Monday, July 21, 2014

Game 155: The Ring of Darkness (1982)

The ZX Spectrum version has a 1983 copyright date but the Dragon 32 version says 1982. I'm going to trust the latter--it feels like a 1982 game--and go with 1982 in my master game list.

Commenter PK Thunder had a good point a couple weeks ago in relation to my characterization of Quest for the Key of Night Shade as an "excruciating pseudo-RPG." (I decided it didn't meet my rules and removed it from the list.) It's easy for me to sit here in 2014, my computer full of emulators that can play every platform from the 1980s, and dismiss a game as being superfluous or unimportant, but if you were a TRS-80 owner in 1983, Dungeons & Dragons, The Wizard's Castle, and Quest for the Key of Night Shade were pretty much all you had. You were probably happy for any RPG, pseudo- or otherwise.

So imagine you're an eager young player in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s, and you've just unpackaged your new Dragon 32 or ZX Spectrum. Maybe in some magazines you've heard about the Wizardry or Ultima series in the U.S., and you start looking around for something to fill that RPG craving. You find nothing, unless you want to type the code for The Valley yourself. You start to suspect that the U.S. is going to dominate the Computer Age.

Then a company like Wintersoft comes along and offers a game like Ring of Darkness. You don't care that it's a breathtakingly obvious ripoff of Ultima; it's not like Richard Garriott--the prick who has the audacity to call himself Lord British--was porting his stuff to your little Welsh machine. It's all you have, and you love it.

Fighting an "evil ranger" in the wilderness between a river and a city.

When I say "breathtakingly obvious ripoff," I couldn't be more serious. The product would be indistinguishable from Ultima except for the couple of features it steals from Akalabeth and Ultima II. These include:

  • Overland, iconographic surface navigation is contrasted with first-person wireframe dungeon movement.
  • The game has the same attributes, races, and character classes as Ultima, plus modifications to attributes based on race and class choices.
  • The same enemies pop up in the wilderness, including "evil rangers" (Ultima)
  • The command list is copied almost directly from Ultima, including (K)limb, (Z)stats, and (I)nform and Search.

The Z-stats result.

  • A king gives you random quests to visit signs and slay enemies (Akalabeth and Ultima) and takes your gold for hit-point increases (Ultima and Ultima II)
  • Oh, but you also get hit points when you leave dungeons, based on the number of enemies you killed! (Akalabeth, Ultima)
  • Quests offered by kings alter between visiting signs and killing specific enemies in dungeons (Ultima
  • Towns feature little counters selling weapons, armor, spells, and food. You engage them by walking up and hitting (T)ransact. 
  • Bartenders give hints when you buy drinks (Ultima).
  • Spells appear as inventory items that deplete as cast (all three games)
  • You need to constantly watch dwindling food supplies (all three games)
  • Magic only works in dungeons (Ultima II)
  • A king's castle features a princess in jail and a jester wandering around who steals from you. And guess what the jester has to say?

You have to be #$&*@ kidding me.

I won't say that Ring of Darkness doesn't add anything not found in Ultima, but most of what it adds, sucks. For instance, the movement keys for the ZX Spectrum (the version I'm playing) are:

Q   P

Take a look at the keyboard and tell me if that makes sense. And, no the Spectrum didn't have an arrangement in which it did. Reviews of the game at the time were also baffled.

In addition to Ultima's "Ladder Up" and "Ladder Down" spells, there are some original to this game. "Magic Zapper" is just magic missile, but we also have "Unlock," "Create" (food, I assume), "Remove," "Jump," "Bridge," and "Kill." Since magic only works in dungeons, I assume that most of these spells have to do with obstacles and pits that you encounter there. The manual says nothing about the spells.

In fact, there's hardly any documentation. You're told that "you are about to enter a strange world of challenges, surprises, and satisfying problems" (huh?), and your ultimate goal is to "seek your fortune." A bit of drivel accompanies the opening screen, suggesting that the quest has something to do with finding five rings.

That whole "one ring" business sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it.

You start by assigning a pool of 40 points to three attributes: strength, intelligence, and dexterity, then choosing a race and class, which further modifies these statistics.

Afterwards, you're dumped unceremoniously on an open landscape with 150 gold, 100 food, 2 daggers, a suit of leather armor, and 4 "magic zapper" spells. You need to immediately (R)eady your armor and weapons because random enemies start attacking quite quickly. Outdoor enemies include evil rangers, bandits, and--most annoying of all--"hidden archers." There doesn't seem to be any way to kill this enemy. If you try to (A)ttack, the game says you're out of range, and spells don't work in the wilderness. All you can do is flee, which takes several unsuccessful attempts (with you taking damage each time) before it works.

What the hell is with these guys.

The land is dotted with castle-cities, dungeons, and special locations like signs. All locations look like castles, which makes it hard when you're trying to find a specific place. The closest castle-city to the starting area is called Borderton. All of the castle-cities are laid out exactly the same and offer the same services: a weapon/armor shop, a transportation shop (incorrectly labeled "smith"), a pub where you can buy food and drink, a magic shop, a throne room, and a prison.

Getting my first quest from the king.

Versus getting my first quest from the king--also to find a signpost--in Ultima.

The weapon shop only sold daggers, leather armor, and axes. I bought an axe right away and split the rest of my initial gold between hit points and food. The king gave me a quest to find "Sinclair's Sign" (perhaps a reference to the makers of the ZX Spectrum). I set out looking for it, but before I found it, I came upon the first dungeon: Doom Labyrinth.

As I mentioned, dungeons are wireframe affairs with ladders, pits, hidden doors, chests, and basic enemy sketches as Akalabeth and Ultima. When you exit a dungeon, you receive a hit point reward related to the number and difficulty of the enemies you killed. This silly mechanism was tolerable in Akalabeth and Ultima--Garriott didn't have a lot of other templates to work with--but it seems absurd that someone actually thought it was worth emulating.

