialogues, largely depending on your own attributes and the NPC's disposition. In the case of Swords & Sorcery, a number of the "monsters" wandering the dungeon--mages, warriors, catmen, and so on--will happily converse with you instead depending at least in part on a hidden "villainy" score that largely depends on whether your character is in the habit of sucker-punching anything that moves or whether you wait and see what he does first. Hostility begets hostility.
  
I was just remarking that Fate is the first game I can remember that lets you mug an NPC. Well, here's an earlier one.
  
As in Fate, your goal with dialogue in S&S is to either charm or abuse the other NPC into capitulation, at which point you get him to do things you want him to do. On the carrot side of the options are friendly greetings and bribes; you can give NPCs any of the valuables you pick up in the game--gold, crowns, cups, even food. As far as I can tell, it's the only thing that you can do with gold, which makes bribery in this game a more viable option than in others. On the stick side, we have unfriendly greetings, insults, bragging, warcries, and threats.

Either way, the idea is that you keep using options on one side or the other until it's clear that the NPC has submitted. Most dialogue options seem to draw from a random bank of nouns and adjectives, creating a bizarre conversation as you and the NPC go back and forth:

-BEWARE SNAKE PIT CURSE ELSE I WILL CURSE YOU
-I AM A MIGHTY BLACK ROBED MAGICIAN
-BEWARE BROOM AND BUCKET MAN OR I WILL SLIME YOU
-DON'T KILL ME OH PANTRY PIE THROWER ELSE I WILL SHED YOUR BLOOD
-DEATH TO THE VIOLET CLUPEAN DOG
-BEWARE SLIMY YELLOW ZIT SAVE THAT I CUT OFF YOUR PARTS
-DOWN AT MY FEET HIDDEN MUSIC SEEKER SAVE THAT I SLIME YOU
  
Two characters exchange pleasantries.
  
If the NPC likes you and you use the friendly options, you can apparently figure out your relative combat and magic skills based on what the NPC calls you. For instance, if you barely know what you're doing in combat, the NPC will refer to you as an "adventurer" whereas a combat master will get "lord."

If you finally get an NPC to submit, you can ask for information about the dungeon, ask him to evaluate a specific item, or ask him to go away. "Evaluating" an item just returns his assessment of its value--it doesn't tell you what the item does, which is what you really need. "Information" returns one of a long and bizarre pool of hints. Some of them are obvious--"Beware Centerpoint" is a warning about the pits in the middle of Quadrant 1--but others won't become clear until I find an associated puzzle--"Music is the answer";"Jump from table to table"--and there's this whole string of them associated with a "password" that seems to make little sense:

-THE PASSWORD IS STONE, SOMETIMES GLOWING
-THE PASSWORD IS STONE, SOMETIMES COLD
-THE PASSWORD IS IMBUED WITH FIRE, SOMETIMES HOT
-THE PASSWORD IS DOWN A PIT, SOMETIMES IN A SACK
-THE PASSWORD IS HARD, SOMETIMES IN A SACK

I don't know if these all refer to the same password. If so, EMBER or COAL or something similar might fit most of the definitions.
  
This doesn't really help me.
  
What you really need the NPC to do, most of the time, is "go away." You can't walk over or past NPCs, so even if they're friendly, your primary goal is to clear them out of the room so you can search it for treasure. But "go away" hardly ever works--in fact, I'm hardly ever able to subdue the monster so that any command works--leading you to eventually give up and assault your partner in conversation (making the next monster more likely to be hostile) just so you can search the room and make sure it doesn't have one of the quest items.

If you can get a room to yourself, you might find chests, sacks, or just random items on the floor. I learned the hard way that these items might not be visible from adjacent squares, so you have to fully explore rooms and look in all directions. Chests might contain weapons, armor, gold, food, magic items, or even other chests to open. I've found a series of cups and crowns; I don't know if they have any purpose other than bribing NPCs. I've found several pendants and rings that give no clue as to their use, and at least one book that goes "bang" and kills me when I try to pick it up.
  
Finding several useful items in a chest.
  
