Sunday, February 18, 2018

1991/1992

            
1991 was, on balance, a depressing year. It took me nearly 3 years and 1,201 hours to get through its 37 games, nearly a quarter of that spent on Fate: Gates of Dawn. When it was all over, Ultima V from 1988 still stood at the top of the list and only four games had broken a rating of 50 all year, three of them sequels to games that had higher scores. The average rating was 2 points lower than 1990 and 3 points lower than 1989.

Games in 1991 got longer but not better.
        
Even the highlights had asterisks. There were four Gold Box games this year--Pools of Darkness, Death Knights of Krynn, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, and Neverwinter Nights--but still none of them managed to exceed Pool of Radiance, and for the first time I began to wish SSI had better balanced quality with quantity. Might and Magic III was good but not as good as I remembered. Fate was memorable but lasted more than 200 hours beyond the point I should have stopped playing.
          
This screen was not worth the equivalent of 7 full-time work weeks.
      
I did continue to appreciate the growing geographic diversity of our developers. There were more countries represented this year than in any previous year, including Canada (Ancients 1: Death Watch), Switzerland (Antares), Denmark (Chaos in Andromeda), Germany (Die Drachen von Laas, Fate: Gates of Dawn, The Ormus Saga, Dungeons of Avalon, Spirit of Adventure), Australia (Dungeon of Nadroj), Japan (Knights of Xentar), the UK (Moonstone, Heimdall, HeroQuest, Knightmare), and Italy (Time Horn). What's more, none of these games totally blew it. In fact, they all had moments of innovation and brilliance, even if they didn't always achieve high final scores.

I'm also satisfied with my "won" rate for the year. I only gave up on Antares, The Ormus Saga, Dungeons of Avalon, and the sample game with The Bard's Tale Construction Set, and I took both Ormus and Avalon as far as I could. They both still bother me.

The only major theme I can draw out of the year is the surprising persistence of low-quality Ultima clones. Between Quest for Tanda, The Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron, The Ormus Saga, and Legend of Lothian, I've really had my fill of independent game with iconographic interfaces.

Game of the Year Nominees

Part of me wants to reach down to mid-list for "Game of the Year." Knight of Xentar--at least was different. The limited but satisfying Shadow Keep. Twilight: 2000, because no other RPG has let me drive a tank through Poland. But no, I can't nominate any of them with a straight face. So instead, here's my half-hearted list of nominees for "Game of the Year":

1. Disciples of Steel. The clear victor if I chose based on rating alone. It was the top-rated game of the year and the one I authentically enjoyed the most, despite its many flaws. In a year of blah, this one-hit wonder managed to anticipate dozens of future trends, including multiple interweaving quest threads, multiple modes of gameplay, and lots of player choice. Its character development and tactical combat systems, adapted from Wizard's Crown, are near-unsurpassed, and it gave solid attention to other mechanics of quality RPGs, including a tight economy and a diverse set of equipment. I was sorely tempted to replay it at the end of the year, favoring a completely different approach this time, seizing cities by force and maximizing the use of the optional strategy game hiding beneath the surface. My biggest quibble: it sold about 12 copies and left no mark on the future.
           
Despite hundreds of battles, I never got bored with Disciples of Steel's tactical combat system.
         
2. Pools of Darkness. Technically, as Gold Box sequels went, Death Knights of Krynn ranked higher. But Pools of Darkness took the Gold Box to new levels, maxing out spell capabilities and allowing characters to rise to god-like levels. It told a compelling story, featured one of the most memorable maps of the series (Moander's corpse), and concluded everything with a truly-epic final combat. While not the Omega of the Gold Box games, it's close, and it makes a worthy bookend with Pool of Radiance.
       
The final battle of Pools of Darkness is legendarily difficult.
         
3. Might and Magic III. I don't think it's the best of the Mights and Magics even among the first three, but it demonstrates New World's commitment to pushing the envelope and updating its interface with new technologies. The mechanics often feel unbalanced, and the game world is sometimes a little goofy, but it's still loads of fun. Between its million side quests, the dozen items of equipment that every character can strap on, and its constant sense of character development, no one else was offering anything exactly like it. The Might and Magic series has always, in my opinion, exceeded its sources (principally Wizardry) and competitors (principally The Bard's Tale), but this was the first year that it truly left them in the dust.
         
Combat in Might and Magic III is turn-based, but through sound and graphics manages to evoke a real-time feel.
          
4. Fate: Gates of Dawn. The game that embodies "go big or go home." Out of nowhere, developer Olaf Patzenhauer took an Alternate Reality base and made the largest physical RPG seen so far, with more monsters, more spells, more character classes, more items, more everything than any of his competitors. More isn't always better, of course, and in the end, Fate is ludicrously, unconscionably, almost maliciously long, with only the thinnest plot and an absurd ending, but it's hard to beat the mechanics of the first 50 hours. As whole, Fate re-defines "epic" and paves the way for Germany's ascension in the RPG world in the 1990s.
         
I managed to map most of the 640 x 400 game world.
            
5. Eye of the Beholder. It's easy to forget that up to this point, the Gold Box series has offered the only truly successful adaptation of the most famous tabletop RPG system. Every other attempt at the D&D license has resulted in something forgettable at best and execrable at worst. Eye of the Beholder comes along and, though flawed, shows that there is another way to do it. It kept Dungeon Master-style gameplay alive and managed to produce its own sequel during the same year.

Honorable mentions: Technically, Death Knights of Krynn rated higher than Pools of Darkness, but who gives GOTY to the middle game in a three-part series? Spirit of Adventure was a surprisingly effective improvement on its Bard's Tale template but didn't really leave a legacy. I had a ball with Conan: The Cimmerian despite it lacking in several core RPG areas. MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients was a poor game overall, but it was an important step to truly open worlds and lots of player choice in how to achieve objectives.

