Friday, May 29, 2015

Eye of the Beholder: Made it this Far

Thanks, but who wrote this?

Two more levels mostly down! I realized just before I started writing this that I have no idea how many levels the game has. I've been assuming 10, but I don't know why--just standard RPG convention, I guess. For all I know it has 30. But given my characters' experience levels, which are all 6-7 out of a maximum of 10-12, I assume that I'm about half done.

Levels 5 and 6 have taken me about 3-4 hours each, which means I've put in the equivalent of a full day's work on Eye of the Beholder within the past two days. Not the best time management going on in Chetland, but the whole ratio is going to get flipped next week, so I figure I'd better play while I can.

There wasn't going to be an image for a little while, so I thought I'd throw in this one of memorizing mage spells.
        
Most important thing first: MOZA's "word of warning" about keys and locks came too late. There's an area of Level 4, accessible only from Level 5, that requires a dwarven key, and I'm out. I've now gotten into the habit of trying to pick every lock before using a key, but if there's anything vital behind that door, you'd better give me an explicit spoiler so I can start over. (I don't mind the prospect very much. With the maps already made, I think I can breeze through the levels.)

After the last post, I dragged my party all the way back up to Level 1, hoping I could figure out what the "special quests" are for Levels 1 and 3 (I figured out Level 2 on my own--it was pretty obvious). I got absolutely nowhere. Nor did I discover the special quests on Level 4 or 5. I got Level 6, covered below.

This is a secret button. Given how small and camouflaged it is, I'm not surprised I missed some stuff on previous levels.
          
Level 5 was a pretty easy level--just a handful of giant spiders--but it introduced a lot more plot. As I entered one large area, I was greeted by Armun, "spokesman" for his dwarven clan, which is descended from the clan that built the halls. Generations ago, monsters had driven the dwarves out of the dungeon, "into the realms of men and elves," but recently King Teirgoh gathered his people in an effort to reclaim them. (This plot seems vaguely familiar.) Unfortunately, as they explored, Drow (led by someone named Shindia) charged out of one of the stone portals and attacked the dwarves. King Teirgoh was poisoned, his son Prince Keirgar was kidnapped, and now the dwarves don't even know how to get out of the halls.

          
For some reason, the game didn't allow me to say, "Just go up yonder stairs," and instead prompted me to agree to help rescue Prince Keirgar. In response, Armun gave us a stone medallion and gave us the use of their cleric. Finally, I was joined by yet another dwarf fighter, Dohrum, who I also didn't have a lot of use for. As I did with his compatriot, I just gave him a missile weapon to fight from the rear. I'll hold onto these two until I find a mage or cleric among the other NPCs.

Dohrum joins the group. Pretty good stats.
       
There were miscellaneous dwarves wandering around the area, and there didn't seem to be any way to talk to them (dialogue pops up automatically when you enter a talkative NPC's square). I also had to be careful not to accidentally hit them. It rather reminded me of the dwarven city in Might & Magic II, where the errant press of a button could have the entire place charging you.

It soon became clear why I might want to haul around the remains of found adventurers: the dwarven cleric is capable of raising the dead. I gave him the set of bones I had, and they resolved into a woman named Anya. Alas, she was not a vengeance demon, but rather a regular fighter. Since I already had two of those, I rejected her, and she disappeared. It doesn't appear that there's any way to keep rejected or dropped NPCs around.

You're confused, Anya. You died fighting Turok-Han sent by the First Evil.
      
Between Armun and his gift, I solved the two mysterious from Level 4. The "Oracle" is activated by a black orb, which I imagine I'll find later. As for the stone portal, I found a similar one on Level 5, but the Level 5 portal had a symbol that the Level 4 one had lacked: a stone medallion. Meanwhile, the portal on Level 5 was missing an image of a stone necklace that the Level 4 portal had. It didn't take much effort to realize that the key to activating the portals was to place the "missing" piece on top of it.

Activation is accompanied by a pretty cool animation.
             
The portal takes me to a dark room full of other portals. I have no idea what level it's on. In addition to the medallion and necklace, I have two other pieces, a scepter and a dagger, but I'm lacking an ankh, a ring, a gem, and something that looks like a big ball. In any event, between the Oracle, the portals, and the cleric, it's clear that from now on, I'll be moving about the levels a little more flexibly instead of constantly pressing forward.

As for the rest of Level 5, there were a lot of secret doors (generally clued by a dwarven rune for "safe passage") and a large area where a pit opened up behind me with every step. There were a number of things to find in the area, including a suit of platemail, but I had to be careful not to get caught in a dead-end. At one point, I failed in that mission, had to drop down to the level below, and took serious damage from both the fall and a monster waiting there. I'm ashamed to admit that I reloaded instead of fighting my way out of it.

In the northeast of the level, there were a couple of rooms full of teleporters. Getting through was just a matter of careful mapping. I don't really mind puzzles like this, where care, patience, and systematic testing can save the day. That reminds me that I want to have a post on inductive vs. deductive puzzles in RPGs some day.

Time and patience.
             
Level 6 introduced me to a new D&D monster: the Kenku. (Is there any other CRPG in which they appear?) They "resemble humanoid hawks, with both arms and wings." They "have natural thieving abilities," the manual says, but neglects to tell you that they're capable of firing magic missiles. In the comments for the last post, we talked about the delay that accompanies spellcasting. You can't move while the spell's animation finishes, which usually means that it hits you. When you're fighting a pack of 4 Kenku, with a few others waiting in the wings, it takes bloody forever for all the animations to finish, by which point the party is at half health.

