Sunday, December 4, 2016

Fate: Killing Time

Hey, around here we call it the "Lake of the Ozarks," bub.
    
We've all experienced it in games like Skyrim, Dragon Age, and Fallout 4: a long stretch of time between quests where we focus on something nebulous, like "character development." We sort through junk on the workbench, smelt our accumulated ore, circle around our NPC friends to see if they have anything new, run around to a few shops, get a little bit of training...and suddenly it's time to go to bed, and you realize you've accomplished nothing in terms of the game's plot.

Contrast this with the stark efficiency of the "between quest" time in games like Wizardry or Pool of Radiance, where you return to the town (or town level) and very methodically go through the same 5-minute routine: heal, rest, level up, identify and sell equipment, get the next quest, get back on the road. 

Fate is the first game in my chronology to really support this kind of aimless dithering. Perhaps the two Might & Magic titles came closest. There have been games in which you might grind between quests, of course, which is a bit different but nonetheless a step along the way. In the 20 hours I've played since the last posting, I've accomplished almost nothing in terms of the game's actual plot except to make myself feel that I'm in a better position to pursue it.

It's probably a time for a recap of Fate's plot, so here it is: Winwood, a record store owner in the "real" world, has been sucked into the land of Fate for reasons unknown by an evil mage named Thardan. Having managed to evade Thardan's forces on the night of his arrival, he has assembled a party of adventurers and embarked on solving the mysteries of the plot. Before he could do anything else, he needed to get the "Cavetrain" system operating throughout the land, as the place he appeared was cut off from the rest of the world except by train. Thardan had apparently deliberately sabotaged it to prevent Winwood from leaving the beginning area.

Once the rest of the world opened up, Winwood explored and found a variety of mysteries. Chief among them is the city of Cassida, where the population is absurdly rude to visitors--a situation that seems to have something to do with a statue in the center of the town. In the city of Valvice, Winwood's party heard of a mage named Mandrag who had arrived fleeing Thardan's forces and had disappeared in the grottos beneath the city. Winwood managed to find and free Mandrag, who revealed that he was on a quest to find "Bergerac's Heart."
     
Mandrag's quest comes into context.
    
After that, most of the NPC dialogue centered on lands across the sea: a "Forbidden Zone" erected by Thardan and a city called Katloch. As I closed the last post, I had saved enough money to purchase a ship and hit the waves.

This is where the trouble started. I didn't think I was quite ready to try my luck on the high seas. I had barely mapped the mainland. My characters where horribly under-developed, some with as many as 35 upgrades waiting to be allocated. I also had been advised by commenters to periodically re-visit the altar in the Alarian Vaults. I felt I could do better on weapons for some of my characters, and I wanted to check out the various smithies. Finally, I didn't think I had exhausted the hint threads on the Forbidden Zone and Katloch.
   
Sure, you're sorry.
    
My first step was therefore to head back to Larvin and the vaults. Around this time, Zardas posted an exhaustive list of improvable skills and the places that improve them most. I should have probably condemned that as spoilers, but it did save me from wasting my improvement slots. Seeing that most of the best guilds were in places I've yet to explore, I decided to use the Guild of Masters in Larvin to bring everyone's "skill"" attribute to 99 (Larvin is the best location to train that attribute) and then worry about the other attributes later.

It took me a while to get there because visiting that guild means traveling through several teleporters and a catacombs maze. When I arrived, I soon found out that progression in attributes is capped by character race and class. I had expected to spend half or more of my upgrades here, but each character ended up spending only 10-12 slots before they maxed in the ability. Lowest was my human enchantress, who stopped at 45. Highest (oddly) was my Laurin banshee, who went all the way to 99. This is particularly cool because she has a "greater melee" weapon called a "Vixhammer" that can hit every creature on the combat screen. 
    
Dichara takes out an entire company of mages by herself.
    
I spent a lot of time trying to get NPCs to train my characters. Unfortunately, I found a plethora of them who would train intelligence and wisdom, which aren't really that important, and hardly any who would train dexterity, which I really need (several of my characters are still in the teens). I went back to the altar and got a few attribute upgrades there. Before long, my overburdened characters leveled up, and their new encumbrance calculations put them back in the green again.

After that, I hit the wilderness. I don't really know why. I already knew that I wasn't going to map the whole thing. I guess maybe I thought I'd meet some NPCs on the road and kill a few birds with one stone. My inability to tear myself away from mapping, however futile, occupied most of my time during this session. I also discovered that I hadn't finished mapping Fainvil, so I had to finish that.
    
My map of the world, which I'm going to stop working on any minute now.
   
I did learn some key things about the world. First, I had assumed that the "overseas" portion would take place on a completely different map, but now that I've traced the southeast coast of the mainland, I'm not so sure. There's plenty of room to fit some islands in there. 

