Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dragon Sword: The First 10%

The first three levels--perhaps more--are called "Perion's Place." I do not yet know why.

I've spent about 7 hours mapping the first 3 dungeon levels in Dragon Sword, and the game has offered pretty much the same experience I expected after the first post. It's okay for a shareware title, but like many shareware titles, it has an inflated sense of its own value. The idea that in 1990, someone would be willing to play this game for 30 levels--3 times the size of Wizardry--is a bit staggering. I frankly wonder if anyone ever made it to the end.

The game continues to adhere closely to its Wizardry roots, but with a few crucial differences that seem small but greatly affect the quality of gameplay. First, by allowing you save and reload anywhere, the game jettisons Wizardry's permadeath and thus much of it's predecessor's tension. Second, Dragon Sword has far, far more random encounters. The average is an attack roughly every 10 actions, but with a lot of variance; it's not uncommon to have one every step for a few steps in a row. Moreover, there's a chance of a random encounter after every action, not just every step. They might come as you turn, check your inventory, or even save the game.

Because the random attacks are so frequent, they naturally have to be less difficult than Wizardry to give the player a fighting chance. Among the first three levels, there are enemies capable of spellcasting, sleeping, poison, paralysis, and instant-death, but they're rare and easy to blast out of existence with a "Fireball" in the first round. The rest of your foes don't have any special attacks and just pick (slowly) away at the characters' hit points. A party in Wizardry might be wiped out by a single unfortunate encounter with a pack of enemy mages. If a party in Dragon Sword dies, on the other hand, it'll be after a long process of getting nibbled to death by bats, rats, and spiders.

Assaulted by a motley party. Unlike Wizardry, there are no images of your foes.
A third major difference is in the existence of magic-recharging squares in the midst of the dungeon. In Wizardry, you always have to be worried about how far you're extending yourself into the dungeon, lest you find yourself too weakened and spell-depleted to make it back. Magic-rechargers mean that you only need to return to town for leveling up and occasionally buying new equipment.

In this last session, poison was my most hated foe. A poisoned character loses several hit points per action and will die very quickly unless healed. The danger diminished when my priest hit Level 6 and got "Cure Poison" as one of her spells. Even then, it costs so much in spell points that you want to avoid getting poisoned at all costs. I've learned to preemptively "Fireball" packs of scorpions, spiders, cobras, and rats, all of which are capable of poisoning on each hit.

Common enemies on Levels 1-2 are "tarantellas." No word on whether they're gay.
Figuring out the effects of spells has been somewhat fun. I figured "Friends," a Level 1 mage spell, would be like its D&D counterpart and improve prices at shops. Instead, you cast it on a pack of monsters, which causes each of them to "shake hands and leave." So far, no pack of monsters has "saved" against the spell, making it wonderfully effective, except you don't get experience from those monsters. "Open Wall" allows you to quickly move through dungeons, though at a high spell point cost. "Sanctuary" seems to prevent random encounters for around 10 actions. It's also clear that spells level with the character, so even first-level spells like "Sparks" are still viable options through the game, doing a couple dozen points' of damage at Level 8 where they did only a handful at Level 2. For every level increase, "Familiar" summons a stronger familiar.

I just got Level 4 spells before the end of this post. I look forward to seeing how they work. I have no idea what "Partial Cure" is about, since the cleric spell "Cure Poison" is one level lower and 3 points less.
Speaking of damage, the enemies are oddly low in hit points. A successful attack against one is almost always a fatal attack. If my mage casts "Fireball" on a stack of enemies, it almost always wipes them out. I assume this will change as I ascend and enemies get harder.

My summoned wolf kills a giant slug, who despite his name is a bit of a lightweight.
About one-third of the enemies defeated in the actual dungeon will drop chests. The process of disarming them works just as in Wizardry: you (E)xamine the chest for traps, are told what type of drap you face, type (D)isarm to remove it, and type the name of the trap. The one big difference is that disarming, at least with a thief, never seems to fail (except when I accidentally type POSION or something).

The only danger is that I will accidentally try to disarm a KINVES trap.
This is good because the thief otherwise seems a bit worthless. I have him in slot #4, meaning he can't attack in melee combat. Since there are no missile weapons in the game (at least, not that I've found), he has nothing to do unless someone ahead of him dies or falls under a "sleep" attack. I wonder if it wouldn't be better to get rid of him and put another cleric in that slot, casting "Untrap" whenever I encounter a chest.

Opening chests often rewards you with some piece of equipment, but as in The Bard's Tale series, usually it's something banal that just takes up space in your inventory. Every once in a while, you have to clear it out by (D)ropping unwanted stuff. On the plus side, the economy in this game seems strong. Every dungeon expedition gives me enough funds for some new upgrade, like a shield+1 or a plate mail +1. When I run out of weapons and armor to buy, there are always scroll versions of the most common spells, very useful for when spell points run out.

