Sunday, January 21, 2018

Eye of the Beholder II: Reflexes like Jelly

I probably meant to cast "Fireball," but that works, too.
Darkmoon has an interesting dungeon structure, and I wish more dungeon-crawlers followed its lead. Instead of n levels of a relentlessly predictable size, all marching progressively (and unrealistically) downward, it offers a bunch of individual areas of smaller size, connected via a plausible maze of stairways. You don't so much explore new levels all at once as expose new parts of existing levels, and every new key has you scrambling back through your notes and maps to find the door to which it might apply. To this extent, Darkmoon is more "realistic" than some of its predecessors, and thus more of a bridge between earlier dungeon crawlers and Ultima Underworld than I may have given it credit for in my first entry.

My basic pattern hasn't changed. Upon arriving in a new area, I map as much of it as possible, annotating places that I can't pass in yellow for future exploration. After mapping as much as I can of the "obvious" rooms and corridors, I carefully study each wall for buttons or levers, and then bash into any walls that could plausibly hold illusory doors. I trust that this system is uncovering all or most of the valid pathways.

When I left off, I was heading down a staircase behind a secret door to an unexplored section of D-2. Spiderwebs, which I had to slash apart, blocked many of the passages, and I was delighted to find that the Webdings font has a spider web ready for this very purpose. There were six total webs, and a couple of Scrolls of Neutralize Poison at the end of a corridor, so I geared up for a fight with some giant spiders.
Not a large area, but an intimidating one.
It finally game when I stepped on a pressure plate in a short hallway. It generated exactly two spiders. Both died in a couple of hits without even hitting or poisoning me. That was a lot of build up for nothing.
That includes Bugsy's dramatic statement.
The purpose of the area seemed to be to put a copper key in my hands. Copper keys are necessary for a few doors on D+1 (the level above the main entrance) that I previously couldn't access. I headed there next.

D+1 consisted of a long, ring-like corridor that looped back on itself. The hallways were filled with clerics who respawned continually during my explorations. Numerous small corridors led off to bedrooms with various treasures.
The upper level.
In a room to the southwest, I was surprised to find one of those teleporters from the first game that looks like a stone doorway. It has a series of eight symbols--ankh, pendant, gem, staff, and so forth--and you have to find stone equivalents of these items to activate the teleporter in the center. I can't remember if objects correspond to the origins or the destinations of the teleporter. Either way, finding it disabused me of any notion that I was a significant way through the game. I'd mapped parts of six levels, but this was the first doorway I'd found and I hadn't found any of the objects.
I guess it makes sense; both structures were supposedly built by Drow.
A teleportation field in the southeast took me to a room with no apparent exits. The room had four slots in the walls, three with a different-colored gem, and a "soft spot" in the middle of the room. It didn't take me long to realize that putting all three of the gems in the same slot opened a secret door, but made the wall, the slot, and the gems disappear. That meant I could only open one out of four ways. I tried it on the south wall first and found myself in a short corridor ending in a 2 x 2 room with a Wand of Magic Missiles, several potions, and a "tropelet" seed; I don't think this is a real word, but it's an anagram for "teleport." Planting the seed back in the main chamber generated a teleporter that took me back to the temple.

Just for the purposes of mapping, I reloaded and tried the other three corridors. They all had the same configuration and ended in a room of the same size. There were different treasures in each room. The "best" of these had a plate mail +3, a two-handed sword +2, a "Raise Dead" scroll, and a Ring of Adornment. However, it also had a sign that said, "So much to take, and nowhere to take it!" and sure enough, the way back to the main chamber was closed. A skeleton in the chamber held a note that identified the owner as Lord James of Natingdale, and it said that despite fighting valiantly against "Dran and his minions," Lord James had been locked in the chamber with no way out. Anyway, I'm curious if there's any legitimate way out of this room. I tried everything I could think of, but ultimately I had to reload. I finished off by doing what seemed to be the fair thing and collecting the treasures I'd found in the original path I'd taken.
You cannot canonically get this message and survive.
"Dran" was a name I'd heard before. Outside, a chamber, we overheard two clerics arguing about Dran and his use of a local "hag" to help kidnap innocents; I assume the hag is the old woman we met in the forest. He's clearly someone important in this temple, if not the head.
How novel it would be to have an entire militia take on the temple instead of 6 bedraggled adventurers.
A jail cell in the upper chambers had a body and a note identifying the body as Amber, Khelben Blackstaff's "scout." The note confirms Khelben's suspicions and says that: "The clerics here have completely deceived the surrounding populace. Everyone believes them to be kind and helpful, while secretly they gather an army of undead warriors." I should probably resurrect Amber, but I'll need an empty spot in my party to do it, and I rather like my current configuration.