1992 Preview

While we let those percolate, let's look ahead to 1992. If 1991 was a disappointing year, 1992 promises to be the absolute opposite. I'm practically giddy at the list before me. Every franchise had a release this year. We get the final D&D Gold Box title (aside from the Unlimited Adventures construction set) with The Dark Queen of Krynn. The Ishar series begins. The Realms of Arkania series begins. We get the second Interplay Lord of the Rings title. We get the third Magic Candle title. We get a Might and Magic, a Wizardry, a Quest for Glory, and two Ultimas! And in between these surefire hits are a ton of titles that I feel like I've heard good things about, among them Amberstar, Black Crypt, Darklands, Four Crystals of Trazere, and Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace. Surely, one of these games is destined to unseat Ultima V at the top of the list.

Here's the bad news: there are 65 games. This is, in fact, the peak year for RPGs.
         
      
The following year, 1993, has one game fewer, and after that the number drops back to the 30s and 40s for most years, averaging 43 between 1994 and 2009. But 1992 is a definite hump, and I can only be glad that so many of the titles look promising. Given the sheer number, you'll need to understand when I'm relentless with my definitions. I'm tempted to start right now by axing B.A.T. II; the first one was hardly an RPG at all.

Despite the sheer number, there's not a lot of new geographic diversity with the 1992 titles. The USA and Germany remain strong. Canada and the U.K. contribute a few. A few more leak to the west from Japan. Hungary contributes its first RPG with Abandoned Places: A Time for Heroes, and Finland offers its first RPG since SpurguX (UnReal World). In terms of platforms, I'm going to be able to abandon most of my emulators. There are four Amiga-only games (Antepenult, Black Crypt, Dungeons of Avalon 2, and Warriors of Releyne), two Macintosh-only games (Darkwood and Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete), and a lone C64 game (Telnyr II). The other 58 have a DOS port.

We're going to be entering 1992 slowly, because I've decided to double up on 1988 and 1989 games until I clear the "old" list and can work off of 1992 exclusively. There are 38 games remaining on that "old" list, although I can tell a lot of them are destined to be cut.

Year-End Superlatives

Total games played: 37 (from an original list of 45)

Highest-rated games: Disciples of Steel (57), Death Knights of Krynn (54), Pools of Darkness (52), Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra (52), Gateway to the Savage Frontier (49).

Longest played (hours): Fate: Gates of Dawn, at 272. It's hard to write that without feeling like I need therapy. The average was 31 hours per game and the total was 1,201 hours.

Longest played (start to finish): Martian Dreams, which was on my mind between October 2015 and March 2017 despite only taking 35 hours.

Percentage won: 89%

Hardest game: Knightmare, the only game to which I've given a full 5/5 for difficulty.  I question whether it's possible to win without a hint guide. Even then, it takes more than 400 hits to kill the final enemy, who can kill you instantly if he hits once.

Highest category score: The 8 awarded to Disciples of Steel in "gameplay" for its nonlinear approach and replayability. It was a little too hard at the beginning for a perfect 10.

Best game with a bad category: The damned Gold Box games still can't get the economy right. Death Knights of Krynn and Pools of Darkness came in at 2 and 1, respectively, in that category despite breaking 50 in general.

Worst game with a good category: Playing Neverwinter Nights offline, I could enjoy all of the strengths of the Gold Box engine with none of the content. Knightmare was a beautiful-looking game that was absolutely enraging.


Game of the Year
          
          
In a year where I'm lukewarm about all my choices, I've chosen Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra less for the specific title and more as a representative of the overall series. If I don't give it here, you can imagine what will happen: IV will lose to one of the Ultimas, or Darklands, or one of the other awesome 1992 titles. V will fall to something like Betrayal at Krondor. VI, perhaps my favorite of the series, had the misfortune of being released the same year as Baldur's Gate and Fallout 2; VII came out the same year as Planescape: Torment. No way is VIII or IX getting it.

I liked Terra less than its predecessors, but I still liked it quite a bit. It continues to exemplify an approach that hardly no one else is taking: an open world that may reward or punish you for exploring in a non-obvious order; lots of side-quests (seriously, when do these become standard?); a heavy dose of lore attached to individual maps and areas ("Corak's notes" were particularly brilliant); and copious methods of character development. I love its contrast with development in, say, D&D, where a character's attributes remain (mostly) fixed his entire life and his reward for slaughtering a thousand orcs is four extra hit points and one new spell slot. A Might and Magic III character, in a fifth of the time that it took that D&D character to go from Level 5 to 6, will stumble upon a fountain that raises his strength 5 points, upgrade 6 items of equipment, gain 8 new spells, come across an amulet that doubles his hit points, and turn in a quest item for 3 levels' worth of experience points. I hasten to add that Might and Magic's approach isn't universally the better one--there's something to be said for more spartan character rewards--but it sure feels more rewarding when playing.

You also have to admire the engine, which manages to feel fast and action-oriented despite being turn-based and tactical. It offers a nice halfway point between Dungeon Master and Wizardry.
       
There are problems, of course--see my "Cabbage Theory" in my final entry. The rest of the game has long outgrown 16 x 16 maps. And the creators' inability to craft a plot with any gravitas remains a significant liability. But more than most developers of the era, you sense that New World has the capacity to learn from these mistakes and grow. We will soon see the results. Well, not soon--in like 100 more games. It is highly likely that I'll end 1992 and start 1993 with the IV/V pair. Whether I try them independently or combined remains to be Xeen.


Let's jump right in to 1992. In choosing the play order for the year, I often think of John Cusack's advice on making mix tapes in High Fidelity: "You got to kick it off with a killer, to grab attention," but it can't be the best, because you have to leave room to "kick it up a notch." Thus, I've chosen Ultima Underworld. It's a groundbreaking game that makes us feel that we've stepped into a new era, but parts of it haven't aged well, and I thus doubt it will be the highest-rated game of a very competitive year.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Legend of Blacksilver: Games within Games

I don't see the bag.
       
Blacksilver has continued along the path I outlined in the first entry: it is a larger, more polished, fully-featured version of the standard Dougherty template. This is probably the final year that such a game would have been looked on favorably by the RPG community; I suspect it would have seemed quaint and under-developed after Ultima V and Pool of Radiance.

