Monday, September 1, 2014

Captive: Surviving on the Inside

Reaching the station where Trill is being held. It looks ominously like the Death Star.

Despite what I said at the end of the last post, I decided to try to marathon my way to the end of Captive. It partly worked. I finished the regular bases and made it to the space station where Trill is being held, but I've gotten stuck there and probably won't be able to finish.

The game got a little easier for me after the last post, for a couple of reasons. First, I spent money on better weapons and droid parts, although I kept my lead characters going primarily with melee weapons until late in this session (ammo is expensive). Second, the muscle memory in my fingers got used to the turn-side-step combo on the keypad, so I could flank all but the fastest monsters as long as I could find an area of at least 2x2. Third, I started to master some of the game's other mechanics, which I'll cover below.

I still maintain that Captive is absurdly deadly, even by the standards of Dungeon Master clones. Even with all four of my droids blazing their shields, and with all of them upgraded to the best Bronzite or Ironide parts, I still was unable to stand up to more than two shots from some of the late-game monsters. Sometimes not even one. Fortunately, I slowly grew to master--or at least understand--the arsenal of tricks that the game allows. Some of them are adopted from Dungeon Master, but several are unique to the game. They include:

1. Hit and run. This tactic takes advantage of the fact that enemies can't strafe. If they encounter a 90-degree angle, they have to step forward and then turn before they can fire or continue pursuit. Thus, a long, bendy hallway is your friend. Wait for the enemy to enter an angle, fire off a few shots, then flee to the next bend when he turns to face you. When enemies can't pass certain obstacles, like water, this becomes even easier. Dangers: You forget the map and end up trapping yourself in a dead-end, or there simply isn't any suitable hallway to do this.

This guy has just turned to face me on a bend. I need to strafe to the left, then turn right, and shoot him a few times when he enters the square I'm currently in. Then I'll run to the next bend in the corridor and do it again.
2. The side-step-turn. This uses the same mechanic as "hit and run" but without the benefit of corridors on either side. You lead the enemy to an area of at least 2x2 squares. Since enemies follow predictable patterns as they chase you around the squares, you can use this to your advantage. Just as the enemy turns to face you, you side-step (strafe) to a square that puts you diagonal to him, then turn to face the square that he'll enter as he tries to get next to you. When he does, fire off a few shots (or melee attacks) before he can turn and face you, then quickly do another side-step before he can shoot. Repeat, constantly dancing around in a 2x2 square pattern, until he dies. Dangers: Finger fatigue ensures that you will occasionally screw this up. It works poorly on fast enemies, and you don't have time to save in the middle of it, so one mis-typed key causes you to lose your progress beating down a foe.

You can do a kind-of hybrid of the first two strategies if you can find a room with a pillar in the middle.

3. Mines. Shops sell mines, and occasionally enemies leave one behind when they die. Enemies will avoid them if there are alternative paths, but if you can find a corridor that an enemy must travel to defeat you, you can lay any number of them. I found that 3-4 mines were very effective against even the tough enemies on the final base, but they're also very expensive and heavy. Flying enemies are immune to them. Dangers: You set off your own mines, so you have to remember where they are and use the anti-gravity device to walk over them.

4. Cameras. Cameras sell for less money than mines but are slightly less effective. When set up, they look like Daleks from Dr. Who. When you switch them on, you can see the facing corridor on one of your monitors, and a little yellow square denotes the presence of an enemy in the corridors. When the enemy steps on the square with the camera you can press a button to detonate it. Dangers: Fast moving enemies often zoom by the camera before you can react.

Setting up a camera. Hitting the right "X" on the monitor screen will cause it to explode.
I suppose cameras have tactical purposes other than blowing up--perhaps to warn you of the approach of any enemy on your backpath--but I don't see the value here. The bases are all organized into small, discrete sections separated by doors, ladders, elevators, and walls. It's comparatively easy to determine if you've cleared a section, and fairly easy to tell when a switch or panel opens access to another hallway. You'd have to be a fairly careless player to get surprised by enemies, in which case you're probably not using cameras anyway.

5. Shooting through slits. Walls occasionally offer slits through which you can view enemies on the other side. You can fire electric bolts and super balls through these slits, or regular guns if you're inverted on the ceiling. Since some enemies can also fire at you, and they often have a wide range of motion on the other side, limiting how often you can shoot at them, I haven't found these to be very helpful.

Shooting electricity through a slit at an enemy on the other side.

6. The door crush. Position yourself in front of a closing door or wall and let it pound your enemy while you supplement its damage with melee attacks and shots. This is a viable strategy in the early game, but not so much in the late game when standing in front of some enemies for even a few seconds is enough to wipe out your party.

7. Friendly fire. When enemies sense you, they fire at you, even if they're on the other sides of doors or walls--and even if other enemies are in between. You can sometimes trick enemies into wiping each other out this way. A few enemies have shots that automatically bounce off walls and doors if they don't encounter anything in between, and if you can get them firing at you from the other side of a wall or door, they'll kill themselves.

Bases 9 and 10 featured enemies of living fire. Since they have to stay rooted in the fire on the floor, however, it was easy to use hit and run tactics on them.
8. Super bouncy ball. The "super balls" you find throughout the game will bounce back and forth between walls until they hit something or exhaust themselves in 6 or 7 bounces. I keep a big supply. Send them careening in a big room and there's a good chance that they'll intercept something eventually. You can also use them to test for the presence of enemies on the other side of a room or corridor that's so long you can't see the end. If the ball comes bouncing back, it's clear. Dangers: The balls can hit you, and cause significant damage, so you'll want to find a place to duck out of the way if you start hurling them.