I left the upper floors with two areas unexplored. One was a corridor that insisted I needed "the mark of Darkmoon" to pass. The second was a southern door for which I lacked the right key. I was also a bit perturbed by a large empty area in the middle of the level, but I couldn't find any secret doors or buttons. It's possible that the ankh room (where you resurrect characters), otherwise accessible only by teleporter, is slotted in here.
It's not a giant hickey, is it?
The only path open to me at this point was a staircase down from D-3 to D-4. This led to a large dungeon level, the most difficult in the game so far. It was full of gelatinous cubes and margoyles, and they would not stop respawning. Moreover, the door to the previous level close behind me, blocking escape, and the level wouldn't let me sleep. I'm afraid I had quite a few reloads.
The lowest level I've explored so far.
Gelatinous cubes are one of the goofier AD&D monsters, but I don't remember encountering one in a non-wireframe game, so I thought the images and associated sounds were fun. What wasn't fun is when one destroyed my fighter/thief's shield +1. Fortunately, they die in a couple of hits and instantly from "Magic Missile" or "Melf's Acid Arrow."
Too bad there's no "Hot Water" spell.
The margoyles were a lot harder and more annoying, and they occasioned a few reloads. One memorable area closed a door behind me and spawned five of the creatures the moment I picked up an object. I had to go all-out to defeat them: "Prayer," "Bless," "Haste," Potions of Giant's Strength, and so on. Later, they swarmed a series of corridors in the southern part of the level and wouldn't give me a moment's peace, respawning as soon as I killed them.

Oddly, the problem I was having with unresponsive keys went away after the last session, so perhaps it was based on an animation peculiar to the skeleton warriors. The margoyles were more susceptible to the usual tricks like fighting retreats and the combat two-step. The problem is that the layout of the level itself offers few locations where the latter works, and the "fighting retreat" falls apart the moment you retreat right into another enemy, which happened quite often.
Backpedaling down the hallway as I fire off spells and missiles.
I'll never entirely be sold on Dungeon Master-style combat. I'm just not quick enough mentally or physically. At least Dungeon Master had nice big buttons, all in a row, for your attack options. In the Eye of the Beholder games, you have to right-click precisely on the weapons, spaced somewhat far apart from each other, in smaller boxes. I'm constantly clicking on the wrong thing, accidentally left-clicking and picking up an item instead of right-clicking to use it, opening the character sheet, clicking on the character's name and initiating a change of positions, and so forth. Sometimes I amuse myself by pretending this is all happening during tabletop play:

DM: A margoyle has just entered the corridor in front of you. What do you do?
Starling: Drop my sword!
Bugsy: Swap my axe for my shield, then swap them back!
Marina: Open my backpack, then swear, then close it!
Gaston: Try to swap my holy symbol for my bow! Throw my holy symbol at him!
Shorn: Swap positions with Marina! Never mind!
San-Raal: Open my spellbook and cast "Remove Curse!"
DM: [facepalm]
Marina: We have to get out of here! Strafe right!
DM: You hit a wall.
Marina: Strafe left!
DM: You hit a wall.
Marina: Turn left and then run forward!
DM: You hit . . . you know what? I'm out of here.

The game does a particularly good job with sound. Every enemy has both an attack sound and an "ambient" sound, the latter of which lets you know that he's in the area. The frequency and volume of the ambient sound creates a real tension as you explore and madly check up and down corridors for whatever's making the noise. But all the respawning on this level basically ensured that the ambient sound never stopped. It would have been nice to have a brief break now and then.

The level culminated in a puzzle by which I had to figure out the right selection of pressure plates to weigh down to open a door. There were nine of them, which is a lot of potential combinations, but I figured the solution would be symmetrical and worked from there. I got it after a few combinations: each of the corners plus the middle.

The corridors beyond delivered a lot more margoyles plus a couple keys I needed and a stone orb for the teleportation door, a second of which was on the level. As I wrap up, I can either take that door or a stairway downward, but either way, I really need to get somewhere where I can sleep.
This is bogus.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • It's a good thing that "Create Food" exists because I hardly ever find any food. Of course, the existence of the spell (which completely sates every character) makes the few rations I do find redundant.
  • I guess everyone has leveled up once by now. When it happens, you get a quick message at the bottom, but it's easy to miss it if you're in combat.
  • I keep finding "magic dust." I have like eight pouches now. I have no idea what it's for.
Is this a drug?
  • I also keep finding lockpicks. I have four sets now. A party doesn't need more than one set. I doubt they even really need the one. They hardly ever work.
  • On the upper level, I found that in addition to smashing windows, I could smash statues. I figure any act against the cult, even vandalism, is a net gain.
Not anymore!
As predicted, my use of an imported party means that I haven't been getting good equipment upgrades as regularly as a new party would. Most of the stuff I find is +1. But there have been some notable exceptions. I got a +5 robe, +5 bracers, and a +3 cloak called "Moonshade" that have lowered the AC for my mages. I replaced the +1 shield Bugsy lost to the gelatinous cube. Assorted wands, scrolls, and potions have all been valuable. I'm certainly not so jaded that I ignore treasure piles. And San-Raal's "Improved Identify" has been a god-send. This is what games ought to have instead of weird power orbs that you don't even find until the 8th level.
Finding a cursed weapon briefly sucked, but at least I could identify it.
I can't imagine I'm more than a quarter done at this point. I hope everyone's settled in for a long pairing of Eye of the Beholder II and Deathlord.