Second, it's clear that rivers and forests slice up the geography more acutely than in the starting area. On the map above, you can see an entire river whose path I traced while I was just looking for a way to cross it. All the mapping I did of the forests in the middle-eastern side happened when I was looking to cut straight through to the west, but I got caught up in a kind-of forest maze. Lesson learned: stick to the roads.

Finally, the days of finding random treasure in the wilderness seem to be over. The starting area had all kinds of useful weapons and armor stuck into niches in the mountains and forests, but I haven't discovered a single thing in the bigger portion of the world.

Of course, I killed a lot of people, rats, and snakes during these explorations. I've long passed the point in which wilderness encounters--even dozens of mages--are any kind of threat to me. Reflecting this relative ease, I only leveled up once or twice per character.
   
An optimistic single wizard tries to rob me.
   
My explorations did lead me to the extra intelligence that I needed, particularly once I found a beggar on the road north of Cassida. Between him and wandering mages, I learned that the people of Cassida used to be friendly when they were ruled by the wise mage Bergerac. Thardan, fearing the growing power of the city, turned Bergerac to stone (he's the statue in the center of town) and made off with his heart. As part of this curse, the hearts of the people of Cassida turned to metaphorical "stone." Anyway, Mandrag's quest to find "Bergerac's heart" now makes more sense.

Clearly, I'm going to have to solve this quest and get Bergerac to join my party, as it's said that only a Cassidan mage can pierce Thardan's "Forbidden Zone." Some NPC had told me to seek out a druid at Sorion Lake for more information, so after I'd finished my coastal mapping, I started using gems to find lakes. After one false trail led me to "Moron Lake" (top screenshot), I eventually found the right one. 
   
How do I get to the little island without a bridge?
    
The druid was wandering around an island in the center. He said that a Cassidan mage could break the sphere surrounding the Forbidden Zone, but he would also need the "legendary Moonwand." So now I have two quests: find Bergerac's heart, and find this Moonwand. I probably need to make sure there aren't any more dialogues related to these items before I cast off in the ship I've since re-named Lucky Lady.
    
An old druid gives some advice.
    
Other notes:

  • My party is fighting a constant war with rain. Ever since I got the "Elemental" school spell "Rainzap," I've been casting it whenever it starts raining. Inevitably, it only lasts about 20 minutes before the downpour starts again. Most of my banshee's spellcasting is going into this one spell.
  • Speaking of banshees, the ones in the wilderness used to talk with me on occasion, but for some reason during this exploration session, all they want to do is attack. Even "gral wizards" and "black wizards" are occasionally up for some conversation.
   
That's not very ladylike.
    
  • Like Valvice, Fainvil is full of pirates and corsairs. It makes sense in Valvice, because it sits on the coast, but Faivil is pretty far inland, with only a little trickle of a river. It's hard to imagine pirate ships coming so far upriver.
  • The game has featured some scantily-clad women so far, but no overt nudity--until it arrived randomly on this password request screen. It doesn't get more gratuitous than this; there's no particular reason for a woman to even be on this screen. No, I don't mind it, but as a kid it wouldn't have done anything for me but increase the chances that my mother would walk in the room at the wrong time and send me to Bible Camp for the summer.
          
    
Ready for some good news? I dislocated my kneecap! (Put down sand in your driveways, my friends.) That means work and travel are canceled for a couple of weeks, and you know what's going to take its place.

Time so far: 131 hours

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Knightmare: Almost Awake

This doesn't look so much like a Sword of Freedom as it does a Sword of Freedom cake.
     
I was hoping I could wrap up the last of Knightmare in one article, but it looks like I won't be that lucky. Either I have to write up things the way they are now, or I won't get another post out until next weekend. This will be short, but it represents about 6 hours of gameplay.

At the end of my last post, I was toying with taking a shortcut and going right to the final quest. I ultimately didn't do that because it seemed like bad form, plus killing the trees that block the quest entrances is hard. All your attacks bounce back on you. I finally gave up and tossed the Cup of Life at Tree #3 and entered the third quest.
   
Groups of floating skulls assailed me in the third quest. They were hard to defeat because their images have no side view, so it's impossible to tell which way they're really facing.
    
The third area consisted of three independent regions, roughly 20 x 30 each, and together I thought they made up the most satisfying map so far. Both puzzles and monsters got significantly more challenging, but in a fair way. Some memorable puzzles from the level included:

1. An area of 4 north/south hallways interlocked with 4 east/west hallways. At every intersection was a pressure plate that caused fireballs to simultaneously shoot towards the party from the north and west. (I'm assuming on the cardinal directions, since the game has no compass or method of determining your facing direction, but you get the idea.) I had to first find a safe alcove to dart into (after re-distributing inventory to make sure no character was overloaded) and then find a series of buttons that turned off some of the pressure plates, allowing limited movement in the area.

