Saturday, May 26, 2018

Legend: Summary and Rating

United Kingdom
Mindscape (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Published in the United States as The Four Crystals of Trazere
Date Started: 7 April 2018
Date Ended: 21 May 2018 
Total Hours: 33
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

I really struggled over whether to quit this one. On the one hand, it was getting a little better. On the other, it was simply exhausting. Combats in Kilijan's Dark Tower became difficult enough that each one was a nail-biting fight to the death, requiring all my best tactics and spells, and even then I had to reload half of them. Most RPGs give you maybe 10 throw-away battles punctuated by the occasional significant battle. In Legend, none of the battles are throw-aways. A random encounter in a corridor you just cleared can absolutely destroy you, with enemies pouring in from all sides, a new one arriving to replace every one you've slain. I swear, some battles go on long enough that the game decides to generate a new random battle while you're still fighting the old one.

My inventory got so overloaded during the third level of the Dark Tower that I decided to make the journey back to the main map, with all of the random combats in between, to sell the excess goods, donate money at temples to restore luck, and level up. I did all of these things, then couldn't force myself to re-enter the tower and wind all the way back up. I sat on it for a couple of days. Finally, I decided I'd quit if someone else online had documented the endgame.
As far as I made it: the stairs going up to Level 4 of the Dark Tower.
My, has someone. Starting in November 2011, a YouTube member named Dzyu played the game over 102 videos, ending in May 2013. His videos were invaluable in documenting the endgame. (Another worthy LP series was started in June 2015 by FSSZilla, but as of her 83rd video in November 2017, she hadn't won.)

The Dark Tower turns out to be five levels. At the top, the player defeats Kilijan (who is immune to "Disrupt" and "Paralyze") and gets his magic staff, either keeping it or turning it in to the Ancient for a reward. Somewhere in the Dark Tower, the player finds a skull key that opens up Levels 3 and 4 of Fagranc. Once you clear those, you have to visit taverns to hear of the discovery of a "power gem" in the sewers of Balenhalm by some "ratmen." Balenhalm is a single large level.

Next up are two levels of Moonhenge in the northeast corner of the map. It provides the keys necessary to explore Levels 5 and 6 of Fagranc, which in turn provides the items necessary for the two levels of the Unshrine (which jumps around the map), where the party contends with Tetrahagael, the Chaos Lord. This is apparently an exceedingly difficult battle, as the Chaos Lord has magical protections (which you have to dispel), immunities, and very high hit point total. The Chaos Lord has the key necessary for the eighth and final level of Fagranc.

While exploring the dungeons, the party members also find the titular four crystals of Trazere, each of which boosts the defenses of one of the towers on the overland map. Between dungeons, the party has to reconquer cities seized by the enemy and provide gold to boost staffing at the towers.
This is the kind of statement that would make a robot's brain explode on the original Star Trek.
After delivering the fourth crystal, the party discovers that King Necrix himself is responsible for the evil taking hold in the land. ("Necrix" always sounded like a suspicious name.) The party must assault the king's fortress, fight up three levels, and slay him at the top. It took Dzyu over half a dozen attempts. Watching this part of the video gives you a sense of the complete chaos that is combat in this game. Even watching instead of playing, I can't tell what's happening most of the time. Spells are exploding all over the place, characters die in seconds. It's so crazy that in the fight where he finally kills the king, he doesn't even realize it for a few seconds.
A typical shot from the final battle.
Even after killing the king, Dzyu has enough trouble with the chaos beasts that he runs into an adjacent room hoping for better terrain, and in the midst of combat accidentally reads a sign--and unwittingly concludes the game. (To his credit, he recorded a final video in which he completed the combat before reading the sign.) He's clearly let down by the lack of denouement after so many hours ("I think I would have preferred at least some artwork"), but he remarks that he should have expected it given the sparsity of story throughout the game.
The winning screen.
The sign, of course, confirms Legend as a prequel to Bloodwych, the idea being that the Bloodwych now take over in the place of Necrix, reign peacefully for a while, and are then usurped by Zendick in the first game.
Dzyu's late-game spellbook.
Throughout the videos, Dzyu clearly enjoys the game for its spells. A late game screenshot shows his current recipe list, which I make out as:

1. "Missile-Disrupt-Disrupt-Disrupt-Damage-Damage-Damage." An all-purpose "blast the hell out of a targeted enemy" spell. "Disrupt" is more powerful than "Damage" but some enemies are immune to it, so I'm sure the goal here was to have a spell that would devastate anyone.

2. "Surround-Damage-Damage-Damage-Missile-Damage-Damage-Damage-Surround-Damage-Damage-Damage-Missile-Damage-Damage-Damage." This one is similar to my "fill the room with fire" spell, but jacked up to the maximum possibility.

3. "Heal-Heal-Heal-Continuous-Heal-Heal-Heal." The best I can figure, this immediately triple-heals the caster, then creates a square of healing magic in the room that other characters can walk or teleport into.

4. "Missile-Surround-Vivify-Heal-Heal." This allows the caster to resurrect any dead characters in a 9-square radius and then immediately heal them a bit.

5. "Regenerate." His only single-rune spell lets the caster regenerate quickly.

6. "Missile-Teleport-Speed." Allows the caster to send one of his colleagues to another place in the room and simultaneously give him extra attacks.

7. "Teleport-Regenerate-Speed-Antimagic-Surround-Teleport-Regenerate-Speed-Mystic Weapon-Antimagic." A kind of holistic pre-combat spell that gives each character the most important buffs and allows him to place himself anywhere in the room at the beginning of combat.

8. "Missile-Forward-Missile-Teleport." No idea. I'm guessing this was a solution to his last puzzle somehow. He doesn't have any of these mixed, which bolsters my hypothesis.

9 & 10. "Missile-Paralyze" and "Missile-Dispel." Both quick spells to affect a single target.