Some of the game's expensive options. I wonder what a "Wand of Spells" does.
The game has a few regrettable bugs. Occasionally, at the end of a victorious combat, you get the "game over" screen, as if you lost. It also frequently freezes in the middle of combat, forcing a quit and a reload. If you have to reload a game, it doesn't remember any spells you had active at the time; if you're unlucky to have to reload with low spell points, you might not be able to cast "Light," which is necessary to find your way around.

The endgame screen comes up when every party member is killed...or whenever the game feels like it. I have no idea what "Bottom enterprise" means.
The first level of the dungeon was labeled "Perion's Place" and it begins with an eerie voice that says, "Welcome...Welcome to my domain." The player has the option to pull a rope or not, and it took a bit of experimentation before I realized that the rope is actually a light switch that turns on a permanent "Light" spell for the level. The large level had only one "encounter" in which I found the already-looted remains of a previous party. There was also a message in one room that said "The Black Mage lives behind a wall of darkness."

My map of Level 1.
Level 2 introduced spinners, which I hate, but also a couple of squares that restore 1-4 magic points every time you step in them. These were very welcome and allowed me to keep exploring without having to return to the town. (There is no "resting" in the game, so the only way to restore magic is to step in these special squares or the fountain in town; the only way to restore hit points is to first restore magic, then cast "Heal.") But the process of restoration takes a while because you have to keep walking through the square and fighting random encounters every 5-7 moves. I'd get almost restored, then have to fight a few battles that knocked my hit points and spell points back down. It took maybe 15 minutes each time to finally "top off."

My map of Level 2. The two exclamation points mark spell-recharging areas.
Level 2 had a couple of messages:

  • "The best kept secrets are often enshrouded in darkness."
  • "A dark wand, an ebony dagger, a ring of mithral, staff of stone, golden armor, slayer of dragons..."

Thanks for the tip.

So far, I don't know what any of these messages mean. They don't seem to be helping at all with the puzzles on the town level.

Level 3 introduced more spinners, an area darkness, a ton of secret doors and one-way doors, and a number of squares that cause you to immediately teleport to another area of the dungeon. Two messages advised me to step on every square and to try the fountain in town, both of which I'd already figured out. There was also a "statue of a decrepit old man" whose "eyes seem to follow you around the room," but I couldn't think of anything to do there. "Cure Stone" doesn't work except on your own party members.

Level 3.

None of the levels offered anything that felt like a fixed encounter. All were labeled "Perion's Place," as is Level 4, so I've been assuming I'll encounter "Perion" at some point. I suspect that the messages I'm accumulating in the dungeons will be important for some key level, and that in intervals throughout the 30-level dungeon, I'll get the passwords necessary to unlock the three password-protected areas back in town.

Navigating the levels is a little disappointing in places. You'll have an entire area sectioned off from the rest, with a sequence of rooms or long corridors that seem to be leading to something, but when you get there, it's just an empty room. Secret doors, more often than not, lead to empty areas.

Unlike Wizardry, the levels (so far) offer no shortcuts back to town. Getting from town to the ladder to Level 3 is 138 moves (less if I use "Open Wall," but that's expensive), which brings around 14 random encounters along the way. I assume things will get faster when I reach Level 10 and get Level 5 spells, including "Teleport" (mage) and "Teleport to Stairs" (cleric).

At this point, all my characters are Level 9, and my two spellcasters are capable of Level 4 spells. Each level-up brings increases in some random attributes, but the max attribute score remains 18. I suspect that within a few more levels, all of my attributes for all characters will be 18. With each level-up, my monk's armor class goes down, but despite this he still seems to get hit quite often.

My current cleric character.

There are some intriguing elements in Dragon Sword, but I cannot possibly imagine spending the 60-80 hours that I estimate it will take to map the additional 27 levels and win the game. It isn't the size of the levels (441 squares vs. Wizardry's 400) as much as the frequency of random battles that makes the game a bit tedious. However, in a series of comments on my first Dragon Sword posting, developers Tim Musa and Brian Tieman gave me a bit of an "out": apparently, in the unregistered version, the game is only playable through the 7 levels of "Perion's Place," and they're having trouble recovering a registered copy. If that's the case, I think I can stick it out for those 7 levels.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Game 164: Dragon Sword (1990)

The game is titled The Dragon Sword everywhere but the title screen.

So far, we've seen a lot of descendants of Wizardry--including The Bard's Tale and Might and Magic--but few direct clones. That changes with Dragon Sword, a game that copies Wizardry so directly that the manual suggests that if you've already played Wizardry, you don't need to read the manual. 

