Saturday, October 21, 2017

Might and Magic III: Summary and Rating

I'm not sure there's anywhere in the game that you encounter a dude of this description. I wonder if it's supposed to be Sheltem.
      
Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra
United States
New World (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS; 1992 for Amiga, FM Towns, and PC-98; 1993 for Macintosh, SEGA CD, and TurboGrafx CD; 1995 for SNES
Date Started: 27 August 2017
Date Ended: 12 October 2017
Total Hours: 68
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Might and Magic III is a good entry in a superior lineage. It moves the game from "Wizardry done better" (which characterized the first two titles) to its own category, with an engine that is still turn-based but seems somehow action-oriented. In doing so, it preserves most of the best parts of the earlier games, including an open world, nonlinear gameplay, a hidden-but-interesting plot, and copious special encounters and side quests. There are many absurd moments in the game, but never a boring moment.

It does, unfortunately, introduce a couple of problems. The 1990s start to present an issue that is going to remain relevant all the way through the modern era: as the level of graphical detail of a game increases, we expect an equal increase in the level of content detail, and it becomes jarring when it doesn't appear.
      
Are we supposed to be envisioning hundreds of residents milling about this town square? It's hard to force yourself use your imagination to fill in the details when the water is animated and the ground tiles are cut into irregular rectangles.
      
When I say "content detail," I'm talking about the realism of the world and the way the character interacts with it. Maybe "realism" is the better term overall. I'm making this up as I go along, so forgive me if this theory isn't 100% polished, but I think it generally works, and it explains some of the problems people have with modern AAA titles like Skyrim. When developers were only capable of showing us wireframe graphics, we understood that everything was an abstraction. We didn't complain about lack of realistic layouts or an absence of obvious NPCs because we understood that we were meant to fill in those details with our minds the same way we fill in the very walls of the dungeon. But as graphics improve to show us individual bricks, we start to question the plausibility of the dungeon's very existence, how lighting and sanitation work, and so forth. This is part of the reason that Ultima Underworld will be such a breakthrough in 1992, presenting for the first time a dungeon as a (semi-) realistic ecosystem.

No one makes fun of the food systems of games like Ultima where you have an enormous feedbag with thousands of meals that deplete at a regular basis, but we do make fun of a game like Skyrim, where you can stop combat to ingest 30 cabbages. Once you get to the point that a game can graphically depict individual cabbages, you expect it to treat them like real cabbages. (In fact, let's call this whole thing my "Cabbage Theory.") Abstract hit points? No problem. But you build an engine in which you can graphically make "headshots," to the point where the arrow remains sticking out of the enemy's head? You'd better believe that I expect it to cause more damage than a torso shot. NPCs are little white icons that run around the screen? Sure, I can imagine that they only represent a fraction of who's supposed to live in this town. But when you get to the point where I can see and talk to every NPC in voiced dialogue and they all have individual homes in the city, I'm going to start to question why the capital of the entire country only has 20 people living in it.
       
Walking across an ocean that feels nothing like an ocean towards mountains that feel nothing like mountains.
      
Note that we don't seem to care the other way. Roguelikes often offer absurd content detail in the way that individual objects react with living things (and each other) but only the most abstract graphics. Thus, my theory is that you want your game to remain at or above the line in the graph below. If it is, players aren't draw out of the game by its lack of "realism." If not, the resulting dissonance will probably damage the game for some players and completely break it for others.
        
       
Thus we return to Might and Magic III, where the added detail in graphics and sound raise issues that you'd rather not think about. Why, for instance, can I see all the monsters in each city but not the residents who presumably inhabit them? Terra seems hauntingly empty of people, aside from a handful of NPCs you encounter behind desks plus the people who staff the stores. When the statues in Castle Dragontooth talk about armies of thousands clashing in the northern islands, you can't help but laugh. Individual enemies are as tall as mountains; you could fit maybe six of them on the island that the stories say held 6,000.

Look at the world size. You can walk from the top row to the bottom row in 10.5 game hours and in the process pass from icy tundra to parched desert. (And this isn't an artificial world like VARN or CRON.) The 16 x 16 standard for Might and Magic's game maps is far too small for this more detailed world. The developers took pains to try to give each map its own character and backstory, but you really can't make "Serpent's Wood" or "Enchanted Meadow" all that memorable when they consist of only 8 tiles each.
       
"Do you remember the Crystal Mountains of Might and Magic III?" -- No one.
      
Because of these issues, it's all the more disappointing that the game doesn't take itself seriously in terms of story and quest. Most of the limited NPC dialogue and quest paths that you receive are nonsensical at best and outright comedic at worst. Take the three kings, each wanting the Ultimate Power Orbs to conquer the others. You could have made a truly compelling plot out of this, with the "good" king envisioning a land of order and harmony, the "evil" king pushing for a world in which individual strength and will are paramount, and the "neutral" king looking for balance. Instead, each one is a ranting caricature of his alignment, and you end up siding with any of them only to move the plot forward, with essentially no consequences.

This lack of seriousness was present in Might and Magic II as well, and I guess it's just something we have to live with from this developer. My more important criticism of Might and Magic III is that the game went backwards in its magic and combat systems. I missed fighting battles against dozens of enemies. I missed carefully plotting battles against tough foes that would go for a dozen rounds or more. I missed launching powerful spells against wave after wave of enemies, and adventures in which I had to cast every last healing spell to keep the party on its feet. In Might and Magic III, the average offensive spell so under-performs physical attacks that you really have no reason to cast them. The developers had to make some enemies immune to physical attacks just to justify having a mage class. Mass damage spells are hardly necessary because the screen won't accommodate more than three enemies at a time--less for larger enemies against whom you'd really need those spells. Most of the spells in the game are the same as in its predecessor, when it perhaps needed a new approach to magic to go with its new engine.
      
There isn't a single enemy in this game that "Sun Ray" doesn't feel like overkill against.
      