Analyzing some of the videos, "Teleport" is the real workhorse, and it makes sense that "Cloud" objects (rings, potions, wands, helms), which cast the spell, are vital to the party's success. They're the key to placing characters in strategic positions at the outset of combat, and to ensuring that the assassin is well-placed to use his backstabbing abilities. The spell also gets wounded enemies out of combat and to healing squares.

My GIMLET combines both my experiences and what I observed in Dzyu's videos.

1. Game World. Neither the game world nor the story is well fleshed out, consisting primarily of allusions rather than real descriptions and sensible bits of lore. The game's "twist"--Necrix being the evil lord behind the invasion--doesn't really make any sense. Why didn't he undermine the "good" armies? Why did he send the party to Fagranc? It's too bad, because the connections to Bloodwych would be more meaningful if the story in either game made more sense. Score: 3.

2. Character Creation and Development. There are limited options during creation, and I feel that the number of levels achievable during the game (about 12) is a little low given the difficulty of combats. You have no choices while leveling up--you just get a random selection of stat upgrades. On the plus side, each of the four characters plays a pretty stark role. You can't just treat them all like fighters. You have to carefully equip and position them in ways that call on the strengths of their classes. I also like that the four classes--berserker, troubadour, assassin, and runemaster--are just a bit different than the standard fantasy RPG roster. Score: 4.
A late-game troubadour, from Dzyu's LP.
3. NPC Interaction. I'll give a point for a few people in the various towns, but really those are more part of the "encounters" or "economy" than true NPCs. Score: 1.

4. Encounters and Foes. As a somewhat non-visual person, it particularly annoys me when games don't name their monsters or use color to distinguish types or difficulty, and this game does both. The monsters in the game are a varied selection of humanoids and beasts, some of which do physical damage only, some of which are capable of magic, some of which have magical immunities and protections. I suspect it becomes important to note which is which, and I don't like having to fill notebooks with things like "bluish guy that looks like a minotaur--can self-teleport." 

The other aspect to "encounters" is the puzzles. I ran hot and cold, as I do with almost any game that features these sorts of mechanical puzzles (cf. DarkSpyre, Chaos Strikes Back). I thought some were too difficult and others offered the right level of challenge. They seem to get pretty crazy towards the endgame. Score: 4, but those who like puzzle-oriented games might boost this to a 6 or 7.

5. Magic and Combat. The magic system is obviously the highlight of the game, offering potentially thousands of creative combinations. I would love to have this type of spell system, maybe with a few more effects, coupled with a proper tactical combat system--either turn-based like the Gold Box games, or real-time-with-pause, like the Infinity Engine games.

The combat system actually offered in Legend has too few tactical options for non-spellcasters, is too chaotic and confusing, in too tightly-confined territories, with poor pathfinding and AI. It undermines most of the positives of the magic system. Score: 5.

6. Equipment. A positive that I probably didn't focus enough time on. Each character gets a variety of weapons, shields, armor, helms, gloves, boots, amulets, rings, wands, potions, and special items like the troubadour's various instruments. Upgrades are fairly regular. For regular weapons and armor, you can easily see their effects on your various statistics. For magic items, you have to experiment and study the effects (or take them to the Ancient for identification), but the totality of the items allows all characters to wield some magic and thus increases combat tactics. I also like that the available items in shops changed throughout the game, and that the treasures were randomized rather than fixed. Score: 6.

7. Economy. Another strong point. Between equipment, leveling, runes, reagents, donating at temples for "luck," and fortifying towers, money remains relevant until the end of the game. Score: 6.

8. Quests. There's a main quest with multiple stages, but I don't think there are "side quests." One of the stages, at least, gives you a single choice, but in general you're on a linear rail throughout the game. Score: 3.
You have to love "I shall kill you all myself . . . Guards!"
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I rather like the oblique-angle graphics and the various dungeon scenes they create, and I didn't have any problems with the interface, which offers redundant mouse and keyboard options--with the exception of targeting (sometimes). Sound, on the other hand, is only serviceable, consisting of the "ding-ding-ding" of weapons while the same troubadour tune drones endlessly in the background. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. Here's where it all falls apart by hitting every element of the Unholy Quartet: too linear, too hard, not replayable, and above all, too long. I'll give a point in this category in recognition of the outdoor map, which allows relatively free exploration between the dungeons. Score: 1.

That gives us a final score of 37, just above my "recommend to check out" threshold, but not quite all the way to "good."

Anthony Taglione, responsible for both this and Bloodwych, is clearly a talented programmer with some good ideas. Both games started with a popular base (Dungeon Master in the case of Bloodwych) but brought their own innovations. Neither Bloodwych's cooperative multiplayer nor Legend's magic system have anything quite like it among their predecessors. But both games commit the fatal sin of not knowing when to quit. Neither 1989 nor 1992 was ready for 100-hour games; the hardware and software of the time simply didn't support enough content. Even today, I regard a game that requires 100 hours with a jaundiced eye, although I have no trouble with games that allow for that length. I trust you can see the difference.

Of course, even given any memory- and space-based limitations, this small series is still pretty paltry when it comes to actual story. And both games reward dozens of hours of gameplay with a single screen of text at the endgame. I would have shared Mr. Dzyu's expectation for at least some artwork, particularly since Legend featured an animated introduction.

Computer Gaming World overlooked this one, but Dragon got to it and gave them an uncharacteristically-low 3/5 stars, calling it a "decent effort" with an original magic system but "limited character creation," confusing combat, and an unintuitive interface. European reviews mostly ran in the 80s and 90s (though the German Play Time gave it a 56). Unfortunately, I can't quote any of them because the site I use to find full-text magazines from the period is down. Given the light standards of journalistic integrity that we've seen in most European Amiga magazines, it's hard to imagine that many (if any) of them made it to the end before reviewing the game, and I feel that the interminable length and abrupt conclusion are key parts of the game.

We aren't done with the world of Trazere. 1993 will bring Worlds of Legend: Son of the Empire. Judging by the screenshots and game description, it is simply Legend with different maps, featuring a quasi-East Asian theme. In 1994, we'll face Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, which appears to be an updated variant of Bloodwych. Those will be our last experiences with Mr. Taglione, as the other offerings from both him and co-designer Peter Owen-James are action and adventure titles (1993's Bram Stoker's Dracula, 1997's Alpha Storm).