The plot continues in the "treasure hunt" manner that I mentioned last time. I ended my first session having found a red garnet, a crystal ring, and a grail with an owl on it in the dungeon known as Island Caverns. The grail was the artifact sought by the "seer" in the Owl Temple. He gave me 5 extra points of strength when I returned it.
       
Your "life's destiny" is for someone else to bring you an item? That's pretty lame.
       
The crystal ring allowed me to approach the "empath" in the temples and to buy elixirs that restore 150 hit points. These enabled longer, more dangerous dungeon explorations. You can hold a maximum of 30, which seems like plenty.

The red garnet could get me into several exhibits in the Archives. I chose "Storming Gear" because a prisoner's hint indicated Seravol's orb was in Mantrek's Citadel and when I tried to enter the citadel, there was a message indicating that I needed special gear to open the drawbridge.
       
Mantrek doesn't seem like a nice guy.
        
In Mantrek's Citadel, the game reverted to the usual Dougherty plot by which the player has to massacre dozens of castle guards. It appears that only in the king's castle can you open chests with impunity. Here, I had to find a couple of keys that opened the way into further areas. I wasn't sure if I was being good or evil, since Mantrek doesn't figure into the backstory and the game doesn't really give much indication about who he is or what his motivations are.
           
Swarmed by guards as I make my way through the castle.
      
His people weren't very loyal, I can tell you. His wizard simply sold me the orb, although he also reduced my strength to 7. It went back up to 15 when I drank a healing elixir--the value it was at before I turned in the grail to the seer. Meanwhile, his jester gave me a quest to recover a flute.
          
He did warn me.
          
Back in the castle, Seravol gratefully took the orb but didn't advance me or give me any new information, so I returned to the Archives to spend some gems I'd picked up since the last trip. Viewing the "Game of Honor" exhibit allowed me to play a game called "Trist" in the Owl Temple--more in a bit. "Mountains" gave me climbing gear necessary to cross mountains. "The Wealthy" just gave me gold.

Visiting the exhibits must have triggered something because I soon got a message that "Seravol wants to see you," and when I returned, he promoted me to "Adventurer" and gave me 5 endurance points. Then the prince asked to see me and gave me a quest to recover the king's staff, which was stolen when he was kidnapped.
           
I was an "adventurer" the moment I drew breath, Seravol.
           
At this point, the only accessible place that I hadn't explored was Taragas's Mines, across some mountains that I could now climb. After grinding and gambling a bit for gold, which I spent on elixirs and spells, I descended. The mines were six small levels with the usual monsters, chests, traps, and urns. The monsters hit harder and took less damage than in the Island Caverns, so I relied much more on spells. I came out with an amethyst gem and the jester's gold lute.

The amethyst gem got me access to the "Etherium" exhibit in the Archives, which allowed me to go through a rite of passage to learn more advanced spells.
            
Everybody thinks he's ready.
        
Something in my exploits flipped a switch, and the town of Ridgeport allowed me to buy a boat. Unfortunately, Ridgeport is only on a lake, not the ocean, but the boat gave me access to the Hawk Temple, where I got another artifact quest and was able to play another minigame to improve my endurance.
          
Sailing my new boat to Hawk Temple.
           
Giving the lute to the jester got me a password to the second level of the castle. After a few dozen more guards were dead at my feet, I confronted Mantrek in his throne room. He agreed to give me the staff if I spared his life, which was a nice boon since I didn't even know he had the staff.
         
He disappeared after giving me his staff. I still don't understand his story.
       
Elsewhere in the castle, a tattoo artist offered to give me a tattoo of a dove, a turtle, or a hawk. I declined for the time being. Then some elf took a bunch of my money and gave me a little test. These were the questions:
        
  • Would you rather rescue a royal princess or an elven baby?
  • Would you rather slay a marauding dragon or an incompetent baron?
  • Would you rather give money to a hungry thief or a thirsty drunkard?
         
If I answer the second one, I'll just end up keeping the money.
           
The "correct" answers, which got me a signet ring, were "baby," "baron," and "thief." The elf provided his reasoning, starting with "a baby needs a champion; a princess has many." That seems like an awfully big assumption to make. The baby might have 12 brawny older brothers, whereas the princess might have been sold into slavery by her own family to make way for her more pliable younger sister. There's also a utilitarian argument that infant mortality being what it is in medieval societies, saving someone who has already survived infancy is likely to produce greater long-term results.

The reasoning on the dragon vs. the baron is that the dragon only causes problems for a small area while thousands might suffer under "the mistakes of a baron." That's great, but he's only described as being "incompetent," not evil. You'd have to be a fervent Benthamite to justify killing him just because he makes mistakes.

The final rationale--"a hungry thief has stopped stealing, unlike a thirsty drunk"--is also flawed. A thief who stops stealing hasn't necessarily reformed; he may just find all immediate targets to be too difficult or risky. The "thirsty drunk" might be looking for apple juice. So all in all, it was a nice idea, but maybe the questions needed a little more detail.
            
The game prompts you with hints if your progress lags.
          
Back at the castle, Seravol promoted me to "warrior" (improving my dexterity and intelligence) and the prince gave me 5 silver coins and 2 emeralds. He then told that his father had been located in the "Marthbane Tunnels." The map shows that dungeon over in the land of Maelbane, so clearly I'm going to need a ship capable of an ocean voyage.
        
I guess it's not "good" if you like running things.
       
Although I don't like character development occurring at plot intervals, I admit it's been steady and rewarding. Every promotion increases the character's maximum hit points and the number of hit points restored by an elixir. As time passes, new weapons slowly become available: I've gone from club to flail to broad axe, and I'm starting to see swords.
           
Wandering "monsters" sometimes sell you goods.
        