Attacking a sad, confused-looking "etin" in a dungeon level.

Speaking of emulating, I learned two new emulators for this game. The first, representing most of the screen shots above, was the "Spectaculator" emulator for the ZX Spectrum. It seems to work all right, but the game originally came on a double-sided tape, and I kept having problems with it crashing every time it asked me to flip the tape.

Thus, I also checked out the "XRoar" emulator for the Dragon 32/64. Ring of Darkness was originally published on this platform, and it has a few differences. Most notably, overworld navigation takes place on a single screen rather than a zoomed-in area:

The map doesn't appear to be the same as the Spectrum version, either.

But the Dragon 32 version ended up giving me even more problems, including horrible error-trapping, which dumped me out of the game every time I pressed a key the game didn't expect. The emulator also didn't have a mechanism for speeding up the excruciatingly slow speed of the game, so I returned to the ZX Spectrum edition and toughed through my problems, which involved actually mimicking the rewind, stop, and start operations of the cassette.

The beginning of the game is much like Ultima II, where survival is a constant problem and almost all of the money you make goes towards food. Unlike Ultima II, it doesn't appear that you can steal food. There's a (S)teal command in the game, but I can't get it to work even for a thief character.

Food! What else would I steal? Actual valuables?

Slaying enemies results in an immediate reward of experience points and gold. In the overland area, this seems to be somewhat random--I'll get anywhere from 2 to 8 from killing an evil ranger, for instance--but the dungeon creatures offer more consistency.

I swiftly learned that screwing around in the overland area is a losing proposition. You don't make enough money from killing evil rangers et. al. to even come close to restoring the hit points they sap, particularly when you have to keep escaping the invulnerable hidden archers. Thus, I spent most of my first exploration session in the dungeon, where at least you get a hit point boost upon exiting and there are no archers.

A few things make Ring of Darkness much harder than Akalabeth or Ultima. In both of the latter games, you could descend into a dungeon and have a reasonable chance of exiting with more hit points than you started. This rarely happens in Ring of Darkness, although you do end up slightly better off than you started thanks to the gold you accumulate. The key problem is that enemies always get the first attack. Whether you wander into a square next to them or wait for them to come to you, you never get to strike first.

Adding to this, enemies stay in fixed squares until they "acquire" you, and many of those fixed squares are at intersections in the dungeon. It's not uncommon to move into a square and get a notice that you've been attacked by a thief (with a consequent loss of hit points). You don't know where he is, so you turn right, only to find an empty corridor. The thief attacks again. You turn around, and there he is. He attacks again. By now, you've lost one-third of the hit points that you had in the first place, and you haven't had a chance to strike a single blow. I also find that streaks in which I miss five or six times in a row are quite common.

Facing a very badly-drawn skeleton in the dungeon. It's too bad I don't have any missile weapons to shoot him across the pit. Instead, I'll have to advance onto the pit, where he'll get the first attack.

Nonetheless, through a combination of exiting when my hit points got too low, receiving my boost, returning to the castle to pay the king for more, and re-entering the dungeon, I managed to slowly earn the 1,024 experience points necessary to make Level 2. At this point, three new items appeared in the weapon/armor shop: a sword, a "spiked rope," and a suit of chain mail. The "spiked rope" sounded promising as a long-range weapon, and I thought it might help take out the hidden archers, but no, it doesn't work.

During this time, I explored the map a little more and found Sinclair's Sign. At the sign, I found a suit of leather (echoing Ultima, where one of the sign posts gave you a weapon), and upon returning to the castle, I got some more experience and 416 gold from the king. Unlike Ultima, the king doesn't send you on the quest again. He simply says that his quest is done.

Solving the first quest.

Moving on through the only paths available within the natural barriers of water and mountains, I found my way to a second city, Port Stillwater, where the king asked me to kill a "jelly cube." There's a handy dungeon nearby where I could attempt that quest, though I don't know what level on which they appear.

From Ultima, in the Lost King's Castle.
From Ring of Darkness. The developers were so lazy they couldn't even think of a different creature for the player to kill.

A few miscellaneous notes from the game:

  • When you die in the game, you get "resurrected" in a random part of the map with 250 hit points and no apparent penalty to experience, gold, or items. 
  • An "inform and search" command finds hidden pits in dungeons. You basically have to use it on every corridor lest you go plummeting to the next level with no way back up.

A pit right in front of a pit. Clever.

  • The game copies Ultima in that a few monster types--thieves, skeletons, giant bats, giant rats--are always found on Level 1. Reach Level 2 and you get giant spiders and "etins" in addition to the above. I haven't yet made it to Level 3 or lower.
  • The transportation shop sells a cart when you're Level 1 and a cart and a mule at Level 2. I wonder if it eventually offers a laser-armed hovercraft as in Ultima.
  • Other than getting new items in the shops, I'm not sure what leveling does for you. It's unrelated to hit points, and it doesn't seem to make me more effective at combat.

The above took me about 6 hours, and I don't imagine I'm very close to winning the game. As a gameplay experience, it's about as good as Ultima (although the fact that it plagiarized so heavily from Ultima makes it worse in general), which is a game I liked for historical value but wouldn't have wanted to play for more than the 8 hours it took me to beat it.

But I haven't deliberately bailed on a game since Bloodwych two years ago (since then, the only winnable game I haven't won, Legend of Faerghail, was due to a irrecoverable bug), so I'll probably continue, see if I can beat it, and see if it has an original thought in its head. If I end up having to kill that jester for his key, freeing the princess, and getting a time machine, there's going to be hell to pay.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Fallthru: Final Rating

I played for a lot longer than 1 hour and 34 minutes. The game only considers your last session in making its tally.