We'll clean up a couple of 1988 offerings before getting to the next 1992 game, starting (maybe) with Seven Little Horrors, a bizarre German game from Motelsoft. I'm having trouble with the interface and have written to the publisher for help. If I can't figure it out in time for an entry, we'll move on to the easy-but-bland Talisman, a roguelike for the Atari 800.


I was really looking forward to trying the first version of the long-running UnReal World. Released in 1992, version 1.00b is completely unrecognizable to a player of later versions, with a vastly different interface, different rules, and a high-fantasy setting (rather than real-world Finland). But I can't get it to run. I can run the character creation program and the world setup program, but the main program offers four options, each tied to a function key, and none of them activate. I've verified that the function keys work in DOSBox with other programs. If I can't get 1.00b to run, I have to wait until 1994 for the next major release.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Quest for Glory III: Summary and Rating

Note that the box character is explicitly the paladin.
Quest for Glory III: Wages of War
United States
Sierra On-Line (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 1 April 2018
Date Ended: 18 May 2018 
Total Hours: 25
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)

Even if originally unplanned and somewhat interpolated between Trial by Fire and Shadows of Darkness, Wages of War is a worthy game that continues the series' admirable efforts to walk the line between heroic epic and whimsical fantasy. As I did with the previous games, I had a lot of fun playing it, as evidenced by my insistence on going through it 5 times.

However, I must conclude that while (to my limited perspective) it performs just as well as its predecessors as an adventure game, it does slightly less well as an RPG. I think this is less because of the game's approach and more because of the issue that a lot of games experience in which character development is less palpable the further the character gets from his starting skills. Here, any character who built his attributes and skills to near-200 in Trial by Fire can coast through the game, winning every combat and passing nearly every skill check without having to put in any effort. The only exceptions I can think of are "Throwing" and the "Agility" attribute, both of which must be developed to the mid-200s to win the warrior initiation rituals.

As for spells, the game seems to have completely forgotten the skill level attached to them. I guess "Flame Dart" and "Force Bolt" did more damage as my skill went up, but there was no threshold attached to successful uses of "Juggling Lights," "Fetch," "Reversal," "Open," "Trigger," or any of the puzzle-based spells. This was also true of a few non-spell skills like "Climbing" and "Pick Locks." It's important that the series not abandon skill checks because what makes the games such good hybrids is that knowing the solution to the puzzle isn't enough: you also have to have developed the skill to a high enough level to use it successfully.

My fighter was the only character to face a true challenge, starting with statistics lower than a veteran character coming from Trial by Fire. This allowed me to experience the changes in the combat system in a way that I couldn't with the previous characters. I think Wages of War's combat mechanics are the best of the series so far: It's clearer when you need to dodge or parry, and you can't just spam attacks. Moreover, the wizard is effective enough (and has enough mana points) that he can survive in combat entirely as a spellcaster.
Enemy movements help determine the best times to slash or thrust.
The poor thief limps into Shadows of Darkness having enjoyed no place to practice his skills. There are only two locks to pick (and the nose trick no longer works). There are a couple of places to climb, and one (the Anubis statue at the end) that you can climb repeatedly, but none of them seemed to increase the skill.

Finally, I'll note that achieving a perfect score is much more of an achievement here than in previous games. A lot depends on luck, and it's easy not to realize that you've missed a potential encounter. For instance, if you encounter Harami in the bazaar during the day and agree to meet him at night, you get 4 points. But if you encounter him first at night, you can progress with his side-quest, and yet you miss the 4 points.

Several points are dependent upon temporary dialogue options. For instance, you get 2 points for telling Kreesha about the leopard woman after you dispel her but before you marry her. So if you don't trek back to Tarna between dispelling Johari and marrying Johari, you can't get those 2 points. Similarly, you get 2 points by talking to Uhura about marriage after marrying Johari but before giving her any gifts. Other points depend on selecting the "correct" dialogue option while meeting with Rajah or the Laibon. If you try to cover everything, you may miss out on the point-giving option when he gets tired and kicks you out.

Finally, I think some of the points are just bugged. The walkthroughs I consulted say you get 3 for reading the bulletin board in the tavern, but I just tested it and got none. I also don't think my paladin got the points he was supposed to get for defeating the Demon Worm towards the end, nor defeating an ape man for the first time.

Since points don't affect the character's skill or power, it's easy to say that it's no big deal if you leave this game having missed 25 or 30 of them. On the other hand, points are important because they're the only way to tell that a player has experienced most of the game's content. As we saw with my "Bad Chester" experience, many of the actions and moments in Wages of War have no practical value in terms of the direction of the story. Giving gifts to Johari, helping Harami, participating in the Sekhmet ritual, playing the mini-games in the Simbani village, and most NPC encounters and dialogue options are reflected only in points. It's too bad they're not more practical. It would be cool if the number of points earned in each game was translated to a bonus pool of skill points that you could allocate at the beginning of the next game.

I expect Quest for Glory III to rate about even with II, which was a bit lower than the first one. I think the lesser RPG elements will be balanced by higher scores in game world and combat. Let's see.

1. Game World. For this, I can pretty much just quote Alex's final rating at The Adventure Gamer:
Tarna as a city and a land is an absolute joy to behold. Wages of War’s African-inspired setting was unique at the time, and remains so to this day. It’s an underused milieu, as evidenced by the popularity and aesthetic impact of Marvel’s recent smash Black Panther movie. Audiences, whether in movies or games, like to see things that they have not seen before, and Wages of War delivers.
But I also agree with Alex that the story is a bit weaker. Everyone is too-easily manipulated by the demons, whose overall plan really isn't that clever or original. Still, this doesn't detract too much. In general, Wages of War offers almost everything I'm looking for in this category. Score: 8.
I didn't talk about it much while playing, but the documentation perfectly complements the game setting. At the same time, so much exposition is delivered in-game that the documentation is almost optional.
2. Character Creation and Development. I continue to admire Quest for Glory's skill system, and the satisfying way that attributes and skills increase as you use them. Some of them are delightfully unintuitive, such as the way intelligence increases when you perfectly-time a dodge or parry. (I still have no idea what "Luck" does or how it goes up.) The increases are regular and rapid enough to be satisfying, but you still have to grind (which isn't necessary) if you want to reach the end with perfect scores.

