Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Nippon: Authorial Presence

Thorsten brags about size.
It's been fun having authors Rüdiger Hoppe and Thorsten Suhr/Sommermnn visit my entries on Nippon, clearly enjoying the fact that someone is playing their 30-year-old game, while carefully--some might even say to a fault--avoiding spoilers.

Having played almost 25 hours of Nippon, it's hard not to feel like I already know them, what with their initials appearing in multiple island chains and town walls ("RTG" for "Rüdiger the Great" and "SFG" for "Suhr Fantasy Games"); these are mentioned on Thorsten's Nippon Museum as being as much copyright protection as self-glorification.

In the game, you meet Rüdiger's sister in one town:
"Bist du Single?"
And then in the city of Funatabi, you run into the developers themselves, standing at the end of a long pier:
I've been playing for over 20 hours! It's a little late to "welcome" me!
I have to admire their restraint in not making themselves mikados, like Richard Garriott would have done. However, I do have to note that the developers have nothing to say if you approach them "friendly" or "normal." They only talk if you choose "submissive."

Having explored most of the game world at this point, I have to offer some praise for the design of the landscape and the towns. The settings that they created are as original, interesting, and evocative as possible with tiles. As you sail along, you encounter archipelagos of complex shapes, broken continents crisscrossed by rivers, valleys fully enclosed by mountains, and snow-capped peaks amidst pools of lava, all surrounded by a black void that sucks your ship over the edge if you sail too close.
I sail into a lake surrounded by lava surrounded by mountains surrounded by lava.
Among the game's 30+ towns are Yogan Haikyo, a city in the midst of being destroyed by a volcano; Mizu-Do, designed like a giant spa; Kokoro-Kazan, a mountain city with tunnels hewed through the rocks; and of course Ulti-Tori, shaped like Ultima III's Sosaria. Every city has a unique and original layout that incorporates elements of the surrounding terrain and creates navigation obstacles for the player. For instance, in Funatabi, there's a hidden armor shop that requires you to buy a ship, sail it to the northwest corner, and walk through a bit of lava. Lots of other towns have areas only accessible via swimming or finding invisible doors.
A dying town riven with rivers of lava.
I've been visiting these towns one-by-one as I continue my north-south exploration. I think I've logged 13 new ones since last time. I have to say, it's a bit exhausting to prepare to play this game, as I have to load my map (waiting for ArcGIS to load can take about half an hour by itself), then open an arrange the game window, my notepads, and my translation web site. This is definitely a game that requires two monitors and an Internet connection--something that's going to become a big problem if I don't finish it this week.

Once I have everything open, however, I fall into a certain rhythm. Visiting each city is roughly the same. To start, I explore more or less randomly, talking to NPCs as I find them, until I find the city map. Every city has one, and the developers did a good job varying how difficult it is to find them.
This one wasn't too hard to find.
The in-game town map makes it easier to plot a path. You have to visit not only all the buildings, but all the open areas as well.
Once I have a screenshot of the map, I use it to plot a more systematic route through the town, trying to ensure that I don't miss any NPCs. A single missed NPC can mean serious trouble, and I'm sure I've missed plenty.
An NPC has nothing more to say to me after I bungle the approach.
Here's where I cheat a bit. Once I encounter an NPC, I take a save state, then quickly run through the various dispositions, reloading the save state after each one. This is necessary because NPCs clam up at about half of your approaches, and the only way to reset them is to leave the town and re-enter. Even if they speak to you, they might not offer all their keywords unless you use the right approach. This isn't quite as bad as it sounds, because you sometimes have information from another NPC that suggests the one you're speaking with has more to say, and you sometimes get hints on the right disposition to use. Even with these considerations, it's pretty bad. I can't imagine completing the game under these circumstances on original hardware.
An NPC offers a vital clue.
Of course, even if I get them to talk, I have to translate the results. Their sentences are short enough that it's faster just to type them one by one than to get a massive text dump from the game file and to find, copy, and paste from there. Moreover, this far into the game, I only have to use the translator for about one-third of the words. No, that doesn't mean I'm "learning German." I wouldn't have a clue how to construct a sentence from scratch; I'm utterly lost on the gender of nouns, conjugations, and tenses; and of course I have no idea what these words sound like. But simple word recognition is becoming simpler.
An NPC named Gandalf tells me about mittelerde.
Except for the most obvious throw-away pleasantries, I copy the NPC dialogue into a notepad. About 1 in 15 dialogues gives me some kind of "to do" item that I copy into a different section of the notepad. Many of these items concern cities I've already visited, but I've decided to save "backtracking" for when I'm done with my first pass through the game world.