Dragon Sword has you exploring a wireframe world with a party of up to 6 adventurers, each drawn from Wizardry's races (human, dwarf, elf, half-elf, hobbit, gnome) and featuring Wizardry's six attributes (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and luck). The classes aren't exactly the same, with barbarians and monks added to the Wizardry-derived (and ultimately, of course, D&D-derived) fighters, thieves, clerics, and magic users.

Creating a character.

Navigation, equipment, experience, training, economy, and combat are very similar to Wizardry, but we have a few variances. Spells deplete a pool of spell points rather than fixed slots. The spells themselves are mostly different (more on that in a minute). There's no "menu town" at the top of the dungeon, but rather a fully explorable 21 x 21 map.

Dragon Sword also allows you to save anywhere (although with only one slot) and eliminates permadeath. A player who suffers a misfortune can simply quit and reload.

Exploring the town of Bralka with my party of 6. Icons indicate that I have "Compass," "Find Secret Doors," and "Light" active. A summoned familiar--an owl--leads the party.

The back story is told quickly and with no fanfare. The city of Bralka used to be a peaceful, prosperous place. Then, at some point, the dragon Oijngate (no idea on the name) came along and conquered the city and now everyone's miserable. The party has been charged with seeking the Dragon Sword to defeat Oijngate. 

Some text on the wall drives the story home.

The game begins in Bralka, which holds several shops, temples, banks, a guild, and a training hall. In the southwest corner, stairs ascend to the dungeon levels. Shops sell the usual selection of weapons and armor (leather, chainmail, maces, longswords, etc.) and you don't have much gold at the outset. 

The shop has some nice-sounding options for when I'm richer.

The game allows you the option of just walking out the front gates and ending things immediately, though it's a bit of a downer ending.

There are a ton of random encounters as you explore, some with laughably easy foes (e.g., 1 fighter) and some with absurdly difficult parties (e.g., 6 bugbears, 4 warriors, and 3 goblins). You can "Run" from most fights but not all of them, and running carries a risk of the enemy getting a free round of attacks. Combat is the same as in Wizardry: only the three front characters can execute melee attacks, and each character decides on an attack for the next round before watching them all execute at once.

Planning my attacks against a party of enemies.

The manual indicates that the game features a staggering 30 dungeon levels, all (like Bralka) 21 x 21. The manual also says that every square is used, but there were a few I couldn't access in Bralka. Perhaps there are stairs down from other levels, or perhaps I need to wait for the "Teleport" spell. There's also a 5 x 5 area I can't access behind a locked gate, and I wonder if this is Oijngate's throne room and thus the site of the endgame.

The starting town.
Inns are notably absent from the list of services. There is no place where you can rest and restore hit points. This put me in a bind as I explored the city, and late in the session, I was reloading frequently as my hit-point and spell-point-deficient party found it difficult to fend off even easy foes. Eventually, I discovered that if you stand in a fountain near the guild, all your spell points get recharged, which you can then use to cast "Mend" spells to restore hit points.

I explored a little of the first dungeon level, long enough to see that it had its own name ("Perion's Place") and to get a message of terror from what must be the big boss there. From the encounters, it was soon clear that I was there too soon and needed to build my characters to higher levels (and better equipment) on the ground first.

An early-level encounter.

Fortunately, if I just stand by the fountain and spin in place, I can fight all the battles I want and immediately heal afterwards.

I'm getting there.

There are two ways in which Dragon Sword transcends its Wizardry heritage. The first has to do with a number of puzzles scattered about the town. On the town level, a voice in a dark and moldy tomb is looking for a word from "Galt's Domain." In another square, a jester begs me to "answer tried and true" with some sort of password; and in a third, I'm asked for a word of passage by a mysterious voice. My understanding is that I need to find these answers in the dungeon levels, and the manual suggests that the dungeon levels themselves have similar puzzles as well as numerous navigation puzzles. 

The second way is in the selection of spells, some of which are drawn from Wizardry (e.g., "Compass," "Light," "Locate"), some of which are drawn from D&D (e.g., "Stinking Cloud," "Friends," "Wish"), and some of which are original to the game. The manual tells you nothing about them; you're left to experiment based on their names. Some interesting sounding ones include "Holy Water," "Teleport to Stairs," "Open Wall," "Weapon of Silver," "Block of Ice," and "Burning Air." Perhaps the most interesting is "Familiar," a Level 1 mage spell that summons a small creature that you can name. Granted, this isn't a lot different from the summoning spells of The Bard's Tale, but I think it's the first time we've encountered a "familiar" in a CRPG.

This hawk turned out to be quite good in combat.

Dragon Sword is a shareware title, writen by two friends and roommates at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois: Tim Musa and Brian Tieman. It was published (like Falllthru) by PC-SIG, the California shareware magazine. The manual says that the pair was planning a "256-color sequel," but I can't find any evidence that this ever came out. I've written to Mr. Musa to see if he wants to discuss the game.