Perhaps most important, the series is a rarity in offering tangibly different experiences for different classes, to the extent that I had to replay it several times to see all the content. The differences among classes seem to grow more stark with every new game in the series. In So You Want to Be a Hero, the differences amounted to a couple of side-puzzles (that anyone could engage in if they had the skills). In Trial by Fire, each class had a side quest but mostly followed the same path. In Wages of War, class choice makes fairly significant changes to the story.

My primary quibble in this category is what I discussed above: the lack of necessity of character development, particularly if you import a character from Trial by Fire. And in some ways, the series seems to be losing its grip on the importance of skill level to success. Score: 6.

3. NPC Interaction. As usual, we have a great cast of characters here with individual personalities and interesting back stories. More so than the previous games, each character has different dialogue "trees" for different points in the game, so it's very easy to reach the end without having spoken to everyone about everything. The need to click on yourself to explore various "Tell" options was disconcerting at first, but it ultimately added to role-playing, as did the time limits imposed by certain conversations. I have to tell you, though: I miss the need to take notes and type the dialogue options. All the clicking made it too easy to go too fast and overlook key bits of information. Score: 7.
Even this guy had a whole dialogue tree.
4. Encounters and Foes. I found the enemies less imaginative in this entry. Almost all of them could have come from Dungeons and Dragons but with different names. (In particular, why name a charging lizard-beast something as bland as "dinosaur"?) The puzzles were a bit too easy, as usual, and mostly involved having the right item rather than doing the right thing. However, there were occasional multi-stage puzzles that offered a satisfying challenge, including the thief missions, the wizards' duel, and the endgame sequence. Score: 5.

5. Magic and Combat. Slightly improved. The combat control panel is easy to master, whether you're just fighting or switching between physical attacks and spells. It's clearer when you should time dodging, parrying, and attacking, although the monsters aren't hard enough for it to really matter. The wizard can engage in combat solely as a wizard, and spells like "Calm" and "Dazzle" do what they're supposed to do pre-combat. I like that good throwers can take down enemies with daggers and stones. But the system remains mostly optional, with too little in the way of tactics, for a very high score. Score: 4.
6. Equipment. Pretty weak on the RPG side. The paladin gets a weapon upgrade, and the fighter can if he becomes a paladin. Other than that, weapons and armor remain what you started with. Almost everything else is a puzzle item except for the pills. Score: 2.
Does anyone know why my thief carried this thing around for the entire game?
7. Economy. Unfortunately, quite bad. Some easy improvements in this area would have affected the whole game. The problem is that you start with as much money as you need to get through the entire game. This leaves no incentive to fight for gold, for the thief to steal the chests in the two huts, or even to engage in the "bargaining" mechanic. It also encourages you to make a single trip through the bazaar and buy everything at once instead of prioritizing--and returning now and then to get new dialogue options with the NPCs. When the economy is too generous, there is basically no economy at all. Score: 1.

8. Quests. There's a solid main quest and several character-based side quests reflected in points rather than story outcomes. As I covered in my experience with "Bad Chester," I was disappointed that so few of the options really mattered in the endgame. I feel like a few tweaks could have made this better: if you didn't give the gifts to Johari, or help Harami, or free Manu from the cage, or even meet Yesufu, they simply don't show up. The player then has to overcome more enemies than if he had his full contingent of sidekicks, and may fail if he doesn't have enough pills. (This approach would have made the economy more relevant, too.) This also would have forced the player to pay more attention to Sekhmet's prophecy and fulfill its various clauses. Ah, well. Score: 4.
I don't think I previously offered this cool shot of all my companions fighting their doppelgangers.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The VGA graphics are really the best we can expect with the technology of the era. They look beautiful and evocative, and they make great use of the setting and theme. I particularly love the way the overland map is framed as if you're looking from high atop a southern mountain, with trees in your immediate periphery. 
I like this shot of the Lost City with my thief surrounded by corpses of ape men. He had to kill one every time he came down from the Anubis statue, and he was trying to build his "Climbing" skill.
Sound effects were fine. The disagreements that I have with most players about music are only going to get more hostile as the quality of music compositions increases over the years. As I've noted repeatedly, while I can appreciate the effort that went into the game's score, I still don't want to hear it all the time. This is true in other aspects of life, too. Take any of my favorite songs--Louis Armstrong's "Potato Head Blues," Louis Prima's "Just a Gigolo," Sarah Vaughn singing "For All We Know"--and put them on in the background while I'm trying to concentrate on something else, and I'll ask you to turn them off. To me, background music is like a background television show or a background movie: it distracts from, rather than adding to, the foreground. This is why my GIMLET doesn't include music in this category.

Taken by itself, the music here (credited to Rudy Helm) is superbly composed. It's approached as a true score rather than just a bunch of individual melodies, which means the same motifs are used across multiple songs, but with different tempos, harmonies, and keys to represent different settings. Alex linked to a YouTube video containing the full-length versions of all of the game's songs, and the entire "album" clocks in at 90 minutes. Several compositions follow classic sonata-allegro form and others seem inspired by Debussy's orchestral impressionism.