9. The crowded ladder. It's tough to get into a situation where this works, but when it does, it's fun. Your party cannot occupy the same square as an enemy. If an enemy is standing at the top of a ladder when you ascend, you'll automatically nudge him into an adjacent square. But if that adjacent square is occupied by another enemy, he cannot move and automatically dies. If you can get a bunch of enemies milling about the top of a ladder with only a single adjacent square, you can kill a lot of them this way and just have to deal with the one remaining. Unfortunately, it's more common to find ladders with at least two adjacent squares, meaning at least three enemies have to be in the right position for this to work.

10. Ladder-scumming. The last refuge. Lead an enemy to the ladder. Head down. Pop up, squeeze off a few shots, pop back down. Save and repeat. If the enemy gets lucky and shoots you the instant you reach the top of the ladder, reload. Dangers: Some enemies react so fast that you basically have to hit "fire" before your brain can register whether the enemy is actually in front of you when you reach the top of the ladder. This wastes a lot of ammo when the enemy isn't there. Some enemies react and fire so fast that you have to reload a lot even when ladder-scumming.

Ladder-scumming to defeat this pack of robots in the space station.

As I grew more adept at these methods, I found the last three bases a little easier, although the last base featured this horrid thing:

Notice how well all those shields are performing. They might as well not even be on.
It moves so fast I can barely react to it, and since it flies, it's immune to mines. I had to resort to ladder-scumming to defeat every one of them. Overall, as I fear I've said ad nauseum, while I can appreciate this type of combat, I don't really like it. Too much relies on fast fingers, and I'm just lousy at that.

Replacing my droid parts. When I get done, do I really have the same droid?
On equipment, I eventually upgraded every droid to "Bronzite" parts, and on the last base my lead droid got "Ironide" parts. There were even better parts available, but I didn't invest enough points in "Robotics" to equip them. I didn't notice a huge difference in the amount of damage they repelled, but I did notice that the higher-level parts made my devices consume far less electricity. Also, repairing these higher-level parts is a lot more expensive.

The secret to surviving Captive--both financially and physically--seems to be to avoid getting hit at all.

The skill problem haunted me with weapons, too. Throughout the game, I made the "mistake" (if you can call something you have no way to foresee a mistake) of trying to master the early skills before investing a lot of points in the later skills. This is partly because you find melee weapons and simple handguns all over the place, whereas you have to pay for more advanced weapons and their ammo. It's also because the more advanced weapons require a lot more skill. For instance, for my droid with 49 wisdom, advancing from Level 2 to 3 in "Cannons" costs 4,389 experience points, whereas advancing from Level 16 to 17 in "Rifles" requires only 570.

This has some weird consequences. Commenter MOZA, for instance, assures me that the worst laser is better than the best handgun. But since the best handgun requires 24 skill points in "Handguns" and the worst laser requires only 1 skill point in "Lasers," this suggests that you're wasting your time ever getting all the way up to 24. Best go only to 9, at which point the next skill becomes available, and I guess always invest your points in the best available skills? I want to re-iterate that the Captive manual is absolutely no help with this question, and in the typical RPG, a high-skill level generally trumps the type of weapon.

One droid's current skills. I probably should have concentrated more on the later skills and made sure I got the last one--"Sprayguns"--before the final base. Despite investing some in "Cannons," I haven't actually bought any cannons.
Anyway, partly because I didn't want to waste the substantial investment I'd made in lower skills, and partly because ammo for higher-level weapons costs so much, I remained well behind the curve in weapons for the entire game. This created a much higher level of difficulty for me, but I managed to get by anyway--until the space station, where my paltry selection of laser guns and handguns were no match for the absurdly difficult monsters there. 

The final three bases grew progressively bigger, until they were so large that walking around them took about 30 minutes even when they were completely cleared. I still didn't have to map, however. The nature of the procedural map generation means that no matter how large, the bases will be almost completely linear. Never does a late section suddenly re-connect with an early section. What does happen, however, is that the passcode needed to get through a door in an early section might not be found until very late in the base. This dynamic ensures that you end up looping through each base multiple times as you acquire new passcodes. I got rather sick of this towards the end.

Opening a new section of the base with a passcode I found way, way, way far away.

In the last couple bases, these types of passcodes became more common, but it's the same dynamic: find the clipboard, then find the panel that it opens.
A few other notes:

  • This keeps happening. I don't know why.

  • The weapons you find in little alcoves on the wall, although they look like brass knuckles, swords, handguns, rifles, and so on, are all called "Zlots." It took me a while to understand how these differ from the ones you buy in stores. They're meant only for temporary use. They have a limited number of blows or charges, they disappear when they run out, and they can't be repaired. Throughout the game, I was using them as primary weapons when they're really meant as backups for when you run out of ammo.
  • The procedural nature of dungeon creation means that occasionally you have weird stuff like this, where I've gone through all the trouble to find and enter a passcode, only to find a two-square, empty corridor on the other side. Ladders and elevators routinely lead to empty squares.

Good thing there were lasers blocking this area.

  • The battery was the best purchase I made. It's often a long time between power outlets, but since one battery can fully recharge four droids, I rarely worry about running out of power anymore.

Recharging at a wall socket.

After I cleared the last of the 10 bases, I had no idea what to expect from the space station. I rather hoped that I would just arrive at the station and the endgame sequence would commence. I should be so lucky. Instead, the space station is a base just like the others, only with much harder monsters. Even Bases 8 and 9 featured some of the easy monsters from the first couple of bases, and the really tough enemies (like the one above) were punctuations in a long series of easy or moderately-challenging encounters. But I found no easy encounters on the space station. The moment I entered, I was greeted by this behemoth . . .