Time so far: 12 hours

Friday, January 19, 2018

Deathlord: Resurrection

The party, quite appropriately, wanders a graveyard.
Deathlord is just a really hard game to get into, as evidenced by the fact that I'm four entries and 20 hours into this game and can only barely say that I've "gotten into" it. After putting it on the back burner in July, I've spent the last half-year trying and failing to come up with reasons to abandon it. A couple of pesky commenters have made it clear that it's not just going to slip out of everyone's mind.

To recap, Deathlord is the product of a group of first-time game developers who fused elements from several sources. From Ultima, they took the top-down, tiled interface, NPC dialogue, many keyboard commands, and the shape of the main continent. From Wizardry, they took the combat system and permadeath. From Dungeons and Dragons, they took the races, classes, and spells; from RuneQuest, the attributes. After Electronic Arts agreed to publish it, they made the developers put a Japanese skin on everything, "translating" races, classes, spells, and other proper names into Japanese equivalents. 

The story concerns an "outcast wizard" who has raised monstrous forces and attacked the kingdom of Kodan. The emperor offers a reward to a party who can defeat this "Deathlord." The party's quest is going to somehow involve collecting seven words and six items.

The game is famously difficult. You have only one save file, which gets over-written every time you transition areas and, most importantly, every time someone dies. It doesn't even wait until the combat is finished; in fact, it saves so quickly after death in combat that the blank screen that accompanies disk access is generally how you find out that someone died in the first place. It also auto-saves when you do something in a town to turn the citizens hostile. It does not auto-save when good things happen.
Resurrection is expensive. But you definitely want "Resurrection" unless you feel like losing a point of constitution every time.
Wizardry had permadeath, too, but it was a much smaller game in which the action was self-contained in one dungeon with a menu town on top. If a character died, it sucked, but you could replace him without a lot of difficulty, and eventually, given enough funds, you could resurrect him. Deathlord, on the other hand, takes place on a huge continent with only one healer that resurrects. Moreover, there's no way to boot a dead character and create a new one once the game has started. You have to accept the death until you can afford and find resurrection, unless you want to start over with a new party. Since new characters have hit points in the single-digits, it's near-impossible for a player playing "straight" to get through the first few hours.

Still, the difficulty doesn't bother me nearly as much as all the ways that they made the game . . . inconvenient. To enumerate some of them:
  • The towns are indecently large, making it very difficult to determine if you've visited every location. You have to make maps to be sure, and it's always tough to map top-down games.
  • There's no simple command to "open" a door. All doors must be picked or smashed, both of which have a greater than 50% chance of failing. Smashing causes hit point loss when it fails.
  • Towns are full of deadly creatures behind locked doors, so you can't fully explore them at early levels.
  • Towns don't have obvious names. NPCs sometimes refer to town names, but there's no clear "Welcome to Whatever" when you enter a town. You have to figure it out like a logic puzzle.
  • Most NPCs don't have names. And instead of one command to just talk with them, there are separate sub-commands for chatting, talking, and inquiring.
  • It's often not clear which NPCs run shops. You have to use the (B)uy sub-command to make sure.
  • You can pool gold but there's no command to divide it.
  • When you find new weapons and armor, you have to immediately decide whether to replace your old ones without testing effects on armor class first.
I don't know if anybody will.
  • Since the spell names are all in Japanese, you have to constantly refer to the manual.
  • Both towns and dungeons are full of secret areas. There are two types of secret doors: illusory ones, where you just walk through the wall, and hidden ones that you have to search with the "F" key. Thus, you pretty much have to walk into and F-search every wall. Oh, and the F-search might "fail" even if there is a secret door, so you have to try it on every wall multiple times.
  • Outdoors, swamp squares, containing deadly poison, look barely different from forest squares.
  • One I just discovered this session: there are neither spells nor healers that can restore levels lost to vampires and other level-draining creatures. A bad combat could send a super-character back to Level 1, permanently.
Note that there's no "restoration" option here.
To all of this, you have to add the size and scope. It was tough enough when I thought the main continent and its handful of dungeons was going to be the entire game. It turns out that there are over a dozen separate continents and islands. The manual isn't kidding when it promises to fill a "few hundred" hours. 