Aside from that, I check out any new weapons and armor (I recently bought an expensive suit of "master samurai" armor, which creates a constantly-pulsing magic aura around regular samurai armor), re-stock keys, incense, and food, and buy the occasional night in an inn or massage at a spa. Incidentally, getting a massage, like sleeping with a prostitute, sometimes confers experience points.
I like to think there's some amusing German reason behind this.
If the town has a treasure room, I typically re-visit it as many times as necessary to get my gold up to around 15,000 before moving on. The most lucrative so far has been in Kokoro-Hi, where you can get 2,500 gold per trip for the price of one key.
Looting the treasury of an evil god.
The main quest has become marginally clearer. It doesn't appear that the Wheel of Time is going to take me home, but rather to dates in which certain things happen at the game's various mountains. An NPC told me I should "consecrate the sacred great mountains of the world by meditating there," which will "call upon the gods who receive you, and prepare the way back." In Chuibukai, an NPC told me the specific date that I need to visit the mountain near its city. 
The first piece of hard intel that I have.
Operating the Wheel of Time just advances or rewinds the world, however. It doesn't magically transport you. So if you're going to go back 60 years, you'd better be at least 70 years old, or you won't be much use when you arrive. Ditto for going forward in time. I wondered why some of the magic shops offered the ability to age you as well as rejuvenate you, and now I know.

The problem is, I didn't come all the way here just to find the way back, did I? The manual made it sound like I was supposed to stop the emperor's marriage and keep both him and his bride from spending the rest of their lives in misery. I haven't heard anything else about them since the last entry.
Is this the NPC who was supposed to have more to say?
Beyond that, the game has introduced more mysteries than answers. Here are the five major enigmas occupying my mind right now:

1. How spells work. I learned "magic" (generically) in the last session, but every time I follow NPC clues to find a spell, the game tells me that I'm missing some prerequisite to use it. The "cast" icon on my icon bar doesn't do anything.

2. This pair of items. I've found several artifacts during my travels. Most of them don't appear under the generic "use" button but instead add additional buttons of their own to an already-annoying icon set. This session, I followed several NPC clues to find a "magic ball" and a "mirror of the earth." To get the magic ball, I had to find a secret mountain pass into the "inaccessible island," which has an invisible wall around most of its perimeter, preventing landing. 
As promised, I find a crystal ball under a palm tree at the end of a mountain pass.
Anyway, the two artifacts seem to work together in some way. The ball cycles among 10 syllables--yonno, san, ni, chi, rei, kyu, hach, shich, roku, and go--and you select them to string them together into two lines of eight total syllables, like "Reigorokuchi Sannikyuchi" or "Hachreinisan Nichisango." The mirror, meanwhile, gives you one of these combinations when you look at it. But if you repeat what the mirror says on the ball, the disk just runs for a bit and nothing happens and I'm an idiot. I just figured it out while I was typing this. It's a teleportation device, isn't it? The mirror tells you where you are, and the globe lets you program a destination. The syllables represent coordinates. I'll have to experiment, but if I'm right, I don't see how the globe isn't horribly over-powered, obviating both flight and the "gate" system, which I also can't figure out.
I think I just understood what this means.
3. Unsolvable side quests. The towns offer dozens of encounters that seem like side-quests but don't seem to give any option to solve them. For instance, in Chuibukai, there's a guy on an island who says he has malaria. In another area of town, there's a guy who says he has a cure for malaria. There's even a scroll on the floor of his office that suggests something that you might be able to pick up. But I can't find any way to unite the cure and the sufferer. In Yoga-Haikyo, a woman surrounded by lava screams at me to help her escape, but I can't think of any game mechanics that would allow me to do so.