Well, hell.

. . . and it just got worse from there. The only three creature types I've found on the space station are two types of these giant cyborgs and packs of robots that look like Robocop. All of them are capable of wiping me out in a hot second, and ladder-scumming and mines are the only techniques that have had any effect.

Unfortunately, I'll soon run out of even these options, as I'm out of ammo (despite loading up all my available inventory slots on the previous base) and I haven't found any shops to restock. I'm not even sure there are any shops on the space station. I'm going to have to reload a saved game from Base 10 and get everyone equipped with better weapons, and a lot more ammunition, before I try again. I don't know how soon that will be.


In list news, I've removed Secret Valley (1983) for the ZX Spectrum. In mechanics, the game is virtually indistinguishable from The Valley (1982), which I already reviewed. You enter a direction to move and random stuff happens. There simply isn't enough gameplay content to be considered an RPG under my rules, although I confess I don't know what other category I'd assign to it. I suspect this fate is going to befall a lot of the "RPGs" I recently added from the World of Spectrum site.

I've also taken the advice of several of you and rejected Bad Blood as an RPG. It was a tough call, as the game features world exploration and NPC dialogue that you rarely find in non-RPG games. But its lack of any character development and its all-action combat mean that it violates two of my core criteria. I briefly considered playing it anyway, as it would have been fun to contrast its post-apocalyptic theme with Fallout: New Vegas, which I've had going on my Xbox for the last few weeks. As I went through the manual and initial game areas, however, the back story and plot--centered on problems between "Mutes" and "Humes"--just struck me as irredeemably goofy. Origin may have created worlds, but sometimes they made a hash of the job.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Game 162: Warrior of Ras, Volume Two: Kaiv (1982)

This is the C64 opening screen; the full title is on the next screen. I originally had it as a 1983 game, but the copyright screen and manual for the Apple II version says 1982.

Warrior of Ras, Volume Two: Kaiv
Randall D. Masteller (author); Screenplay (publisher)
Released 1982 for Apple II; 1983 for Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64
Date Started: 27 August 2014
Date Ended: 27 August 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

At the beginning of this year, I reviewed Warrior of Ras, Volume One: Dunzhin, the first of a four-game series by Randall Don Masteller, published by Screenplay of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This was an enormously productive period for Masteller, with all four games--each building in capabilities--issued within a two-year period. I had originally tagged the first sequel, Kaiv, as a 1983 game, but the screen and manual copyrights both say 1982. Since the first two games were advertised together, the 1982 date is probably correct.

I didn't dislike Dunzhin. (It would be worth reading or re-reading that review before getting into this one.) It enjoyably passed an afternoon and I gave it a score of 22, which wasn't bad for a 1982 game. It had some strong innovations, including a complex system of armor class and damage, with different body parts having different ACs and damage levels; a tactical combat system involving three levels of attacks against various enemy body parts; experience rewards relative to your level vs. the enemy's; and the ability to "search" for a particular foe at any given time. I just wished it had other RPG elements, like an inventory and a strong economy. "It has some ideas too good to ignore," I remarked, "but it lacks too many RPG elements to fully enjoy as an RPG."

The less-exciting Apple II main screen.

Thus, I was looking forward to Kaiv, which features an inventory system, with some items used flexibly for combat (e.g., potions, magic rings) and others used as puzzle-solving tools (e.g., ropes, picks). Unfortunately, we still have no character attributes and no way to even name your character, but the series is clearly growing.

The framing story is set in the land of Ras (the name was originally an acronym for "Random Area Series"), ruled by Lord Doserror the Inevitable. Doserror's greatest warrior, Grimsweord, has just returned from "the Ancient Lands," where he discovered the legendary Kaiv. His account of his adventures comically, though somewhat uncomfortably, intersperses lore with game instructions:

I reached a massive door, twice as tall and wide as this hall. I pounded on it with the hilt of my sword. I felt a strange sensation. A voice within my mind told me that I had indeed found the Kaiv, though it made it seem as if it were some fell game. As the doors swung back smoothly on massive hinges, I heard the voice ask:


As I had never entered the Kaiv before, I said (N)o.

It goes on like this through all of the gameplay elements and commands. I'm not sure if the suggestion is that the hero is Grimsweord, or another fighter sent to the dungeon to do a better job.

Exploring the "Kaiv" means navigating both combats and obstacles.

Kaiv allows an import of a character from Dunzhin, with all his attendant experience and gold. That seemed a little too easy for me, so I started with a new one. The game begins in a marketplace outside the cave, where you can purchase a variety of exploration items, armor, and swords. Weapons can break in combat, and you need a couple of backups, since the game won't allow you to fight with fists. The manual says that the "standard pack" at the outset would consist of a suit of armor, three swords, 10 torches, 15 food, 15 water, a cross, flint and steel, three ropes, two dirks, a pick, and a mirror. This is all easily purchasable with the starting 2,000 gold. In fact, the only thing outside your price range at the beginning is a "magic sword" for 3,000 gold--something to save up for.

Purchasing an initial selection of equipment.

Weight and encumbrance affect movement, so the game lets you store excess cash outside the dungeon. There's no reason not to do this unless you plan to bribe creatures a lot.

The titular cave is a series of randomly-generated maps progressing west to east for six screens. Where Dunzhin was organized in discrete, lettered, rectangular rooms, Kaiv's spaces are far more irregular, spotted with cliffs (you need a rope to climb), pools of water or acid, and other navigation hazards. Some of the hazards produce an early variety of "quick time event" where you have to quickly hit a key to avoid taking damage.