And they all drop staves when they die. Am I now carrying about 8 staves for no reason whatsoever? Yes.
       
And they respawn--oh, my, do they respawn. When I said I was "mostly finished" with Level 6 above, I mean that I've mapped the entire thing, but I've been (futilely) trying to clear it of Kenku before moving on. I keep running into multiple packs of 3 or 4 in areas I've already cleared. They're a serious candidate for "most annoying RPG enemy." I've mostly been fighting them with the side-step-turn, which works well enough until one of them out of a pack of 4 decides not to follow the others. Now I have two groups to keep track of, and eventually one of them gets the drop on me.

I'm pleased to say I didn't reload, though. When one of them killed Gaston, I dragged his sorry corpse up to Level 5 and had him resurrected, sucking up the loss of 1 constitution [later edit: which I guess wasn't implemented in this game, despite what the manual says]. That's role-playing, kids

As I said, I figured out the special quest on Level 6. A lot of the Kenku were guarding rooms with Kenku eggs. Eventually, I found a small room labeled "nest." I piled all the eggs in there, I got the "special quest" message, and the room opened up to reveal a "chieftan halberd," which I gave to my paladin. It seems to do quite a bit of damage, but it takes a long time to recover from the swing.

Finally!
           
Another area on the level had a bunch of niches on just about every wall. The first one was labeled "silverware rack," and it occurred to me to put a knife in the niche, which made the wall disappear. When I ran out of knives, I found that darts had the same effect. (There were dart traps nearby that gave me a plentiful supply of darts.) By clearing out all the walls, I opened the way to a couple new areas, one of which held a scroll of "Haste." I immediately gave to my mage to scribe.

Making a wall disappear with a dart.
          
Oh, by the way, "Fireball" isn't as exciting as I thought. I guess it damages every enemy in the square and nearby, because it damages me if I cast it too close, but it doesn't wipe them out the way I was hoping, and the animation isn't very satisfying. [Later edit: I guess I was wrong about this, too. I must have taken regular combat damage at the same time I cast "Fireball" and mistook it as "Fireball" damage.]

One final bit of plot on Level 6: a "dark-robed figure" in a corner greeted me with a sneer and called me "Waterdeep's saviors of the week." He confirmed that Xanathar is a beholder, and he related that Xanathar has been "undermining Waterdeep for years" and that he would "lead his minions in conquest of the unsuspecting city." To kill him, I'll need the "Wand of Silvias," which the dwarves apparently have but don't know how to use.

I once killed like 50 beholders with nothing more than some Dust of Disappearance.
        
The mysterious figure continued that the Drow, who are supposed to be Xanathar's allies, plan to launch a raid on Waterdeep, which would alert the city to the true threat. Anyway, the robed dude wasn't my friend: he related that he intended to stop the Drow, kill the dwarves, get the wand, wait until Xanathar conquers Waterdeep, then kill Xanathar and take over Waterdeep for himself. After his dialogue, he attacked me, and I killed him in about three blows, so clearly he was under-prepared for his master plan.

Rule #457 for evil overlords: Don't make enemies needlessly.
          
I know Dungeon Master purists don't care for any of this, but I'm loving the dialogues, side quests (if that's what they are), and NPCs, and I think the game is better for them.

Next up: return to Level 5 to see if Armun has any new dialogue about the Wand of Silvias. If not, I may take yet another stab at the "special quests" on Levels 1, 3, 4, and 5, especially now that my cleric's "Create Food" spell means I'm unlikely to starve to death. (I have a ton of rations anyway; Dohrum came with about half a dozen.) It was a real struggle to tear myself away to write this post.

Alas, the next week is going to see me completely occupied by work, so I'm unlikely to get another Eye of the Beholder post out for a little while. Fortunately, I have some posts on other games already drafted to occupy the interim.

Time so far: 14 hours
Reload count: 3

(There's an argument to be made that the low reload count means that the game is a little too easy. I'd have trouble disagreeing with that. The Kenku were annoying but not overly deadly, and so far it's been possible to avoid death with careful exploration and real-time combat maneuvers. Maybe it will get harder later.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Eye of the Beholder: Out of the Sewers, Into the Spiders

Stumbling upon treasure and bones in the sewers.

My first post on Eye of the Beholder produced some expected discussion on whether it is better or worse than its father, Dungeon Master. No one would seriously argue that it's a more original game than Dungeon Master, but Eye of the Beholder certainly benefits from being slightly later in the chronology, at least in terms of the DOS version. If nothing else, there's more variance in the wall textures, more ambient sounds, and the monster graphics are a bit better. 

At the same time, it's too bad that Eye of the Beholder didn't compensate for more of Dungeon Master's weaknesses. My biggest complaint about the earlier game was the inability to evaluate weapons, armor, and magic items without some kind of cheat sheet from a spoiler site. This is true of Beholder, too, where there's no way to figure out the specific damage done by weapons, the specific level of protection offered by armor, or--more important--the nature of a number of possible magic items. Some previous experience with Dungeons & Dragons helps, of course, but I still don't know the functions of several things in my inventory.