The answer to the difficulty is obvious enough 30 years later: I can use save states. I have been. But that just means I have to spend a few hundred hours feeling like I'm playing like a jackass. There's no question that, back in the day, I would have played this game with the disk drive open so it couldn't automatically overwrite my save game. I probably would have also backed up that single save game after every session, something that the manual mentions but says is "not the most honorable." You know what? Screw you, Deathlord manual. You haven't earned the right to lecture me on "honor." I'm the goddamned Avatar.

Since it's been 6 months, I spent most of this session re-visiting the cities and towns, checking them exhaustively for secret doors, talking with all the NPCs, and taking a new set of notes. I also peeked into a dungeon in the eastern part of the first continent. I had explored it before but missed a secret door.

I started in Tokushima in the northwest corner, thinking it was the town I had originally explored first but it turns out that was Kawa. Tokushima has the largest selection of stores on the continent, with shops for food, weapons, armor, and missile weapons, a shipwright, and a trainer. I don't really understand the purpose of missile weapons since you can't use them from the rear rank.

Behind a door I hadn't previously opened was a lava area shaped like a skull, and beyond that were fights with two stacks of zombies. I had just acquired "Turn Undead" (tsuiho, which Google translates as "addendum"), so that was a good excuse to use it, and it worked well. But in a room beyond that, with some treasure chests, a couple of ghouls came out and paralyzed two of my lead characters in the first round. I won't get a "Cure Paralysis" spell for another two character levels. I declined to hike all the way to the healer and reloaded instead, marking the area for later exploration.
Getting ready to turn some zombies.
From NPCs in Tokushima, I learn that ruins are rich, kobito hide gold, there is a group of mages staying at the palace, don't get caught outside at night, look to the north, seek the seven, find the words, map dungeons, the yakuza of Kawa are famous, and Kawahara awaits below the palace. No idea who that is. A plaque in a tower reads "Due south of the second stone."

I realized I had enough cash to buy some weapon and armor upgrades. You have to carefully watch the game when it comes to armor. Each character can only have one set at a time. If it's a type of armor they're allowed to wear, they automatically wear it; if not, they just carry it. You have to look at the armor class statistics to see what's happening for a particular character.

I'm a few thousand shy for a boat. That will have to come later. It looks like there's a section of the city only explorable once you have a boat. I smash my way into a cemetery in the south of the map and find a large mausoleum, but I can't figure out anything to do with it or the tombstones.
I move on to Kawa, a large horseshoe-shaped city ringed by forest. I explore the forest exhaustively but find no one. I decide to smash my way into the chambers of the "Daimyo" or "Diamyo" depending on which text you read, and it's here that I have the unpleasant revelation about vampires and their ability to permanently drain levels. Fortunately, I get lucky with a couple motu ("paralyze") spells in a row and only my lead character is drained while the rest kill the vampire. A secret room full of treasure chests next door seems to make it worth it.
Level drains with no "restoration" ability is the apex of evil.
The vampire isn't the "Diamyo," though. The moment I smash open his door, he kills my second character in one hit, then kills two more the next round. I again reload and mark his chamber for a later visit.

In another chamber to the northeast, I smash a door and find myself in battle against 10 kobito. Thankfully, they're as bad at hitting us as we are at hitting them (my fighters miss at least 75% of attacks), and we're able to defeat them with the help of a mass-damage spell and a sleep spell. A chamber beyond holds a bunch of chests with almost 500 gold pieces; we might be able to afford that boat soon. (This area is probably the source of the NPC line about kobito hiding gold.) I'm feeling good, but the next door I smash has 6 shisai behind it, and within two rounds everyone is paralyzed.

Annoyed at getting my butt kicked every three minutes, I abandon my explorations and head to some caves to the east of here that I've already explored, figuring I'll grind a couple of levels. It turns out that I missed an entire level the last time I was here--one of those illusory doors--and it has an area full of pillars and a bunch of treasure chests. Awesome! I start opening them, and I release a vampire, and he kills us.
Just before the vampire. Note that the grinding worked, and everyone can level up.
I think my grinding idea was a good one. I'll just stay on the earlier levels of the caves. My only concern about that is that if a vampire is going to drain me either way, maybe I'd rather have him do it when I'm Level 3 rather than Level 6. But that's probably going to be an issue throughout the game, so I can't let it stop me from leveling here.

My apologies for the paucity of screenshots in this one. I started playing it right after a session of Eye of the Beholder II and forgot that CTRL-F5 doesn't do anything in VICE. I had to go around and recreate some of them from earlier saves.