2. A 5 x 5 area with 9 moving walls. Moving walls by definition are hard to map, but I had to figure out their starting positions and ultimately push them in a way that allowed me access to each of the corners of the room. It took about 30 minutes of mapping, testing, and reloading to get this one just right and not block a necessary exit or something.

3. A teleporter maze with multiple teleporters going to nearly-identical areas (most consisting of a single square with teleporters in all four directions). Fortunately, I had been hoarding miscellaneous junk and was able to use items dropped on the floor to map the teleporter system.
    
A clue in case I couldn't figure it out for myself.

4. A ghost who couldn't be killed with weapons. I had to experiment a bit with spells to learn that the mage's "Dispel" was the key to making him go away. This is the first time that I've needed a particular spell to progress in the game. Are you simply screwed if you didn't get a mage? I suppose I could have led him to another area and locked him behind a door, but I think maybe he had a key or something.
  
I thought the art was pretty good here.
         
5. A room full of giant snakes who start behind walls. Stepping on a pressure plate (which you cannot avoid) abruptly removes the walls. This is one of the few places in the game so far where waltzing doesn't work and you just can't avoid a head-on fight. I had to heal the front characters frequently from the rear as I slew about 12 snakes.

6. A riddle: "when is a well not a well." This was given to me next to a well. When I couldn't figure it out immediately, I tried tossing every item I had into the well to no avail. But one of the items, recently acquired, was a Staff of Curing, and it led me to reason that a well is not a well when it's not well. I cast a curing spell on the well, and sure enough it opened into--actually, I don't know what. But walking into it teleported me to another area.

  
7. A roomful of dragons at the end of a long corridor where pressure plates shot fireballs down the corridor. This was another place where I couldn't waltz--there were too many dragons in the room--nor even back up, since I'd trigger the fireball plates.

This latter room put me face to face with a jester walking on his hands. I figured he wasn't an enemy and clicked on him instead of attacking him. He simply said, "I will pay you." I went through my inventory and reasoned that he might want something called a "Funny Staff" that I'd previously found.
  
   
As with the trees in the opening area, the game gives you only one way to "give" an object to an NPC: throw it at him. If it's the right object, the NPC will paradoxically dissolve into a puff of blood. That's what happened to the jester here, and his body left behind a coin. The coin later went to a Charon-like NPC in the game's final area. He gave me his boat.
  
Yes, sir!
    
The final area had some really tough battles, including a series of floating skulls (it's hard to waltz them because they always face you straight-on), witches on broomsticks, and whatever the hell this thing is supposed to be:
   
     
But it also produced some nice equipment. I'm pleased to report that finally, after three quests, my party members have several items of chain and plate mail plus...get this...a broadsword
    
I finally discover what would be starting armor in most games.
    
The quest rewarded me with the Sword of Freedom, which I owned proudly for about 30 seconds before I tossed it at the final tree to make him disappear and let me into Quest 4. I played around the starting area for a little while; it appears that the opening area allows for infinite grinding against creatures that keep respawning. Although I prefer games that give me the opportunity to grind, I really hope it isn't strictly necessary.
   
Moving on to the final area.
   
Only after I finished Level 3 did I begin to understand something about the game's magic system. For spellcasters to cast spells, they must find a wand, rod, or staff that goes with the spell class. My wizard found a "Wand of Magic" and my priest found a "Cross of Aid" early in the game. I found some items that went with other classes but was never able to develop any skill with them.

As I've been exploring, I've been finding other wands and staves. Quest 3 gave me a Wand of Pain and a Staff of Curing, and I didn't understand them. Finally, I realized that each spellcasting class has more than one associated object. The Wand of Pain, for instance, gives extra spells to the wizard. I'm pretty sure I deliberately left behind something called a Cross of Life because I thought it duplicated what I already had.
    
A very stereotypical witch attacks.
   
Other notes:

  • This nonsense comes up now and then here, just like it did in Captive. No idea what it's going on about.
    
     
  • This is a button! A random skull on the wall. How I ever knew to push it, I have no idea, but I'm glad I figured it out. (Is there another game with very similar buttons?) There were a few of these.
   
    
I'm surprised by how much I'm taking to the puzzles, particularly considering that I didn't love the ones in Chaos Strikes Back, and I generally consider them an optional part of an RPG at best. But the combat system is wearing me down, and I'm glad I'm approaching the final areas.

Time so far: 25 hours
Reload count: 19

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fate: Jail Release

NPC dialogue in this game inevitably ends in an exclamation point. I don't think there's a single exception.
    