4. The Gates. There are portals all over the game world. They apparently chew up one of your gate icons and age you a bit, but otherwise allow quick transport between towns or between select locations on the surface and towns. The problem is, I can't get any of them to work. Often, I can enter the initial portal and find myself in kind of a portal nexus, but after that, nothing I do--standing, pressing the mouse button, moving up, moving down, searching, using any of the icons--will let me through the other portals. I suppose this is moot if the globe works as I suspect it does or if I find the flying horse. And sailing doesn't take that long.
Okay, but how do I use them?
5. My new status bar. Speaking to one of the Buddhas resulted in not an enhancement to an existing status bar but a brand new one, to the right of the existing ones. Moreover, there's a gap indicating a possible place for yet another one. The new bar is unlabeled, and I don't know what it's for. Nothing seems to budge it. I thought it might be for magic, but the "cast" icon still doesn't do anything.

Incidentally, I'm still confused about the difference between the shaded and unshaded portions of those status bars and will happily take explicit spoilers on the subject.

Late in this session, I finally found Mizu-Do and paid a sensei to teach me how to swim, adding another icon to the unwieldy icon bar. (Although as many as it has, I feel compelled to point out that it still doesn't have 26, meaning there's still no excuse for not mapping each action to a key.) About half my "to do" items involve returning to cities where you need to swim, including an entire city (Hinode-Tori) inaccessible without the skill. Swimming takes a rapid toll on health, so you can't do it for an extended period.
What an inhospitable place.
Most of the rest of my "to dos" involve bringing various items to statues who demanded them. Most of these are weapons, so I've had to purchase half a dozen slaves to carry my excess. Statues also often demand food, so I've tried to keep a variety of food items. A few other tasks are dependent on finding the Amulet of Hi, which should allow me to walk through fire; that's in a city (Fujokawa) I haven't discovered.
Another statue wants a yari!
I didn't mention combat much in this entry because it's become almost trivial. I blast a few enemies with my cannons or my bow when they won't leave me alone. Supposedly, the experience adds to my standing, which the game currently has me at gakusho, which my translator tells means "forehead," so I'm not sure how good or bad that is.

I've visited several Buddhas during these voyages, and I've been good about leaving (rather than save-scumming) if I don't know the answers to their riddles. One question, for instance, told me that "a silver flute attracts wild animals" and wanted to know "what do these animals tell the user of the flute." This reminded me that I heard of a magic flute in Namazaki but never found it. I need to give it another try if I want to answer that riddle.

But I got most of them. One Buddha wanted to know why the connection between Watashibune and Funatabi no longer exists; having visited Funatabi, I knew it was because "the ferryman died." (Answering this correctly caused a bump to my mystery meter.) Another Buddha wanted to know how long the nights are in Nippon, as measured by hours. I solved this one in a silly way because I forgot that I had a clock. So I put the emulator in "warp" mode, waited for night to begin, timed its length, and timed when it began again. It lasted 15 seconds out of 60 total seconds for the day, or 25%, so I answered 6 hours and got it right.
It's a stupid answer, but I know the answer!
As I wrap up, I'm in the city of Atatakami, home of the evil god Hachiman, who is "not home" right now. Hachiman supposedly stole the sun horse of the goddess Amatseru, and the horse can fly, making it possible to visit numerous places on the map ringed by mountains. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the horse anywhere in the city. I'm getting ready to make another pass.
A snake attacks me as I enter Atatakami.
Nippon has its moments. In basic structure, you could say that it's a lot like Ultima IV: visit towns, get clues from NPCs, fight monsters in between. But the game world is simply too big, and what happens in between the towns too uninteresting, and the character development too limited, to sustain interest for what probably will be at least 40 hours. I'm not eager to make a second pass through all of these cities if it turns out I missed some key clues, so if I don't know what I'm doing by the end of the next session, I'm going to start asking for explicit hints just so I can bring it to a close.