I don't know, though: this one might defeat me. Unless the levels are really interesting, it's hard to imagine plowing through 30 of them in my quest for the Dragon Sword. (And there are no walkthroughs online to help me cut corners.) I'll map at least a couple of them and report back. Thusfar, it's one of the better shareware titles I've experienced, at least if you can get past the graphics. If Mr. Musa responds, I'll be happy to send him the $15 license fee.


In list news, I'm toying with dropping Crystals of Arborea. I've checked it out, and it lacks the "inventory" element of my three core criteria for an RPG, though I admit that if it's not an RPG, I'm not entirely sure what it is. I gave it about an hour the other day and didn't like it at all, but I'll hear impassioned pleas to preserve it if anyone has them.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Secret of the Silver Blades: Final Rating

Secret of the Silver Blades
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (Developer and Publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS and Commodore 64; 1991 for Amiga, Macintosh; 1992 for PC-98
Date Started: 3 September 2014
Date Ended: 23 September 2014
Total Hours: 31
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

You expect games in the same series to get progressively better as the years pass and better technology becomes available. The Ultima series is a perfect example, keeping a top-down interface that uses many of the same commands while constantly improving (at least between III and VII).  Even if the games use the same engine, the developers can make tweaks based on early player experiences. The Baldur's Gate II interface is notably better than Baldur's Gate, for instance, even though they're both based on the Infinity engine.

But SSI has been curiously unable to improve upon the experience of Pool of Radiance. Oh, sure, the graphics and sound have gotten a little better, but the core gameplay experience has degraded slightly with each new title. Pool of Radiance remains the only Gold Box title to offer open overland exploration, for instance. It had more encounters that required a role-playing choice, more side quests, and (to me) a far more interesting main plot. And because it has the characters starting at Level 1, the sense of character development is much stronger. Other than getting "Delayed Blast Fireball" towards the end of the game, I don't really feel like my characters went anywhere in Secret of the Silver Blades, particularly since there are no Level 7 priest spells.

Pool of Radiance also had a larger variety of monster types and encounters, making full use of the Gold Box engine's capabilities and the D&D rules that informed it. You fought typical low-level mooks at the beginning but eventually worked your way up to fire giants, dragons, basilisks, vampires, and other powerful creatures with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Areas like the graveyard, the kobold caves, and the pyramid felt like separate "modules." Secret of the Silver Blades may have offered as many types of creatures, I'm not sure, but it doesn't feel like it offers the same variety. Consider that other than the final lich, there are no undead in the game and thus no need for the cleric's rapidly-developing turning skills. There are no creatures capable of causing disease for which you might need a "Cure Disease." (I think it shares both traits with Curse of the Azure Bonds.) There are no cursed items, and thus no need for "Remove Curse." Most important, there are no encounters with the same quality of role-playing as, say, the Zhentil Keep outpost, the brigand's fortress, or the lizard man village in Pool.

Meanwhile, the mechanics have remain somewhat stagnant. I had five complaints about the interface in Pool of Radiance:

  • The need to choose "Move" before moving in a combat round
  • The need to constantly re-memorize "Cure Light Wounds" spells, cast them, and re-memorize them when healing
  • The need to choose the spells all over again when memorizing (i.e., the game doesn't remember what spells you had memorized the last time and use them by default)
  • Choosing "Next" and "Previous" when targeting offensive spells in combat cycles through your own characters as well as enemies. To target the closest enemy, you have to hit "Next" up to five times.
  • When the last enemy is slain in combat, characters who haven't acted during the round still have to perform an action before you can get to the end of the battle.

In Curse of the Azure Bonds, they "fixed" the first two issues--the second by offering a "Fix" command--but all of the other issues remain problems, and other players must have been complaining about it. The spell thing is particularly annoying now that my mages get a couple of dozen of them. Trying to remember which ones I cast since the last time I rested is difficult. Meanwhile, the "Fix" command doesn't really work the way it should work. It ought to be a proxy for simply taking as long as necessary to a) burn all existing non-healing spells; b) memorizing all available healing spells; c) casting the healing spells; and d) re-memorizing the original spells. It should offer the same dangers as if you simply rested for that length of time. Instead, I find that "Fix" works in many places that resting does not, and it takes far shorter than it should. The result is to make the game a little too easy.

These gripes aside, the Gold Box engine is still a great RPG engine, and it's hard to imagine a truly bad game being made with it (though I understand I'll have some opportunities to revise that opinion coming up). I started this series of posts praising the combat system, and I'm happy to finish on the same note. There were too many combats in Secret of the Silver Blades--particularly too many random combats--but the engine still holds up remarkably. The boss battles are simply a joy to fight--tactical, challenging, and making better use of the D&D rules than any game engine up to this point.