I didn't like other aspects of combat, including the fact that all characters are in melee range and that archery--absolutely deadly in the hands of the right character in I and II--is relegated here to a "bonus" you get against approaching foes. After the first quarter of the game, it's mostly a waste of time.

Combat overall is too easy. Most foes are temporary annoyances to be brushed aside rather than true obstacles requiring just the right tactics. All the teleportation spells contribute to this lack of difficulty. If you get into a tough scrape, you just need to drop a "Lloyd's Beacon" and "Town Portal" to safety. The game isn't so big that it can easily justify these spells. Their absence, plus perhaps some nerfing of the fountains, plus perhaps an inability to save in dungeons, would have made more balanced gameplay.
     
As I often do, I've spent more time complaining about a good game than talking about its strengths. The paradox here is that a game must offer a certain level of complexity before you can complain about it in detail. Of course, the good points outweigh the bad. Might and Magic III kicks things to the next level in graphics, sound, and mechanics; it feels like a true 1990s game instead of a remnant from the 1980s like so many of its contemporaries. It's enormously addictive. I had to force myself to stop and write. The sense of character development is absolutely constant, the interface so intuitive that you could play in your sleep. It's the type of game for which you find yourself saying "just 10 more minutes" over and over again until suddenly it's 04:00 on a weeknight.
     
Nonetheless, I think the GIMLET is going to disappoint some fans. It will rank high, probably in my top 20, but I suspect it will rank a little lower than its predecessors, which in their more primitive graphics and sound offered better combat and more challenging overall games.

1. Game World. A strength that may seem like a weakness if you're not paying attention. Might and Magic III not only tells its own story but clarifies what was happening in the previous two titles. The manual's backstory and lore are well-written and complement the gameplay well, and I loved the "Corak's notes" feature that offered a little background on every map, outdoor and indoor. The party's cluelessness as to their ultimate goal is part of the charm of the series, so I won't dock any points for that. The game world could have been a little more responsive to the player's actions, but beyond that I don't have a lot of complaints. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. Someone unversed in Might and Magic could be forgiven for thinking that it draws directly from Dungeons and Dragons. During character creation, after all, you get a list of D&D-style races and classes, as well as a list of suspiciously similar attributes. But in character development, the series offers much more rapid and continual development than the typical RPG. A character might start with a might of 15 and end the game with 75. Nearly every dungeon provides a couple of character levels. The skills, while still binary (except for thievery), offer an additional means of development that most RPGs of the time didn't feature.
      
In fact, it's a little too much. I don't think I've ever complained about too much character growth before, but Might and Magic III skirts that edge if any game does. As I played, I routinely delayed training (after the first few hours) because it just didn't matter. If the developers had made Level 100 a distant maximum (instead of the actual Level 200) and essentially halved the game's experience point rewards, it would have resulted in better balance. Casses, races, and alignments still don't matter in any role-playing sense. Score: 4.
       
My ninja's final character sheet.
      
3. NPC Interaction. As with many first-person titles, what you get in Might and Magic is not so much "NPCs" as "encounters during which someone talks." Most of the NPCs are goofy, one-note characters who offer no role-playing options or dialogue choices. You don't even really learn much about the game world from them, with a couple of exceptions. I do like the NPCs who can join the party, but they're not really necessary and if I played the game again, I'd do without them. Score: 3.
   
4. Encounter and foes. Might and Magic offers a satisfying bestiary, with associated strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses. Its frequent non-combat encounters with quasi-NPCs, statues, fountains, talking heads, and so forth are a highlight of the game. The riddles and puzzles are a little easy, but at least they're not frustrating. I would dock points for offering a "closed" system--you can kill every enemy in the game and have nothing left to fight--except that it ultimately doesn't hurt character development. Score: 5.
      
I should have done more with the Arena.
     
5. Magic and Combat. Discussed extensively above. A good system, but not a great one. Combat is a little too easy, magic a bit unbalanced. Offensive spells tend to fall into two categories: those so under-powered that it's a waste of time to use them and those that level with the caster and thus cost so much that you can only cast 5 or 6 before having to rest again. At least combat isn't tedious, though: even the toughest battle is over in well under a minute. Score: 4.

6. Equipment. Both a strength and a weakness. I loved all of the different types of equipment and potential slots; every treasure chest seemed to bring an upgrade for one or two characters. The "breakage" system is a little annoying but one of the only consequences to a character getting knocked unconscious. I wasn't as in love with the random generation of item materials and enchantments, and I would have liked to see some unique "artifact" weapons and armor.
       
Things got a little formulaic by the end.
     
Although they exist, I barely explored the use of magic items. You can find items that duplicate almost every spell, along with other items that recharge them, but I mostly just sold them to save inventory space. If combats had been harder, I'd probably have made more use out of them. I also didn't really explore the "Enchant" spell, which adds an effect to unenchanted items, because it doesn't work with the game's better materials. Score: 6.

7. Economy. Useful but badly balanced. After the first few hours, you don't have to worry about money except in a general sense, as you watch training costs grow and wonder where the "tipping point" will be. After your initial purchases, you really don't need money for items. You spend it on spells, training, healing, and training, and it would be nice if the whole system were both more challenging and not closed. I offer a slight bonus for the interest-earning bank accounts and the "money sink" fountain. Score: 5.
       
There's not much logic to it, but it ensures that every gold piece is worth something.
      
8. Quests. The game's primary strength. "Side quests" have still not crept into the average developer's lexicon in 1991, not even with Might and Magic showing how it's done since 1986. Might and Magic III excels at them. Even the main quest has a couple of choices--though more would be welcome--including that final optional area. Score: 6.
      
My mage's final accomplishments. What are those two blank spots and what could I have improved on?
      