Independently developed and published, at one time offered through PC-SIG
Released 1989 for DOS
Date Started: 27 June 2014
Date Ended: 14 July 2014
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Well, Fallthru is certainly an odd and original little offering: a text RPG that doesn't really seem to be aware that it's an RPG. It follows few conventions of the genre, and judging by the evidence, I'm not sure Paul H. Deal ever played an RPG prior to developing this one.

It's rare to play a text game that isn't also a text adventure (or, at least, adventure/RPG hybrid). It's even rarer (perhaps unique) to play one with the geography structured as a typical RPG. Most text games elide long transitions between areas, and almost every screen has some kind of useful purpose. Fallthru, on the other hand, revels in its vast areas, with coordinates stretching into the thousands on each axis, at least 10 million explorable squares, and long journey times between important points. As I noted last time, the actual coordinates may very well be infinite. But they're not just a bunch of numbers; drop a coin on one of those generic squares and it will still be there when you return. Every coordinate also has its own odds for a random wildlife encounter or a random warrior or NPC encounter.

In this, the game is more akin to a top-down, tile-based RPG like Ultima V or Dragonflight rather than a typical text adventure. It would be absurd to try to map and catalog every tile in Ultima V just to record the few cities and dungeons that occupy the landscape. Instead, you simply record the locations (including coordinates, if you have a sextant) of the important locations. Fallthru's version of the sextant is the "Wherstone," and once you have it, you technically don't have to map. You can just write down where important cities and dungeons are and let the coordinates be your navigational guide.

Although I sometimes groused about it, the enormous geography of Fallthru actually serves a few valuable purposes. First, it makes it feel like the world is a real place. Go wandering in the woods near your house, and I doubt you'll find a dungeon or treasure every 100 feet. Instead, you'll find a bunch of trees that look the same no matter which direction you travel. Second, the distances help serve the game's "simulation" purposes, by which you have to occasionally find food, water, and a good place to rest. Third, much of the challenge in Fallthru is piecing together bits of lore, logic, and tools to find these key locations. There are virtually no places that you can stumble upon by randomly setting out into the wilderness.

Fallthru is fairly well-written, although almost clinically so. The text is economical--hardly any location features more than a single paragraph--and yet manages to sketch out a strong sense of geography and situation. There are hardly any spelling or grammar errors to break the immersion. But there's also no real sense of wit or humor in the text. I'm not sure the game had a single joke. That's not exactly a complaint--I usually complain the other way, about too much goofy humor--but it is odd to find a game that takes itself so seriously.

The game's primary problem is one of pacing. In the opening stages, you have to grab a throwing knife and find a hunting ground, and you spend hours collecting food for personal use and sale, but after that, you never have to hunt again. By the time you can survive in the far-flung places where animals give you 20-30 rations upon killing them, hunting has ceased to be necessary. A lot of thought was put into other ways of making money (bagging and selling sand, trading grain, even stealing) that also swiftly become superfluous, as a single successful combat against a warrior nets you more ralls than a dozen expeditions with your backpack full of grain.

There's a period where your explorations are confined mostly to the cities and the roads in between, and during this period, you collect lore from warriors and citizens, carefully record warrior levels, and occasionally fight them to increase your own power. But pretty soon, you max your level (and end up with absolute loads of cash) and hardly ever fight again for the rest of the game. For me, the last half of the game was solely about piecing together hints and finding key locations and items.

The constantly-nagging need for food, water, and rest provides a logistical headache throughout the game, but not a hard one. It's comparatively easy to carry loads of food and to find water sources (which are also usually good resting places), so all the dynamic does is force you to interrupt exploration every few minutes and spend a long time typing EAT, EAT, DRINK, REST, DRINK, REST, EAT, DRINK, etc. It would have been nice if the author had gone one way or the other with this. The first way would have been to make it authentically challenging: food more expensive or rare, your burro unable to carry much (or no burro at all), watering holes and springs rare features of the landscape, and so on. In such a game, you'd have to carefully prepare for each long expedition, spend time hunting in the field, and actually note locations of springs and wells for later visits.

The second way would have been to allow the player to purchase some kind of "bag of unending food" and "canteen of limitless water" the same way it allows the purchase of the "Flyr" and the burro just when aspects of inventory and travel distances start to get annoying. I would have preferred this.

I mentioned that the game isn't much of an RPG. This is true in a few ways. First, the only development comes from the nebulous "combat level" statistic. There are no separate attributes (although missile weapon experience must be tracked separately, behind the scenes), and your maximum health and fatigue levels never increase during the game. Second, there are hardly any monsters to fight! There are warriors to duel, wild animal attacks (which are binary; either you're strong enough to fend them off automatically, or you're not) and sometimes one monster at the end of a dungeon. Finally, except for hunting animals, you never kill anything--not even the final demon, Zugg. Instead, the game makes it clear that you just beat it into submission or retreat.

I drive a demon to retreat instead of preventing it from ever mauling adventurers again.

The warriors and few monsters you encounter don't have any compunctions killing you, however, and that's where I have to bring up the last major negative: death has no consequences. You don't even have to reload from your last save. When you die, you have the option to continue from a few squares prior as if nothing happened.

Finally, before the GIMLET, I want to address the multi-player options. Fallthru offers the ability for three separate players to play cooperatively, but it's simply impossible to imagine full games in which three people sat still long enough to win this way. With the player rotating every 20 turns, you'd have just enough time to get through an EAT, EAT, DRINK, REST, EAT, etc., cycle before you had to turn it over to your friend. The characters can't fight in combat together, so the only benefit to cooperative play is the ability to drop resources and perhaps share key locations. If I really wanted to play this one with a friend, I'd ask him to sit on the other side of the room on his own computer. The game is tedious enough at times without having to wait for someone else to complete his actions.