The plot of Secret was okay--not as good as Pool or Champions of Krynn, perhaps about the same as Curse. I like the "Seven Samurai" aspects of it, where a band of grizzled adventurers comes to the aid of a helpless village. But it is regrettably far more linear than its predecessors, and something that's struck me a few times in the past became more obvious here: the SSI team is really only adequate in world-building and story-telling. The engine and the associated adventurer's journal offers essentially limitless opportunities for rich backgrounds, role-playing choices, and plot twists, but it never feels like SSI's writers rise to the occasion. They tell a passable story when it wouldn't have been hard to tell a great one.

Encounters like this weren't bad; they just lacked the role-playing fun of the first game.

Before I get to the GIMLET, let's talk about "fake" journal entries--perhaps the one area in which I think Secret surpasses its predecessors. There are some delicious misdirections in here, including an entire series of entries that suggest Tyranthraxus is lurking around in the form of a mouse, trying to steal the Dreadlord's power (adding this sub-plot to the game for real would have substantially improved it!). There were a bunch of maps leading to nowhere, one entry suggesting that the Beholder Corps was loose in the dungeons, and a few entries that would have fooled players into refusing to take key quest items or discourage them from using the teleporters. Not since Wasteland and its whole Martian sub-plot have we seen such clever fake entries.

In the GIMLET, I expect it to perform slightly worse than Curse of the Azure Bonds. Let's see:

1. Game World. As I've said before, while I'm comfortable in the Forgotten Realms setting, I've never particularly loved it. It feels like it contains too much stuff with no central core. Aside from that, the particular back story of this game is competently told, and the developers do a good job of setting up a geography in which the constrained, linear nature has a logical foundation. The revelations about the Secret Blades and the Dreadlord were only okay. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. I didn't create any characters for this one, but the game offers the same options that have earned general praise from me in the past. The problem is more in the area of "development"; as I noted above, my increases from Levels 10/11 to Level 15 don't feel like they accomplished anything significant except to modestly increase my hit points. Oh, I know my THAC0 was going down and my backstab multiplier was going up and such, but these subtle increases aren't really perceptible at this level. The only major development was the acquisition of a new mage spell level. Clerics don't even get that.

The Gold Box series has never been great about making class, sex, and race choices matter, but it's even worse here than in some previous games. There are a couple of places where having a dwarf increases the number of gems you find, and a couple where having a ranger offers a sentence or two about the terrain, but that's about it. There are no alignment-based role-playing options at all--not even any equipment restricted by alignment. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. There are only a handful of NPCs in the game, few memorable, none with any dialogue options. The game even removed the "attitude" system of the previous titles. On the positive side, there were two joinable NPCs who had reasonably good back stories, and one of them, Vala, piped up with comments from time to time. Score: 4.

Disappointingly, Dersh has no special dialogue for the party after the Dreadlord is defeated.

4. Encounters and Foes. Up above, I suggested that I missed the same variety of enemies that we saw in Pool of Radiance. While this may be true, I still have to recognize that Secret, like all Gold Box D&D games, does this better than 90% of other RPGs on the market at the time. Nowhere else are we seeing the same variety of enemy strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and overall threat level. Among the game's 40 foes, we've got those that can breathe fire, breathe cold, charm, confuse, paralyze, petrify, poison, phase in and out of combat, cast spells, and shrug off many of your party's attacks. Each combination of creatures on the battlefield requires a different approach to strategy and tactics--and each is described well enough in the game manual to give you enough warning.

On the non-combat encounters, again the game is a bit weaker than its predecessors, perhaps about average compared to other RPGs. There were a few lame puzzles and a few places where you could make a basic decision, but rarely related to any role-playing considerations. Score: 6.

The documentation meticulously catalogs every creature that you'll face, even though including "lich" is something of a spoiler.

5. Magic and Combat. I don't think I can say anything here that I haven't already said about Gold Box games in general. The engine is, in my opinion, one of the best ever created, and while I wished there were fewer combats, I never got sick of the combat mechanic. A handful of new spells offered some addition to the previous games' tactics. All the engine really needs is stronger enemy AI. Score: 7.

6. Equipment. Another area of comparative strength. I found more useful stuff in Secret than the previous two Forgotten Realms games combined, and a lot of it (though not the best stuff) seemed to be randomized. The thrill of seeing a "Girdle" or "Boots" in an enemy's cache is unrivaled by any other rewards in CRPGs of the era. I'm still waiting for helms and detailed item descriptions, though. Score: 6.

Goldeneye's final selection of identified and unidentified items.

7. Economy. Seriously, why is the entire Gold Box franchise so tragically brain-dead when it comes to an economy? From the first battle in Secret, I had more money than I was ever going to spend (since training and healing are free, you basically only spend money identifying equipment). They introduced a dynamic by which the well wants gems for hints, and the vault in town trades platinum for gems, then made it stupid by delivering so many mountains of gems that you never need to visit the vault. I ended the game with the equivalent of more than half a million platinum pieces (so about 2.5 million gold pieces) when you include the gems and jewelry. And to top it all off, there isn't a single thing in the town's two shops worth buying. Does SSI ever get this right? Score: 1.