I turned it all off while I was playing. You know what I preferred to continual background music? When I walked up to Baba Yaga's hut in Hero's Quest and there was like a six-second leitmotif and then it stopped. So I apologize to composers and video game music lovers everywhere, but this is going to be a constant issue and there's no point getting on my case about it with every game.
I preferred the text parser to the point-and-click interface, although I admit that the latter has uses for targeting. I remain impressed with how many individual screen objects had a "look" description attached to them; I couldn't have clicked on more than 25%. But I had all kinds of other problems with the interface, including an "Action/Special Items" menu that refused to stay active, an inability to coax my character off the edge of the screen, and crashes to the desktop every half hour or so. I realize that some of these are likely to be emulator issues, but I have to rate what I experienced. Score: 4.

10. Gameplay. I'm sure I said the same things about the previous two games: a little too linear, a little too easy, and a little too short--but not only a little. The series continues to get major points for "replayability." Score: 5.

That gives us a final score of 46. Hmm. That's actually 4 points lower than Trial by Fire, which I didn't expect. It appears that a couple of slight gains (game world, combat) were overrun by several losses (economy, quests, interface, gameplay). As always, I trust my current opinion more than 4-year-old memories, so we'll leave it at that. The difference is a small one. (For readers unfamiliar with my scale, I should point out that a score of 46 puts it in the top 15% of games I've played on this blog.)
The ad emphasizes the right sentiment, but boy does it use the wrong screen shots.
The Adventure Gamer's score came in the other day at 68, which was two points higher than Trial by Fire and the same as the original Hero's Quest. (And keep in mind that they're more generous overall.) This bolsters my opinion that it's equal to its predecessors as an adventure game.

I guess my own GIMLET contributes to the idea that Wages of War is the least of the series (assuming that I rate the next two games higher), but I still think Matt Barton goes too far in Dungeons and Desktops when he says that "most fans of the series regard it as pedestrian at best." I would think that most fans, like me, would regard even the least Quest for Glory better than the average game of the time. Contemporary reviews don't offer any suggestion that the series has dipped. Jeff James's review in the January 1993 Computer Gaming World is unabashedly positive, lauding the "exotic new landscape" of Fricana, the "sumptuous hand-painted graphics," and the soundtrack. The only "blemishes" he found were a few bugs and the frequency of enemy encounters. (Alex mentions the latter, too. I didn't find the frequency to be so much overly-frequently as bafflingly variable. Sometimes I'd cross an entire screen of savanna with no encounters, and other times I couldn't walk more than an inch between them.) In his conclusion, James explicitly calls Wages of War the best in the series so far. This is echoed in the April 1993 Dragon, which starts out by saying, "This is by far the finest of the Quest for Glory adventures."

(I've long passed the point of finding new ways to make fun of Dragon for giving nearly everything 5/5 stars, but for the first time, I've forced myself to read several full issues, and I think I realize the reason: they rated everything. They didn't limit their "Role of Computers" column to RPGs. The same issue that has the 5-star Quest for Glory III rating also rates several adventure games [King's Quest VI also gets 5 stars], Battle Chess [5 stars], and @#$%ing Miner 2049er! No wonder actual RPGs always seem to jump out as cream-of-the-crop.)

In a time too far ahead to try to estimate, I'll determine if I agree or disagree with the other common assertion that fans find Shadows of Darkness (1993) the best in the series. I don't know how much longer I'll be doing this, but I can guarantee I won't stop before then.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Legend: Picking Up

Seventy percent of all evil-killing is done in the library.
I nearly called this one "Summary and Rating," except for one thing: I started having a lot more fun with the game. Not epic levels of fun, mind you, but more fun. I started to think of it as a game that takes a while to digest, but picks up momentum at the midpoint. Then I investigated how much of the game I had left, and I realized I was nowhere near the "midpoint."

It's taken me nearly 30 hours to clear 6 dungeon levels, and there are 22 dungeon levels in the game. At that rate, by the time I finish, it will be the third-longest played game on my list, at over 100 hours. That's okay for a game with a lot of plot, but Legend is largely the same thing, room after room. If I don't quit, you'll have to suffer through 15 more entries of a couple paragraphs each, amounting to "cleared another level, solved this puzzle, found a magic sword." But I have enough good material for this entry, at least, so I'll give it just a little longer. It would be a shame to stop at the point that I'm finally getting into it.

Let's talk about why I've started to have more fun. First, the accumulation of more runes, enough spell reagents that I don't have to scrimp, scrolls to give me ideas, and my commenters' advice has made the spell system "click" in a way that it didn't before. In my defense, the spell system starts out slow, but then again, I suppose it has to, since it's so complicated. Mixing runes and reagents can be confusing enough without adding "Heal-Missile-Teleport" to the equation.

I learned that casting "Antimagic-Surround-Antimagic" every once in a while (it lasts for a few rooms, at least) meant that I don't have to be afraid of my own spells. (In one of the game's annoyances, you can't just mix "Surround" and the spell, because that only applies to the three characters around the runemaster. You have to cast "Spell-Surround-Spell" to get it to apply to everyone.) In the way that "Fireball" never gets old in the Gold Box games, I swiftly found that "Surround-Damage-Missile-Damage-Surround-Damage," also known as "fill the room with fire," never failed to put a smile on my face--and started seriously compensating for the experience point imbalance that the mage had been experiencing.
This is also known as the "Overkill" spell.
Now I find myself looking forward to other combinations. I've barely used "Continuous" at all. What happens if I string a "Missile-Surround-Paralyze" to the spell above? That sort of thing.

I also started finding so many magic items--helms, scrolls, wands, rings, potions--that I was constantly trying to find ways to use them. This made combat more tactical than before. For instance, I gave my assassin a "Cloud Ring," which teleports to a square of the player's choosing, and started looking for opportunities to better position him for backstabbing. My troubadour gained a "Holy Helm," which causes the enemies around him to become enslaved and fight their comrades. Combined with a "Missile-Teleport" spell from my runemaster, I can put the troubadour on the other side of a room and then immediately convert several enemies to her side.