On to the GIMLET:

1. Game World. Fallthru offers essentially no back story. From the manual, there are suggestions that your character is a "foreigner," just arrived in Faland, who needs basic information about the land. On the other hand, the INFO command allows you to call up detailed information on places, people, and historical events, and it's unclear how a newly-arrived PC would have this knowledge. There is no comprehensive history of the land offered, though some of the INFO entries allude to an ancient king named Morag and the "Demon Wars."

Where the geography of the world makes it feel like a real place, other aspects don't. Everyone is a warrior or a peasant; there is only one unique NPC. The land seems to have no government, the people do little but farm and trade, and warriors only seem to fight each other. Finally, we have the issue of the horribly unimaginative names, like the "Glu'me Forest," "Th'em'ty" desert, "Hi'mtn," and the names for the various earth-like beasts. Overall, a mixed bag. Score: 4.

The LORE command, fleshing out aspects of the geography and history, is perhaps the game's strongest contribution. But how do I know all this stuff?

2. Character Creation and Development. As previously discussed, somewhat poor. The only creation option is your name, and the only development option is your warrior level, which caps at 76, well before the end of the game. There are theoretically some "role-playing" options in that you can attempt to STEAL from markets (failing gets you tossed into the wilderness in exile) and murder peasants for their valuables, but doing either nets you "dishonorable" status and makes the game unwinnable. On the other hand, building honor through good deeds (giving, food, water, and coins to peasants) is a reasonably-fun role-playing dynamic, especially in the early game, when you need all the food, water, and coins that you can collect. Score: 3.

The consequences of thievery.

3. NPC Interaction. NPCs consist mostly of wandering peasants and warriors that you meet on the road. Everyone has a bit of lore to impart, drawn randomly from a lore bank, and dependent (I think) on both your level and the region of the world you're in. These NPCs offer some light role-playing opportunities (in giving them charity), but none of them are uniquely memorable, and you don't have any options in your own dialogue except HELLO. Score: 4.

Collecting a valuable hint from an NPC warrior.

4. Encounters and Foes. Except for NPCs, covered above, there are no real encounters in the game. Even the puzzles are mostly just a matter of having the right item. As for "foes," they're pretty banal. Wild animals attack you, and who prevails is solely a matter of your combat level. Prior to Level 7, you don't want to go into Hyen territory; after Level 7, you automatically drive them off every time they attack. The warriors are identical ciphers with procedurally-generated names. The demons are just generic monsters who deal melee damage, although there is at least one that requires a bow and arrows to kill. The game had INFO entries for some of the monsters you meet but not others.

I suppose I should give some credit in this category for the navigation puzzles in some of the dungeons. I found them more "challenging" than "frustrating," in the sense that logic and creative use of the interface could generally suss out the solution. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. Also poor. There is no "magic" despite the game world clearly supporting magic in the form of magic items. Combat consists solely of typing the FIGHT, SHOOT, or THROW commands, with success dependent on equipment and character level. There really are no tactics, and much of the success or failure is based on random rolls. Minor credit: the game is rare in allowing you to YIELD against warriors and pay a tribute to end an unwinnable combat. Score: 2.

6. Equipment. Much of the main quest is about assembling the right artifact items, but almost all of them have some valuable secondary purpose, such as the silver amulet warning about nearby dangers and the gold amulet healing injuries. There are a handful of weapon types, one armor type, and lots of other bits of equipment useful for adventuring, including salves, shovels, lamps and oil, navigational aids, and packs, sacks, and burros to help you keep it all organized. While it sounds strong, equipment is generally binary--either you have what you need to succeed in a particular place or you don't--and thus it felt like for most of the game, equipment was about puzzle-solving rather than a standard, flexible RPG inventory. Score: 3.

Finally collecting the scimitar was a rewarding moment.

7. Economy. Strong at the beginning, when every rall counts, and you're hoping to save up for a burro, the Flyr, a Navaid, armor, a sword, and other important pieces of equipment. Right about mid-game, you've bought everything already, and yet you continue to amass ralls for no purpose except to buy occasional (cheap) food. Score: 4.
8. Quests. The main quest--to get "home"--is pretty pathetic, given that the game doesn't give you any sense of who you are, where home is, or why you're so eager to get back there. There are steps on this main quest--indeed, the entire world seems structured around serving it--but there are no side quests, no alternate endings, and no role-playing. All of this is too bad, as these things are arguably easier to program in a text game than in a graphical game. I was extremely disappointed in the ending. Score: 2.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. A text game is mostly about the interface and the quality of the descriptive text. As I mentioned above, the text quality here is good. The parser is easy to use, and the game offers welcome one- or two-letter abbreviations for most of its verbs. There aren't many synonyms, but the command list is short enough that it's easy to memorize.

I didn't like how random encounters took a second to appear in each screen, forcing me to pause and wait between movements when traveling over long distances. I also thought the logistics of moving items from one place to another were needlessly complicated. The only sound that the game offered-- a beep when one of the games eight-hour periods changed--was startling and annoying every time it happened. Score: 3.

The game occasionally offers ASCII "graphics" on signs. I never found anything valuable at "Sturk Beach," incidentally. Not even sturks.

10. Gameplay. Fallthru deserves some credit for non-linearity, at least at the beginning, when all you're trying to do is build your fortunes and combat level. The main quest path has a mixture of steps that can occur at any time and those that require some precursor steps, and towards the end of the game, it started to feel very linear. I don't see it as being "replayable," except to try to beat your time. A few elements--the locations of trees and water sources, primarily--are randomized between games.

I think the difficulty is about right but the pacing is poor, and overall the game lasts too long for the depth of content that it offers. Score: 4.