One thing that Blacksilver does better than its predecessors is to make attribute boosts cumulative rather than having one override the others. In Questron, for instance, you could spend a lot of time boosting dexterity via the minigame, but then it just got hard-coded to 40 after solving a quest. Here, as you rise in rank, your attribute bonuses get added to whatever you've already accomplished, making the minigames seem like less of a waste of time.

I find the minigames the highlight of Blacksilver. You could have authentic fun just playing them without worrying about the "surrounding" game, as I often did with "Arcomage" in Might and Magic VII or any of the card or dice games in Red Dead Redemption. In addition to fully-programmed casino blackjack and "heigh-loagh," each of the cathedrals offers a game to improve your skills. At the Eagle Temple, it's that skeet-shooting game, and it boosts dexterity. The Owl Temple offers a fantastically strategic game called "Trist," in the Mancala family, involving groups of stones moved around a wooden board. You have to visit the "Game of Honor" exhibit in the Archives before you can play it; winning improves intelligence.
             
A fun take on an African/Middle-Eastern game.
          
In the Hawk Temple, you can indulge in a more action-oriented game called "Hard Rock Melee" in which you run from side to side trying to collect falling coins while dodging rocks and blades. You have to deposit coins into a treasure chest to get points for the round. The game lasts 5 rounds of a couple minutes each, but the game ends if you get hit by 5 rocks or a blade. If you score high enough, you improve endurance. I don't know yet if there are any other temples with minigames that improve strength and charisma.
       
Dodging items raining from the sky in "Hard Rock Melee."
      
There have been some welcome new changes to the spell system. I think having to buy spells individually is a bit primitive, but Blacksilver adds a new twist by assigning a skill level to each spell. After you've drunk the Etherium, you can improve your levels by spending silver coins at any of the temples.
        
My relative skill levels for each of the spells.
         
There are 9 spells. "Tongue of Flame" and "Lightning Bolt" are your basic offensive spells. "Glow Tip" and "Armor Enchant" are new to this game, and they basically add magic bonuses to your weapon and armor, respectively. The bonuses seem to deplete based on hits, not time, and the game gives you the option to automatically re-cast them once they run out.

"Light" is necessary for dungeon exploration. "Teleport" seems useless to me; it just teleports you to a random location on the same dungeon level and damages your hit points at the same time. The levels aren't big enough to really require this. I guess it's useful as a last-ditch effort when a monster is about to kill you, but if you let your hit points get that low with no elixirs, it's doubtful you'll survive much longer anyway.

"Annihilate," which is very expensive, damages all nearby monsters, often killing them. "Nimble Step" helps you avoid traps, but since (X)amine does fine with that task, I don't think I'd waste money on it. "Psychic Protect" helps avoid attribute-draining attacks from monsters. I haven't encountered any that do that yet.

I'm guessing I'm about halfway done, but I'll try to handle the rest in a single entry.

Time so far: 10 hours

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Eye of the Beholder II: Summary and Rating

           
Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon
United States
Westwood associates (developer); Strategic Simulations, Inc. (publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga, 1993 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 2 January 2018
Date Ended: 6 February 2018
Total hours: 43
Difficulty: 3.5/5 (moderate-hard)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)
      
Eye of the Beholder II is a generally-pleasant but sometimes-uncomfortable fusion of Dungeon Master-style real-time gameplay and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules. It isn't significantly better, worse, or even very different than the first Eye of the Beholder, but of course both games were released in the same year and there wasn't a lot of time to change things. Because of that, as I wrote this entry, I found myself wanting to simply cut and paste entire paragraphs from my Eye of the Beholder summary. Here are two that still work nearly unchanged:
       
I'll say right away that Eye of the Beholder is not a better game than Dungeon Master, and if it rates higher than Dungeon Master on my GIMLET, we'll know that the GIMLET is broken or I rated the previous game too low. What Beholder gains through NPCs and better quests, it loses in fundamentally worse character development, combat, magic, and puzzles. I'm sure it's possible to blend Dungeons & Dragons rules with an action dungeon-crawler, and Beholder is an important step in that direction, but it's not the destination.
          
But let's not start with too many negatives: Beholder is still on the "recommended" side of the divide. From the opening animation . . . it promises and delivers a solid dungeon crawl that lasts just about the right amount of time for its content. The puzzles tend towards too easy . . . which is regrettable, but better in my book than games where the puzzles tend towards impossible. I enjoyed the process of mapping, carefully annotating certain squares for later return and investigation, and methodically uncovering the mysteries of each level.
          
But I note that in my Eye of the Beholder summary, I took a look at a speedrun and found someone who finished it legitimately in 8 minutes. That wouldn't be possible with the sequel. The developers quite literally tightened the maps, making it impossible to avoid many of the monsters that you could simply dart around in the original. Moreover, many of these unavoidable foes are quite hard and require at least most of a living party to defeat. The record for #2 seems to be nearly 2 hours, which is practically an eternity compared to the original. The player cheated by maxing some character statistics and all hit points, too.
      
No matter how much you plan, there's no way around this guy.
      
After I finished, I consulted the game's official cluebook to see what I had missed. Some highlights:

  • I missed a few items, mostly trivial, because I didn't deliberately fall down every pit.
  • There was a secret corridor in one of the dungeon levels that I didn't map, but it doesn't seem to have had anything it. It was just an alternate way to get around.
        
Almost this entire level is made up of pit destinations that I didn't map.
         
  • The cluebook is quite blatant about supporting the combat waltz. On dealing with mind flayers, for instance: "Engage it in melee, swing once or twice, dodge, and then prepare to swing again." Similarly, with beholders: "Always try to attack a beholder's flank." Finally, at the end: "Remember, it is better to nickel and dime a powerful opponent to death rather than try to fight him face-to-face."
  • There were two locations with resurrection ankhs off the main level. I don't know how I missed that. Each is capable of 3 resurrections, so I could have had 6 instead of just 3.
  • I missed a Ring of Feather Falling in some niche.
  • I could have gotten unlimited Spheres of Fire from a niche near the end.
  • The cluebook places Insal the thief on the penultimate level. You're supposed to encounter him "if the party freed him from his prison on catacomb level 1." I didn't find him despite freeing him, but he wouldn't have had the stolen items anyway. I can't believe I just blithely let that long sword +5 go without reloading.
  • Fighting my way through all of those mind flayers would have rewarded me with a crystal ball and "visions of the party's past and/or future." There aren't even any cool items in the mind flayers' chambers!
           