I recently emerged from the Grottos of Gahmos after 20 hours. Seeing the virtual sun and streets of Valvice was such a physical relief that it nearly approaches how I would feel if I'd just come out of 20 hours of real-life solitary confinement. Boom, subtitle justified.

Fate long ago crossed the line from "audacious" to "obscene" in its physical size, and the Grottos of Gahmos really drive it home. Each of the 7 levels used at least 1,500 squares. A couple of them had no special encounters--one had no treasures, even--just huge mazes from beginning to end. And the combats on some levels came literally every step. In both successful battles and reloads, my experience in this one dungeon alone must approximate the total number in all my RPG-playing so far.

I had finished Levels 1 and 2 when I last blogged. Some of the enemies had been tough--a few were able to kill my lower-HP characters in one hit--but basically I got through it. Level 3 is where the nightmare really began. It featured bafflingly hard enemies called "dracs" which always acted first in combat and immediately stoned or killed half my characters. I didn't have a chance against them. If I'd really tried and gotten really lucky in the first-round rolls, I could have maybe won 1 in 20 battles with them, and there must have been 50 parties of the damned things.

Dracs are difficult for another reason: they never seem to die from hit point loss alone. I've met a few other creatures like this. I can deal thousands and thousands of points of damage per round, and they remain standing. The only thing that kills them is a lucky "critical hit" or a special attack from one of my unique weapons, like stoning from the "Medustaff."
    
The end of a typical first round against dracs.
     
Now, mitigating this somewhat is the fact that most of the level is completely optional. The staircases up and down are at two ends of a fairly short corridor. Passages jut off from this main hallway and take you (via teleport) to the resting chambers of various named heroes--Etrin, Grendal, Bendarion, and so forth--where you can loot their most powerful artifacts. The dracs are found in those chambers. I could have continued my explorations downward and saved the cool weapons and armor for later. 

The problem was, I wasn't 100% sure of the level's structure until I was already through most of it. In this game, so much depends upon obscure items and messages found on individual squares, that you can't blithely plow through an entire dungeon level and head for the down stairs. You'll miss the one clue that's vital to get through a lower level.

The difficulty associated with the dracs thus led me to experiment with a few of my other pre-combat options. Fleeing was always an option, of course, but it left the enemies on the screen and only really worked in a permanent sense if there was a door nearby. It turns out that Holy Scrolls--which I hadn't used at all before--destroy the entire enemy party before they can even act. But I'd only found about half a dozen in the game so far (I'm going to have to check and see if they're sold anywhere, now that I know what they do), so it wasn't a long-term solution.
    
They are quite satisfying, however, in the short-term.
    
The biggest surprise turned out to be the priest's "pray" ability, which will literally pray away the enemy party. That's not what the game says it does. It says, "a silver sphere appears and enables your party to escape unseen." But what it actually does is remove the enemy party from the map. I guess at higher levels, it works nearly all the time. At my priest's level (roughly 25 going into this), it only worked about 25% of the time. But fleeing worked more often. So with the dracs, I settled into a pattern of trying prayer, then fleeing if that didn't work. If they re-encountered me after fleeing, I tried prayer again. I had to reload a lot when neither option worked, but it got me through the level.
    
A life-saver.
    
The rewards were worth it, or nearly so. I ended up with two weapons--a "Hulkhammer" and a "Vixhammer"--classified as "greater melee weapons," meaning they do damage to every enemy within range, in all groups, not just a single enemy or single group. Winwood finally gave up the "Ice Sword" he found early in the game. There were several nice pieces of armor, plus several potions that permanently increased attributes.

The rest of the dungeon served up some hard combats, rendered easier by my new weapons, but nothing again on the level of the dracs. I continued to make liberal use of "prayer," particularly when I encountered enemy spellcasters at range.
    
Yeah, screw that.
     
One thing I noticed, though, moving forward, is that my characters almost never go first in combat. I understand that order is influenced by both skill and dexterity. I had invested quite a few improvement slots in the +3 skill guild in Larvin, getting all my characters up above 45. I guess that wasn't enough. Frankly, given how hard I was finding the dungeon, and given the fact that several of my characters still had dozens of unused improvement slots, I should have gone back to the surface and done some more character development. Instead, I stubbornly persisted onward, using "Refresh" potions and "Rejuvenation" and "Vitamins" spells in place of proper sleep and food.

Level 4's major contribution was in the form of a small statue. Digging around the statue produced a brush to go along with the paint can I'd previously found. Why it had to be under a statue, I don't know, but that's par for the course with Fate, which revels in unnecessary details (e.g., all the nonsense with the Mongards and the Shade Ghosts and the Cavetrain).
    