8. Quests. I liked the main quest more at the beginning--when it was still a mystery who was attacking New Verdigris--than at the end, when the somewhat-boring story had been told. But it's in no way a bad main quest, just a tad bland. There are no options or alternate endings, though there are a couple of optional areas (the administration building and the drider camp) that basically serve as side quests. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I have to give it the same rating I've given pretty much every other Gold Box game. There are minor improvements in graphics and sound, but not enough to kick the game into a higher category. Nothing has changed on the interface (that I can discern) since Curse, and the bland hallways and featureless rooms are becoming less forgivable as time passes. Despite being slightly disappointed that nothing has changed, I maintain that the interface is quite good overall--very smooth and intuitive, with several customization options. Other games could take a lesson from the Gold Box commitment to redundancy in keyboard, mouse, and joystick. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. A little too linear after some nice nonlinearity in Pool and Curse, and I can't really give it any points for replayability. But the difficulty is pitched perfectly--some easy areas balanced by some very challenging ones--and the length falls within that 25-40 hour window that I like to see in a good RPG. Score: 5.

The final rating of 50 is reasonably high, though significantly lower than the 60 I gave to Curse and the 64 I gave to Pool. This is the third Gold Box game I've played in 1990, and while all have offered above-average experiences, I worry that the series is resting on its laurels instead of really innovating. Pool of Radiance was a staggeringly good game for 1988, but since then, SSI seems to be content with offering gameplay that is merely competent rather than truly thrilling.

I find unlikely support for my opinions in Scorpia's October 1990 Computer Gaming World review. She hits upon the same points I do: a little too much combat, too linear, no role-playing. Just as in her review of Curse, I can't help but feel that she's a little more critical of the Gold Box series than is warranted, particularly given 1988-1990's other offerings, and I strongly object to her use of the term "hack and slash" to describe a combat engine as sophisticated as the Gold Box, but I can't disagree with her conclusion that Secret is most likely to be enjoyed "by those who enjoyed the previous Gold Box games." If you didn't like Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds, there's absolutely no way you'll enjoy this game.

MobyGames's review summary shows that most magazines gave it in the 70s or 80s out of 100. The one exception is Amiga Power, which gave it an 8. Not 8/10, but 8/100. The "review" takes up less than 1/4 of a page and the reviewer, Stuart Campbell, clearly hates RPGs and doesn't seem to have read either the manual or adventurer's journal for this one. He compares it negatively to King's Bounty, of all things, and calls Secret "unadulterated rubbish." According to MobyGames's trivia page, this review so incensed U.S. Gold (the game's publisher in the U.K.) that they refused to send any more previews, game copies, or promotions to the magazine.

I look forward to playing the fourth and final game in this series, Pools of Darkness, in 1991. I hear good things about it, and I seem to recall that it offers overland exploration again. But the character development issue worries me. From what I remember, leveling in Pools is essentially limitless, but after a certain point, the only thing it does for you is confer a few additional hit points. This is a problem that plagues a lot of game series: it's much more fun to go from a Level 1 peasant to a Level 8 hero than from a Level 8 hero to a Level 20 super-hero. This problem was particularly acute in The Bard's Tale, but it's recurred in a lot of series, and for this reason, I don't necessarily mind when franchises like Wizardry and Ultima find threadbare excuses for busting the characters back down to the novice rank.

I've updated my January 2013 post called "Gold Box: Spells and Their Uses" to consider the newest spell levels. As always, I welcome comments on anything I overlooked.

Next up, we'll have a post on Dragon Sword, a decent Wizardry clone that might keep me occupied on and off for a while.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Secret of the Silver Blades: Won!

What if I stay a month? That's a lot of celebrating.

New Verdigris is free and the Dreadlord is dead. It took me about six hours after my last post. Good thing I didn't have any major work to do this week.

The dungeons had felt too easy, what with all the teleporters back to town every couple of levels. Boy, did this change towards the endgame. The second glacial crevice was an extremely long, linear path from the frost giant village to the Dreadlord's castle. It was chock full of random encounters and had only one teleporter--itself so far off the beaten path that it was hardly worth using, since I had to waste all kinds of hit points and spells on random encounters on the way.

Those are supposed to be monsters frozen in the walls.
(The entire game is basically feast or famine with random battles. The ruins, mines, and crevices had them ad nauseum, but most of the buildings--including the castle dungeons and the castle itself--didn't have them at all, unless I tried to rest. I frankly think they could have toned them down. They just prolonged the game and offered a bunch of experience points I didn't need.)