The final score of 32 puts it slightly below what I consider "recommended," at least as far as playing the whole game. It certainly is worth checking out for a few hours. There's a good base here, and a few tweaks--tightening the last act, offering a more interesting plot resolution, allowing the player to buy something that dealt with the food logistics--would have propelled it well above my "recommended" threshold.

I can't find any contemporary reviews of the game, so I don't know what kind of reception it got in its era. (Though Paul Deal's comments, below, suggest people didn't like it, or at least it wasn't what they were expecting.) As a shareware title, it probably didn't receive wide distribution. For at least a time, it was picked up by PC-SIG, a Sunnyvale, California-based distributor of shareware titles and publisher of a monthly magazine focused on shareware. Despite an international distribution network and at least the appearance of success, the company abruptly and mysteriously went out of business in 1993. It's notable that PC-SIG marketed the game as a "text adventure"; I think most text adventure lovers would have found Fallthru confusing and alien, which probably explains its low sales.

I've been trying to connect with Paul Deal himself, to no avail. All the old e-mail addresses I find online come bouncing back, the number attached to him in public directories has since been disconnected, and a message I left at an alternate number has not yet been returned. He posted a comment onto a (non-game-related) bulletin board a few months ago, so I know he's still around. In the comment, incidentally, he indicates that his "day job" was as a microbiologist for NASA, which might make for the coolest dual-classing that I've ever heard of.

Thanks to pdw's sleuthing, we do have a couple of secondary sources for information about Deal and his take on the game. In an interview with Michael Feir in a 2003 issue of Audyssey (an electronic magazine focusing on games accessible to the blind), he indicates that he started programming the game as a "learning project" to help him write programs "to create biological simulations" (sensible, given his career at the time), which partly explains the game's preoccupation with food, water, rest, and the logistics of moving things around. He had hoped to make upgrades to the game (particularly combat) to take advantage of increased memory as the years went by, but player reactions seem to have disappointed him:

I hardly ever heard from anyone who solved the game. Mostly people called to tell me the game was too hard or that it was impossible. Very few actually registered. I finally concluded the game simply did not provide most people with the kind of game playing experience they wanted, and so I abandoned it.

In a letter to SynTax Adventure Magazine in the early 2000s, he indicated that he lost most of the files, including the "strategy document" that he created for registered users, during a move. But he also indicated in both the letter and his Audyssey interview that he was re-exploring the game and working on a new document. My guess is this evolved into his novelization.

It doesn't appear that Deal ever wrote another game. He has self-published a number of books over the last decade (I assume he retired about 10 years ago), seemingly focused on a young adult market. I hope he eventually stumbles on my blog, offers some comments about the game, and reads the comments of one player--and a number of commenters--who, if not "loving" the game, at least can appreciate it.

Despite times that I didn't enjoy the game, overall I'm grateful for showing me something new, and I wish more games had taken inspiration from it, even as I'm glad they didn't exactly replicate it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Quest for Glory II: Class Conflict

Sounds like someone on the development team has experience with post-graduate studies.

Over at The Adventure Gamer, Trickster is going through Quest for Glory II as a fighter, which always struck me as the most boring of the Quest for Glory classes. Perhaps sensing this, the creators offered the upgraded "paladin" class for those inclined to a sword-and-board lifestyle. I am aware that mages and thieves can technically become paladins, too, though my understanding is that it's somewhat more difficult. I haven't decided if I want it for my mage even if it's possible.

However, I'm curious about one thing: if my mage becomes a paladin, can he use a sword? That I think fighters are somewhat "boring" doesn't mean I want to fight with a dagger for four more games. I visited the weapon shop here, thinking I might be able to buy a sword, but the jerk of a shopowner, Issur, would only sell one if I traded in my old one. What kind of way to run a business is that?

Oh, stop acting like there's some separate "sword" skill.

Issur, incidentally, offered a little armwrestling mini-game. I partook and won on my first try. I guess importing a character does have his advantages. Trickster lost his first attempt and tried to blame it on emulation speed. Hey, T! My hero can beat up your hero!

Issur looks like the guy on Pawn Stars.

Anyway, Issur wouldn't talk to me after that, or even play the game again, so I left to do more mage-type things.

That's what we call being a "sore loser."

I had two more things to do in the city before heading out into the wilderness: visit the astrologer and find the Wizard's Institute of Technocery (WIT). After asking a few NPCs, I found that the astrologer was at the end of "Tarik of Stars," which I guess makes sense.

Is there any rhyme or reason to the different background colors for NPC dialogue?

The astrologer asked me to tell him about my past, which reminded me there's a TELL ABOUT command in the game. I haven't otherwise had a chance to use it, though I suspect I'm missing opportunities. Anyway, after hearing about my past, he said he'd create a custom fortune for me, but it would take several hours and I should come back.

Fun stuff on the walls. I tried to climb up that ladder but the game wouldn't let me.

So the moneychanger was on "Dinar Tarik" and the astrologer was on "Tarik of the Stars." No one had told me the exact location of the WIT, but I consulted the map hoping there would be an "Arcana Tarik" or something. There was nothing like that, but there was a dead-end street in a very obvous place at the top of the map, where some kind of facility would have symmetry with the other plazas and buildings. I figured that must be it.

The map on the back of the game manual.

Reaching the dead-end street, I cast "Detect Magic," and sure enough, a door came into view at the end of the corridor.

I had to cast "Open" to enter. I found myself in a hallway surrounded by portraits of famous magicians, including Erasmus and Zara from the first game, the mysterious Erana of "Erana's Peace" fame, Aziza from Shapeir, a guy I didn't know, a blacked-out portrait (curious about that), and Harry Houdini and Merlin from non-Quest for Glory mythology.