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I thought the monster graphics could have used a bit more realism, but they're certainly an upgrade from II. I was less enamored with the overall graphical quality than with the creative use of graphics as part of the interface. Consider how the character portraits change to match their conditions (diseased, curse, drunk, in love), the use of colored gems to depict the character's relative hit point total, the way the gargoyle waves to signal a secret or the bat opens and closes its mouth to show that enemies are near. In melee combat, you can tell how much damage you inflict from the size of the blood splatter that appears when you hit (and none appears at all when you miss). Lots of games have good graphics, but Might and Magic III is one of the few of this era to start incorporating true graphical feedback; to make graphics a key part of the interface rather than just something nice to look at.

Sound is sparse but effective and realistic where used; honestly, no game is going to do great in this category until we start hearing more ambient sounds. The interface is one of the best I've encountered, aside from casting spells, where it would have been nice to have a shortcut or a "favorites" list or something. Score: 7.
       
The well-detailed and animated shop images will continue for the rest of the series.
     
10. Gameplay. As you know, I use this category for considerations like linearity, pacing, difficulty, and replayability. It definitely gets points in the first two categories. I'm generally happy if the number of hours doesn't far exceed the final GIMLET, and here Might and Magic III does fairly well. I personally played it longer than was warranted, spending a lot of time experimenting and dithering around; it's easily winnable in 40-50 hours. And even though I didn't do much with it, the nonlinearity was welcome. On the other hand, balance issues made it a tad too easy (as did the ability to save everywhere), and it's hard to think of it as "replayable" except perhaps for a particular challenge. Score: 6.

This gives us a final score of 52, right about where I suspected it would fall. It ends up at the #19 spot and falls below both Might and Magic I (60) and II (58). Those who would give more weight to graphics and who prefer fast action combat to tactical combat will probably invert those scores across the three games. It is the fourth-highest rated game of 1991, and again I don't dispute the order. There are things I like better about the Might and Magic series than the Gold Box series, but when it comes down to the final assessment, I prefer the relatively more serious nature of Pools of Darkness and Death Knights of Krynn, the more tactical combat, and the greater challenge that they offer.

If I could play it again, I'd try something more challenging. Perhaps only four characters, or perhaps a party of nothing but knights, forcing me to make better use of special items with magic effects. I'd like to hear from someone who gave that a shot. I resisted the temptation to try a speedrun, mostly because I saw that it had already been done a few times. One guy did it in about 5 minutes, but he used cheat codes at the teleporter to get an Ultimate Power Orb and a ton of gold early in the game. A more honest one took about half an hour. He did what I would have done: got a little money early in the game, put it in the bank to earn interest for about 10 years, collected it, and donated so much to the fountain in Fountain Head that he was able to take characters to Level 150 all at once. He then bought the necessary teleport and damage spells and a ton of might potions for smashing doors and getting the pyramid key card, visited the central pyramid for the teleportation box, and used it to zip to each dungeon to collect orbs and hologram cards.

I did spend some time trying to raise my high score, fighting about 10 arena battles and donating a few million to the experience fountain before returning to the endgame. I went from 1.1 billion points to 1.2 billion.
      
I'm sure much higher scores are possible.
      
Computer Gaming World featured Might and Magic III on the cover of the May 1991 issue, and a review by Johnny L. Wilson is all positive, focusing primarily on graphical details. It was a nominee for "Game of the Year" in the magazine's November 1992 issue, which makes no sense, but lost out to Ultima Underworld, which is hard to dispute. If it had been evaluated in its actual year, it's hard to see how it wouldn't have beaten Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (which itself was being evaluated a year too late, as it's a 1990 game). Dragon gave it 5/5, which for once I understand, but again I have to comment how a magazine dedicated primarily to tabletop role-playing never seems to focus on actual role-playing mechanics in its reviews of computer games. It's always about graphics, sound, music, interface . . . anything but combat rolls and attributes.
    
The copywriters fell down on this one. Is the title called Power and Magic? I don't think so.
     
Even Amiga magazines rated it well. Percentages range from 81% (Amiga Joker) to 93% (Amiga Action). To the extent that these reviews have complaints, it's primarily about frequency and speed of disk access on the Amiga specifically. I almost always find something that bothers me in an Amiga Action review, but here they were actually quite fair and thorough, calling it the "best role-playing adventure available on the Amiga."

In a 2012 RPG Codex interview, John Van Caneghem recalled that his team went "all out" on III, eager to meet expectations of gamers primed on two excellent predecessors. He notes that it was the "smallest seller" of all the titles, probably because many fans of the series hadn't upgraded to the 1990s platforms, but the best reviewed and highest-awarded.

To the best of my recollection, Might and Magic IV and V uses an update of the same engine, but perhaps with a better story? I honestly don't remember anything about it. It will unfortunately be the end of 1992 before I get to explore the pair, but the prospect of playing them is almost enough to get me through the rest of 1991. Before then, we'll be looking at another New World production: Planet's Edge (1992), which has a completely different interface but shows art director Louis Johnson's influence in the cut scene graphics. The title also shares several of the same programmers; I know virtually nothing about it but look forward to it.

For now, we have 13 more titles to finish in the interminable 1991. I want to do it by this blog's 8th anniversary in February.


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Game 265: The Kingdom of Krell (1987)

Developer Steven Screech might want to re-think his little personal logo.
    
The Kingdom of Krell
United Kingdom
Anco (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 8 October 2017
Date Ended: 14 October 2017
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

British ZX Spectrum games occupy a weird little sub-genre that I'll have to fully analyze after I reach the last one in 1989. This is my eighth, after The Ring of Darkness (1982), Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark (1984), Out of the Shadows (1984), City of Death (1985), Heavy on the Magick (1986), and The Wizard of Tallyron (1986). Five others--The Valley (1982), The Citadel of Chaos (1984), The Forest of Doom (1984), The Master of Magic (1985), and Seas of Blood (1985)--I played on Commodore 64 ports but were originally written for the Spectrum.

The Ring of Darkness is the odd-one-out, being mostly plagiarized from Ultima. The rest are highly original, lacking no clear progenitors in their styles and conventions, not only avoiding American RPG tropes but almost consciously shunning them. More unexpected, however, is how oddly foreign they feel, coming from an English-speaking nation that manages to churn out perfectly comprehensible (from an American perspective) books, films, and television shows. In some ways, they're as bizarre as French RPGs.