I loaded an earlier save and ran past the creatures to check it out. This wasn't really worth it.
            
  • The Amulet of Life would have resurrected a character. The Amulet of Death, if used, would have killed a character.
  • The Starfire Scepter would have indeed protected me from Dran's attacks. I'm skeptical whether it would have protected enough to truly be useful.
       
I'm a little annoyed it didn't clear up some of the item mysteries, such as why I found a stone cross so close to the endgame.

Finally, as an anonymous commenter noted, if you try to close a door in the dragon's path, he actually plows through it, breaking it. It doesn't slow him for a second.
           
Oh, yeah!
          
Without reference to the first game, let's see how close the GIMLET gets. I think it will fall somewhere between I and Dungeon Master.

1. Game world. Darkmoon tells a decent but not spectacular story. It's a little goofy that the big bad's name is an anagram for "dragon danger," and its attempts to tie to the first game are forced. However, I like that you encounter Dran at multiple points along the way--that he seems like a growing menace rather than just an endgame afterthought like Xanathar in the first one. Then again, the first game had a slightly more interesting world with the Drow and dwarves occupying the dungeon. I'd say it's a wash. Score: 4.
       
Frequent encounters like this kept a sense of tension throughout the game.
       
2. Character creation and development. AD&D2 allows for satisfying but not amazing character development. You get some hit points, maybe an extra attack, maybe a new spell level. This is all good, but games with skills and perks do it better. You don't gain many levels during this outing--not unless you grind a lot--and it feels like the game could be beaten by the starting characters. Getting a new spell level is always fun, but it just doesn't seem crucial here the way it does in other games.

There are no plot reasons to change up your selection of races, sexes, classes, or alignments, but it would be fun to periodically try the game again with a challenging party combination, like all mages or all clerics or something. Score: 4.

3. NPC interaction. I always like games that let you find new joinable NPCs while the game is in progress, but I was a bit disappointed that they didn't have more to their stories or more to say. At the beginning, it seemed like some of them would have plot-related dialogues or their own personal quests to complete, but this idea fell apart fast. You don't even get speeches from newly-resurrected NPCs the way you did in the first game. Score: 3.

4. Encounters and foes. This is a category that improved from the first game, I thought. The enemies are more interesting here, with a variety of strengths and weaknesses that factor into combat tactics. Non-combat encounters were more plentiful and offered some basic role-playing options. I also thought the puzzles were more challenging and more interesting, rising to Dungeon Master quality in a few locations. Score: 6.
        
Role-playing options like this were a welcome addition to the game.
        
5. Magic and combat. Also slightly improved. The higher-level spells offered more advanced options in combat and spells in general seemed far more necessary here than in the first game. As much as I defended the "waltz," I like that it failed in so many places, since you face a lot of enemies in narrow corridors and the developers slightly adjusted the enemy AI. The final level and the absolute necessity of bobbing and weaving around the enemies was a little disappointing, and I'm mystified at the lack of certain AD&D spells--"Resist Cold," "Resist Fire," "Enlarge," "Fire Shield," "Globe of Invulnerability"--that might have made a face-to-face fight possible. Nonetheless, the overall improvements to the magic and combat systems were steps in the right direction. Score: 5.

6. Equipment. The "Improved Identify" spell did wonders for this category, although I was disappointed at the relative weakness of items found in Darkmoon in comparison to the first game, and I don't feel like I ended much more powerful that I started. I also wish the game had been clearer as to the distinction between quest items and non-quest items, and while it's nice to know the names and pluses of items, we still lack any true statistics or descriptions of the inventory pieces. I also think the developers missed an opportunity to enhance replayability by randomizing some of the item locations. Score: 4.
        
We're sure bringing a lot of junk into the third title.
         
7. Economy. Still none. I know that some of you will say that the game doesn't need it, and that the absence of an economy isn't the same thing as a "bad" economy, and so forth, but I maintain that my experience would have been enhanced by a little stall in the forest area where I could sell excess goods and buy rations, potions, and scrolls, and perhaps save up for a few high-value magic items. Score: 0.

8. Quests. There's a clear main quest, but Darkmoon lacks the side quests of the first game as well as the special level quests. It only has a few side areas. Score: 3.

9. Graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are superb for the era, even more detailed than the first game, and both sound effects and ambient sounds were top-notch. On the other hand, I had more problems with the controls than the first game. When you're frantically clicking around in combat, the proximity of the weapon icons to the character's name, which moves his position in the party, is more than mildly annoying. I also didn't appreciate the frequent freezes in the middle of combat while I was trying to swap equipment or open spellbooks. I can't remember if these were present in the first game, but if so, they didn't bother me as much. Overall, there was a little too much dependent on the mouse and too little on the keyboard. Score: 6.

10. Gameplay. When I started playing, the game felt very nonlinear, but what seemed like multiple choices for staircases, doors, and portals soon collapsed into a fairly linear experience, far more so than the first game. I also wouldn't call it very replayable, except (again) to try challenging party combinations. On the positive side, the level of difficulty and length of play were both perfect, although keep in mind that I say that having imported my characters and their equipment. Score: 5.

That gives us a final score of 40--one point lower than Eye of the Beholder! That was a surprise. But looking over my review of the first game, it makes sense. While I appreciated the encounters and combat more here, Darkmoon gave up some elements--including better NPC interaction, a couple of side quests, and a less-linear approach--that led to an accumulation of 1-point losses.