The game is frustrating as hell, but I don't want to give up on it until I've at least finished exploring the main continent and purchased a boat. We'll see how long that takes. In some ways, it's convenient that this game will probably outlast Eye of the Beholder II, as it keeps a 1992 game from creeping into the second game slot before I make the 1991/1992 transition post. I'll be impatient for it to be over soon after that, though.

Time so far: 20 hours

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Eye of the Beholder II: Descent

Not barbarians--just interrupted while sleeping.
The area one level below the main entrance turned out to have several guard barracks. When I opened them, I got attacked by guys in loincloths. I assumed they were barbarians or something, but after I defeated them, I entered their rooms and found beds with messages that they'd been recently slept in. The attackers were regular temple guards, and I interrupted them sleeping in their underwear.
Bugsy was wrong about the "long abandoned" part.
I even found a little bed character to put where there are beds.
The first time I rested after picking him up, the thief Insal ran off in the middle of the night, stealing Marina's Ring of Wizardry, Bugsy's Ring of Adornment, Starling's long sword +5, and several potions and rations. (Oddly, he left a few things behind, too, like the armor I'd given him and his own lockpicks.) I was tempted to reload and boot him from the party, but generally I believe in rolling with the punches, so I sighed and gave Starling a spare +4 long sword and continued.
This is where charity leads us.
In his departure Insal left me a note that hinted a secret door near where I'd originally found him. I checked the area and found what he was talking about: a tiny button on the wall that opened the way to a staircase. More on secret doors in a bit.

There were three staircases down from the dungeon one leading to a dead end where a skeleton held a scroll of "Lightning Bolt." The second went to a small corridor that went down again, into a level I've labeled "D-3," or three levels below the main temple.
This level was full of priests and undead. It was the largest level so far, at almost 300 used squares. A northern room was so full of skeleton warriors that it took me almost two hours to fully clear them all. Towards the end, I was convinced they were respawning, but I eventually got rid of them all.
Just part of the horror awaiting in that room. I had to lead them out a few at a time.
The southern section housed a series of jail cells. Most of them just had bones, but I found living NPCs in two of them. One was a dwarf cleric named Shorn Diergar, who said he came exploring after he had visions of an evil temple. He found clerics who pretended friendliness and offered him hospitality, and then he woke up in a cell. I gladly took him, feeling I could use another cleric, but he didn't have his holy symbol with him and thus couldn't cast spells. I later looted it from a couple of guards. I gave him a sling and a bunch of rocks.
The game offers "good" and "neutral" options but no truly "evil" option.
The second NPC was a female fighter named Calandra, whose sister had been looking for her when I first entered the temple. I didn't really need another fighter, but I figured it couldn't hurt. I stuck her in the back with a spear and some daggers to throw.
But now the other sister is missing.
Calandra wasn't in the party long. Elsewhere in the dungeon, we found a set of bones that the game made a point of saying was a "complete set." I figured that meant I could get them resurrected. At the end of the session, I took them back to the ankh on the upper floors, and sure enough they resolved in to an elven mage named San-Raal. He didn't have anything to say as he joined my party, but a mage is more useful in the back ranks than a fighter, so I let Calandra go.
San-Raal mutely joins the party.
That covers my experiences in broad strokes, now let's get to some of the details. First, the unresponsiveness of the keys is maddening. I'll have an enemy attacking from my right, and I simply can't turn right. Or I want to back up down the corridor to flee, but the "back" key won't work. I think perhaps what the developers did, perhaps in an effort to combat "waltzing," is to make a system by which your movements don't activate until enemies have completed their own actions or movements for the round. There was something of this in the first game by which the game effectively froze until a spell animation completed. Now, it's like it freezes until any animation is completed, and regardless of whether the enemy is actually in view. But that's not quite it, because I definitely have more problems turning than strafing from left to right, and more problems moving backwards than forwards. [Edit: This turned out to be related to the NUM LOCK key. Toggling the key stops the unresponsiveness from happening. I still don't know why.]

As for combat waltzing, it is indeed impossible here, but not just because of the keys. Rather, the AI has changed. Before, if an enemy faced you and you side-stepped, he would reliably step forward on his next step, then turn to face you. Now, he doesn't do that; instead, he mirrors your action by side-stepping with you. You just have to attack, step to the side, attack, step to the side, and so on. On the other hand, it doesn't work well for every creature. Some, like clerics, seem to enter the square already executing their attack. It also doesn't work well for large groups, as they don't move in lockstep here the way they did in the first game. But for single or double skeleton warriors, it was still an effective strategy.
The new combat dance isn't a waltz; it's a two-step.
Still, the unreliability of combat trickery means that I've had to rely a lot more on spells, particularly buffing spells, than in the first game. This is a good thing. And of course it's more in line with AD&D rules. None of that makes up for how infuriating it is to pound the "9" key four times to turn once.