     
Level 5 was a huge maze with enemies practically every step. They were curiously bipolar in difficulty: I might encounter 1 giant spider in one battle, and then 8 giant spiders, 9 evil frogs, 5 bane wizards, and 6 saurians in the next battle. There wasn't a single message, treasure, or special encounter except a couple of fountains and teleporters to the escape stairs. I was tempted.
    
The next combat was one frog.
    
Level 6, another huge maze, offered two types of vital special encounters. The first was with a series of eyes painted on the walls. The only productive thing I could find to do with them was to paint over them, but since the game so readily jumped at this solution, I figured it was correct. It later turned out that once every eye was painted over, a teleporter deactivated and allowed me access to the down stairs. I think there were 10 eyes on the level.
   
This seems somewhat rude.
     
The level also offered a bunch of gold plates on the wall that had something to do with jewels and a sequence. "Press as first the jewel at the right end of the lower line," for instance. I catalogued all of these for later.
   
    
Finally, I reached the last level: a maze of independent areas interconnected by teleporters. Most of the teleporters dump you back to the starting area, but with careful mapping you can find your way forward. I eventually reached an area with a hallway that I couldn't enter. Every time I tried, it eliminated all my spellpoints and knocked me back to an earlier square. I explored the area exhaustively, looking for buttons, secret doors, plates, or anything, but I found nothing. Eventually, I went back to the corridor and tried entering again, and it didn't give me any trouble. So I'm not sure what was going on there.

The corridor held a lot of treasures that were inferior to what I already had. At the end, I faced a wall panel with a bunch of jewels of different colors "in a geometrical arrangement." The game then asked me what order I wanted to press them. I knew this had something to do with the messages on the previous level, but the messages hadn't said anything about jewel color.
    
    
I was in the midst of writing a version of this posting that had me still stuck in the dungeon when I had to consult the manual for something to do with a spell, and I happened to notice this:
   
    
I think if a puzzle is going to refer to something in the manual, it ought to be a little more explicit, but I'll remember to go through the manual when I get stuck from now on. Based on the diagram, I was able to enter the colors in the right order and enter the chamber beyond.
     
But where is he?! How is he positioned?!
     
There, I found an archmage--the famous Mandrag--asleep. The only thing I could do was add him to my party. This meant giving up a character, so I reluctantly spun my assassin off into his own party and picked up Mandrag. One casting of "Rejuvenate" was enough to wake him up, at which point he thanked me and went into a long spiel about Thardan:
    
The key to breaking the force of Thardan is located in the city of Cassida, but we can't go there 'til we find Bergarac's heart! I was on a quest for this heart when I was ambushed by Thardan's army! I've heard that the heart might be somewhere in Katloch, but also that a magical key is required to open the magical crypt where it's located! This key, called "Opal Key," should be hidden somewhere in the Grottos but I don't know where! Would you like to help me? I"m reading your mind and I see that you're on the same quest as I am! Winwood's return isn't possible until Thardan's force is broken!"
   
I consulted my map of the Grottos and found only one area that I hadn't fully explored. Back on Level 1, there were a couple of pressure plates and an inactive teleporter. I reasoned that activating the teleporter would mean weighing down those plates, which required splitting my party into three. As I was making this happen, Mandrag piped up that he though he heard one of the myrmidons saying it was going to hide the key in a fountain. Sure enough, the newly-activated teleporter took me to an area of fountains, and searching one produced the Opal Key.
     
    
At last, I made my way to the surface, slept in a proper inn, and ate a few proper meals. I guess I'll keep Mandrag. I suspect I'll need him later, and in any event, he has excellent statistics and 5 spellbooks.
    
    
    
Mandrag's appearance is a bit odd and worthy of a side comment. Many of the NPCs in the game have had unconventional features. Earlier, I had a warlock named "Billy" who was listed as a female, but looked like....well, frankly a transvestite. I chalked that one up to bad art and made a dumb joke of it. But here comes Mandrag, who seems to have some kind of macrocephaly. Meanwhile, the rest of the art in the game is quite good, so I don't think we're seeing careless use of a brush. I think the graphics department deliberately made a bunch of NPC portraits--a lot of which the average player might never see--that represented a wide variety of human faces, some conventional and attractive, some unconventional or even representative of genetic disorders. I think it's an admirable effort.

When I entered the Grottos, I was just shy of 1 million piaster. I emerged with over 12 million piaster. I immediately bought a ship for 3 million, which appeared in the outdoor area near Valvice. I'm not even sure how to board it, but I'm not quite ready for that yet, since I have more intelligence to collect on this island, Katloch, and Thardan's "Forbidden Zone."
    
This geography sounds confusing.
    
I need to spend a while on character development, including visiting various guilds and spending my improvement slots, seeing if I can get better weapons for a few characters, and improving dexterity through conversation. I also forgot to finish the mini-quest where I have to ask the women in Herman's Wood how to use diamonds.
    