Even with my usual caveats--40 points is reasonably good on my scale, less than 20% of games have achieved it, etc.--this rating is bound to be controversial if you love this style of game. Before you comment angrily, please reflect that a near-perfect dungeon crawler in the Dungeon Master style is not the same thing as an excellent computer role-playing game generically. My GIMLET is naturally designed to produce high scores in the kinds of games I prefer, which include a full set of RPG features (including an economy), meaningful character development, tactical combat rather than action combat, and lots of role-playing choices, side quests, and nonlinear gameplay. I do agree that Eye of the Beholder II is a good exemplar of its particular approach.
            
Were separately-sold Day 1 cluebooks as controversial in 1991 as Day 1 DLC is today?
           
Scorpia reviewed Darkmoon in the April 1992 Computer Gaming World. (I note with some amusement that the same issue has a review of Bloodwych, which I played nearly 6 years and over 200 games ago. That highlights how little progress I'm making.) It's not one of her better reviews, full of spoilers and going into unnecessary meticulous detail about a handful of enemies. But she agrees with me on the interface issues, quoting a friend in saying, "It's only real-time for the monsters." She bemoans the freezing that accompanies spellcasting and swapping equipment. She also complains about something that I didn't think to complain about but was a problem nonetheless: the need to use the mouse in combat and the keypad to move forces you into an awkward position in which your left hand is on the right side of the keyboard, meaning that your arm is either at a weird angle or you're off-center from the computer monitor. Overall, it's clear that like me she prefers games that eschew manual dexterity for more cerebral combat tactics.

She talks about the improved ending, contrasting it with the "drop to DOS" ending of Eye of the Beholder, which I've read repeatedly and absolutely isn't true. Yes, there's more of a cinematic here, but I didn't think it was so much better than the first game to deserve extra points. In the end, though, I find it hard to disagree with most her final paragraph:
         
Overall, Eye of the Beholder II: Legend of Darkmoon is a more substantial game than its predecessor. There is more to do, a bigger variety of critters to fight, and a larger area to explore. Graphics are a bit finer than in EOB I. Sound effects are about the same. Some of the problems with the earlier game (poor ending, lack of save positions) have been fixed, although the combat interface remains a sore point. If you enjoyed the first game, you will definitely like this one.
         
Dragon gave the game 5/5 stars despite having some complaints about the lack of an automap and support for all sound cards. Again, I have to note that a magazine dedicated to tabletop role-playing seems to praise everything but tabletop-style mechanics in its reviews of computer games. Nonetheless, the review by Patricia Hartley and Kirk Lesser does a good job evoking some of the more visceral elements of Darkmoon, which I experienced but perhaps didn't blog enough about. There is a wonderful sense of anxiety as you creep down a corridor, not knowing what to expect around the bend, wondering where those mysterious sounds are coming from, hoping that something hasn't respawned in the corridor behind you, literally jumping out of your seat when something attacks you from the rear. As much as I love the Gold Box titles and prefer them to Dungeon Master-style gameplay, I do admit that they generally lack this delightful trepidation.

If you want to get angry at a review while still agreeing with its score, check out the July 1992 Amiga Computing. This is easily the worst-written review I've ever seen in a gaming magazine. With only six precious columns, the reviewer wastes 3 of them blabbing about everything but the game, and not even making sense in his extraneous dithering. He expresses contempt for the entire RPG genre, bemoans that there are too may RPGs out there, describes Eye of the Beholder II as more of the same old thing, and then inexplicably says, in the final paragraph, "On balance, Eye of the Beholder 2 is the best RPG around." Where did that come from? He bases his opinions, judging by the five screenshots, on the first 10 minutes of the game. Every time I think I've gotten used to the lack of journalistic quality in 1990s Amiga magazines, someone manages to lower the bar even further.

Darkmoon is so well known, of course, that there are plenty of modern takes on the game, too. Corey "Dingo" Brock offered a retrospective in 2011 on Hardcore Gaming 101. He makes a good point on the relative ease of navigation in the sequel, with fewer teleporters and redundant stairways and more hints about secret door locations. My particular approach to playing and mapping doesn't really favor those changes, but I can see why some players would prefer them. He also notes the increase in encounters with role-playing options. In contrast, I can find nothing to agree with in GameSpy's brief description of the game in a 2004 history of RPGs. There were times that the game was difficult, but it did not feature an "insane level of difficulty." And I guess I'm just jaded from modern games, but most reviewers seem to be far more in love with animated introductions and conclusions than I am. I mean, I suppose I prefer a cinematic to plain text, but only barely. I'm more interested in the quality of the story than the way it's presented, and while watching the mages cast lightning bolts at Darkmoon until it vanished was cute, it made about as much sense as Khelben's ignorance to the danger posed by Dran Draggore. 
      
Did they send it back in time!?
          
Unfortunately, I read ahead in Brock's review and noted some of the problems with Eye of the Beholder III: Assault on Myth Drannor (1993), but that's on the other side of a lot of fantastic 1992 games. It's somewhat ironic to see the failure of the third game blamed on Westwood Studios' absence from game development. The company started out shaky ground with titles like Mars Sage (AKA Mines of Titan, 1988), BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception (1988), and Hillsfar (1989), all of which produced more than one moment of baffled rage in my reviews. But I have to admit they improved their game for the Eye of the Beholder titles, and I look forward to seeing if the upward trend continues in the Lands of Lore series (1993-1999).

And with that, believe it or not, we are at last done with 1991. It only took 2 years and 9 months. We'll have the retrospective coming up next, but I can tell you the "Game of the Year" nominees right now: Disciples of Steel, Pools of Darkness, Might and Magic III, Fate: Gates of Dawn, and I'll make a case for Eye of the Beholder, but don't get your hopes up.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Game 280: The Legend of Blacksilver (1988)

         
The Legend of Blacksilver
United States
Quest Software (developer); Epyx (publisher)
Released in 1988 for Commodore 64 and Apple II
Date Started: 7 February 2018
        
The Legend of Blacksilver is the fourth and last of the Charles Dougherty games, which began with Questron (1984) and progressed through Legacy of the Ancients (1987) and Questron II (1988). You may recall that Questron was the first CRPG I ever played--was, in fact, the game responsible for my addiction. I remain fond of it, particularly for the ending, but with 34 years of hindsight, I recognize its weaknesses.