As the popularity of the ZX Spectrum wanes in the late 1980s and the Amiga begins to dominate British RPG development, we see the same stark originality (with both good and bad consequences) in games like Galdregon's Domain (1989), Lords of Chaos (1990), Heimdall (1991), and Moonstone: A Hard Days Knight (1991), but the sense of the bizarre fades, which makes me wonder how much of it is due to the platform. With its extremely limited keyboard, stunted default memory, and cassettes as the primary distribution media, the platform was never going to support games with the same speed, complexity, and ease of play as U.S. players were getting on, say, the Commodore 64.

The Kingdom of Krell is the first ZX Spectrum RPG to require the 128 model (issued in 1985). With all this extra memory, the developer could have offered a more complex engine, more tactical combat, or better graphics, but instead what he did was to make the physical game world ridiculously large. The box boasts "more than 2,500 locations." I only mapped a little over 1,900, but either figure is far too large when the number of those locations with an item, NPC, or other plot-driven need to be there is around 60.

The backstory is amusing in its lack of epic ambition. The game is set in a "remote part of Britain" in the "misty past." The custom of these people is that when a young man reaches his 18th birthday, he has to spend a month in the wilderness alone before he's welcomed back to the tribe as a man. The tribe throws a party for the protagonist; he gets drunk; and he awakens the next day "alone in the vast wilderness."
    
Part of the vast wilderness.
     
Character creation is nothing more than a name, from which the game procedurally generates your six attributes: strength, wisdom, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. This is the first game that I know of in which attributes are derived from the chosen name; Captive (1990) would later use the same method. Anyway, I lost patience trying different names and ended up adventuring with a sub-par character; I would recommend anyone else playing the game hold out for at least 15s in strength, dexterity, and intelligence and 10s in everything else, lest their reload counts hit the astronomically high levels that mine did.

As the game begins, you're on a "barren grassy plain" with a sling at your feet. The image shows a bridge, which is one of the game's oddities. As you turn different directions, the screen changes to show the terrain in the next square, not the one you're currently in.
         
Sure looks like notable features to me.
      
That bridge is probably the most complex graphic that you get in the game. Among the c. 2,000 "locations" in the game are about 12 different terrain types, including "barren, grassy plains," "dense, dark forests," and "long, dark tunnels." The author wastes precious descriptive text space saying things like "well, here you are" and "I don't know what else to tell you," with at least one misspelling on every screen. I didn't find a single "unique" location in the game.
      
A decent percentage of the game's many vaunted locations.
     
You interface with the game not with a keyboard, which would make sense given that the game was developed for a PC, but with a joystick. You cycle through the various icons and use the button to execute an action or move to a sub-menu. This is true even of movement. Main actions include move, sleep, fight, cast a spell, take or drop an object, speak, handle various disk operations, and "other," the latter including eat and check the time. To move, you have to activate the "shoe" icon then the appropriate directional arrow. If you're not already facing a particular direction, your first move turns you in that direction and then your second and subsequent moves actually walk you in that direction.
  
A typical Krell location. A zombie is waiting as I arrive. The scene shows more icy wastes to my north. "Crevasses" is misspelled.
      
Krell is such a deadly place, I can't believe how irresponsible I was to get drunk and pass out here. You can't even sleep in a hut without getting interrupted by a monster 50% of the time. Foes are D&D standard--giant rats, hobgoblins, ogres, skeletons, trolls, orcs, and the like--and there's around a one-in-four chance that one will be waiting for you in every new square. If you managed to kill it, there's a decent chance another monster will be waiting just behind, sometimes two or three more.
     
I only encountered one dragon in the game. He wasn't significantly harder than the other monsters.
      
The game doesn't throw easy monsters at you early and harder ones late. You're just as likely to face a "cyclopse" in the opening area as a giant rat. There are some contextual encounters; the graveyard area produces almost exclusively undead, for instance, and the only dragon I encountered was deep in a cavern. For the most part, they don't have any special strengths or weaknesses except that some have more hit points than others.
  
For combat, you select your sword icon and then decide whether to aim it at the enemy's head, torso, or legs. I managed to hit the enemy's head maybe twice in my 15-hour game. Torso is almost always the best bet. After your attack, the enemy gets a swing at you. There is a variety of messages indicating damage--"sliced through your flesh," "took a chunk out of you," mercilessly rips into you"--but basically you just take either 1 or 2 hit points damage for each attack (if the enemy doesn't miss).
           
Exchanging blows with a dwarf.
     
A character might start with 10 hit points at maximum constitution, so as you can imagine, he doesn't last long in long battles. Fortunately, most enemies die within a couple of hits. Moreover, you can eat the corpse (or "carcus," as the game has it) of any slain enemy to regain one hit point. Unfortunately, you don't get any intrinsic attributes for doing so.
      
A skeleton appears right after I killed something else.
     
Your character gets experience from kills but doesn't gain anything from that experience. Despite promises made on the box, neither attributes nor hit points change as he levels up. Only his "rating" changes, which starts at "dung dweller" and progresses through at least 12 levels, including "scavenger," "dog-wrestler," "useful," and "dangerous." I spent so long at Level 10--"Schwarzenegger"--that I thought it was the highest level, but after a while the rating changed to "Psycho," as if it's my fault that monsters spawn practically every square, and finally to, nonsensically "Well Ard." Does that mean something in British?
       
My character at the 20th hour.
     
What does improve with leveling is access to spells. You start with only one: "Detect Magic," which as far as I can tell has no use anywhere in the game. But you soon acquire "Burning Hands," "Detect Evil" (also no use), and "Magic Missile," and both of the offensive spells in that list outperformed combat attacks for my character for the rest of the game. The last spell you acquire, "Disintegrate," reliably one-shots every single enemy, so there's no more reloading once you have it. I spent the entire second half of my playing time with that spell and didn't even bother to carry a weapon from the moment I acquired it.
       