I have suffered a collapse and am using my pick to get out of it.

Hitting a key quickly avoids taking damage from an acid pool.

The game preserves the movement system I disliked from Dunzhin where you have to type MOVE EAST 3 or MOVE NORTH 1 to mince along at the desired number of steps. Yes, you can abbreviate this M E 3 and M N 1, but it's still more annoying than using the arrow keys. Sensing this, Masteller did allow the use of the arrows to move one step in any direction on the Commodore 64 version. I started trying to play that version, but I ran into a bug by which all of my attacks always missed the enemies. Thus, I was stuck typing things the long way in the Apple II version.

You rarely want to move more than one step in any direction into unexplored territory, as the torch only illuminates one square around you and you could easily find yourself running into walls and taking damage.

Combat hasn't changed much at all from Dunzhin. As you explore, you run into packs of ghouls, skeletons, wolves, fighters, ogres, goblins, wyverns, trolls, vampires, and other D&D-derived monsters. Sometimes they'll offer you the choice of withdrawing without combat, but mostly they just want to fight. You can try to HIDE or BRIBE enemies to leave you alone if you're low on hit points. The monsters have a variety of special attacks and are fairly well-described in the game manual.

LORDS: Once they were great knights and warriors, but they were trapped in the Kaiv eons ago. These accursed noblemen are magnificent fighters. They are heavily armored, with plate mail, war helmets, and swords of great renown.
GORGONS: The sight of a gorgon can turn a warrior to stone, and with good reason. Gorgons have shapely human bodies but hideous faces, glowing eyes, deathly pale skin, and "hair" of writhing serpents. The ancient legends say that a mirror can protect the warrior from being turned to stone.

In combat, you choose to just HIT or to spend a round AIMing or increasing your FORCE. In addition to the type of attack, you specify the body part to be attacked: Head, neck, chest, abdomen, left leg, right leg, left arm, right arm (with arms and legs replaced with forelegs and hind legs for creatures). For both you and the monsters, each body part has its own armor class, chance to hit, and hit points, and if you reduce any of them to 0 (or the creature's total hit points to 0), the creature dies. Heads and necks have very few hit points but very low chances to hit; chests and abdomens have a lot of hit points and a high chance to hit.

Fighting a fighter.

Armor absorbs a few hit points damage on each body part, slowing losing armor points as it does so. When the armor defense reaches 0, it's time for a new set of armor. All in all, it's one of the most complex health and armor systems that we have in the Bronze Age. It's just too bad there aren't more types of armor.

There are no classic attributes, but your level affects your attack and defense values as well as your individual body hit points. I found leveling was absurdly rapid in the early stages: I gained one level for every single combat up to Level 7, and after that I still managed to get up to Level 10 pretty fast. (This makes sense if the assumption is that many players imported characters from Dunzhin.) But since the required number of experience points increases by 25-50% each time, it will still take a long time to reach the maximum level of 20.

A late-game character sheet shows my attributes and hit points for each body part.

Monsters politely attack you one at a time, and you always get the first blow, so it's possible to work your way through a pack without them ever getting a chance to hit you. This rarely happens, though. In general, I find the combats very deadly, though the ability to save anywhere reduces the consequences of this.

Enemies never drop anything, but you find gold and potions and supposedly rings and wands on the dungeon floor. I say "supposedly" because in 4 hours of play I never found a wand or a ring. There are eight types each of potions, rings, and wands, and the effects are both powerful and useful. Potions include healing, haste, hiding, ironskin, strength (doubling attack damage), and "etherealness," which allows you to move through walls. Rings operate either by charges or duration, and they include three types of shielding rings, fireballs, invisibility, teleportation (random), and light. Wands include cold, fire, lightning, and paralysis. It's not a bad inventory system for a series that had no inventory in the first game.

You also have to carry stocks of torches, food, and water, and the game frequently gives you messages about getting hungry and thirsty or torches running out. I don't mind the dynamic, but you never find torches, food, or water in the dungeon, and especially as you start to explore more screens to the east, it's annoying to have to trek back to the entrance to revisit the market.

Kaiv also keeps Dunzhin's dynamic of having all kinds of weird things happen as you explore. A voice whispers "I like you" or "I don't like you." You suddenly feel a boost in confidence. The cave collapses around you and you have to use a pick to get out. A voice says "go away!" and you're randomly teleported elsewhere. You disturb a colony of bats (other than a brief animation, I don't think this has any consequences). These special encounters keep the game very unpredictable.

Dunzhin had a "main quest" to find a random treasure on the bottom floor. Kaiv's main quest seems to be finding the "Legendary Treasure" on the sixth screen. This legendary treasure is . . . wait for it . . . a pile of 5,000 gold pieces. Just a tad underwhelming, but of course the "real" point of the game is just to explore and develop as high as possible.

It took me about 4 hours of play to get to Level 11, collect enough funds to buy a magic sword, and make it to the site of the treasure. When I finally got there, I found that I could only carry about 3,500 of the 5,000 gold pieces if I didn't want to start dropping other items. This reduced my movement speed to 1 per round, but fortunately I had a lot of "Haste" potions and was able to compensate as I limped back to the exit. There was no acknowledgement, upon leaving, that I'd found the legendary treasure.

My final inventory. I'm not sure what the purpose of the dirks was. Don't ask me why I'm holding my regular sword when I have a magic sword.