As the last game, Blacksilver is the largest and most polished of the series, but unfortunately it still adheres to some of the odder and less satisfying conventions that Dougherty developed for Questron, some of them based on Ultima (possibly the only CRPG that Dougherty played), and some developed out of a desire to compensate for Ultima's weaknesses. (For a full discussion, see my interview with Chuck Dougherty.) These include:

  • Leveling via plot progression and not by killing monsters.
  • A highly original but equally unmemorable monster list, most using two seemingly random words. Entries in the bestiary this time include fetid wheezes, stench creeps, mammoth gulps, and screaming nugs.
     
Chester battles a "spine quiver."
      
  • The overall pointlessness of combat, given that monsters deliver no experience and generally cost you more in hit points than you earn in gold.
  • Extremely limited character creation and an unchanging character backstory.
  • A plot that progresses like a treasure hunt: go to one place, find a key, open a door in another place, find a gem, access a third place, and so forth.
  • A magic system that features a limited selection of spells that must be purchased individually.
  • Weapon and armor upgrades that appear based on time spent in the game rather than material progress.
  • Eminently-cheatable gambling minigames.
  • A game world featuring two continents, one of which (the "evil" one) must be discovered during gameplay, this discovery altering many of the fundamental rules established to that point. 
         
One of what I assume will be several promotions during the game.
        
I find the approach to experience and leveling, and thus combat, particularly unsatisfying, but it doesn't seem to have occurred to Dougherty to do it differently. While Ultima innovated and compensated for its early weaknesses throughout the 1980s, Dougherty stuck repeatedly to the same formula. I can't help but lament what might have been if he had achieved the slightest awareness of the conventions being established around him.

Blacksilver takes place in the land of Thalen on the planet Bantross, its history well-told in about 14 pages of narrative, letters, and other documents, showing an Origin-esque dedication to world-building. A couple centuries ago, the peaceful people of Thalen would banish criminals to the evil island of Maelbane, sentencing them to hard labor in the mines. Such a fate befell an evil mage named Minon. But while working in the mines, he discovered deposits of Blacksilver, "the source of all magic on Bantross." Using this power, he took over the mining operation, raised Maelbane from the sea until it had grown from a small island to an actual continent, and raised an army to conquer Thalen.
        
The Prince explains the current threat.
          
Thalen fell before his onslaught and its rulers were killed. Minon ruled for a century, but soon infighting among his lieutenants caused his kingdom to collapse and his supply of Blacksilver to run out. Maelbane sank back into the ocean, presumably with Minon on it.

Peace returned to Thalen for a couple of decades. A man named Durek became king and fathered a prince, Arovyn, and princess, Aylea. But a reclusive baron named Taragas discovered Blacksilver beneath his own lands and has enslaved the local populace to mine it. When word of his atrocities reached Durek, the king raised an army and marched on Taragas's lands, but during the campaign Durek was kidnapped and Taragas's castle simply disappeared. Princess Aylea was told by her mystical advisor that only a hero, not an army, would defeat Taragas. She shows up in the dreams of a young peasant one night and says "I choose you."
           
Like Luke Skywalker, this PC will take any excuse to avoid working an honest day job.
        
Character creation consists only of a name. Every character starts with 15 each in strength, dexterity, charisma, endurance, and intelligence, and maximum of 200 hit points. He has 60 food and 20 gold. He is a serf by trade, a theme as common to the Dougherty titles as starting in handcuffs is for The Elder Scrolls series.
         
"Character creation."
        
The player starts in the middle of a swamp and must navigate to civilization. Fortunately, the accompanying game map is relatively detailed. Town names include Iron Forge, Clissold Creek, Crystal Summit, and Bad Axe, and each has a different variety of services: weapon shops, armor shops, magic shops, food shops, jails, banks, and casinos.

A player of previous Dougherty titles will be familiar with the conventions. Banks offer interest and protect your gold from character death. Magic shops sell one spell at a time, although some are unavailable until the character later passes some kind of magical test. Weapon and armor shops start by selling very basic gear--daggers and whips for weapons, leather and studded armor--but slowly add more advanced items as both time and levels progress. This game adds a quality rating to each item, from "shoddy" to "superb," slightly affecting its value.
           
Weapons for sale late in this session. Giving each store its own name is a nice touch.
          
In jails, you can bribe guards to talk to prisoners, then bribe the prisoners for hints and clues. These are the only NPCs of that sort in the game.
         
This turned out to be a key piece of intelligence.
        
Finally, most towns have some kind of trade location where you can work an odd job for a day or get a mini-quest to deliver a package to another town. I believe these were also options in Legacy of the Ancients.
       
Sure, that seems like a good use of time.
       
In addition to the venerable blackjack, there are two new casino games here. "Dragon Wheel" is just a slot machine variant with poor odds. But "heigh-loagh" is devilishly clever. You get dealt a card from a standard deck and then have to guess whether the next card is going to be higher or lower. If you get four guesses right in a row, you win four times your bet (including the original bet amount). I spent longer than I spent playing the game trying to calculate the odds. I knew how to do it, but I couldn't come up with an easy formula to do it. I might actually give this to the students in my statistics class and see how they solve it.

Naturally, you're going to guess "high" on a 7 or lower and "low" on a 9 or higher (aces are always high). An 8 could go either way. You lose on a tie. Thus, in the first round, the best you can hope for is a 2 or an Ace. The only way you can lose is if you get one of the other three cards of the same value, which will naturally happen 3/51 times, or 5.88% of the time, giving you a 94.12% chance of getting it right. An 8 has the worst odds: no matter which way you guess, you only have a 47.06% chance of guessing correctly. Add up all the odds for the individual cards, and you get a 72.40% chance of correctly passing the first round.
          
A pretty easy game so far.
        