Blasting an enemy with a "Magic Missile."
      
The list of spells includes "Cure Illness" and "Remove Curse," neither of which I experienced in the game. "Teleport" returns you to the starting area, which is handy because there's a one-way path that locks you out of the area. "Magic Mouth" warns you if an enemy approaches while you're sleeping.
      
The full list of spells at the end of the game.
   
There is absolutely no meter for spells. You can cast as many as you want as frequently as you want.

You don't have to fight every enemy that appears. You can try to just brush past them, which I did a lot of after I was already "well ard." Success seems to depend heavily on the enemy type. Sentient NPCs like dwarves and halflings almost always let you go; monsters like cyclopes and ogres catch you about half the time. Giant rats absolutely never let you pass. When it doesn't work, the enemy gets a free attack at you, so it's a bit of a risk.
      
Trust me, this absolutely is not going to work out for you.
      
As for equipment, there's some. Among the game's 1,500+ squares, I found around 40 items: a sling, two swords, two bolas, two spears, two axes, a dagger, two suits of armor, four scrolls, six potions, a shield, a crown, four bags of gold, two precious gems, a torch, and about eight quest items. They seem to be in the same places for every game.
       
My inventory early in the game.
      
There are a lot of mysteries among the inventory items, some of which I'll cover below. Five of the six potions improved attributes--the only other source of character development in the game. None of the weapons markedly outperformed the others. I'm not sure what the torch does, since you can enter caves and tunnels without it. The bags of gold are treated like inventory items, not an actual pool of gold pieces, and as far as I can tell there's no place to spend them. There is no command to equip the shield. As I'll cover below, none of the quest items did anything for me at all.
      
This potion increased my constitution.
     
NPCs are a big part of the game, but I didn't understand their importance until late. At first, I tried to talk with generic sentient creatures like dwarves and halflings but just got rude replies. The "Tongues" spell lets you get rude replies from even non-sentient creatures like cobras and skeletons. When you choose to speak, you can be friendly, neutral, or rude, but I never noticed a difference in the replies I got except once when a friendly overture elicited "GO AWAY" and a rude overture prompted "GO AWAY AND DON'T COME BACK." My comparatively low charisma might have had something to do with it.
      
Krell must have borrowed Sword & Sorcery's random insult generator.
     
Later, I realized that there are a few named NPCs in the world. Almost all of them say the same thing: "DAMIENNE STOLE THE SCROLLS." That's it. No other explanation or assistance. Because of that, I didn't bother noting their locations as I mapped. This would later come back to haunt me.
      
An NPC waits in a temple.
      
So what of any kind of quest? At first, I hoped that the main quest was just to wait out your 30 days and see what kind of score you'd achieved. The clock ticks forward even if you're just standing still, so I tried jacking the CPU speed to maximum and standing in one place for 30 days. Unfortunately, nothing happened, not even when I returned to the starting square.
       
At least the game uses a 24-hour clock.
      
For no reason that I can possibly justify except that I've recorded a loss on two consecutive games, I spent over 20 hours mapping the entire thing, one lethargic square at a time. The sections of the game basically correspond with a map in the manual, from forests to the southwest to ice wastes in the northeast.
    
The map of the land in the game manual.
And my Excel map.
     
I ran into several problems while mapping. As you can see from the map above, the terrain is blocked off into several sections with single-square passages or bridges between them. It's very easy, when you've hit 20 consecutive "barren grassy plains" in a row offering exits only to the north, west, and east, to miss the one that suddenly had a southern exit. This means that there were entire areas, including most of the tunnels at the bottom-right, that I didn't discover until late in the game.

Second, a few NPCs become important later in the game even if all they say is "DAMIENNE STOLE THE SCROLLS" when you first encounter them. I should have been noting their locations. Most of them are in huts or other buildings, and I did go back and re-investigate those, but a few are just standing in the wilderness, and who knows how many of them I overlooked.

Missing NPCs is compounded by another problem: if there are enemies in the same square, the enemy portraits appear on top of the NPCs. You have to kill them before the NPC shows up. I could have just brushed past any number of NPC squares while trying to avoid enemies.

A few NPCs do offer quests. For instance, a man named Graxx stands at the mouth of the cave to the northwest. He says he has a "magical shape" and wants me to collect the four sacred scrolls, presumably the ones that Damienne stole. In the southeast, "Davilla" wants me to kill "Habgoog," who she says is evil. "Megog" asks me to kill "Questilla," who has cursed him with stone skin. Some of these NPCs drop rings after you talk to them; picking them up makes them disappear but adds permanently to one of our attributes.

Some of the NPCs are clearly lying. Once I killed Questilla and returned to Megog, he called me a "foolish man" and said that I'd managed to kill the "chief do-gooder of Krell" and attacked me. I also have suspicions about Davilla, who seems to be using sex to get what she wants and asked me to kill another NPC named "Caldrix" after I was done with Habgoog.
    
Betrayal!
    
The bigger problem is that the NPCs don't always acknowledge what you've done. After I collected the four scrolls, Graxx had nothing to say, not even when I dumped them in his square. NPCs never seem to acknowledge items, not when I returned the Crown of Hod to Hod or the Eye of Graxx to Graxx. There's no "use" or "give" command for items, just pick up and drop, but still it's hard not to feel like I'm missing something.
      
Graxx refuses to acknowledge the scrolls he asked me to bring him.
     
Meanwhile, Davilla acknowledged when I killed Habgoog but not Caldrix, so that quest is stuck in limbo.
       
But I killed Caldrix!
      
There are a lot of other mysteries. In an ancient sacred temple in the southwest, an Oracle. It sits on the ground like an object that you can pick up, although the game tells you it's too heavy. You can't speak to it or do anything useful with it. I never did find the Damienne who had stolen the scrolls. The most I ever got on something that sounded like a main quest was someone named Guntor, who said that I would need the "Staff of the Gods" to destroy "Vulcor," two things I'd otherwise never heard of.
     