A voice first asked my name, then why I wanted to enter the WIT. I was stumped at that one. After trying "TO LEARN" and "HERO" and getting thrown out, I replied simply "MAGIC" and was allowed to proceed. Next, voices asked who I'd use as a sponsor.

I had a feeling the "correct" answer was Erasmus, so I wanted to try some of the others first. Each selection was accompanied by the wizards contacting the named sponsor through his or her portrait and asking if he or she would support me. These were the results:

  • Zara said that aside from selling me a few spells, she didn't really know me and wouldn't take responsibility for me. I didn't think that was very nice. Clearly, she must have been aware that I saved Spielburg.
  • Aziza also said that she didn't know me well enough.
  • In response to Erana, the wizards said that she hadn't responded to summonses for many years. There was an odd note when I clicked on Erana's portrait that said "she reminds you of Genesta, a Faery you once knew." At first, I thought it was odd that the game was ascribing a background to the hero, but I guess it was just a King's Quest reference.
  • When contacted, Harry Houdini was clearly in the middle of one of his escape acts. Through muffled gasps and chokes, he conveyed he was too busy at the moment.
  • Merlin simply indicated he didn't know me.

The spelling "Merlyn" and the reference to "Gramarye" indicates that the author of this passage has read T. H. White's The Once and Future King, but the surname "Ambrosius" suggests that he or she has also read Mary Stewart's "Merlin" trilogy. (Either that or Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini, but that seems less likely.)

Yorick, Keepon Laffin, and Baba Yaga simply produced notes that they weren't valid selections, so I guess they weren't members of the Institute. I think the game missed an opportunity to do something funny with Baba Yaga. I also think it missed an opportunity to have a response to "Fenrus" instead of "Erasmus."

In the end, it was "Erasmus" that got me in. The other members of the Institute clearly felt same way I did about him in the first game:

He appeared in his portrait, told a bunch of dumb jokes, and agreed to sponsor me. First, I had to pass a little test for him, which consisted of moving one of three bells to a pedestal and causing it to ring--in three spells or less. It was easy. "Detect Magic" identified the right bell, "Fetch" moved it to the pole, and "Trigger" caused it to ring.

Is this supposed to be a challenge?

The Institute then passed me along to the "real" test, which consisted of walking along a narrow path, with void on each side, and having to defeat four obstacles. The first was a spinning staff. I initially tried "Force Bolt" and "Flame Dart," hoping they would send it spinning away, but they didn't work. Confused, I started working my way down the list of spells.

The results of "Detect." Good to have that confirmation.

The solution turned out to be casting "Fetch" to get it to move towards me and then "Levitate" so I could move up as it passed under me. 

At this point, though, I was nearly out of spell points, and there was no way to rest during the test. I had to exit, go back to the apothecary, and stock up on some mana pills before trying again.

The second test was a stone wall that turned into some kind of rock monster when I cast "Trigger" on it. I could then "Calm" it and climb over it, but it woke up when I was on the other side and started pounding the walkway. I had to cast "Calm" a second time to keep moving.

The third test was a big iceberg. "Flame Dart" melted the frost on it, revealing a fracture. Three consecutive "Force Bolts" exploited the fracture and pushed two pieces apart until they fell off the walkway.

Finally, there was a door in front of a raging fire. "Open" opened the door; "Calm" made the flames diminish so I could see the hole on the other side; "Fetch" closed the door; and "Force Bolt" (specifically on the top edge) knocked it over so it provided a bridge across the hole.

There might have been other ways to solve some of them. None of the tests made use of "Zap" (which is understandable since you have to start the first game as a mage to even have it) or "Dazzle," though I wonder if the latter would have worked on the rock monster.

When I was done, the Institute wizards said I had passed and indicated that they wanted me to give up adventuring and devote myself full-time to studies. The game offered me the choice of whether to "take the oath that you will ignore and forget about those who said they needed you in the land of Shapeir and devote yourself to the improvement of your mind and magic." Way to ask a loaded question, Quest for Glory II.

At least it's a role-playing choice.

I said no, of course. The council was upset but Erasmus congratulated me, noting "what good is magic or knowledge unless you use it?" He gave me the "Reversal" spell, which rebounds magical attacks directed at you. I was then dumped back in the alley, leaving me confused as to whether I'm a member of WIT or not.

Flush with victory, I returned to the Katta's Tail Inn for the night. Omar the Poet was performing with his translator, Ja'afar (another name that would later appear in a Disney film). The "translator" wasn't a language translator, but rather someone who translated verse into plain text. It's rather funny. In response to NAME, Omar says:

This is followed by the "translator," who explains:

I imagined Omar saying "Fly me to the moon / and let me play among the stars / let me see what spring is like / on Jupiter and Mars" and Ja'Afar explaining, "Hold my hand. Darling, kiss me."

Omar indicated that the Katta had been expelled from Raseir, which is why they came to Spielburg to find me in the first place. This is nothing that was even hinted by Shameen and Shema. 

I settled in for Omar's official performance. The poem he recited was more prophecy than poetry:

In the Month of the Serpent, in the year of the Djinn
A shadow passed over the Katta's Tail Inn
Astrologers forell that Doom shall come to dwell
And Shapeir shall e but sand upon the wind

Comes a Hero from the North, riding on the very air
And this is sign the first to then beware
For Darkness soon shall fall and shadow cover all,
The city and the ones now living there

The first Doom shall be Fire, which shall burn the very stone
The next is Air, and rocks are overthrown
Earth shall be the third, then the final Doom is heard,
The Water gone, the city parched like bone

Unless the one called Hero is a Hero true indeed,
Who comes to help the city in its need,
Then will face the depths of Doom in the darkness of the Tomb
From the Elemental's Master, we are freed

The next morning, signs indicated that the first part of the prophecy was coming true. A Fire Elemental had been to town, and Alichica's stall was destroyed. Sounds like I'd better get cracking on the main quest.