Beholder also carries forward the tradition of not identifying monster names on-screen, but at least  you can find them in the accompanying manual. Level 3 brought a bunch of humanoid creatures that I thought were werewolves before I looked them up in the manual and discovered they were "flinds," which I guess are like super-gnolls. Fish-men on the same level turned out to be kuo-toa, and on Level 4 I encountered giant spiders (I think those were the only enemies on Level 4, actually), which of course I could have figured out for myself. It was important to defeat them from afar because they can poison characters and there are a limited number of potions of "Cure Poison" on the level.


So far, combat has not been a strong part of the game, or at least my approach to it hasn't been very strong. I generally fight by backpedaling madly down the corridors while tossing missile weapons at the enemies. Rarely have I let them get close enough to engage my first two characters in melee combat, and rarely have I used any of my mage's spells. I don't know why I'm fighting like such a sissy, but it almost always works. On the rare occasions that I get into a tight space, I can always do the side-step-turn, which works as well here as in Dungeon Master.

Like Level 2, Levels 3 and 4 were both 30 x 30, but without using all of the available squares. (Level 4 had a weird wrap-around thing going on with one section that for a while confused me into thinking it was much bigger.) In fact, this game's design precludes using all the squares because it doesn't allow any corridors or rooms to share the same wall--there's always a gap. This was true of Dungeon Master too. I screwed up my map of Level 3 somewhere in the upper-right corner, and as soon as corridors started touching, I should have realized I needed to start over.

My map of Level 3, with some mistakes in the top right that I didn't correct.
        
The puzzles are getting a little harder, though not horribly so. My general approach has been to map as much of the levels as possible without touching anything first--no buttons, no switches, no pressure plates, no keyholes--then carefully return to each one and note its effects. Usually, it's as simple as a switch operating a locked door next to it, but some of the buttons have effects on very remote parts of the dungeon. 

Level 3 had a puzzle involving the placement of four gems in four eye holes. This opened a secret area leading to Level 4.

Level 3 had some tricky teleportation traps that whisked me to opposite ends of corridors that still looked the same as if I'd been continuing on, messing up my maps in the short term. There was one room with a bunch of pits and pressure plates that I had to navigate for some treasure, and a room labeled the "Museum," full of inanimate flinds and koa-toa who came to life the moment I picked up any of the scattered treasure.

Level 3 and its deceptive "museum."

Level 4 completely changed the map texture, transitioning from something that looked like "sewers" to something that looked more like a planned dungeon. Switches on the wall were replaced with cute little grotesques whose arms could be manipulated up and down.


The entire place was crawling with giant spiders, and I had to carve through dozens of webs to make progress through the level. I reached the level right about the same time that commenters started warning me about the horrors of Level 4. Given that, I was expecting much more difficulty than I actually encountered.

Just as I arrived on the level, I met a wounded dwarf fighter named Taghor. He related that his king had been wounded, and his prince kidnapped, in a battle against some Drow. He wanted to join me to search for his prince and said that his people should be on the level below. It was a welcome addition to the game--simultaneously an NPC, a side quest, and a hint at perhaps more complex encounters to come. Since I didn't need any melee fighters up front, I stuck a sling in his hands and kept him in the rear.

Not much of a roleplaying choice, but more than you typically get in a DM-style game.

It was nice to have someone to bear equipment, because I was nearly running out of space. So far, I've been loathe to throw anything away, so I've been lugging around extra axes, maces, daggers, suits of leather armor, shields, and other items. Part of the reason is that after encountering a puzzle on Level 2 in which I had to sacrifice a bunch of daggers, I'm paranoid that some random slot is suddenly going to want, say, a mace. Also, since I know there are NPCs in the game, I thought maybe there might be somewhere to sell some of this stuff, or otherwise get some use out of it.

There's really no consequence to carrying it around. The game has no encumbrance system and items don't have weight. You can fill up each character's 14 slots whatever you feel like carrying. Only when I run completely out of room will it make sense to discard things.

Starling's inventory is filling up. She's just put on a ring of uncertain use.
   
I also have a bunch of mystery items that I found no use early levels, including a stone dagger and stone scepter (you can't use them as weapons), an extra silver key of the type needed to open doors on Level 3, and an extra green gem of the type needed to open some areas on Level 3. I've found two rings. One I can tell by the effects on armor class is a Ring of Protection; the other I can't determine the nature of. A medallion that I put on my mage is also mysterious.

For Levels 1-3, I'm pretty confident that all of the puzzles and encounters were self-contained, solvable entirely with items found on the same levels. Level 4 is the first level in which I'm leaving some squares annotated in yellow on my map (my symbol for places I have to return to). The first is a sign saying "Oracle of Knowledge" next to a slot in the wall. I was really hoping that putting unknown items in the slot would identify them, but it doesn't seem to do anything. I don't know what the slot wants. The second is a stone doorway surrounded by symbols, including an ankh, a medallion, a ring, and a gem. I was sure this would somehow involve the stone weapons I've been carrying, but nothing I tried to put in the associated slots seems to work.

I'm also carrying some bones I found on the level, thanks to a hint from a commenter. I left one or two other sets on levels above me.

I suspect that I need to solve these later, but if I'm wrong and they should have been solvable with items found on this level, I wouldn't mind a mild hint to that effect.