My new ship is called "Katrina." She might set sail in time for the next post.
      
My biggest problem right now is weight. The advanced weapons and armor I found in the dungeon are cool, but they weigh a ton. I had to divest Winwood of all potions and special items and only just barely got him under the amount where he starts having problems. No matter what I do, Toronar is overweight unless I have him give up Gord's Axe for something less awesome.

The manual says that carrying capacity is governed by strength, so I went to Laronnes and got 5 new strength points for each character, but it didn't make a bit of difference in carrying capacity. I'll be happy to hear spoilers if there's anything else I'm supposed to do to nudge up that number.
   
In the meantime, I guess I'll be sleeping in the best rooms.
   
Miscellaneous notes:

  • At one point, just because I was experimenting, I had Winwood drink a "Berserk" potion, which turned him into a "Berserker" class. This jacked his strength, dexterity, and skill up to 99 and seemed to give him infinite hit points, but it reduced his intelligence and wisdom to 1 and made him act automatically, out of my control, during combat. He always went first, but instead of using his Hulkhammer, he just did something that killed one enemy. I spent a long time trying to rest him out of the condition before I consulted the manual and realized I need to cast an archmage spell to revert him to normal.
   
A typical combat action for a Berserker.
   
  • I would kill for a "passwall" or "teleport" spell in this game.
  • I don't understand the rules on how many potions my characters can make. On some early level, I made 3 or 4 "Refresh" potions and then the game never let me make any more, not even after I'd rested and days had passed. I had the same issue with strength potions earlier.
  • At this level of power, combat really comes down entirely to who gets to act first. If 3 of my characters can beat the enemies to the initiative, I can take down all but the hardest foes with some combination of melee weapons and spells.

Fate has its charm, but it's long past time for it to be over. I suspect that despite that, it won't be over yet for a long, long time.

Time so far: 111 hours

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Knightmare: Chaos Strikes Back Strikes Back

I have chosen...wisely.
   
Knightmare, or my reaction to it, has fascinated me over the last week. Over the weekend, I started writing a "final rating" post, thinking I couldn't possibly bring myself to play for three more levels. Then I decided to at least check out the second quest, and once I started, I couldn't tear myself away from it. I finally had to force myself to stop and go to bed Monday morning at about 05:00. But later on Monday, and then again on Tuesday, I couldn't force myself to start it up again. There ought to be a term for this: a game that's both extremely hard to start playing, and extremely hard to stop playing.

Then again, this is perhaps my typical reaction to Dungeon Master-style games. I never really love the gameplay, but I find parts of it addictive: the mapping, the satisfaction from solving puzzles, the way enemies dissolve into bursts of blood. You find mixed messages in my reviews of Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back, and Captive, too.

If you had presented me this game without telling me anything about the developer or back story, I would have assumed it was a sequel to Dungeon Master. It adopts most of the conventions of the DM line and hardly none of those specific to Captive. It is particularly reminiscent of Chaos Strikes Back, and if you're a CSB fan, I can't see why you wouldn't like Knightmare, which offers the same style of gameplay but with a more sensible framing story. 
  
"Pits & Pressure Plates" would have been a perfectly accurate alternate title for this series of games.
   
In my final rating for Chaos Strikes Back, I wrote:

There are only so many things that the Dungeon Master engine allows, but Chaos Strikes Back uses all of them to construct its puzzles. Once you know the possibilities of the engine, you have all the information you need to suss out the solution to the puzzles.

The same is true of Knightmare. There is a persistent logic in the way that, say, pressure plates operate. Stepping on them causes some mechanical action to occur somewhere else in the vicinity. Sometimes you have to hold them down for that action to be persistent. If they're already being held down, walking on them produces no result. When you use a teleporter, you always end up facing the same direction as when you entered. Once you figure out rules like this, you can deduce the solution to most of the game's puzzles.

Quest #2, for instance, featured one area in which a pit was surrounded by three pressure plates. I had to throw things on the plates to open up certain walls, but I couldn't access them because of the pit. Meanwhile, a nearby teleporter, accessible from all four directions, warped me to the square with the pit, immediately dropping me in.

The solution was to throw objects into the teleporter from various directions. Since you (and objects) always exit the teleporter facing the same way they went in, I could control which way the objects exited the teleporter, and thus which pressure plates they landed on. The solution didn't come to me immediately, but once it did, it seemed obvious. There have been many times that I thought a Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back, or Knightmare puzzle was hard or long, but there's never been a time that I felt it was unfair.
    
I can toss an item to that plate, but there are plates to the right and left that I can't reach from here. I have to use a teleporter instead.
    