I expect the GIMLET to score slightly higher than Dunzhin. Let's see:

  • 1 point for the game world. Unfortunately, the framing story is very brief and has no impact on actual gameplay.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There are no creation options and a fairly standard experience/leveling system during the game itself.
  • 0 points for, alas, no NPCs.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The monster list may be somewhat derivative, but it's still nice to find such an early game implementing features like paralysis, level-drain, and the need to hold up a mirror against gorgons. The various random happenings in the game are a little too random to be fully enjoyable, but they do add some variety to the exploration.

Sometimes enemies are just trying to get from one place to another, just like you.

  • 4 points for combat. The body part/armor class/damage system is unique and interesting, as is the ability to spend a round improving AIM or winding up more FORCE. There is still no magic in the series--only magic items.
  • 2 points for a basic equipment  selection. I was disappointed that I never found rings or wands. I don't know if they were exceedingly rare or if it was a bug.
  • 3 points for the economy. Unlike the first game, gold has some use, and you have to keep collecting it for survival gear. Having to save for the magic sword is a nice sub-goal.
  • 1 point for not much of a main quest.
  • 2 points for bare-bones graphics, a sound system that consists mostly of piercing boops, and a text-based control system that I still don't like for movement even though Masteller tried to help by allowing abbreviations.

The game has pretty good in-game documentation, too.

  • 4 points for gameplay, earned mostly for the modest level of difficulty and for lasting just about as long as the depth of the gameplay could support.

This gives us a final score of 23, surprisingly only one point higher than Dunzhin. The discrepancy is primarily in the 2 bonus points I gave to Dunzhin for some of the innovative elements that didn't fit into other categories. I debated whether I should carry these points forward but ultimately decided not to. 23 feels like it works well in comparison to other games with similar scores.

My post on the first game has some information about Randall Masteller and his influences. I had a great e-mail exchange with him that week, in which he enthusiastically answered all of my questions and really seemed keen to talk about the game. (Some of the other developers I've contacted in the past year have been far less pleasant.) I'll shoot him an e-mail to let him know this one is up and see if he has any additional remembrances.

I'll be playing the final two Ras games over the next few months. Based on the manuals, Wylde and Ziggurat offer similar game mechanics but deeper back stories and more meaningful main quests. As randomly-generated dungeon crawls go, the Warrior of Ras titles offer a reasonable amount of fun for short time periods, and I've enjoyed watching the series develop.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Captive: A Long Stretch

"Ladder-scumming" fails with the quick-reacting mad scientist. Time to reload.

Captive has perhaps the highest reload count of any game I've ever played, making a hash out of my normal rules. In a less difficult game, every time one of my droids was reduced to scrap, I'd haul his pieces to the nearest shop and have him repaired. But when a game makes you do that roughly every 5 minutes, it becomes unfeasible, and death is now an occasion for reloading. Even getting whacked for more hit points than I'd like--especially if I've just finished getting repaired--is an occasion for reloading.

Captive is far more difficult than Dungeon Master, primarily because of the lack of any ability to rest and heal. In Dungeon Master, if you could get away from an active combat, you could wait for hit points and spell points to regenerate and keep making healing potions. Captive offers no such breaks. "Getting away from active combat" usually means hustling your crippled party to the dead end of a corridor where you can sit and rest as long as you like, but your bent and broken limbs won't get any better. The only time you're "safe" in Captive is when a) a store is nearby, b) a power outlet is nearby, c) you have a clear route to both, d) there are no wandering monsters in the area, and e) you have enough money to pay for repairs.

Knowing this, the game screws with these variables every chance it gets, primarily by forcing you to walk on pressure plates that seal the walls behind you. Until you find the switch that lets you back, you're in limbo, not knowing how much damage you can afford to take from each encounter. If you're unlucky enough to save when you're at 50% health and it turns out there's 10 more packs of difficult enemies between you and the switch--and none of the tricks you're normally use to survive them--you're basically walking dead.

My characters are in really bad shape. The first two are almost dead and have all their arms disabled; the back two have plenty of health but each has one arm disabled. I really hope there's a shop behind this door somewhere.

The beginning of each base is also quite difficult, before you've found any stores or power outlets, because there's no way to get back out. Even if there was, there wouldn't be anywhere to go. Both Bases #5 (Salstee) and Base #6 (Seavy) required me to explore for over an hour before I found my first shop, right about the time I was sure I was going to have to reload a saved game from outside the base and try again.

But of all the variables, it's the money that I worry about the most. The game has a closed economy, since enemies don't respawn. I'm so paranoid about running out of money for repairs that I haven't been purchasing potentially-useful upgrades and tools. I keep envisioning a scenario in which I load up on batteries, weapons, ammo, and better droid parts, and then I hit the famous "dungeon with no money" that everyone knows about except someone playing blind.

Better droid parts are available, but I've been reluctant to spend the money.

Dungeon Master offered stair-scumming, the side-step dance, and the merciless closing doors as options for beleaguered players, but in Captive, these tricks are essentially necessary. Standing face-to-face with an enemy and trading blows simply results in a quick death, unless I'm missing some tactic somewhere.

Believe it or not, you can punch these to death, and like all other enemies, they explode into blood when killed.

Base #5 offered up a couple of new enemies, including (nonsensically) tanks, plus demons with flaming blue swords. (Again, with no names assigned to the enemies, I have to make them up.) Base #6 had smiling computer monitors somehow capable of spitting fireballs.

And they look so friendly, too.

Oh, and these trolls. I forgot where they first appeared.