As usual, lots of miscellaneous observations:

  • It took me a while to figure out how missile weapons work in the game. For thrown weapons like daggers and darts, you need to line them up in your belt pouch. After you throw one, it will automatically replace it with the next one. A neat trick for front-row fighters is to keep a missile weapon in the left hand and a shield in the first slot on the pouch. After you throw your weapon, you automatically equip the shield. For bows, you want to stock arrows in the quiver next to the character's head. Unlike Dungeon Master, you can have over a dozen arrows ready to shoot at one time, making rear characters useful throughout combat.

My cleric/ranger's inventory. Note the 13 arrows in his quiver.
              
  • The ranger/cleric turned out to be a weird combination because in order to cast a spell, you have to activate the cleric's little symbol, but it's not available if the character is holding a two-handed weapon. Fortunately, I haven't needed him in combat much so far.
  • The game does a really good job with ambient sound, including miscellaneous thuds and drips as you explore. More important, each creature makes a unique sound, which gets louder as it nears. This is legitimately freaky when you're fighting something like giant spiders, capable of poisoning you, and you hear them getting closer but can't see them yet.
  • Commenters have suggested that enemies respawn, but only in certain areas after a long passage of time. I haven't encountered any respawning yet that I know of, but on Level 4, I never got to the point where I stopped hearing spiders somewhere in the distance, even when I couldn't find any. 
  • Characters get experience for doing a lot of mundane things, including opening doors and wandering into important rooms. There's no fanfare associated with leveling up; you just get a message that it's happened. At least half the time, I don't even see the message. This serves as a reminder that, in general, leveling in second-edition AD&D isn't as fun as other games, where you get to make choices about skill and attribute increases.
 
Two characters level up from, as best as I can tell, walking into a room.

  • Picking up all the thrown/shot missile items after each combat is getting a little old. 
  • It's possible to run into your own missile weapons. They fire slow enough that if you shoot and immediately walk forward, your own arrow hits you in the back of the head.
  • Combat is a little more difficult here than in Dungeon Master because the attack buttons aren't all conveniently lined up in a row. You have to dart around the screen to right-click on the weapons and make the attacks.
  • I found a "Fireball" scroll at one point, and my mage scribed it to her book. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works in a first-person game. She hasn't leveled up enough to get it yet.
  • Lots of potions in my inventory. Fortunately--unlike every other item--the game identifies these automatically. I've got a Potion of Giant Strength, a Potion of Speed, 4 Potions of Cure Poison, 2 Potions of Healing, 2 Potions of Extra Healing. Inevitably, I'll save them for that one combat that really needs them and end up never using them.
  • So far, I've only encountered a single lock that my fighter/thief was capable of picking instead of having to hunt around for a key. Hey, maybe that's why I've got an extra silver key!

This just about never works.

  • I like mapping, but it's also a little annoying, especially where (unlike a lot of games from the early 1980s) Beholder actually uses the mouse, so I have to get DOSBox to "release" it when I want to move over to the map. I'm going to head down to the CVS later and buy some graph paper; I think it would actually be easier to map by hand.
  • While I was in the midst of the entry, commenters told me about a "secret quest" to uncover on every level. I only uncovered it on Level 2, so I'm going to have to re-explore Levels 1, 3, and 4 if I want to figure out what I was supposed to do there.

I'm having fun with Eye of the Beholder, but already I'm starting to remember the things I don't like about DM-style games, starting with how fundamentally deterministic they are. Every player finds the same encounters, the same monsters, the same items in the same places. However, the discovery of Taghor gives me hope that the game has more of a plot to uncover than the typical DM clone. I guess we'll see in the upcoming levels!

On to Level 5!

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 1

Monday, May 25, 2015

Game 189: Eye of the Beholder (1991)

Despite the 1990 copyright, I don't think it received a release until 1991.

I think I picked the right game to start 1991. I chose it first because it's a Dungeons & Dragons game, and D&D-based games rarely offer bad CRPG experiences; and second because I knew it was inspired by Dungeon Master, which set the standard for real-time multi-character dungeon crawlers. I didn't know if it would be great, but I knew it wouldn't suck.

Hoping for nothing more than a competent dungeon-crawling experience, I fired up the .exe and was greeted with a great introductory sequence with exciting music, evocative sound effects, and attractive animated VGA graphics, all of which finally said to me: 1) "you're in the 1990s!" and 2) "you're no longer a jackass for choosing the DOS version!"


Yet, if there was one thing that gave me pause, it was this screen:


Westwood and I do not have a good history. Years later, I'm still mad at them about the endings to BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception and Mines of Titan. The first Westwood/SSI pairing, Hillsfar, was flawed at the outset. I like to imagine that after Hillsfar, SSI had a "come to Jesus" meeting with Westwood. "We're going to give you another contract," they said in my fantasy, "but none of your bull$%#t this time. You're going to make a good game, or we're going to bury you." I like to think that the Westwood folks left the meeting shaken, threw back a few drinks, and decided that to avoid screwing this one up too badly, they'd better just copy Dungeon Master.