I haven't encountered any serious puzzles yet, just a lot of locked doors for which I had to ultimately find keys in other places on the level. There are also quite a few secret doors, and of different varieties. Some are illusory and you just walk through them. Others require activation with a tiny button that it take some serious scrutiny to see. There was a new type on D-3, in an area where I kept getting messages that the walls were weak. There was one place where I could bash down the wall and find a staircase behind it.
A "secret door" identified by bashing a wall with weapons.
My approach is basically:

1. Map out an area without worrying about secret doors. Mark all locations that I cannot pass (for instance, because I lack a key) in yellow. Mark all untested staircases in yellow. Mark any puzzles that I'm not sure about in yellow.

2. Once I'm done exploring every direction I can, look for places that might have secret doors and test them.

The Eye of the Beholder series uses the "worm tunnel" approach by which every corridor has 10 feet of wall space on the sides. Moreover, every doorway takes up a 10-foot block of physical space; it's not just an opening it the wall. Knowing these facts helps you limit where you need to search for secret doors. For instance, in the diagram below, there's no secret door that can open up into "A" because that would create shared walls. There's also no secret door that could open into "D" because even in the middle, where it wouldn't create shared walls, there isn't enough room for the door itself and something on the other side that doesn't create a shared wall. The "B" squares have the same problem.
Thus, the only interior walls that could house secret doors are marked with "C." (I actually missed a couple, in the northeast section of the middle room and in the corridor going south, but I didn't save the diagram and don't feel like re-doing it.) Obviously, most of the exterior walls could have a secret door, too.

Once I'm confident I've found all the secret doors there are to find, I fill in the color on the map. It's entirely possible that a staircase will later cut through some of those spaces and I'll have to render them transparent again.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • There is clearly some respawning happening on D-1. Every time I walk through the level, I face a couple of guards.
  • At one point, I found a dagger by clicking on a washbasin. You have to really search the environmental objects in this game.
And it was a magic dagger!
  • San-Raal came with an "Identify" spell in his spellbook, something I would have loved to have for the first game. 
  • Still enjoying the object descriptions as I click around.
The party comes upon a torture chamber.
  • I've found two horns that I think will be necessary to break the "Seal of the Four Winds" back on the temple level.
  • If you choose to heal the party when you rest, resting can take a long time. I'm glad these characters don't have ages or time limits.
That's quite a while to be studying spellbooks in a damp corridor.
  • Picking up all your daggers, arrows, and rocks after a missile-heavy combat is as annoying as ever.
  • I found a couple of journal pages belonging to the missing Wently Kelso, but they weren't a lot of help. One suggested that he might have died on a fireball trap.
Some of Kelso's comments.
Late in D-3, Khelben Blackstaff contacted me telepathically. We told him what was going on, and he asked us to keep adventuring while he consulted with the Lords of Waterdeep. I can't remember another RPG where the quest-giver periodically checks in on you.
I'm not sure if this was triggered by location or experiences.
As I close, I'm exploring the third way down from D-1. Starling thinks it's "a secret passage long ago forgotten." Giant spider webs are stretched across some of the corridors, making me grateful for my several Scrolls of Neutralize Poison.
I don't want to hack at it with my sword. That's how Frodo got in trouble.
So far, I'm enjoying the mapping part a lot, the combat somewhat less, and I'm still waiting for the first really tough puzzle. Of course, it's not impossible that I've overlooked it and am missing half the squares on the mapped levels. Feel free to drop me a hint if that's the case.

Time so far: 7 hours
Reload count: 2

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Shadow Keep: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

Shadow Keep
United States
Independently developed and distributed as shareware
Released in 1991 for Macintosh
Date Started: 30 December 2017
Date Ended: 5 January 2018
Total hours: 10
Difficulty: 3/5 (Moderate)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

Shadow Keep was an eminently satisfying experience. It wasn't an epic game, and it won't get epic scores, but finishing it feels like finishing a filling, inexpensive meal at some family-owned restaurant from which you had no expectations going in. It's probably the best shareware RPG that I've played. It has a few good ideas, understands its limitations, and keeps to a reasonable size, scope, and time frame. There were times I got stuck, but I always had enough clues to un-stick myself. The interface was clear and consistent, and I didn't experience a single bug. If Glenn Seeman responds to my e-mail, I'll be happy to send him his shareware fee.
I find a key artifact.
When I wrapped up last time, I had just finished mapping the overworld and identifying the entrances to all the dungeons. I had also explored the dungeon beneath the castle for the first time. After a brief rest break and re-stock of potions, I returned to the dungeon. It was a good thing I did, because on the second trip, I found the Amulet of Guidance that I needed for the labyrinth. I had assumed it would be in the catacombs.