Why is this here?
     
My lack of progress might also be related to a final issue: At the top of the map in the northeast, there's a square that says you can go north, but the game freezes every time I enter this area and go north. I'm not sure if this is an "exit" square for after you solve the quests or if it's a bug. If the latter, it would explain why the game manual counts 600 more squares than I do, and why I can't seem to find so many vital things.

Thus, after spending an absurd amount of time mapping such a limited game, I must unfortunately call a halt and declare it unwinnable unless someone comes forward with more information or the "hint sheet" that the manual promises.
      
In an odd innovation, the "B"-side of the cassette has a track of "ambient noises" to listen to while playing. It consists of chirping crickets, howling wind, animal noises, monstrous groans and snorts, the odd clanging of a church bell, distant thunder, screams, and the occasional hint offered by the developer in a Satanic voice. "Ancient Krellian proverbs say, 'Never let your heart rule your head,'" goes one. Another warns about bad potions. I listened to the whole half hour to see if it offered anything to assist with my predicament, but no luck. It's certainly an interesting approach to providing atmosphere to a game.
    
Something about that dragon behind the rock seems familiar.
     
Based on what I experienced, it earns a 16 on the GIMLET, with 1s and 2s for everything except "economy" (0) and "quests" (3); I'm going out on a limb with the latter and assuming that at least one of the encounters is an alternate or side-quest.

I was glad to find a compatible opinion in the only review I could find, from the May 1987 Sinclair User. "My God, is it tedious," Graham Taylor writes, after offering a little praise for the graphics. He's not just talking about the repetitive banality of the areas but also the loading time of those areas; I was running the game at 4x normal speed, so I didn't experience that particular issue. He also thought the icon system was needlessly cumbersome. One aspect I didn't cover above, which I guess was fairly innovative at the time, was the use of RAM for quick-saving and quick-loading the game. This and the large game world were responsible for the title's 128k requirement.

The Kingdom of Krell was written by Steve Screech, who became relatively famous in subsequent years for his soccer games. His portfolio, up to the present day, is almost all sports titles. Neither he nor Anco ever developed or published another RPG, which makes one wonder why they were particularly motivated to create this one.

"The Kingdom of Krell," as a bit of trivia, appears in the 1971 sci-fi novel A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. It is also the name of an audio systems manufacturer in Connecticut and a vampire in the Warhammer universe.

It looks like I only have one more ZX Spectrum game, in 1989. I'll miss the emulator--Spectaculator is fantastically easy to use--if not the platform.

****

There's a TI-99 game called Legends coming up, but I can't get it to run. I think I'm doing something wrong with the emulator (Classic99), but I don't know what. I've got the Extended Basic cartridge activated, and from what I understand, it's supposed to just pick things up automatically, but it doesn't. If I try to load it manually, it comes up with "Legends Loading, Please Wait" and then crashes with an "I/O ERROR 07 IN 10." If anyone has successfully gotten this game running, I would appreciate help with the configuration.




Monday, October 16, 2017

Might and Magic III: Mounted and Mastered!

"And on the pedestal, these words appear . . ."
      
There wasn't much Might and Magic to play after the last entry. I could have finished it in another 15 minutes, probably. That it took me a few more hours was reflective less of my savoring the last moments and more that, because I didn't know what was coming, I spent a lot of time in needless character development.

The session started when I gave all my remaining Ultimate Power Orbs to "Tumult, King Chaotic," the neutral king, who had initially struck me as a good halfway choice between the zeal of the "good" king and the clear maleficence of the "evil" king. It turns out they were all jerks.
     
Guys, we might have made a mistake here . . .
     
Once Tumult had the orbs, he apparently used them to lay waste to the other two castles. They were no longer accessible, in any event. I got what I needed from the process, a "Blue Priority Passcard."
      
Sorry, king. But I suspect you would have done the same thing.
      
It's curious how the developers pitted "chaos" as the neutral point between good and evil, rather than the opposite: order for its own sake, irrespective of the ends. I wonder if they were making a point about the absurdity of classic D&D "alignments" in general. I think they disappear from the main series after this, and my understanding is that the alignments offered in the Heroes series are more nuanced.

After this, I dropped all of my gold at Gringotts and began the process of working odd jobs for $50 per week. To finish getting all the rewards from Greywind and Blackwind, I needed to wait until Day 50 and 60 of three consecutive years, and I figured I might as well earn interest in the meantime. As I started the process, I had $20 million.
     
Unfortunately, there's no option to burn weeks while resting leisurely.
       
Both Greywind and Blackwind had three thrones. One of them permanently raised attributes; the other two delivered gold and items. (Some of those were Precious Pearls of Youth and Beauty that I spent several days offloading one at a time to the Pirate Queen.) When I started the session, I had this idea that you could only use each throne once, but now I'm not sure that's true. Maybe I'll fire it up again and experiment before the summary and rating.
       
Not that I really needed any more advancement.
      
During the three-year period, I also turned in two more seashells to Athea on Day 99 and brought my love-struck party members to Princess Trueberry, finally curing her doldrums.
      
Yes, the solution to this puzzle was quantity, not quality.
      
Trueberry gave me the alicorn horn in return, which I brought back to the shrine in Orc Meadow. Something happened there involving a galloping unicorn. I didn't really understand it, but I got a few million experience points from the deal.
     
Isn't an alicorn supposed to have wings?
        
Just for the hell of it, I had my characters continue working odd jobs for another few years, rationalizing it with my belief that it's obnoxious to try to accomplish too much before you're 30. As I was wrapping up the process, I realized that Terra's years are only 100 days long, so a 30-year-old Terran is only a little more than eight years old by our standards. I've been practicing child endangerment this entire game.
     
Back at the vault, I retrieved my earnings. I had gained $15 million in interest in five years. Not bad.
      
I have to wonder who his other clients are that he can afford a 12% APR.
      