It's the other rounds that are difficult to calculate, because the odds change based on what card you get the first round. [Here I digressed into a long analysis of the odds that was both unclear and ultimately incorrect, and the reply comments just pissed me off, so I'm deleting it to try to stave off any more replies.]

The odds are somewhat important because currency is the lifeblood of the Dougherty titles. Among other things, it's the only reason to engage in combat, since you get no experience, and gaining money by killing enemies (while paying to restore hit points at the same time) is slow. Combat-related payoffs are a bit better here than previous titles, but a lucky trip to the casino can save several hours of grinding.

Despite taking all the time to calculate these odds, I spent most of my time playing blackjack, which also has nearly-even odds. Any game that approaches 50/50 is vulnerable to the martingale betting strategy as long as you're using fictional money. (I'd use it more often at Foxwoods if I could just go outside and kill someone for $120 every time I went broke.) Using my usual rules and strategy, I kept my gold pieces between 300 and 3000 for most of the session.
      
When this happens in real life, it is among the best feelings in the world.
       
Meanwhile, outside, there are new combat rules. In previous games, you could only attack or try to flee by moving away. In Blacksilver, you have four initial options when you encounter an enemy: approach, stalk, wait, or flee. During combat, you now have two attack options: a cautious "battle" and a more reckless "charge." These are still relatively primitive tactics, but better than the previous titles in the series.
      
The new encounter options.
      
The plot picked up when I visited the castle. In my dream, the Princess had given me a feather, and I still had it when I awoke. This feather got me through a door in the castle and allowed me to approach the Prince. He acknowledged my role as "champion" and gave me the first quest on the main quest path: find a way into the castle's inner chambers, which are currently blocked by debris from an earthquake. If I could get past the debris, I would find the wizard Seravol inside, menaced by orcs.
        
This is a conundrum.
         
Then, in a stunning development for a Dougherty title, the Prince said: "My gold is yours--provided you use it for the good." Sure enough, when I opened the chests in the castle, the guards didn't attack! This is the first game in this lineage where the hero doesn't have to massacre dozens of castle guards to progress. 
       
You sure you don't want me to kill your entire garrison just to prove my worth?
         
With no clue about how to get past the debris, I continued exploring the land. I visited the Great Eagle Temple in the northeast, where I could pay the priest to restore my hit points. He also offered that this temple "has no archives," so I should visit the Owl Temple across the lake for that.

The temple also offered a skeet-shooting minigame, just like the original Questron, which allowed me to increase my dexterity if I did well. I did okay and got it from 15 to 23. If Blacksilver is like other Dougherty games, some plot development will cause it to increase well beyond what I can accomplish with the minigame, but in the meantime that helps for combat.
         
The Dougherty titles have always been strong on minigames.
         
The Owl Temple gave me the option to "tour the archives" for a 100-gold piece donation. I paid and the priest opened a stairway. When I entered, the game shifted to a 3D view, and I found myself in a small area similar to the Museum of the Ancients in Legacy of the Ancients. Scattered along the archives' walls were a number of exhibits with titles like "Game of Honor," "Etherium," "Vase of Souls," "An Island Retreat," and "Storming Gear." Each exhibit asked for a different type of crystal or gem to view it. (The ones in Legacy had used coins.)
         
The priest explains how things work.
        
I knew I found what I was looking for when I came upon "Singing Crystal." A prisoner in one of the towns had given me a hint that "there's a vibrating crystal that eats away rock." The exhibit wanted a blue gem, which fortunately I had found in one of the castle treasure chests. After giving me a rundown of singing crystals, the exhibit gave me a "small 'singing crystal' for [my] own use."
        
Chester thought he had found a valuable artifact, but it turns out that it just bellows, "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" incessantly.
       
Both temples had some mysteries, including a temple wizard who said he'd train me if I "drank the Etherium," a guy who said he was waiting for a holy relic to be returned (but didn't tell me what), and an "Empath" at the end of a hallway who shouted at me not to approach and killed me when I ignored him.
      
It truly was.
       
I returned to the castle and used the crystal to blast away the debris. There were about 20 orcs on the other side, and I had to take a break in the middle of combat to leave and get healing, but otherwise they weren't too hard. I was disappointed to see that the new outdoor combat options don't apply to indoor combat; you just attack and specify a direction. On the other hand, indoors there are more considerations of terrain and leading enemies to you one-by-one and ensuring that you get the first blow.
     
Beating up blue orcs.
    
Once I cleared them out, I spoke to Seravol, who promoted me to "apprentice" and increased my charisma by 5 points. He then gave me the next step in the quest: find his Orb of Vision. But he recommended that I "visit the Island Caverns" before that.
       
"Such as, ironically, where to find the Orb."
       
From the game map, I knew where the Island Caverns were, but not how to get there, since they're on an island. The few towns with marinas said they weren't selling boats at this time. After a futile circuit around the map, I remembered the "Island Retreat" exhibit in the archives. I visited, spent another gem that I'd found somewhere, and got teleported to the island in question.
          
I suspect this isn't going to be the vacation that the title suggests.
       
I leave off now amidst another 3D dungeon, which seems identical to those in the previous games. There are enemies to kill only because they're in your way (and, as in the castle, the new combat options don't apply), chests to open for gold, and urns to open for hit points. You have to remember to hit (X)amine when facing down each new hallway to avoid traps.
       
The dungeon offers better monster graphics than previous titles in the series.
       
So far, I've explored four levels and found two silver coins, a red garnet, another blue gem, a grail with an owl on it (which I'm guessing is the artifact wanted at the Owl Temple), and a chest that released a vapor and increased my intelligence by 2 points. 
       
The who-ly grail.
       
Like its predecessors, The Legend of Blacksilver is a briskly-paced game with a moderate difficulty level. It is likely destined for the high-30s or low 40s on the GIMLET, and will probably be the highest-rated of the Dougherty titles. At the same time, it's a bit disappointing at how little progress has been made since Questron in the areas of NPCs, character development, equipment, and combat tactics, and it thus has the effect of recalling something pleasantly familiar rather than offering something pleasantly new.

Time so far: 5 hours