But none of the previously-encountered foes held a candle to the bastards I encountered in Base #6: deadly "hovercraft" capable of blasting my characters out of existence with one shot. Not only that, they hover so high that you have to be inverted on the ceiling to hit them. They attack in pairs of two, and I must have encountered 10 pairs throughout the base. I found only one way to effectively deal with them: ladder-scumming. If I could lead them back to a ladder, I could pop down, save, invert myself, pop up, get off one or two shots, then pop back down before they could retaliate. It didn't always work; these guys react fast. I saved after every 2 or 3 successful shots, and had to reload that save frequently when they reacted too fast. This is not my idea of a fun game.

These guys kill me so fast that it took several tries to even capture a screenshot in time.

Oh, and to make matters even more fun, when the hovercrafts die, they leave landmines behind! I haven't found any way to effectively disarm them yet. I can't seem to throw things at them from a distance (rarely do I have an unobstructed hallway anyway), and fiddling them from one square away causes significant damage (though not as much as walking on them). I can avoid them by walking across the ceiling, and a couple of times, I've led other enemies to them, which is always satisfying. The shops sell mines I can buy for my own use, but they're expensive and I've been hesitating to splurge.

The hovercrafts left me a present.

Enemies can be divided basically in two ways: movement speed, and whether they have missile weapons. If an enemy is slow, I can usually lead him to a room where I can do the two-step and hit him from the sides and rear while he struggles to turn. If the enemy has no missile weapons, I can use a shooting retreat or take potshots at him from the other side of a fire or water barrier (most enemies don't cross water; so far only hovercraft have crossed fire). But enemies that are fast and have missile weapons are nightmares.

Shooting a pack of Go-bots across a field of fire.

The size of the bases is also getting worse. I haven't had to map yet, but they still last bloody forever. I was in Base #6 for about 8 total hours--longer than some entire games. Every time I thought I'd explored everything, I'd find some new movable wall, ladder, or switch to open a door, leading to some vast new area. Technically, you can get out of a base as soon as you find at least one probe and the generator room, but the only way to make sure you get all the gold and experience is to to fight all the monsters. I'll be happy to end the last base prematurely; until then, I need every advantage I can get.

Late in Base #6, I did finally spend about half my gold on a battery, because I was sick of having to find my way back to the infrequent power outlets to recharge. The one I bought stores enough power to fully recharge a droid four times, which should be enough to tide me over when outlets are scarce.

I cannot figure out what these are for.

In terms of navigation obstacles, Base #5 introduced a "spinner" square, but it was pretty pathetic, simply rotating me once clockwise. I think there was only one. Both Base #5 and #6 had areas with fire barriers. They also had hydrants, and at first I was sure that the purpose of the hydrants was to put out the fires. Only that didn't work; the hydrants would just flood the areas but stop at the fire barriers. So I'm left not knowing what the hydrants are for. I couldn't figure out any reason why I'd want to flood the dungeon. It just makes navigation a lot harder, since droids take damage when they walk in water, and the only way to navigate the areas safely is to walk on the ceiling (again, at a huge power drain). The bases had enough water areas on their own without my contributing to the problem.

Using a computer while upside-down to avoid the flooded floor.

Base #6 had one small "dark" area that I needed the visor to get through.

Making my way through the dark.

As I mentioned, I've been slow to upgrade weapons even when I could seriously use them. My lead characters are still using melee weapons and my two rear characters are still using magnum pistols even though I found a shop selling laser pistols some time ago. The skills went through "Rifles" and "Automatics" before offering me "Lasers," but I'm not sure I ever saw any rifles or automatics for sale. I'm not sure they'd be better for me anyway, as my characters have a skill level of 24 in handguns but are only up to 3-5 with lasers so far. If I'm not mistaken, this would maybe let me use the worst laser weapon. Is the worst laser better than the best handgun?

Speaking of skills, an anonymous commenter told me that "24 is always the highest skill requirement for the best version of a given weapon," but nonetheless, "more skill still helps." That may be true, but the experience points needed to raise any skill from 24 to 25 seems to be 35,399, whereas the highest experience cost I've encountered to raise a skill below that is only around 2,200. So I probably won't be saving up for that 25th point any time soon.

In my first post, I said that the bases were "randomly-generated." After doing some more reading on the subject, I realize this was probably misleading. Procedurally-generated is probably a better term. Every numbered base will look exactly the same for every player. But Anthony Crowther didn't map them all out; that would have been functionally impossible, since there are theoretically thousands of bases. (Apparently, the maximum number is 65,535, but some bug keeps you from going past something like 25,476. I've also read that the PC version has a bug that limits the bases to 2,816. No matter what, you'd have to be simply insane to hit those limits.) Instead, Crowther designed a map generation routine that uses the base number as a seed and generates the rest of the layout based on it.

I don't deny that it's an extremely impressive bit of programming, but it has the effect of limiting the types of puzzles that the game can provide to the player. Dungeon Master fans often talk about the game's navigation puzzles as a highlight of the game, but complex navigation puzzles can really only work in a hand-crafted dungeon. A procedurally-generated dungeon will allow for a wall that closes behind you, and a switch that later opens the wall, but not much else. Certainly nothing like the puzzles in Chaos Strikes Back where you had to herd skeletons onto four pressure plates, or the one in Dungeon Master where you had to use riddles on a scroll to identify four pieces of equipment to put into four alcoves. Thus, I would think that this aspect of the game would be disappointing even for fans of the sub-genre.