Do all of my exploits have to be in service of some prophecy?

A few miscellaneous notes:

  • I ran into a beggar a few times in the Plaza of the Fountain. Giving him gold seemed to increase my "honor" score, but I didn't get any useful information out of him.

Sounds like your parents started you with a bit of a handicap.

  • Many of the plazas have open windows that make me vaguely remember climbing into them when I played as a thief back in the 1990s. I can understand why people play as thieves; the windows are just so damned enticing.

Yes, I do!

  • You have to eat and drink regularly as you explore, although the game automatically deducts water and rations if you have enough. That's a nice contrast to Fallthru.

I continue to love the game's overall sense of fun--something that I emphasized in my recent review of the first Quest for Glory. When you pass Erasmus's test with the bell, fireworks shoot out of the top of it spelling "Erasmus" and "Fenrus." A green-and-blue shield on the wall of the weapon shop is annotated as "the Black Shield of Falworth. It's been repainted." When you come out to Alichica's ruined cart after the Fire Elemental attack, he's optimistically trying to hawk the burned wood.

I don't think any other game I've played so far has imparted the same sense of having fun while still maintaining a relatively serious, interesting narrative. It makes it an honest pleasure to play the game no matter how it performs as an RPG.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fallthru: Won!

Getting "HOME!" is my reward. You know, Fallthru, I could have done that at any time by just shutting off the game.

Let's recap because it's been a while: Fallthru is a text-based RPG that features an enormous (perhaps infinite) but mostly empty game world. There are only a few dozen key plot locations, which you find through lore, exploration of road networks, and an artifact called a Weyring. The rest of the "squares" are generic forests, roads, paths, farms, and desert. As you explore, you meet warriors who challenge you to duels, and by defeating them, you increase your "level"--the only character development in the game except for a hidden accuracy statistic that indicates how good you are with a throwing knife or bow. Unfortunately, I capped at Level 76. You also meet wandering civilians who ask for gold, food, or water, and being charitable occasionally nets you a reward, like a gem or a special item. It also keeps your status "honorable," which is a prerequisite for some of the quests.

Exploration is logistically annoying because you have to keep an eye on food, water, and fatigue meters and keep an inventory of food and water. You can only carry so much in your hands, and a lot of the game involves shuffling items between your hands, backpacks, and burros. Hunting creatures that appear in specific zones is a good way to build resources and make money in the early game, but once you're strong enough, fighting warriors has better financial rewards.

Navigation is a bit of a pain, too--not complicated, just boring--although the "Wherstone" (giving you geographic coordinates), the "Flyr" (allowing you to move up to 20 squares at a time), and the "Navaid" (allowing you to navigate thick wilderness areas) all come along at just the right times.

My crude map of the overall game world. Everything is compressed and proportions are a bit off, particularly for the desert, in which locations are much further north. Note that to the north, east, and south, terrain stretches endlessly (or, at least, more than double what's shown here). Click for a larger version.

Fallthru is definitely a text RPG, not a text "adventure." There are no "puzzles" except some light problem-solving that depends on mapping or the right inventory items. These inventory items are primarily keys, necklaces, and rings that occur in bronze, silver, and gold varieties. They open access to various dungeons, some of which offer small navigational puzzles and invariably end up giving you another item that, in turn, gets you into another dungeon. Unlike most standard RPG dungeons, Fallthru's are quite small, generally only have one monster (if any), and typically only have one thing worth retrieving.

There is no information offered about the main character and his quest except a vague goal to get "home." "Home" always appears in quotes, suggesting something else is going on.

When I last posted, I was stuck. I had some clues as to what to do next, but I couldn't find key locations or items, including the castle Morag, a golden amulet, enough rubies (100) to purchase a gold ring (which I needed to get intel from a sage named Prothan), and the password to the Silver Way.

Shortly after posting last, based on a hint from Commenter X, I returned to Thun, took the bronze ring out of my backpack this time, and found a secret passage that led to a treasure trove, including an emerald, which I needed to decipher runes. I just didn't know where any runes were.

I wandered the desert and used the Weyring to find the three oases (a process that took forever) but didn't find anything there except exorbitantly-priced food, water, and oil. I also found a path I'd missed near the cleft in the great cliff. I assumed it would take me to Eyry, where I could find an opal scimitar. But when I tried to explore the paths, I kept falling and dying.

In desperation, I looked for hints online, only to find that there weren't any--at least, not this far into the game. A few message boards covered only earlier puzzles.

I had just typed up a posting titled "Fallthru: Give Up, Turn Off, Drop Out," announcing a hiatus in the game until I could get more hints, when I hit upon the idea of looking for hints in Fallthru: The Mentat Warrior, Paul Deal's novelization of the game, published 13 years later. Using the search feature on my Kindle, I tried PASSWORD and found a passage in which a character obtains the password to the Silver Way from runes on a place called Hi'mtn. The book didn't give the password itself, but this was a crucial location name I'd been lacking, and the INFO command in-game told me that Hi'mtn was in the desert--clearly what I was supposed to be finding around the oases. Unfortunately, the Weyring didn't recognize the name, so it didn't do me any good.

I kept searching, this time for MORAG--a castle I had a lot of lore about. Based on what I found, the book renames the castle to "Mordat," but it still references the "misty domes of Morag," somewhere west of Targ. That was something to work with. I returned to Targ in the southwest, headed west, and eventually found the castle with my Weyring. Searching it produced the golden amulet, an artifact that heals wounds, prevents injury, and makes the wearer immune to poison.