Antony Crowther's previous game, Captive, didn't feature puzzles like this because the levels were all procedurally-generated. There were some doors that required codes and pressure plates that closed walls behind you, requiring you to find a switch to re-open them, and so forth, but the nature of the procedural generation made these all rote and obvious. Here, where the levels are hand-crafted, Crowther had the ability to design much more intricate puzzles, and if he didn't take inspiration directly from Chaos Strikes Back, I'll eat my mouse.
   
The second quest had 5 of these "weeping doors" in a row that had to be unlocked with golden keys.
    
To enter Quest #2, I had to toss the shield from Quest #1 at the tree who said he had lost his "cover." The shield disappeared when I did that, making me wonder if a party couldn't just immediately go to the final quest if they could kill the tree blocking it. Anyway, once I entered Quest #2, I immediately noticed there was no exit portal. I was locked in the dungeon until I found the regular exit, which means it was a good thing I brought plenty of rabbit pies. I nearly ran out anyway.

Near the entrance was a field of 9 pressure plates arranged in a 3 x 3 grid, each of which launched one or more fireballs at the party when they stepped on the plates. There might have been a way for a dexterous player to maneuver across the field without getting hit, but I couldn't find it. I eventually solved the puzzle by tossing items onto the pressure plates from afar and weighing them down. Then, I could cross without setting off the fireballs.
    
This is going to hurt.
    
The map had a succession of five doors that required golden keys, and I had to run around collecting those keys. The puzzles the game threw at me in the meantime included:

  • A wall on wheels. This is one thing from Captive that other Dungeon Master-style games don't offer. In this case, I had to push the wall down a long corridor, releasing various monsters and opening up passages as I did so. It took me forever to remember that the way you move a wall-on-wheels is to right-click on the forward arrow.
    
It's easy to miss this.
    
  • An area full of pits and pressure plates that opened and closed various pits. It was time-consuming but not hard to figure out a path through the area.
  • Several teleporter/pressure plate puzzles that required throwing items onto plates, often through teleporters, to open up the right succession of gates or walls.
  • Numerous illusory walls. You have to test for these by walking into them. The game's maps are of the "worm tunnel" variety, where no two passages or rooms share the same wall, but it otherwise tends to use up every possible square. So when you close a block of squares in which one or more squares could conceivably fit, it pays to test those walls for secret doors.
   
This is the kind of thing that bothers me. The game usually doesn't waste that much space. The only way into this area, if secret doors exist, is through the yellow-colored squares. Most of the other squares can't have illusory walls because they would violate the game's principle that walls are never shared. Positionally, the blue squares ought to allow access to the area as well, but both are in the middle of doorways, which never have illusory walls.
    
  • An area full of invisible walls. I had to navigate through by trial-and-error, bumping into them and taking minor damage, although I could have tried throwing objects, too.
  • A mini-maze with lots of teleporters. In addition to figuring out where the teleporters were depositing me (no easy task with no coordinates or compasses), I also had to find a path through them that avoided hitting any of them. This involved going through a series of illusory walls.
    
Just the sort of message that you want to see after you've already spent 8 hours on a level.
   
  • An area with a couple of spinners. They were devilishly placed. You encounter them right after you finish the whole teleportation maze, so when you step on a square and the view ahead of you suddenly changes, you assume you've been teleported. I spent a long time trying to figure out where I was ending up before I realized the game had just turned me clockwise instead of teleporting me.

Of course, there were plenty of monsters, too. The level started off with groups of what I called "mini-minotaurs" that weren't too hard. There were some dwarf and walking tree holdovers from the first quest. About mid-level, I started encountering snakes, and boy do they move fast. Doing the waltz with them really tested the endurance of my fingers, but if they hit you, they cause poison, which is a pain to cure. There were also a few wizard types able to blast the party from afar.  
      
The cutest minotaurs.
A giant snake poisons me.
A shirtless spellcaster. Note the pile of missile weapons at his feet.
   
Late in the level, a talking head announced that I was entering "Golem's Land," and sure enough the area beyond was full of brutish creatures. They were very easy to kill, which made me wonder what I was missing. It was clear soon enough: they respawned at a rate of about 1 every 15 seconds and never stopped. I wondered why the dungeon wasn't completely full of them, but it became clear that the golems also attack and kill each other, which was a fun twist. Unfortunately, they kept getting in the way of my waltzes with tougher creatures.

Golem's Land was a great place for grinding, but eventually had to move on, and I shut a door behind me to keep them from following.

There were some equipment upgrades, naturally. I've settled into my mage using a blowgun (which shoots darts) when he's not casting spells. My cleric uses a bow and arrows. The two front characters, I keep dual-armed with whatever seems like the best set of melee weapons (the game gives you no statistics, another Dungeon Master staple), which by the end of this session was a short sword, something called a "sheath" that's actually a weapon, and two kitchen knives.