Eye of the Beholder's dependence on Dungeon Master is so stark that you wonder why there weren't lawsuits involved. The similarities are readily apparent at the macro level--they're both first-person, multi-character, tile-based, real-time dungeon crawlers--and the micro level. You attack enemies in the same kind of interface by right-clicking on the chosen weapon, which makes a "whoosh" sound and requires a cool-down period before you can attack again. Only the front two characters can attack in melee; rear characters can throw missile weapons, and they have a pouch which automatically restocks them with up to four "refills" in the same combat. Picking up thrown missile weapons is tedious. You can do the same sort of real-time tricks, like the side-step attack dance and the fighting backpedal. The puzzles are also the same, involving hidden buttons, weighted pressure plates, and remote door switches. Many treasures are found in little alcoves on the wall.

Tossing a dagger at an approaching giant worm.

There are a few differences, mostly caused by the integration of a Dungeon Master mechanic with AD&D rules: classes are different, the magic system is different, and leveling is by experience rather than use of skills. And of course, being a later game, Eye of the Beholder has better graphics, sound, and animation, though not staggeringly so.

If there's one thing you'd want a developer to copy from Dungeon Master, it's the ability to crush enemies in doors. Alas, that doesn't seem to work here. Even though the door is in the space in front of you, it comes down behind any enemies in that space.

"I'm crushing your h...uh oh."

Unless I'm missing some bit of documentation, the backstory to Eye of the Beholder is left somewhat vague. Taking place in the city of Waterdeep, this is the first CRPG on the Sword Coast, and I was delighted to see Baldur's Gate, Amn, and Neverwinter on the game map. The manual goes into the long history of Waterdeep and its constant transfers of power between various guilds and factions before finally coming into the rule of the semi-anonymous Lords of Waterdeep.

Something or someone named Xanathar--I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's probably a beholder--is causing trouble for the city, but the nature of the trouble is left undefined. The problems seem to be coming from beneath the city, and so the chief Lord, Piergeiron, has commissioned a party of adventurers to enter the underworld and eradicate the threat. The game has the party start with a "Commission and Letter of Marque" giving the party "full rights of passage beneath the City of Waterdeep," as if some guard was going to come along and question our right to be in the sewers.

From the opening animations.

Character creation is all standard AD&D. You choose from the six usual races (human, elf, half-elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling) and six classes (paladin, fighter, ranger, cleric, mage, thief) including multi-classes. The rules for non-human races are a bit less draconian than in the Gold Box series; for instance, elves and half-elves never hit a cap in any class they're allowed to select, and dwarves only cap as clerics. Oddly, gnomes can't be mages; I had thought the "gnome illusionist" was a well-established trope by now.


Even though you can get two NPCs to join you later, I decided to get every class available in my four-character party, so I went with.

  • Starling, a female human paladin
  • Bugsy, a male dwarf fighter/thief
  • Marina, a female elf mage
  • Gaston, a male half-elf cleric/ranger

With Gaston having some ranger skills, this gives me the ability to swap him in as a fighter if Starling or Bugsy (otherwise in the front ranks) get too wounded.

Beholder offers the same ability to modify a character's attributes that the Gold Box games offer, theoretically so you can bring a favorite tabletop character into the setting--not that you can modify levels, equipment, spells, or anything else. Resisting temptation to ratchet everything up to 18 wasn't hard, since a few clicks of "reroll" got some pretty high statistics anyway. Characters start at Level 2 or 3 already depending on race and class.

The game begins on Level 1 of the dungeon, with the party facing the rubble that has crashed down behind them, sealing the exit and trapping them inside. I pick up a couple rocks to use as missile weapons. Nearby, the bones of a slain halfling hold a set of lockpicks that I give to Bugsy. A lever opens a door and we begin exploring the level.

Finding the remains of a previous adventurer adds a nice bit of realism.

Level 1 ends up being quite small, 171 used squares in a 22 x 22 grid. There are only two types of enemies on the first level: kobolds and giant leeches. They don't seem to respawn; this might become a problem for my multi-classed characters if no enemies respawn

The first two levels of the dungeon.

There are some light puzzles on this level, consisting primarily of finding hidden buttons and weighing down pressure plates with rocks to keep doors open. Nothing terribly difficult, but of course on this level the game is just introducing me to mechanics.

Level 2 is much larger, over 400 used squares in a 30 x 30 grid. The only enemies on the level appear to be skeletons and zombies, but there are a lot more puzzles: spinners, keyed doors, secret doors, arcane messages, teleporters, slots on the wall that accept daggers and open remote areas of the dungeon, pits that close based on pressure plate--some of which must be weighted down, and at least one of which must be weighted down by throwing something on it from across a pit.

Tossing a rock across a pit to land on the plate on the other side, which will close the pit. Dungeon Master taught me this.

There are buttons that seem to reconfigure the wall pattern, and at least one keyed door for which I can't find the key. Although I've mapped almost all of it, I need to take another pass through the level to make sure I didn't miss anything. There are also a few buttons that I don't understand, and I need to more thoroughly investigate their effects.

The party contemplates entering a teleporter.
A dagger placed in a slot on the wall produces a non-helpful message.

I don't find much in the way of equipment upgrades--just a few daggers for throwing weapons, a single shield, a sling, and an axe that replaced my fighter's initial short sword. One unfortunate adaptation from Dungeon Master is the inability to tell anything about your weapons and armor. Familiarity with the standard D&D equipment list will probably help a little, but why couldn't the game have displayed weapon and armor statistics when you right-click on them or something?