I prepare to extinguish a wall of fire with a switch. By design, any fire wall is going to have a nearby switch to disarm it.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • It took me a while to figure out how to use the dice. If you hold them in your hand while facing a combo door and right-click, the die shows you the location of the next button in the sequence. I keep finding more dice, and as far as I can tell, you only need one of them. The shopkeepers aren't interested in the excess. They don't work on the bases' front doors, where you really need them.

The die saves me from having to try up to 24 different combinations.

  • It turns out that if you accidentally leave your gold in the hands of shopkeepers, it's not only always there when you return, it will also be in the hands of any other shopkeepers you visit in the same base. I'm not sure if it will also appear with shopkeepers in the next base, but I'm going to leave a small amount when I escape Base #7 so I can test it. 
  • The "root finder" finds the front door of the base--very handy when you're trying to escape the base after planting the charges. Then, once outside the base, it guides you to your ship.

The device indicates the way to the exit is through this door.

According to my commenters, I still have four bases to go in the first mission; my vague understanding is that you can consider the game "won" after the first mission, since you can keep generating new ones indefinitely. At this rate, we're looking at another 30-40 hours in a game that I've sunk almost 30 into already. This is why it burns me that these Dungeon Master clones never have any kind of plot progression. All I'm asking for is a single screen at the end of each base that reveals more about why I was imprisoned, and who was behind it--a slow return of Trill's memories as the droids fight to reach him. Or maybe a dialogue option or two with the shopkeepers: something that alerts me to dangers in the next section. Anything. But none of the ones I've played--Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back, Bloodwych, and Captive--can even offer the tiniest bit of story to the player. They expect players to just delight in their mechanics and let their imaginations do the rest.
This works for many players but not for me. I'm going to keep Captive on my "active" list, but I'm not going to give it more than a couple hours a week. If it takes the rest of 1990 to win, that's what will have to happen. That said, the difficulty I've been experiencing probably has a lot to do with my reluctance to spend money and try out all the weapons and tools, so I'll try to do better with that before the end.

Moving on to yet another base.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Game 161: The Stone of Telnyr (1990)

The game is called Telnyr I - The Stone of Telnyr or Telnyr Part I in most online databases, but on all screens in the game, it's just The Stone of Telnyr.

The Stone of Telnyr
Peter R. Boothman (developer); Brunswick Publications (publisher)
Released 1990 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 24 August 2014
Date Ended: 24 August 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

The Stone of Telnyr, an independent title from an Australian developer, published in a disk magazine, may be the most obscure game I've played since beginning this blog. Except for its appearance in the GameBase64 database (whence I downloaded it), all references to it online are placeholders on gaming sites awaiting content (which I hate, by the way). I cannot find any information about the author, Peter R. Boothman. The publisher, Brunswick Publications, seems to have existed only for this game. And yet someone found it valuable enough to "crack" it--my download starts with an obnoxious splash screen from the team that accomplished this bold feat--and Boothman kept working on the series, churning out two or three sequels, each more obscure than the first one. It's odd to find such a mystery, even among independent games, so deep in the Golden Age.

The game begins. I guess the land's major problem is an inability to cross those mountains.
The back story, told in a file on the disk, is relatively goofy. I found it after winning the game (I autoloaded the program at first and didn't think to check the disk file for documents). In-game, the world appears to be just a high fantasy kingdom whose denizens want you to recover a magic stone from a dungeon. No fuss, no frills. The actual back story, however, presents Telnyr as a hidden island in the southwest Pacific Ocean, where a "freak combination of magnetic forces has created a virtually impenetrable area," keeping ships and planes from approaching it or even seeing it. (One wonders if J. J. Abrams played this game before creating Lost.) The mages of the island have an ability to suck in individuals from the real world to help with problems--much like Lord British does in Ultima--and they have recently done so as part of a quest to find the Stone of Telnyr and restore peace to an island overrun by monsters.

In basic gameplay and look and feel, Telnyr takes obvious inspiration from Ultima, but with far fewer features and a much smaller game world. Character creation consists only of assigning a name, after which the character appears in the wilderness, just north of the city of Telnyr, with 250 hit points, 30 gold, and 50 food. Food decreases by 10 every 100 steps, so just like Ultima, an early game goal is to get food stores up to a sustainable level.
I approach the island's one dungeon. I have a good complement of hit points, gold, and food, and I have the best weapon int he game.

The game is tiny, consisting of a relatively small island with one menu city (Telnyr), a mage's tower, and a dungeon. The dungeon is itself very small and completely linear. You could walk from the starting position to the endgame in something like 200 steps. Despite the size, it takes considerable time to actually win Telnyr, as the dungeon is extremely deadly and you have to grind your character to appropriate strength on wilderness creatures before braving its depths.

The only city is just a "menu town."

There are no levels in the game, and killing creatures does not reward you with experience. Everything depends on gold, which you use to buy progressively better weapons, to buy a stock of spells, and to rest at the inn--the only mechanism for increasing hit points, which increase of 5-15 for a 10-gold-piece stay.

Spells--which can only be cast in combat--are sold at the nearby mage's tower. There are four of them: "Confuse," "Strength," "Healing," and "Banish." "Banish" completely kills an enemy party, so it's naturally the most expensive, going for 100 gold a pop. "Strength" doubles your attack damage for the duration of combat. The other two have questionable value. "Healing," like all the other spells, can only be cast in combat, and you often lose more hit points during the round than you heal. I never saw the effects of "Confuse."

Casting a spell in combat. Spells serve as the game's only real "inventory."

The mage's tower also offers the ability to talk to the mage, where you learn about the main quest to recover the Stone of Telnyr from the dungeon.