For armor, we've advanced to jean jackets, slacks, boots, a couple of baseball caps, and a trilby. I'm not sure why the game is so eager to keep the clothing 20th-century while the weapons are decidedly medieval.

The problem with weapons is that the game assigns them to a particular class, but the assignment doesn't make any particular logical sense and there's no way to tell until you see the character gaining levels in a new class. My lead character had been gaining "adventurer" levels with his knives, but I guess his short sword is a "gladiator" weapon because he suddenly started developing there. Ulla became a proficient samurai for some reason. Tharat, my elf, managed to develop a couple of adventuer and gladiator levels, but I'm not sure which his blowgun is assigned to. The bow is clearly a samurai weapon because Armea is "adept" there.
   
My characters and their inventory at the end of this session.
    
I don't know if it's possible to develop magical skill levels if you don't start with them. Both Chestr and Ulla have magic points, and I've been occasionally having them use the magic wands and staves I've found hoping to develop levels there, but they never seem to gain any. This makes it hard to heal Armea, since clerics can't cast spells on themselves except in the rare case of a reflecting wall or door.

I was remembering that in Dungeon Master, it was a good idea to diversify your characters and develop skills in all four of the game's classes, but I honestly don't remember why. Here, it seems to make more sense to specialize and get really good at a few things instead of just mediocre at lots of them.
     
Giant bats appeared for the endgame.
     
Quest #2 ended in a small area of lever and button puzzles. Each one opened a new door or section of wall and released enemies, including the aforementioned wizards and snakes, but also a bunch of giant bats. Once I'd slain all of them, I was able to grab the Cup of Life. After a final battle with a small dragon, I was out of the level and back into the forest. I assume the cup opens the way to Quest #3.
     
The final battle of the level. He looks kind of cute. He looks like Figment.
   
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I think I figured out why my party members sometimes lose stamina--even to the point of death--while they're sleeping. Casting spells depletes both magic and stamina, and if stamina is pretty low when you cast a high-level spell, you end up with a stamina deficit. At that point, if you go to sleep, you lose stamina as quickly as you gain it and take hit point damage when it falls to 0. Eventually, you erase the deficit and start regaining it, but you might die in the meantime if the deficit is particularly large. 
  • Nudity is becoming more common in RPGs. I guess Crowther didn't want to be left out.
    
This painting otherwise has no purpose.
    
  • Picking up all the missiles from missile weapons after a combat is as annoying as ever. I'm so glad Fate has it happen automatically.
  • Each level features one "Spring of Life." If you toss the heart of a slain character into the spring, the character is resurrected. 
  
Resurrecting a dead character.
   
  • Somewhere on the level, I found a single die. I think I died afterwards, reloaded, and forgot to get it again. Either way, I don't have it at the end of this level. Does anyone know what it does? I don't want to have to go back for it unless it's really necessary.

A commenter named Quido sent me his maps for the game, and I was tempted to use them to just get through the next couple of quests so I can wrap this up. But after thinking about it, I realized that without mapping and problem-solving, the game would probably lose any interest for me at all, as its only challenge would be the sort of action-oriented combat that I've never really liked. Thus, I'll press forward the long way after a little break. Or I might test my theory that I can go directly to Quest #4.

Time so far: 19 hours
Reload count: 12

*****

For my upcoming Thanksgiving weekend, however, I plan to spend most of it on the couch playing Dishonored 2 while Irene bakes pies. At the same time, I wanted to ask my readers for a recommendation for a second game. I want a sort of chaotic, open-map warfare game in which you can cycle through a variety of character classes like Star Wars: Battlefront I and II--but with a single-player only mode (i.e., everyone else is bots). I was excited when I heard that Battlefield 1 had a campaign mode, so I bought it, but I was disappointed that the gameplay in campaign mode is very restrictive: you have to accomplish particular steps, in order, using a fairly limited part of the map and limited mechanics. I want something where I can just spawn and run around shooting. Any recommendations?

While we're on Battlefield 1, though, I have to say this. Truffaut famously said that it's impossible to make an anti-war film because any attempt to film war naturally glorifies it. If this is true of film, it's doubly true of games. You play games like Battlefield 1 to revel in shooting people and blowing things up, not to meditate on the horrors of war. And yet the game spends every cut scene telling you how much war sucks, and how much you suck for enjoying it. The change in tone is hilarious at times.

Game (during gameplay): Open the crate of grenades! Blow up the tank! Man the machine gun! Mow down the Germans!

You: Yeah! Ha ha! Take that! Boo-ya!

Game (during cut scene): Those were real mean...with real families...with hopes and dreams suddenly cut short...at age 20.