A secret door in the dungeon led me to an NPC named John. Several other NPCs had spoken about him. He was raising giant chickens and said they were for the king's "lance corps." Anyway, he was supposed to respond to the keyword HINT, but he only told me that he didn't feel like giving me a hint. The manual warns that he's not always in the mood. I eventually left and never returned, so I don't know what his hint would have told me.
Sure, no problem. It only took me 45 minutes to find you.
I had heard that the mermaid bobbing off the northern coast would know how to defeat the evil overlord, but I didn't know how to get her to talk to me. I asked a sailor in the castle about MERMAIDS, and he said they favor orchids. Asking NPCs about ORCHID, meanwhile, gave me a hint that a hermit on an island knows about them. Having found no hermit on the island in the Sea of Serpents, I figured he must be in the middle of that eastern lake. I explored its shores for a while but still couldn't find a pirate ship.

I wondered if maybe the unnamed cave would take me to the island underground. I started to explore it but was soon turned away by a new monster type: "rust beasts." Just like their D&D counterpart, they destroy metal weapons and armor. I returned to the shop in the gnome village and bought a "champion's club" and dragon scale armor, which you'd think would be amazing but actually under-performs plate. I also had to remove my helmet.
"Champion's Club" sounds like a way of upselling a piece of wood.
The new getup was helpful against the rust beasts, but the armor offered little protection against giant wasps, terrors that could kill me in two hits. I had to keep changing armor in the middle of the dungeon, which was mildly annoying.
Fighting a giant wasp in the unnamed caves. The scroll with "Unlock" is nearby.
Anyway, my guess was wrong. The caves didn't lead to the lake and didn't have a second exit. The only thing I found, besides lots of gold, was a scroll with the "Unlock" spell, which duplicates magic keys. Since keys are pretty cheap, the dungeon is really optional. The manual noted that there were some optional areas.

Returning to the lake issue, I solved it in short order. It turned out that pirate ships sail under bridges with no problem. I assumed they wouldn't. I was able to take one from another part of the lake system and sail it to the hermit's island. He said that orchids are found in the "living forest" by the Temple of Life. I was worried because I'd slain all the tree creatures there, but I was able to find the orchid at a stationary tree.
Uh, yeah, it's not exactly "living" anymore.
With it in my hand, the mermaid came right up to me. She said that the Evil Overlord could be defeated with the Black Sword, and an NPC named Sprite would know where the sword was. That was a lot of work for nothing, as I'd already spoken to Sprite, but she also gave me a "good luck charm" that made it easier to find hidden treasure chests.
My next stop was the catacombs in the cemetery. It was swarming with skeletons, who fled at "Turn Undead," but I couldn't cast that spell too many times. I had to kill a bunch of them. Aside from a lot of chests, the dungeon had a demon guarding the Grail. He wanted to know the names of the Gods of Strength, Life, and Magic. I had no idea. I left, vowing to return later.
The catacombs had a lot of areas with multiple doors in a row.
I tried the labyrinth next. I entered and equipped the Amulet of Guidance, but it didn't seem to do anything, and I soon got lost. Reloading, I consulted my notes and saw that it said I needed to enter the labyrinth with the amulet already equipped. Doing so brought up a series of arrows directing me through the huge maze. There were no monsters in the labyrinth, which was a nice change of pace.
The arrows don't appear on the way back, but I was clever and wrote them down.
I emerged in Far Land, an overland map that I'm guessing is around half the size of the main continent. There was no way I was going to map it. I just went around the perimeter hoping that was enough. I soon found the third temple--the Temple of Magic. Shortly afterwards, I found the Valley of the Unicorn and was killed when I tried to walk past the guardian.
Doing it right the second time.
Reloading, I equipped the Sacred Bone and got past the guardian okay. The titular Unicorn told me the Black Sword was hidden along the north coast, and I soon found it in a cluster of trees. It's the best weapon in the game, but not by a lot. Most enemies still take two or three hits.
With the sword in my possession, there was nothing to do but return to Shadow Keep's land and try to find the names of the gods. I asked dozens of NPCs and got nowhere. Finally, I looked back to the manual for clues and noted a recommendation to search the temples. Sure enough, that's what I'd been missing. Each of the three temples has a scroll with the god's name on it. Returning to Far Land was a pain, but otherwise I soon had the three names and went back to the catacombs.
Another visit to the demon, and I soon had the Grail. The only thing left was to enter the cave in the center of the Lake of Serpents and find the Evil Overlord. I spent my accumulated money on potions, hopped a ship, and entered.
Enemies in the final dungeon include rust beats and carrion crawlers.
The caves had the same enemies as the other cave map. I didn't feel like changing in and out of armor constantly, so I quaffed Potions of Invisibility to run past the enemies until I found the Evil Overlord.
The E.O., with a kobold hovering nearby.
The Grail protected me from instant death, but he still packed a wallop, and I had to retreat every hit or two to swallow a healing potion. I eventually killed him with the Black Sword, and he left the stolen Ankh behind.
Using more Potions of Invisibility to get out of the dungeon, I went to the Temple of Life and returned the Ankh. I immediately got a summons back to Shadow Keep and the endgame screens. The king congratulated me and made me an honorary knight. I was able to view my final statistics, and game over at just about the 10-hour mark.
Some of the panels from the endgame.
In a GIMLET, I give it:

  • 4 points for the game world. The backstory is derivative, but it's self-consciously derivative, not even bothering with names for the Evil Overlord or Great Battle, as if it was a generic template. Inside the game, the world holds up pretty well.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. Not a strong point. You don't even get a name. "Development" consists solely of increases in fighting and magic ability. Frankly, these don't feel like they make a huge difference, and they max at 10.
  • 5 points for NPC interaction. A great system in the Ultima style. It just lacks true dialogue options.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The monsters are nothing special. A couple have unique attacks, like the rust beasts and the beholders that drain magic. 
  • 3 points for magic and combat. It's pretty basic, but well-balanced, and there are some minor tactics associate with fleeing and the use of spells and potions. The small selection of spells would be more useful if the magic bar didn't deplete so fast and take so long to recharge. I like that enemies don't swarm you; if one enemy has you in combat, the others move around randomly instead of crowding all sides.
My final spell list. I think I got them all.
  • 3 points for equipment. There's a small but decent set of weapons, armor, potions, and special items. Relative cost tells you easily how the items compare.
  • 5 points for the economy. There's no complexity, but for the first half the game, you're always saving for an item upgrade, and for the second half, the need for potions keeps the economy relevant.
My final inventory heading into the endgame.
  • 3 points for quests, including a clear main quest and a couple of side areas.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The black and white graphics are only okay--most of the portraits are a little silly--and I have to judge the sparse sound from what I can hear online. I had no problems with the interface, with redundant keyboard and mouse options for most actions. I appreciated touches like the speed controls.
  • 6 points for gameplay, the best category. It hits the length and difficulty just right, and it's partly non-linear. It has a strong Ultima quality where you slowly piece together what you need to do via NPC dialogue and open exploration. I wouldn't call it "replayable," though, unless you want to challenge yourself to win with the lowest score or something.
My final stats. The "total play time" doesn't include reloads.
That gives us a final score of 36, enough to call it "recommended." Like I said earlier, there's nothing "epic" here, and it isn't going to vie for "Game of the Year," but it's well-constructed and easy to pick up, and it offers a satisfyingly-moderate challenge and length. It's too bad it didn't get more recognition. I haven't been able to find a single review or walkthrough. There is, however, an effort to remake it, from the intriguingly-named "Retribution Studios." (Are you okay? Do you guys want to talk about it?) Normally I only support remakes for games that were harmed by the limited technology of when they were made. In this case, though, given how hard it is to emulate the Mac, a remake may be the only way modern players ever get to experience it.
I like the game, but a few too many things smile within it.
Developer Glenn Seemann unfortunately never made another RPG that I can find, although he programmed and converted other games for the Macintosh into the 2010s, and has a site dedicated to Macintosh games.

As for me, I can't say that I'm looking forward to the rest of the Mac-only games on my list, not unless they do something different with the interface. I opened my Quarterstaff coverage by noting:
The interesting thing about many Mac games is that they make use of, rather than override, the conventions of the operating system. When you play a PC game, even today, you're used to the game taking over completely, remapping your keys, seizing your mouse, changing your graphic resolution, filling the screen, and monopolizing your sound . . . . The Mac was different. It pioneered the graphical user interface. It made popular the conventions of menus and overlapping windows. And games went ahead and used these conventions. You open an RPG on a Mac, and it looks like you've never left the operating system.
I was careful not to take a positive or negative stance on this approach, having not experienced it long enough, but now I can say for sure that my reaction is negative. Take a look at the shot below.
The end panels appear amidst the clutter of the Mac OS.
It just looks unprofessional for the game screens to appear amidst the clutter of the OS, with other open windows and icons in the background. And while playing, too many errant clicks sent me accidentally to the "finder." No, thanks. I know it's possible for Mac games to just take everything over--I sure didn't play Descent in a window with a bunch of junk in the background--and I hope they start doing so soon. I have to suffer this OS for about 20 more games.