In the middle of the crevice, my tendency to use only one saved game started to haunt me. The random battles with pyrohydras, white dragons, remorhazes, Black Circle fighters and mages, and cloud giants so sapped my hit points and spells that I began to despair that I'd ever exit. With random encounters in all directions, there's no way to "escape"; you have to reach one end or the other. Resting almost always produces an attack. About halfway through, I begrudgingly lowered the difficulty level back to the default, but that only helped a little. After exhausting all the healing potions, cleric scrolls, mage scrolls, and wands that I'd been hoarding, I had to resort to something that we might call "fix-scumming": making camp, saving, attempting the "fix" command, and reloading if I got attacked. Using such dubious methods twice, I finally made it to the other side.

Ancient white dragons were among the enemies that eroded my health as I tried to make it to the castle.
There, I found the forces of the Black Circle fighting the spirit of Oswulf, who was guarding the front door. I had to fight two large-scale battles, one with cloud giants and white dragons, one with Black Circle fighters and wizards, both with hardly any spells and resources to my name. Although difficult and frustrating, it was also the first time since the kobold battles in Pool of Radiance that I felt authentically challenged by a Gold Box fight. (There have been a couple where I got completely curb-stomped, but that's not "challenging"; that's just difficult.) I don't know about you, but I tend to sleepwalk through combats at higher levels, relying on the same bevy of spells over and over, and having some characters just sit on the sidelines while my fighters duke it out. Not here. Everyone participated, and everyone used every resource available, whether it was the last shot from a Necklace of Missiles, a stray scroll with "Hold Monster" on it, or a handful of darts. I spent time maneuvering for positions--particularly taking advantage of Karnov's backstabs--in ways I hadn't bothered with since the first game. Winning was mildly exhilarating.

My kingdom for a "Fireball."
When I'd polished them off, the spirit of Oswulf greeted me and gave me a Silver Long Sword +5 and a Silver Shield + 5. Both went to my paladin. Oswulf charged me not only with defeating the lich but freeing his brother's soul "from the lich's taint."

That's a horrible place for his brother's soul to be stuck.
The Dreadlord's castle was three levels of massive fixed battles (medusas, basilisks, cloud giants, storm giants, driders, pyrohydras) and various encounters. There were no teleporters until the very end, but fortunately I could take the stairs down to the dungeons (I guess they thawed in the meantime) and use the teleporters there. The levels were the only ones in the game (that I could find) to feature a lot of secret doors, traps, and places where I needed to have "Search" active to find treasures.

This game has numerous mechanisms for providing hints about things for which only the stupidest players would need hints.
Early in the castle, I encountered a mad cleric of Bane who indicated that he'd just been released from the ice after 300 years. Apparently, Bane had kept his mind from freezing as a punishment for the cleric questioning Bane's interest in the Dreadlord. I remain a little confused about Bane's association with the Dreadlord. During the endgame, the lich makes a point of saying that we're standing in "ground consecrated to Bane." But if the Dreadlord is a servant of Bane, or allied with him, why are the Black Circle mages fighting the Banites for control of the Well at the beginning of the game?

In my haste to get though the description of the castle dungeons, I probably didn't give enough credit to the variety of fixed encounters the creators offered. Some of them were challenging and clever. In the castle proper, these included:

  • An entire level in which all the key areas were accessed by a series of rotating alcoves. After using them, I had to find a switch to activate them from the other side and return to the main hall.
  • A room with a group of storm giants who claimed to have no quarrel with me and sold me a map through a small maze to the Dreadlord. They took a lot of money and gave me a worthless map.

Hey! That guy looks like Tyranthraxus from the last game!

  • A room full of basilisks and cockatrices, providing endless battles with both unless my party entered with an amulet found in a different location. Getting past them rewarded me with a nice cache of magic items.

  • An encounter with a patrol of driders and medusas. Killing them produced a message indicating the password was "Steeleye," helpful to get past a series of iron golems on the way to the third level.
  • An illusion of the Dreadlord who invited me to attack him, but attacking him just randomly teleported me to other locations with traps and tough battles. Letting him attack me dispelled the illusion.

This was a little counter-intuitive.
Throughout the levels, I kept running into Sargatha, a medusa who claimed to be the Dreadlord's lieutenant. She kept throwing monsters at me and escaping. In one memorable encounter, she beckoned from the end of a hallway. When I charged her, I blundered into a teleport trap that took me all the way back to the first level of the dungeons. I had to make my way back (via teleporters, so it wasn't too hard) from there.

We get it. You hiss when you talk.
The third and final level featured a series of doors in which I had to use keys found in the dungeons (the Well had told me the correct order). There were a bunch of fixed battles with cloud giants and two major combats leading up to the final fight: one with Sargatha, "dread guards," and Banite priests; one with a very tough fighter, guarts, medusas, and priests; and one with six 16-headed pyrohydras.