Finally, and perhaps most important, I found an option at the Guild that I had missed before, allowing you to "re-clothe" your characters by changing their colors. The default colors made three of the characters look the same to me, but with some tweaks here, I can now actually pick them out of the chaos of combat.
Finally: something I can see!
I don't mean for a second to suggest that these additional options excuse the aforementioned chaos. There are still plenty of problems. Pathfinding remains abysmal; characters and enemies frequently pass a few minutes running randomly around the room because they've decided they want to attack particular foes and those foes have set their sights on different characters. There's no way to tell a character to attack a particular enemy; you have to get him close and hope for the best. A lot of enemies are capable of self-teleporting, which simply prolongs combat as they poof around the room. And as I've said before, enemies are unnamed and don't necessarily behave reliably based on color or icon. There's no way (that I can tell) to distinguish a dangerous priority from a low-level mook. When enemies cast spells, you have to figure out what they're doing from visual effects rather than any text (some players wouldn't mind this, but it's tough with my colorblindness and general difficulty with purely-visual signals).

One issue I haven't talked about is the difficulty targeting. When you target an enemy or character (or, for that matter, target an object to open or loot), you have to make sure to click on the base square--where his feet are planted. Because of the oblique angle, his head is probably over a different square, and some other enemy's (or character's) head is over his base square. It's very easy to get this wrong.
The "Make Weapon" rune is an odd one that simply makes a magic weapon. Since it can be dispelled by spell-casting enemies, I'm not sure it's a good investment. But I wonder if you can sell them.
Still, you could see how, with a few tweaks, the combat system could be better. Allow selection of characters and issuance of orders while in "pause." Give the enemies names, and show their actions, as well as the characters', in the message window. Increase the field of combat and improve pathfinding. Highlight the target when you hover the mouse over it. When you were done, you'd have something that looks a lot like the Infinity Engine system.

In this session, I explored a couple levels of Kilijan's Dark Tower. I was pleased with my solutions to a couple of challenging puzzles. In the room below, for instance, there's a rune in the northeast corner that I needed to hit with a "Heal" spell to stop the spikes on the bridge. The problem is, the table blocks the spell from reaching the rune. It turns out that the square to its left is targetable, but only from the square in the southwest corner (you have to have a clear diagonal shot like a bishop on a chessboard). So the solution was to mix up "Missile-Surround-Heal" and cast it on that blank square, assuring that the effect hit the healing square.
Owing to targeting issues, I accidentally hit the wrong square on this casting.
This one took a while. The rune in the southwest corner wanted a "Teleport" spell. This caused the teleporter on the east side of the south end of the room to activate, sending the character across the water--and then immediately back again. Now, I knew from previous experience that teleporters don't work if someone is standing on the destination pad, so the trick was to get another character to immediately move on to the eastern transport pad after it was activated, preventing the first character's return. That, in turn, meant that I had to cast "Missile-Teleport" from as far away as possible so I had time to select the second character and click frantically on the pad so she'd move to it as soon as the first character teleported. Later, I had to fill up all the pads with characters to prevent the one in front of the lever from teleporting anyone.
Teleport pads in real life would be so cool.
The second level of the tower brought what I think are the first non-humanoid enemies in the game--not that it matters since they still have no names. A message in an early room noted that "Anything that vanishes in a puff of blue smoke deserves to die!," which seems to be a joke about how slain enemies disappear in this game.
This seems tautological
The level ended with perhaps the most challenging puzzle to date. I had to experiment a lot to solve it, and I was just on the cusp of looking for a hint when I figured it out. You can see there are four doors. To open them, you have to hit each of four "Damage" runes on the strip on the north side of the room. But you can't just use "Missile-Damage" because spells don't cross chasms.
A difficult puzzle room.
It turns out that the rune on the east side of the room, behind the pillar, teleports any spell cast upon it and causes it to come jetting out of the pillar to the west of the northern rune strip. So I had to get a "Damage" spell to hit that rune. But there was no way to target it directly because it was behind a pillar. What I had to do was cast a spell starting with "Missile-Surround-Missile." This causes a missile to land at a targeted location and then spawn four more missiles in the cardinal directions around it. Three of these were wasted, but the fourth coasted up the eastern wall to hit the rune. After that, it was a matter of appending the right number of "Damage" spells. "Missile-Surround-Missile-Damage" hit the first rune in the strip. "Missile-Surround-Missile-Damage-Damage" hit the second, and so forth.

Part of the reason that the solution took me so long is that it doesn't look like I should have been able to cast the spell on the southeast "chasm" square. You generally can't target blank chasms. But you can target regular depressions with water or ground at the bottom, and since we can't see what's at the bottom of those squares, it's probable there's solid ground there.

A few hours ago, I never would have solved that because I wouldn't have understood the spell system well enough. There's a lot that you have to intuit when it comes to these puzzles, such as the directions that "Missiles" take when you pair them with a "Surround."

There's still a lot that confuses me. For instance, take a look at the screen below--the last screen on Level 2 before going upstairs. It isn't a puzzle room; it's just a regular room that had a few monsters and treasures. Why are there four squares that look like teleport squares? They don't actually teleport. They're just inert. A lot of other rooms have squares with rune symbols that similarly don't do anything.
Why are there inert teleport squares here?
And what's the point of the compass rose in this room that has rune symbols in the corners?
I'm trying to decide now whether to hike out of the dungeon and divest myself of excess goods, plus level up and replenish "Luck," or press on. The thought of fighting all those random encounters on the way out is a bit exhausting, but I'm going to run out of inventory space if there are too many more levels (plus, I'm dangerously low on brimstone). Either way, I suspect by next time--which may be the final entry--I'll have conquered the Dark Tower.

Time so far: 29 hours

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Quest for Glory III: The Roads Not Taken

Rakeesh rationalizes having a thief for a friend.
The role of the thief in the Quest for Glory series has always been an ambiguous one. He is, first and foremost, explicitly not the "rogue" of most D&D-derived games, who uses his stealth to explore dungeons and pick locks on chests looted from monsters. The Quest for Glory thief is a proper thief. He burglarizes houses and fences stolen goods to a guild. And he doesn't just steal from rich misers: his targets in the first game are an old lady and the town sheriff.