Miscellaneous observations:

  • One thing that I like much better than Dungeon Master is the redundant keyboard and mouse controls. You can do everything from either controller, so it's easy to settle into a pattern based on your own preferences. This is also one of the first games I've seen (maybe the first) to allow you to turn off music independent of other sound.

You can also replace the "bar graphs" for hit points with actual numbers.

  • Floor drains occasionally show pairs of eyes, and clicking on them often produces a message like the one below. I don't know if I'll ever find anything in a floor drain, but I suspect I'll click on every damned one of them.


  • I'm not sure if food is going to be a problem. Each character has a food meter that depletes a tiny bit with each action. You have to eat to restore it. So far, I've found just enough food (packaged rations, not loose ears of corn or hunks of cheese) to restore what I've been losing. But the locations and amount of food seem to be fixed, so I wonder if I eventually get into trouble by doing things like taking a second look through the same dungeon level.

Marina finds a ration package just as her food level gets low. I don't know what the "special quest for this level!" was all about.

  • So far, I haven't done much with magic, mostly because restoring spells involves resting for a long time and exacerbates the food issue. My mage has a few "Magic Missiles" and "Melf's Acid Arrows" (appearing for the first time?) and my cleric has some "Cure Light Wounds" and "Hold Persons."

Preparing to blast some zombies with a "Magic Missile."

  • I like that the maps create irregular wall patterns and don't feel compelled to use every space. It makes it feel like more of a real place.
  • Like Dungeon Master, the game appears to have no economy.
  • Unlike Dungeon Master, the game requires no torches or "Light" spells. The dungeon is just naturally light, I guess.
  • You seem to get experience here for solving puzzles as well as killing enemies.

Gaston levels from finding a hidden area.

  • I have no idea how you resurrect, or if it's even possible before you get the fifth-level cleric spell "Raise Dead." Fortunately, combats have been easy enough that no one has come close to dying. Just for fun, I let some skeletons kill me to see what the "full party death" screen would look like.

Four Level 3 heroes is all that the city had to stand against the Minions of Evil?

  • There are apparently NPCs in the dungeon, but I haven't met any yet. When I do encounter them, I hope they're distinguishable as such and I don't end up killing them by accident.
  • You can save anywhere, but there's only one save slot. That gives me the heebie-jeebies just because of corruption issues. I think I'd better back that up occasionally.

So far, Eye of the Beholder is exactly what I was looking for: not a highly original game, but one that's exceedingly competent at a standard set of RPG tropes. Oh, there are weaknesses to this type of CRPG, and I'm sure I'll grouse about them before the end, but for the moment I'm having a lot of fun.

Time so far: 3 hours
Reload count: 0


Saturday, May 23, 2015

1990/1991


As a whole, 1990 really started to challenge my CRPG addiction. I took several long breaks while getting through it. I told you that it was because of work and my house, and while both those things were true, my usual M.O. is to find time for games regardless of how busy I am otherwise. A lot of times this year, I just didn't want to play.

CRPGs were new in the 1980s, and hardware and software were primitive. This meant that even a mediocre game has the virtues of brevity and simplicity. You know what the game wants from you, how it's going to play, and how to win. I don't particularly want to play something like Shard of Spring or Questron II again, but if I had to, I know I wouldn't have a lot of trouble with it. I think what we see in 1990 is an increase in complexity without an accompanying increase in quality. When I think back on 1990, my mind is filled with games like DarkSpyre, MegaTraveller, Tunnels & Trolls, and Dragonflight--games that have...I was going to say a "sharp learning curve" but that isn't quite right. More of a sharp interest curve. I just couldn't bring myself to get excited about them.

But perhaps there's a simpler explanation than improved technologies that developers didn't quite know how to use. I suspect that by 1990, it became clear that RPGs could make some serious money. A lot more people wanted in on the action, leaving a lot more mediocrity to slog through. "Cashing in" would be a good theme of the year. How else to explain such a sudden increase in:

1. Adaptations of tabletop RPGs. Where before we'd seen only Dungeons & Dragons licensed for the computer, in 1990 we suddenly got MegaTraveller, Space: 1889, Tunnels & Trolls, and Buck Rogers--none of which were very good.

2. Licensed properties. In addition to license of tabletop RPGs, we have games based on Elvira and Lord of the Rings.

3. Spin-offs and re-use of engines. These included Escape from Hell, Fountain of Dreams, Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire, and three Gold Box titles: Champions of Krynn, Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, and Secret of the Silver Blades.

Not all of these pursuits resulted in bad games, of course. The Gold Box titles still hold up remarkably well, and Lord of the Rings, Tunnels & Trolls, Escape from Hell, Elvira, and The Savage Empire all had good points. But in general, the 1990 emphasis seems to have been quantity over quality, and it was tough to find a game that got out of the 30s on my GIMLET scale.

What a gloomy way to start the year-end review! Let's segue to some good things:

Game of the Year Nominees

As I'm always explaining, "Game of the Year" isn't just the highest-rated game. In the choice, I look for something that exemplified the themes of the year, that showed originality and courage, and that had a lasting influence. Just like last year, therefore, I have to eliminate several of the titles near the top of the "highest rated" list--Champions of Krynn, Secret of the Silver Blades, and Quest for Glory II--because they didn't offer enough that was different from a predecessor that already won "Game of the Year." Still, several worthy titles remain in 1990.