I immediately spent $13 million leveling my characters about 7 levels each. The average was 115 when I was finished, with the two NPCs now asking for $250,000 each per day. I still had plenty of money, and I could have leveled up some more by scattering some of it into the central fountain in Fountainhead, but at this point I didn't know how much longer the game would last.
      
My party as we head for the endgame.
   
I figured it was time to explore the central pyramid. I'm not going to keep mentioning it, but during the explorations below, I wasted a lot of time visiting buffing fountains before entering the pyramid and its various sections. The enemies weren't hard enough to justify all the additional buffing, and I'm not sure why I was being such a wuss.

The tunnel led to the Central Control Sector of the great space ship resting under Terra's oceans, the various storage and engine areas of which I had explored last time. Immediately as I entered, I was attacked by "Death Agents," who despite their name died in single blows without doing any damage to me.
      
Death needs better representation.
      
The area consisted of a central room with a bunch of side-rooms off of it, and one long corridor heading off to the west. I naturally explored the side rooms first. They held robots, including a new kind called a "Terminator" that couldn't be damaged in melee combat and was capable of "eradicating" my party members if he got lucky. I had to destroy them with spells; "Implosion" did particularly well. I had to resurrect slain characters a few times.
        
If they were going to give it this name, you think they could have tried harder on the graphics.
       
The rooms held a few boons, including chalices that added a few million experience points to the character who drinks from it. One of them served up an "Interspacial [sic] Transport Box," which is capable of visiting any of the game's maps by entering its number. It's a cute idea, but by this time I already had the ability to zoom to any game map with a combination of "Lloyd's Beacon," "Town Portal," and "Teleport." Since the box would have required a lot of fiddling to determine which number corresponded with which maps, I didn't waste a lot of time with it. Getting to this location ASAP would be the key to a successful speed run, however, as the box seems to remove the need for keys to the various dungeons.
     
Next time I swallow a good single malt, I'm going to think, "Ah, there's another 4 million experience points."
       
Most important, the half a dozen side chambers held talking heads that, when prompted with a password (CREATORS) that I got from another one of the ship's sectors, were quite explicit about the plot of the game. Together, they said:
       
Spanning the farthest reaches of the universe, two super-developed societies, the Ancients and the Creator, are engaged in a galactic race for power. The Creators exist in a nebulous realm where they construct their plots and create vile, chaotic armies to disrupt the civilizations of the Ancients. [The in-game text uses the singular "Creator" the first time and then "Creators" everywhere else.]

The Ancients draw their power from the heat and light of stars to create the intricate mechanisms of society, then send these civilizations to cultivate developing worlds. 
      
      
This mission has been code named The Great Experiment. It extends further away from the seat of the Ancients than any other colonization. It is under much greater threat from the Creators.

Because of the interference created by the renegade Guardian, Sheltem, the CRON and most of the VARNs carried by this vessel were lost in the Great Sea of Terra.
     
Okay, lots of exposition there. We'll learn more about Sheltem in a minute, but let's talk about the implications of the above. First the ship we're exploring is clearly the same vessel that held the CRON and VARNs of Might and Magic I and II. Now what do they mean that "most" of the VARNs were lost? Were some saved? Did the creatures from them supplant or merge with the existing life on Terra? How long has passed since this all happened, anyway?

What happened, I wonder, to the party that occupied this ship at the end of Might and Magic II? My pet theory is they somehow became the "Death Agents" that attacked me when I entered. There were only like six of them, and they're not found anywhere else in the game.

The background of the Ancients seeding worlds with their little CRON/VARN biospheres makes sense, but did they have to add vampires to the mix? How do undead in general fit with this backstory?

For that matter, how do the legends of the Elemental Lords fit? Are they the "Creators" mentioned here? (I suspect not, given what follows.) Either way, how were we able to visit their dimensions from CRON?

Finally, who are the "Creators"? Are the Kreegan of the VI-VIII series part of their "vile, chaotic armies"?

Seeking answers, we pressed forward down the long hallway. Well, no, actually we left the ship, returned to town, leveled up some more, visited the fountains again, and so forth, which again was all unnecessary. Then, we returned and pressed down the long hallway. The Blue Passcard from King Tumult was necessary to get through one of the doors.
       
       
I can't remember if there were any battles in the hallway. I don't think there were, meaning that one of the random combats with a "Terminator" was the last necessary battle in the game. Actually, I suppose those side rooms aren't technically necessary to win, so those pushover "Death Agents" were the last necessary combat in the game. There may have been one or two robots in the corridors; someone else might remember.
    
In any event, at the end of the long hallway, we ran into a scene that I wish had been illustrated but instead was only described via text:
     
The air is filled with the smell of ether and the flickering of colored lights, like horrible lightning. Down the corridor to the left, two robed figures battle among the plasm of magic so thick it hangs in the air like fog. It is Corak and Sheltem, locked in mortal combat among the sparks of their supernatural clash. Sensing your presence, Corak looks away long enough to give Sheltem the chance to pass into a nearby transport tube. Cursing under his breath, Corak beckons you to follow before disappearing into the same transport tube.
     
Would it have been too much to show Corak and Sheltem?
      
It's not a huge surprise that Corak is alive; the party from Might and Magic II reunited his soul with his body as part of the cleric's quest. I don't know how Sheltem came back to life. More important, though, the party from this game has no idea who these people are.

The player can turn left at the screenshot above and immediately proceed to the endgame, but naturally I had to explore the rest of the map. The automap clearly shows it shaped like the front of a ship:
     
Though not so much like the Enterprise.
   
At the ends of the corridors that look like guns are levers that say things like "Torpedo Launch Control" and "Primary Phaser Batteries." They didn't seem to do anything when activated, though its mildly amusing to think that the party is causing destruction and chaos all over Terra while they frown and flip the levers back and forth.
      
On the surface, an entire island is vaporized.
      
The whole area was swarming with robots, including a ton of those "Terminators." I fired off volley after volley of "Implosion . . ."
      