On the other hand, he's also a hero. He drives out Baba Yaga and prevents the return of Iblis. So how are we to regard this? Is he principally a good-hearted hero whose nature cannot help a little mischief on the side? Or are his heroics, while unquestionably bona fide, simply part of a larger scheme that requires access to barons and sultans? Or is it largely up to the player?

Quest for Glory III seems to take the former position. Rakeesh offers some gentle advice to keep his thieving friend in line, but he recognizes that the hero, irrespective of a little pilfering, is a champion at heart. However, my best recollection is that Quest for Glory V takes the opposite position on the question, which caused no small amount of role-playing chagrin when I first experienced that game. I could be mis-remembering, though, so I'll cover that when I get to it.
I'll try, Rakeesh.
What's indisputable is that a thief doesn't have very much to do in Tarna. Rakeesh is up front about this: "Tarna is not a good place for one of your skills." You can make the thief sign to just about everyone, and hardly anyone recognizes it.

Man, when I'm in charge of the guilds, I'm going to make the sign much less stupid.
The only people who respond are Rashid (the rope-seller) and Harami. Rashid is a retired thief. Both warn you that there's no guild in Tarna, and thus no place to sell stolen goods, and that being declared "without honor" really sucks. However, you can pay Rashid 50 royals to get some rope-walking lessons that greatly increase your agility.
On the other hand, that's a lot of money.
The money is well-spent because rope-walking is the thief's primary means of puzzle-solving. The thief's story starts with the Sultan of Shapeir giving him a set of "magic grapnels" that you can tie to a rope. They automatically grab on to things when thrown, which makes them different from regular grapnels in ways I don't really understand.
Yes, okay, technically he explains what makes them magic.
Each class solves small puzzles differently. For instance, to get the fruit from the poisonous vines, the thief uses his magic grapnel. The wizard casts "Fetch." The fighter or paladin throws a dagger to rescue a meerbat from the vine, and then the meerbat later leaves one of the fruits as a thank-you gift. But in these small-puzzle solutions, the characters aren't bound to their class-specific solutions. If the thief has magic, he can cast "Fetch," for instance.
There are only two large-puzzle solutions that differ among the classes: returning the Drum of Magic and Spear of Death, and defeating the demon wizard in the endgame. Here, your path is determined by your class and not your skills. Thus, the thief, no matter whether he passed the W.I.T. initiation in Quest for Glory II, cannot create a wizard's staff and challenge the Leopardman shaman. Nor can a fighter with thieving skills steal the Spear or Drum. Only a fighter or paladin can become a Simbani warrior.
Sneaking into the Leopardman chief's hut with my rope and magic grapnels. I also had to toss some meat to the panther below.
The thief's primary contribution to the crisis is bypassing all the B.S. the other classes have to put up with. He doesn't have to become a warrior or face off against the Leopardman shaman. He approaches the problem from a simpler perspective: if the main issue is that the Simbani have the Leopardmen's Drum and the Leopardmen have the Simbani's Spear, the solution is clearly to steal them both and put them back where they came from.
Inside the Leopardmen leader's hut. I had to free a noisy monkey from its cage and sneak over to steal the Spear of Death. As a bonus, I could loot a treasure chest by putting some oil on the squeaky hinges and picking the lock.
It's actually quite easy for the thief to bypass half of the quest and lose out on the associated points. He really only needs to steal one of the artifacts and return it, at which point the village leader happily turns over the other. On my first pass, I freed Johari before realizing it was time to steal the Drum of Magic (or even how to do it). She led me to her village as she did for the other characters, and I stole the Spear from the leader's hut. Returning it to the Simbani led them to immediately give up the Drum. But to get full points, I needed to steal the Drum first, then steal the Spear, then return the Drum, which in the end was a bit superfluous.

If I have one complaint, it's that the mechanics for stealing the Drum of Magic (which, admittedly, as above, isn't necessary) are a bit unintuitive. With a guard posted outside 24/7, there's no way to sneak into the Simbani leader's hut. You have to wait for nightfall and then use the eye icon to look at the side of the hut and note a crack big enough to cut a hole with your dagger. I'm not sure there's anywhere else in the game that the eye icon actually leads to action instead of just description.
The Laiban's hut also has an optional chest. It's too bad money isn't more valuable.
In the endgame, the thief claims the jeweled eye of Anubis by simply climbing up the statue. In the confrontation with the demon wizard, the spell icon is grayed out, lest the thief attempt the wizard's approach. Instead, he makes his way from pillar to pillar with his rope and grapnels, then uses the same to yank the wizard from behind into the Orb, knocking them both into the portal and closing it.
'Cause "backstab" doesn't exist in this setting.
My thief did worse than my wizard in points: only 476/500. I'll talk more about the points in the final entry. He did end up with the highest statistics, however, and is capable of magic. I used it extensively in combat.
My thief is positioned well for his adventures in Monrovia or Moldova or whatever.
My primary regret with the thief is that there was no way to sneak into Rajah's chambers and loot them. I think Rajah deserved some kind of comeuppance for his brash, bullish behavior in the game, but he was mostly discarded after the peace conference. He's presumably marching on the Leopardmen's village even as we celebrate our victory in the final sequences.
I don't need to recount the paladin's adventures in detail since you have Alex's narrative at The Adventure Gamer. I did rather like the gameplay. Slashing enemies with a flaming blue sword was awfully satisfying after my last two characters basically poked at them.
An epic battle shot.
Making his sword glow with blue flames is one of four skills the paladin gains over time. The other three are the ability to sense danger, a light "heal" spell that comes with 5 magic points, and an "honor shield" that basically acts as a "Protect" spell, reducing damage in combat. Of the three, "danger sense" is the most useless--it basically activates any time an enemy attacks, a situation that is already pretty obvious. The game even seems to make a joke about the low utility of the skill.
I think "incredible" is the giveaway that the message isn't serious.
In case I missed seeing the two huge demons, my paladin sense would have served me well.
The skills appear when you cross various thresholds in "paladin points" which are in turn earned by increasing your honor. This is done with various actions throughout the game, primarily being polite to people with hellos and goodbyes, as well as acts of charity. The funny thing is, you can artificially drive your honor to its maximum in a few minutes just by spamming donations to the drummer in the bazaar. 10 royals allows for 100 donations, and you have dozens of extra royals by the end of the game. (Later, in my fighter game, I found that you can spam losing honor by walking repeatedly away from Harami while he begs for help.)