1. Escape from Hell. Though flawed, deeply in places, this might be the most starkly original game of the year, with a solid recreation of the Wasteland engine and a clever plot lifted from Dante and other classical sources. We'll have plenty of orcs and trolls in future games, but I guarantee we aren't going to have another RPG in which we can team up with Stalin and Hitler to overthrow Satan.


2. Ultima VI: The False Prophet. Whether as good as V or not, there's no question that the Ultima series continues to innovate and delight. VI is the first true "sandbox" RPG, with an open world and plenty of things to do in it.

       
3. Lord of the Rings, Vol. I. It took me a while to warm up to it, partly because I'm sick of Tolkien references throughout the entire genre, but the game ended up being surprisingly excellent. It offered an open world, a veritable army of NPCs, true role-playing challenges with multiple solutions, plenty of reasons to backtrack, and a plot that wasn't afraid to diverge from canon. I really look forward to the 1992 sequel.

        
4. Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge. The third highest-rated game of 1990. I may not have liked every element (my comments about the nudity are apparently destined to haunt me for years to come), but it was a solid leap forward from the first five games of the series, and it was the only game of 1990 to offer a quintessential map-making, multi-character, dungeon-crawling experience.

        
Though I can't justify putting any other game on the nominee list, there are a handful that I'll always remember fondly for one element or another. In retrospect, Captive was a much better game than I gave it credit for at the time. The story was absurd, but the mechanics were quite good, and I often found myself wishing I could fire it up and play a few more levels rather than try to figure out MegaTraveller or Hard Nova. Elvira was a very decent adventure/RPG hybrid and might have made a nomination in an earlier year with better RPG elements. King's Bounty was just a fantastically fast, fun strategy game, and I wish it had more RPG elements to make it worthy of a nomination. Quest for Glory II was one of the few games of the year that I found myself "playing around" in--I finished it four times!--but there was just no way it was going to get the title after I gave it to Hero's Quest (AKA Quest for Glory I) for 1989.

I'll announce the winner in a minute, but first let's talk about...

Year-End Superlatives

Total Games Played: 33

Highest-Rated Games: Ultima VI: The False Prophet (68), followed by Champions of Krynn (56), Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (53), Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire (50), and Secret of the Silver Blades (50).

Lowest-Rated Games:  Saga (15), The Stone of Telnyr (15), Dragon Lord (22), Crystals of Arborea (23), and Dragon Sword (23).

Longest Played: Dragonflight, at 58 hours. It rated a 36.

Longest Between Start and End: Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan, at 379 days. I took over a year off in the middle of it.

Percentage Won: Of games with a winning condition, 30/32, or 94%. I'm still working on Operation: Overkill and may not win it. I couldn't win Legend of Faerghail because of bugs. I counted Dragonflight as a "won" even though I technically didn't see the endgame screen because of a bug.

Highest Category Scores: Ultima VI got a 9 in "Gameplay" and 8s in "Economy" and "NPCs." Quest for the Unicorn got an 8 for "Economy." Lord of the Rings, Vol. I got an 8 for "Game World."

Lowest Category Scores: A ton of games got 0s for "NPCs" and "Economy."

Best Games with a Bad Category: Champions of Krynn and Secret of the Silver Blades with 2 and 1, respectively, in "Economy." The Gold Box games will never learn.

Other themes from the Year

1. Independents' Day. We've seen plenty of independent games in earlier years, but 1990 feels like the year in which they really took off. While few of them came close to rivaling the best commercial titles, they're certainly improving. John Carmack's Dark Designs titles were both satisfying and offered solid RPG experiences in their short lengths. The Dragon Sword did a good job mimicking Wizardry, if making things a little too big, and Quest for the Unicorn offered an excellent adaptation of D&D rules in an open-world, roguelike setting.

And here's something I can't even say about many of the top-rated games of the year: I will remember Fallthru (technically a 1989 game, but I played it in 1990) until the day I die. It was staggeringly original, and if the developer had possessed even the slightest awareness of other contemporary CRPGs, it could have been staggeringly good.

One of the few text RPGs. Not a text adventure, but a text RPG.
        
2. Sex Sells. Either Escape from Hell, Wizardry VI, or Quest for Glory II offered the first nudity in a western RPG, depending on which was released first. In the case of Quest for Glory II, it was fleeting and only on-screen if you took some special effort. The other two games, in particular Wizardry VI, were far more blatant. Even when tops and bottoms didn't come off, developers used improved graphics to offer titillation in Elvira, The Savage Empire, and a few others, and nudity or quasi-nudity are destined to be a part of our lives from now on. While I don't have a problem with it, too much of it presented too artlessly makes me roll my eyes, and the entire trend makes it harder to play games in public.

I don't know which deserves credit for the first, but Wizardry VI definitely gets the award for the most.

3. Over There. The USA is still clearly the king of computer RPGs, but we're starting to get more interesting stuff from the continent. Legend of Faerghail, Dragon Lord, Dragon Flight, Crystals of Arborea, and Lord of Chaos were all interesting misfires, demonstrating enough competence that I think we're going to see some true European contenders in 1991. That brings us to...