       
. . . but still had to reload a couple of times when everyone capable of casting "Resurrection" was eradicated.
     
Things aren't looking so well.
       
At the nose of the spacecraft were a couple of talking heads that congratulated me for making it through a difficult optional area. One of them offered the game credits. The other told me to use the special code "KTOW" when reporting my success to New World, to prove that I had made it to the optional area. It promised a "special reward" for this. I will wonder for the rest of my life what that award was.
     
Well, that's clearly me.
       
Time to win! Heading back to the location of Corak and Sheltem's duel, I found the transport tubes that they had entered. Entering myself, I found a couple of round doors . . .
     
       
. . . opening into the cockpit of a small two-seat craft:

       
As we presumably took the seats, a holographic head (accompanied by a digitized voice) appeared on a screen and asked us to "enter init sequence," which I correctly guessed to be the six-digit number offered by Kings Greywind and Blackwind. The five hologram cards I'd been collecting in the game's last hours were needed here.
     
     
The head then offered the final exposition as text on the screen:
       
The Grand Experiment of the Ancients: to use the technology of Elemental Manipulation to create a completely viable ecological and social microcosm. This microcosm was then to be transported to a distant biosphere (Terra) to supplant its indigenous ecosystem. The need was acknowledged for a central controlling unit capable of compensating for unexpected anomalies. 

Sheltem was created to be the Overlord and Guardian of Terra--the Supreme Law--but his conditioning was flawed. Seeing himself as the Guardian of Terra, not of the Ancients' colonization experiment, he rebelled against the "invading army" that was to be sent to "his" world. Sheltem was contained but later escaped, determined to undermine the Grand Experiment.

Learning from their earlier failure with Sheltem, the Ancients created a new Guardian named Corak. With his conditioning properly completed, the Grand Experiment was launched on its journey through the Void. Corak's first duty was to eliminate the threat of Sheltem, then assume the role of Guardian and Overlord of the Terra colonization.

Unable to stop the colonization of Terra, Sheltem has succeeded in disturbing the balance between the three alignments of men, a balance Corak must work to regain upon his return to Terra. However, Sheltem sees this as only a minor compensation and has set out to exact revenge by sabotaging other experiments the Ancients have scattered throughout the Void.

Two escape capsules have disembarked from this vessel, the first occupied by Sheltem, the second by Corak. At Corak's request, a third has been prepared to follow their course for a rendezvous at whatever world Sheltem seeks to exact his revenge upon. Having proven yourself as an Ultimate Adventurer, Corak and the Ancients ask your help in the adventures yet to come . . .
     
The scene then shows a small vessel departing from the main ship under Terra's seas . . .
     
      
. . . and launching itself into space.
    
"Fineous and Allan, I think it may be time to renegotiate your daily rate."
      
As we know now, of course, that vessel--called the Lincoln--missed its mark. While Corak and Sheltem ended up on Xeen, where a new party of locals would have to continue their fight, the Might and Magic III heroes somehow crashed into the seas of Enroth, found some SCUBA suits, and walked out of the ocean and onto a foreign shore.
     
Ah, but we're getting way ahead of ourselves.

(Side note: I never did find Tolberti or Robert the Wise, the two other canonical NPCs from VII. Where were they supposed to come from?)
      
From the exposition above, it sounds like the Ancients are the creators of the Elemental Lords, and all the backstory from the manuals in II and III about the elementals creating the worlds are mythological interpretations of a real creation process.

Sheltem and Corak are described as creations of the Ancients, but not robots, I assume, since Corak had a "soul" in Might and Magic II (although maybe that was an abstraction for something like a CPU). 

Sheltem being briefly "contained" seems to be a reference to Might and Magic I, where the alien (an Ancient?) described him as an escaped prisoner. It's hard not to agree with Sheltem's cause, incidentally. Isn't "supplanting" the life on an existing planet a bit evil? Especially when you're supplanting it with vampires and giant poisonous spiders and stuff? And if Terra is a real world, not a created one, why is it so small and flat? What condition are we leaving it, having taken Sheltem's existing "disruption of the alignments of men" and apparently carried it to an extreme conclusion?

As we ponder these issues, there are three other things I'm wondering for the final entry:
          
  • What's the highest score that anyone has ever achieved? On the surface, my score above (1,106,212,020) seems likely close to the maximum because I solved just about every quest in the game. I'm sure I could have gotten it higher by spending more time in the Arena and using the fountain in Fountainhead. However, when you consider that I could have worked my party at odd jobs for another 20-30 years, earned tens of millions more interest, thrown most of that in the fountain, and leveled up accordingly, I'll bet I'm nowhere near the top.
  • Even more interesting: what's the lowest score you could win with? That's related to the next question:
  • How fast could you win the game in a speedrun? I suspect you could do it in less than an hour. You'd probably solve Fountainhead's quest (to get the experience fountain active), put the reward gold in the bank, work odd jobs for a decade or so, use the interest to pay for 10-15 levels and the needed transport spells, and make the "Interspacial Transport Box" a priority, bypassing the need for a bunch of keys. After that, you'd have to go to a series of dungeons, zooming around for the Ultimate Power Orbs and hologram cards. The big question mark is to what extent you can avoid combats. I didn't mark the location of individual enemies on my maps, so I don't know how hard it would be to avoid monsters even if you could "Teleport" around. If there are a few major combats that you can't avoid, you would need the appropriate levels and spells to deal with them, which would result in a higher score.
         
Maybe I'll experiment with these things for the final entry.

*****

If any of you are following the progress of Felipe Pepe's CRPG book project, it appears it's almost done. It is done, I think, to the extent originally envisioned, but Felipe keeps adding more games and reviews. Right now, he's seeking dedicated fans to complete short reviews of a few remaining games, including Eamon, Fracas, Rogue, Questron, Divinity: Original Sin, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. You can see the full list here. If you're interested in contributing, you can reach Felipe at crpgbook@gmail.com