All of the originality to be found with the skills system and the NPC interface shrinks in consideration of the game's many shortcomings, all of which conspired to drive me from the game prematurely even though, with only 4 quadrants to systematically explore, it's probably eminently winnable. In addition to the ones described above, we have:

  • A weirdly micromanaged process for getting things out of chests. When you first encounter a chest, you want to scroll to ACT and then DISARM to make sure it doesn't have a trap. Then, depending on your thief skill, you go to ACT again and either PICK LOCK and CHEST or SMASH and CHEST. If you picked it, you then have to ACT and OPEN to open it. To get the items out of the chest, you choose HANDLE then TAKE OUT then CHEST and then the item. That simply moves the item to the floor. Then you choose HANDLE and PICK UP to finally get the item in your inventory.
  • Inconsistent ways to work with inventory. To drop something, you go to HANDLE and then DROP and then pick the item. But to eat something or have an NPC evaluate something, you have to first go to HANDLE and then HOLD to equip the item and then ACT and EAT or TALK and COMMAND and EVALUATE THIS respectively. If you forget how it works, which is pretty easy, and accidentally go right to ACT | EAT expecting it then to give you a selection of items to eat, you instead end up eating your "held" item, which is usually your weapon. The game tells you that it's inedible, but that doesn't stop it from disappearing, forcing you to reload if you want to get it back.
  • Pits appear out of nowhere (you can sometimes sense them, but not always), sending you plummeting to your death since there's no Level 2. Sometimes, these pits are in the middle of a hallway or room. To deal with them--and to solve some puzzles involving tables--you're supposed to be able to ACT | JUMP. But as far as I can tell, JUMP does nothing at all. I stand in front of pits and activate it repeatedly without even any acknowledgement.
  
One more step and I die.
  
  • Combat difficulty is weirdly random. Depending on when I open the door, an enemy might be capable of swatting away all my hit points with a single blow or may die equally as quickly.
  • The 1 and 3 keys are supposed to turn you sideways, but sometimes--usually when you're facing an enemy that you want to flee rather than move closer to--they inexplicably move you forward instead.
  • I can't figure out the rules on hit point regeneration. In Quadrant 1, they seemed to regenerate on their own as I moved around; in Quadrant 2, this seemed to stop and I only get healed when I cast the "Heal" spell. The "status" screen is inconsistent in how it updates in real-time; sometimes, in combat, it shows me (and my foe) at full health even though I know wounding has taken place. A few times, my hit points have just inexplicably disappeared with no obvious cause (e.g., poison), causing me to die in the middle of a corridor with no enemy in sight.
  
Dying in combat against a skeleton. I don't think I really have 21 hit points here.
   
  • Instead of just being clear with you about your statistics, the game gives you a set of mysterious "magic numbers" on the status screen. By checking these figures after different combinations of training, I can figure out what they mean. The second number seems to be combat skill, for instance; the third is thief skill; and the fourth is maximum magic points. Still, why not just be explicit about this?
  
Checking my status. I wish I knew what the "46" meant. The others, I have mostly figured out.
   
Despite these issues, I gamely tried to play it for a while, exhaustively exploring Quadrant 1, annotating all my finds (treasure locations appear to be fixed), and finding one of the pieces of armor that I need to "win" the level, before taking the appropriate warp room to Quadrant 2. There, the rooms were a lot more linear than in Quadrant 1, and my frustration began to build exponentially. Certain rooms were simply impassable without defeating the monster inside, and he'd kill me in one blow, sending me back to Quadrant 1 for resurrection.
  
Finding one of the quest items.
  
Even so, I slowly pierced my way through the rooms until I encountered a room in the lower-right corner of the quadrant. Stepping into the room results in a message that says only "bang!" and half my hit points go away. This repeats until I die. There seems to be no way to avoid this happening, to avoid the room, or to prevent the damage. The manual offers no help.
   
"Wha....WHY DID I JUST DIE?!"
   
I started to write this posting as a one-shot for the game. I was going to GIMLET it and move on. But I've been playing during a difficult and frustrating time (house-buying, moving, yet another new computer), so it's probable that I just lack patience all around. Swords & Sorcery has enough innovations that it's worth a full treatment if I can force myself to overlook its flaws. I'll leave it on the board and see what tips and explanations come along from veteran players and perhaps give it another shot after a couple of Fate sessions.