The paladin's game is front-loaded on the Simbani side, as he must become a Simbani warrior before he can pay the bride price for Johari. This involves giving a horn from a dinosaur to the Laibon, then participating in a long contest that involves running, throwing, and wrestling, with several opportunities to outsmart your "opponent," Yesufu. Even if he beats you at every contest, however, you still pass the initiation.
In this case, it was me.
As a reward for his passing the initiation, the Laibon gives the hero a boon, and the hero chooses the Drum of Magic. When Johari eventually leads him to the Leopardman village, he just hands over the Drum and the "peace conference" sequence commences.

I don't know why, but I found the paladin's endgame more confusing than the thief's or wizard's. First, he fights the demon wizard's gargoyle directly, which is no big deal.
He's no match for my honor fire and honor shield.
Afterwards, he has to use his shield to knock the gargoyle's body over the chasm, then click on the body to cross it. The demon wizard re-awakens the gargoyle and has it grab the hero's legs. The hero then has to throw his sword through the demon wizard's chest, and finally knock the Orb back through the gate by again bashing it with the shield. There's nothing wrong with this, exactly, but it involves a few moves that you're not used to making in the rest of the game. For instance, no other puzzle requires the use of the shield as an active object.
The paladin gets a good animation here.
There was an odd bit during the end sequence for the paladin, and Alex didn't mention it during his account. I'm not really sure who was speaking here or why the paladin was the only one to get this message. I should also note that the paladin also senses danger just before suffering "Otto's Irresistible Dance" at the end.
Who's speaking? The skeleton? The orb? The gate?
Anyway, my paladin ended with 479 points and some reasonably high attribute and skill statistics.
As if four times wasn't enough, I ran through the game a fifth time with a fighter created in-game--the only character I didn't import. I was determined that he remain a fighter, not promoted to paladin near the endgame (which happens if your fighter behaves with honor), so I role-played him as a reluctant hero. He certainly wasn't very polite in his interactions, didn't go out of his way to do side quests and stuff. When I talked to Rajah and the Laibon, I talked about things I wanted to talk about.
That didn't always go well.
I didn't cut quite as many corners as I did with "Bad Chester," but I didn't hit all of the side quests, either. Since he started with skills well below that of the imported characters, I had to spend more time leveling him in combat and running from enemies when I got weak. (He was the only character to face any serious difficulty in combat.) Otherwise, his experience for most of the game was almost the same as the paladin, minus the blue flame and danger sense.

For my guardian ritual, I chose the most obvious symbols--sword, fist, sword--and gave the most direct and brutal options during the questions. Sekhmet still judged me worthy--but barely.
This sounds more like something a thief should have gotten.
Some interesting things happened during my initiation ritual to be a Simbani warrior. First, since I was going for low honor, I left Yesufu stuck in a hole instead of helping him out. The game let me proceed through all the other challenges and through the end of the ritual before Yesufu ratted on me and I suffered an instant-death screen.
But the Simbani clearly have an open-door policy to tattle-tales.
Note that the game didn't bother to pretend that I actually "died" in any way--just that I made a decision that made it impossible to continue. This was precisely the sort of thing I was looking for (more often) with "Bad Chester."
Second, because I never learned how to control the wrestling contest on the balance beam from Uhura, when I had to wrestle Yesufu, the game took over and made all my moves. It messed up most of them, and I automatically lost. Yesufu was declared the better warrior. This didn't really impact the rest of the game at all except that Yesufu asked for the Drum of Magic and then gave it to me.
The game throws the match.
The only other major difference from the paladin's experience is that Yesufu gives the hero the Spear of Death to fight the demon wizard. You don't get to fight regular combats with it, but rather you use it during the final sequence, in lieu of the paladin sword, to impale the demon wizard. In total, it was a bit disappointing. I had been led to believe by some commenters that fighters and paladins had different questlines in the game.

The fighter was the lowest-performing "real" character, with only 411 puzzle points and 76 honor points.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I didn't realize until the fourth game that you only ever need one poison cure pill. Taking one both cures poison and inoculates you against future poison.
  • I reloaded an old save to see what happened if I cast "Trigger" during the duel with the Leopardman shaman. It was pretty messed up.
No one should have this much power.
  • During my thief's experience, I came across this reference to the "little people" of the jungle, who set the trap that ensnared Johari (at least by one account). Are they an unseen race, or does it refer to the talking monkeys?
  • Every character had a different selection of weird encounters on the savanna. They included a variety of simple signs, a charging rhinoceros that you must dodge, a brief Laurel and Hardy skit (they're in the French Foreign Legion a la Beau Hunks), and a lengthy encounter with "Arne Saknoosen," an aardvark miner and explorer.
  • Both my thief and my paladin got so good with throwing that they could often bring down enemies with rocks or knives before those enemies could get into melee range.
You won't be poisoning me!
  • Despite occasionally winning, I didn't really get yawari until my paladin character played. For some reason, I thought you could only capture stones on the opponent's side of the board. I didn't realize you could wrap around your "home" area and capture your own stones. I was wondering why Yesufu would suddenly add several stones to his bank without the "I be capturing your stones" dialogue. I thought he was cheating.
  • I lost count of how many responses Janna had to "flirt." She seems to have a different one for each visit.
Lori Cole proves that she could be successful in other genres.
We still have a lot to discuss in reference to the way points are earned and how the skills develop during the game, but I'll save those topics for the summary and rating. For now, I'll just say that I think I like the wizard's path best, but I'm glad I have all classes saved for Shadows of Darkness.
Final time: 25 hours