1991 Preview

It took me 21 months to finish 33 games in 1990. Granted, I was still picking up early 1980s games at the same time, but I'll be doing that through 1991 as well. My list has 56 games from 1991, and even if I end up rejecting 25% of them as RPGs (about my normal rate), we're looking at 27 months to finish the year if I progress at the 1990 rate.

DOS had clearly stopped sucking by 1991, and a lot of titles had only a DOS release. The next most popular platform, primarily among European titles, seems to be the Amiga. We're going to have two Commodore 64 games (Twin Morg Valley and The Ormus Saga) and a single Apple II title (Dark Designs III). I'll have to dig up a Mac emulator for Shadow Keep, but that should be the only new one I have to learn.

About one-third of the 1991 games are from outside the U.S., including an unprecedented 8 from the U.K. and 4 from Germany. Japan is still mostly staying away from western personal computers, and only a single Japanese title appears: Dragon Knight III: Knights of Xentar, a 1991 game that received a DOS release in 1995.

1991 is solidly in my personal "dark ages," when I was occupied by school, the Army Reserves, and a girlfriend, and not really playing RPGs. Of all the titles on the list, I've only played four: Eye of the Beholder, Death Knights of Krynn, Pools of Darkness, and Might & Magic III, and I don't really remember any of them. (I think that of the four, I only won Might & Magic III.)

We're still in the heyday of the Gold Box series, and in addition to Death Knights and Pools, we're going to see Gateway to the Savage Frontier and Neverwinter Nights. Although I'm sure that I'll like some of these more than others, I know that all will deliver a solid RPG experience, so I'm going to spread them out evenly through the year as cornerstones.

Might & Magic III is definitely my most anticipated game of the year. The bits I can remember, I remember enjoying a lot, and the series really never makes a wrong step until IX. I'm also sure I'll have a good time with The Magic Candle II. As for the others, I'm completely in the dark. I'm vaguely curious whether Elvira II, MegaTraveller 2, and Worlds of Ultima: Martian Dreams manage to improve on their predecessors, what HeroQuest (which forced a renaming of Hero's Quest) looks like, and whether Paragon does any better with Twilight: 2000 than the tabletop RPGs it adapted in 1990. There are a handful of games that I'm looking forward to for their titles alone, even though I suspect that some of them will turn out not to be RPGs: Bones: the Game of the Haunted Mansion, Dusk of the Gods, Heimdall, Jones in the Fast Lane, The Nine Lives of Secret Agent Katt, and Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron. I know nothing about any of them.

If you had to guess a 1991 Game of the Year right now, what would you put your money on?

Game of the Year

It's Ultima VI. I mean...come on. Seriously. Did any of you read that list of nominees above and think that any other game even had a shot? Did you actually buy my nonsense about "the top-rated game doesn't  necessarily win the prize"? That isn't a lie; 1989's GOTY was the third-highest rated game. But when the top rated game is 12 points higher than its competition...yeah, it gets the prize.

         
More important, it deserves it based on all my criteria. Ultima VI technically ranks lower than Ultima V in my GIMLET, but they're so close that the difference doesn't really matter. I mentally think of VI as the better game. This is the first true "sandbox" game, with a wide-open world ready for exploration in any order you want, lots of side-dungeons and optional areas, NPCs and lore that aren't strictly necessary to win the game, items that do nothing but provide realism to the world, and spells that are good for nothing but messing around.

In this, Ultima VI not only exceeds every game that came before but also every game that I know about that came after except for its own sequel. Games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 might offer bigger game worlds to explore, but they don't equal Ultima VI in the depth of interactions with objects. As I wrote in my final post on the game:

As much as I love the last three Elder Scrolls games, do you know what I can't do in any of them? Destroy a chair. Play an instrument. Batter down a door. Throw a wine bottle across the room and have it shatter on the floor. Row a boat. Start or douse a fire. Lock a door.

I say "every game that I know about that came after" because of course I haven't played every game between 1990 and today. I will spend the rest of my CRPG career hoping for as much freedom to explore and mess around that I had in Ultima VI.

The game's story and quest are a little less impressive than its mechanics, but as I noted repeatedly, it's only because Origin offered such detailed back stories and game worlds that we're able to nitpick them and create nutty fan theories. There are other games, even in 1990, with better economies, combat systems, magic systems, character development, and equipment, but Ultima remains one of the few series that while not always doing everything best, never does anything really bad. I wish I could say the same about the Gold Box series and its economy or the Quest for Glory series and its combat, or Tunnels & Trolls and its character development.

Okay, it occasionally does something really bad. But such moments are rare.

Unfortunately, Ultima VI was over a year ago. Since then, I've worked through a dozen mediocre titles and handful of okay ones. Only a few--Lord of the Rings, Quest for Glory II, Secret of the Silver Blades, maybe Escape from Hell--felt more like fun than work.

At this point, I'm not looking for great things from 1991. I don't want some highly-original setting that turns out to be a little goofy. I don't want a game that thinks it's being clever by eschewing traditional experience and leveling. I don't want to play a pre-named character and act out a complex plot. I'm sure I'll do all of these things in 1991, and at some point I'll enjoy them, but right now I don't want to take a chance on whether an original-sounding game is good or awful. Right now, I just want to make a party, descend into a dungeon, make maps, find equipment, kill orcs, level up, find better equipment, and kill stronger orcs. Is that too much to ask? Can I hope for that from Eye of the Beholder?