On the way to Targ, I'd talked to a warrior and gotten a bit of lore I previously didn't have: that there was some cave nearby called "Dre'cave," guarded by a "invisible killer." Again using Targ as the origin, I staked off in random directions, using the Weyring to ask WHERE IS DRE'CAVE before I finally found it to the southeast. The "invisible killer" turned out to be poison fumes, but my golden amulet protected me. I descended into the caverns and found a hoard of 100 rubies. That was a relief. I thought I'd have to fight warriors for hours and hours to get enough rubies to buy the gold ring. With the 100 I found, I returned to Triod and bought the gold ring.

At this point, lots of paths had opened up. Figuring the golden amulet would protect against injuries from falling at the Eyry, I returned and found I was right. I climbed to the right cave and got an opal scimitar. I took it back to Or'gn and used it to cleave the chains from the vault, only to find myself slaughtered by the demon Zugg--clearly I was here too soon.

If only it was this easy.

Prothan in Woren knew how to defeat Zugg, and now I had the gold ring I needed to talk with him. I journeyed east to that city and visited his manor. He related that to defeat the demon, I'd need a jeweled talisman from a cave 187 legons east and 203 legons north of "Spectacle," but first I'd need to follow the silver way to Sorf and learn where to find a gold key that opens the cave's gates.

Prothan spells out the endgame.

For a while, I was stuck again, not knowing where to find Hi'mtn and get the password for the Silver Way. I re-checked the lore on the oases, and saw that the entries noted that they were good places for "information," which I hadn't found. Returning to the desert, I re-visited the oases and this time thought to say HELLO in the markets, where the proprietors told me the distance from their oases to Hi'mtn. I journeyed to the convergence of these distances, went up the mountain, and (using the emerald from Thun) read the password to the Silver Way on an obelisk.

Before I remembered to get the emerald out of my pack.

Now I know why it wasn't in the book.

Fortunately, there was also a Silver Way station on the mountain. I entered, used the password, and found myself presented with a variety of numbered options for fast travel, but I'd already been to them all! However, noting that there were some gaps in the numbers, I tried numbers not listed and finally found the way to Sorf.

Sorf ended up consisting of just one room with a "locatrix" that gave me the coordinates to dig in the desert for the gold key. It was only because I had the diamond in hand that it did so; without the diamond, it just gives a bit of doggerel.

Alas, I don't have a loaded gun.

With the gold key, I set out to find the location of the Spectacle. INFO said that it was a waterfall in the Fariver where the highlands transitioned to the rainforest. Crossing the bridge to the south/east side, I worked my way up the river until the rainforest disappeared and I found the "Spectacle" location. Making my way from there to the coordinates given by Prothan, I found a cave called Estcave.

Estcave ended up being a real pain in the neck. Various passages required me to doff all my equipment, so I ended up reloading and just dropping everything but the lamp, the gold amulet, and the gold key at the entrance. A series of downward passages culminated in an area where I had to drop even the lamp before heading down into the darkness and feeling around to find the talisman. With creatures attacking me in the dark, I had to choose random directions until it finally returned me to the chamber with the abandoned lamp. I died and had to reload several times during this process.

A bit of description in Estcave.

The first time I exited the cave, I found that because I had dropped my navaid, I couldn't successfully find my way back to the cave to retrieve my dropped stuff. I had to reload an earlier save (thankfully, I'd been backing them up), journey all the way to the cave again, this time keep my navaid with me, and repeat the whole process. At last, however, I emerged with the last item I needed before the endgame. I just had to make the long trek back to Or'gn (with the all-too-frequent stops for food, water, and rest).

Back in Or'gn, I healed, saved, struck the chains off the vault, and plunged in. The battle with the demon Zugg was quite long and I had to reload once when he killed me. It took maybe 25-30 entries of FIGHT before I finally got the best of him. (Like all enemies in the game, I didn't kill him; he just fled when his health got too low.)

And after I leave, he presumably vacates his little corner and slaughters the entire population of Or'gn.

With the demon out of the way, I triumphantly stepped up to the raised platform, entered a spinning golden vortex, and . . . got a simple message that said, "you are, at last, HOME!" No explanation for the game world, where I was, why I was there, or anything else whatsoever.

That's not cool, Paul. After 26 hours, you needed to provide a bigger payoff.

(Looking for more answers, I read the last few pages of the book. Like the game, it ends at the vault, but instead of going "home," the characters get transported to yet another world. Reflecting on their adventures, they determine that they were probably dead all along, and their consciousnesses are stuck in a virtual reality overseen by the "Mentat master" from Faland. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger as they decide to start exploring their new reality.)

So a very unsatisfying ending to an interesting but flawed game. Looking back on what happened during this last session, it strikes me that the crucial piece of information I lacked was the general location of Morag castle. As soon as I found that, everything else opened up. I suspect it was part of the lore bank and I just missed it. Either that, or the game really expected you to wander around typing WHERE IS MORAG in random locations until you happened to wander within 100 squares of it.

For the record, the range of X coordinates with anything useful in them went from 0 to 1188, and the range of Y coordinates went from 85 to 1213, giving us 1189 x 1129, or 1,342,381 squares/screen/pixels/whatever in the "active" game world. I pushed the borders for a couple thousand squares beyond that and never found the northern, eastern, or southern borders (to the south, the coordinates happily went into the negative numbers), so my hypothesis is that the game just keeps generating new coordinates indefinitely (or, at least, up to some never-reachable maximum). 

There were a couple of bits of lore that never resolved into anything, including a note that the "Golden Way runs through Sorf" (just the Silver Way was there; the only Golden Way was the portal at the very end, in Or'gn), a sign that pointed to "Sturk Beach" but never delivered anything, and a note that there were ruins in the mesas to the northwest, where I never found anything. If I missed anything there, it wasn't crucial to winning the game.

Final thoughts, and the GIMLET, coming soon.