The main quest.
Monsters are mostly unoriginal: orcs, rogues, robbers in the outdoors and ghosts, demons, giant bats, and giant spiders in the dungeon. They vary only in how hard they hit; there are no special attacks and enemies don't have spells.
Combat lies somewhere between Ultima and Phantasie in sophistication. You're taken to a separate screen with your enemies arrayed in front of you. You have options to (M)anually attack them one at a time, (A)uto attack repeatedly until one of you is dead, (C)ast a spell, (R)un away, or (G)ive gold to bribe them into leaving you alone.

Fighting some orcs.

Slain enemies drop gold, food, and spells, with an average value of around 20 gold pieces per combat, at least in the outdoor area. It takes a while to amass the 2000-3000 gold pieces you need to get a good complement of hit points, spells, food, and the best weapon (a crossbow) for the endgame.

The game's one interesting innovation is in the "library" in Telnyr, where you can read three tomes for 10, 100, and 200 gold pieces. The tomes reveal the coordinates of buried treasure that you can find with the sextant (40 gold pieces in the weapon shop). These treasure caches consist of various gold and spells that help propel you to the next level in your development.

Learning about the location of buried treasure . . .

. . . and finding it!

Once you can survive at least a couple of battles in the dungeon, character development becomes a little easier, as you find gold, spells, and food randomly on the dungeon floor. But whether in the dungeon or outdoors, it is easy to occasionally find yourself "backsliding"--losing more hit points in combat than the gold from the combat will replenish.

Inside the dungeon. Those yellow circles are caches of gold.

At first, I thought I'd be grinding for many hours to develop the character enough to take on the dungeon, but since the game offers no save feature, I figured it must be winnable in a smaller time frame than I was anticipating. It turns out that the stone is just sitting there at the end of the (short) dungeon maze, with no final battle in front of it, so you really just have to survive the 8-12 random battles that appear in the maze before the stone. This can be achieved with the right combination of "Banish" spells--which kill every enemy instantly at the beginning of combat--running away, and bribing. This is the only game in which I've considered those latter two options as viable role-playing decisions, but sometimes you just have to keep your eyes on the prize.

320 gold would allow me to rest and heal about 320 hit points. Each of these enemies is capable of doing about 75 hit points of damage to me before the end of the combat. Since 75 x 6 = 450 > 320, it makes sense mathematically.

When you grab the Stone of Telnyr, the game world dissolves:

The final screen recounts that you've been teleported back to the mage's castle and that the Stone's "teleporting powers will enable us to cross the mountains and trade with our neighbours." Isn't that the cutest main quest you've ever heard of? There's no Armageddon imminent, no evil wizard looking to rule the world--just a desire to stop being so isolated.

Approaching the end of my quest.

Anyway, the endgame screen seems to suggest that Telnyr I is just a prologue/demonstration project for a more extended game with a "huge playing area, sound effects, more spells, etc." More on this below.

The "winning" screen/second game announcement.

The best I can do on the GIMLET is a 15. It earns something in every category except NPCs, but the game really offers the minimal amount necessary in each category to be considered an RPG at all: character development consisting only of increased hit points; a selection of a few weapons and spells in the "equipment" category; less than 10 monster types and fairly rote combat. It does best (3) in the "economy" category, since everything is dependent on gold.

Still, it's a promising start for an independent developer. I fired up Telnyr II for a few minutes just to see if it lives up to the author's promises, and it does have a couple more spells ("Kill," "Teleport," "Revive"), multiple dungeons (some of which require keys to enter), potions, the ability to cast spells outside of combat, and other more advanced RPG features. Unfortunately, it looks like the one character creation option--the name--has been taken away, with every PC called "Nova."

Telnyr II has more elements and a different look and feel.

Let's talk a little about the sequels. The same database where I downloaded this game also has Telnyr II - The Golden Chalice and Telnyr III - The Four Runes. A file dated 1995 and inserted by the "crack team" on the first disk also alludes to a Telnyr IV. A throwaway line in one instruction file suggests that the games may have been offered via Loadstar, a Commodore 64 disk magazine based out of Louisiana.

The copyright date on the main screen of I is 1990 and the date on the main screen of III is 2000. Even though the C64 was essentially dead by 2000, the latter date is possible, as Loadstar continued to be published well into the 2000s. But the game is referenced in the 1995 file, and it seems unlikely that it would have been announced 5 years before its release, so I suspect the 2000 date on III is an aberration or an update. As for II, I can't find a whit of information about when it was published. There is no date on the copyright screen, in the disk documents, or on any online site that I can find. I've tentatively listed it as 1995--halfway between I and III--but since I suspect the III date is wrong, I think this is probably too late. As for IV, I can't find a single mention of it except on the "want list" of a Hungarian web site.

(The GameBase64 site indicates that Telnyr I was published in Loadstar #191 and the two sequels followed in 192 and 193. I haven't been able to find a full magazine index, but based on the few issue numbers and dates that I can find, it would appear that issues 191-193 wouldn't have been out until 2002, so something is wrong there.)

Given the relative sophistication of this game and the third one, I suspect Mr. Boothman released Telnyr just to prove that he could do it and see if there was any interest before tackling a more complex game. I look forward to trying his other offerings, and I hope I can eventually track him down and clear up some of these issues.

Speaking of series with promising sequels, the next game on the list is Warriors of Ras, Vol. 2: Kaiv. I thought the first game was promising, but lacking in a lot of RPG elements that apparently make an appearance in Vol. 2.

And I am still working on Captive. I've destroyed two more bases since my last post, but there just isn't a lot to blog about. I'll try to get another post out soon.