He paid for his run-on sentence.
I got cocky at one point and neglected to save after five or six battles. Usually when this happens, I die, and then I curse myself for not saving more often. What happened this time is that I accidentally attacked Vala, my NPC, in the middle of a combat. This turned her hostile and forced me to kill her to get out of combat (none of my "Charm" spells worked), at which point she was no longer with my party. I didn't want to lose her, so I had to reload and replay about an hour of game time. Reminder: save more often.

Confronting the Dreadlord.
Like always, I blundered into the final battle without any warning. If I have any gripe against the Gold Box games, it's this: you get no advance warning about huge armies amassing on the other side of a door, or even in a square 10 feet in front of you. This means that if you want to buff up before a major battle, you either have to know it's coming or get very lucky on a guess. In my case, I allowed myself the luxury of quitting the game the first time, reloading, and casting my buffing spells. I hate having to do that, but the engine really doesn't leave you any choice other than to never buff.

Going into the final battles, I may have overdone it.
Thus, after a round of potions of "Giant Strength" and "Speed" and spells like "Haste," "Bless," "Prayer," "Protection from Evil 10' Radius," "Mass Invisibility," "Resist Fire," "Resist Cold" (why is there no "Resist Shock"?), "Fire Shield," and "Globe of Invulnerability," I engaged the Dreadlord and his forces. He attacked with 10 storm giants (recall that the final fight in Curse of the Azure Bonds was with one of these) and six priests of Bane.

This one is a mite tougher than the typical final Gold Box battle. All the storm giants are capable of casting "Lightning Bolt," and the priests are capable of "Holding" even my high-level characters. Fortunately, I got the jump on them.

The Dreadlord had a Globe of Invulnerability active but his minions didn't, and the giants and priests that survived my two "Delayed Blast Fireballs" went down easily to my fighters, who had like four attacks per round. The Dreadlord fired off "Fear" and "Lightning Bolt" but didn't do significant damage to my party before everyone surrounded him and slowly beat him to death.

I wanted to let Vala strike the killing blow for role-playing reasons, but she kept missing.
This wasn't the final fight, however. In a secret room beyond the Dreadlord's chambers was the gem containing his soul--protected by 12 iron golems and 6 medusas.

I'm afraid we're going to have to disagree about that.

Fortunately, my haste, giant strength, and other buffs were still active. I had my mages "Fireball" the medusas and then "Lightning Bolt" the golems to slow them down. After that, my fighters concentrated on them one by one until they were all dead.

At that point, I got the endgame sequences showing the Dreadlord's soul, free from its lich form, rising into the heavens and embracing his brother, Oswulf, before they both departed for, in Oswulf's words, "a better place."

In Forgotten Realms theology, where would that be?
A teleporter appeared in the corner and I returned to New Verdigris, where in a lame, single-paragraph denouement, the mayor thanked me and said that the city would be partying for a while. Outside, citizens rushed up to shake my hand.
That's nice, but I was really hoping to have a celebratory drink in the tavern.

All the stores were closed for the party, which irked me a bit, as I had some final bits of equipment that I wanted to identify, but it turned out that when I left the city and returned, everything was open for business again. I got my equipment straightened out and then "Removed" each member of the party for later import into Pools of Darkness.

The Well had this final message. This is the second time Elminster has been mentioned in a Gold Box game, but I'm not sure we ever actually see him.
Karnov only made it to Level 17 out of 18. His multiclass status means that half the experience points he earns are wasted on the fighter side, where he can't advance. Everyone else was way over their caps and should be able to level-up immediately in Pools of Darkness.

Financially, I have enough money to basically buy the Forgotten Realms--and that's without picking up any platinum for the last 2/3 of the game. I don't think I'll take any of it with me to the next game. The economy is already too easy in Gold Box titles.

On the equipment side, I have some great stuff:

  • 2 Girdles of Giant Strength
  • Gauntlets of Ogre Power
  • Boots of Speed
  • Banded Mail +5
  • Leather Armor +5
  • Plate Mail +5
  • Silver Shield +5
  • Shield +5
  • 2 Shields +4
  • Bracers AC2 and AC3
  • Silver Long Sword +5
  • Long Sword +5 
  • Scimitar +5
  • Mace +4
  • Flail +4
  • Long Sword vs. Giants
  • Ring of Fire Resistance
  • 2 Rings of Protection +3
  • 2 Rings of Invisibility
  • Ring of Wizardry
  • 4 Cloaks of Displacement
  • 5 Potions of Giant Strength
  • 4 Elixirs of Youth

I have this idea that Pools of Darkness lets me keep it rather than finding some lame excuse to render me naked at the beginning. I look forward to seeing how Pools of Darkness begins, and I'm a bit sorry that I have to wait another year even though I've mostly had enough of the Gold Box for now.

It's time for both an update of the "Gold Box: Spells and Their Uses" posting as well as the GIMLET!