Time so far: 23 hours

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A CRPG Glossary

I wasn't able to get anything else written over the last couple of days, so it's time to reveal my long-in-progress CRPG Glossary, just now published as a "page." Regular browser users will see it as an option on the side-bar in the upper right. Mobile users will see it the drop-down box at the top of each entry, just under the header (it it set to "Blog" by default).

Because commenting on a page interrupts the "Recent Comments" feed, you can use this entry for comments on additional terms that should appear in the glossary. I seeded it with a couple dozen entries to start, but it's far from complete.

There are plenty of other places to get "real" definitions for these terms, so some of the entries will--in the manner of Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary--unapologetically reflect my particular perspective.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ultima Underworld: Artifice and Artifacts

The Avatar contemplates something rash.
Let's take a moment to consider the "eight arcane artifacts" collected by Sir Cabirus, of which I now have seven (the Avatar seems to have completely forgotten about rescuing kidnapped girls). They are:
  • Book of Truth or Honesty depending on whether you go by the manual (Truth) or the in-game description (Honesty)
  • Ring of Humility
  • Cup of Wonder
  • Shield of Valor
  • Standard of Honor
  • Sword Caliburn, unique in not naming a virtue, but according to its description, it could "cleave truth from falsehood."
  • Taper of Sacrifice
  • Wine of Compassion
The artifacts are a near-but-not-perfect fit with the eight virtues of the Avatar: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. The manual's use of "Book of Truth" was a bad idea, because not only is truth a "principle" of virtue, and not a virtue, but there was already an artifact of that name, used with the Candle of Love and the Bell of Courage to enter the Abyss in Ultima IV. If all three artifacts had made a re-appearance here, that wouldn't have been a bad idea, but it's clear from the backstory that these artifacts are a new set.
I obtain the Shield of Valor from a golem.
Though it doesn't say so anywhere, Caliburn is clearly supposed to be associated with justice. Spirituality, however, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get the "Cup of Wonder." It supposedly comes from an ancient oak in Skara Brae, so it has that connection to spirituality, but I question whether "wonder" and "spirituality" are truly synonyms, and even so, whether a cup is the best way to depict it. Yes, I sometimes see weird things and get a sense of awe when I'm drunk, but I wouldn't exactly call that "spiritual."

Some of the other choices are also odd. I'm all for the Standard of Honor, the Book of Honesty, and the Taper of Sacrifice. The latter is a particularly good metaphor: it "produces light only through its own destruction." On the other hand, literally displaying humility on your finger as jewelry seems a bit paradoxical. And why is wine associated with compassion? I guess we can add sympathy to the virtues we can only feel three sheets to the wind. Meanwhile, a sword only symbolizes "justice" in cases where someone has to be killed. If the person is innocent, that's not really just; that's terrifying. I don't know what should symbolize innocence--maybe a key or some kind of check for reparations. Actually, that would be a better idea: the Coin of Justice. It goes the defendant if falsely accused and to the victim otherwise. The sword should be associated with valor: the commandment to seek and destroy evil. Then you make the shield associated with compassion, because you're literally shielding people from danger. For spirituality, you make a damned ankh cross that you can carry with you, because it's the sign of spirituality (as well as the "complete" eight virtues) everywhere else in the setting. Really, how hard is this?
Nothing says humility like bling!
In any event, I started this session with the blade part of Caliburn, the Standard of Honor, and the Taper of Sacrifice. I collected the rest over the course of Levels 5 and 6.

Both levels replaced water with lava--rivers and pools of it all over the place. It was naturally deadly to fall into, but on Level 5, I found a "ghoul" who fancied himself a tailor. When I showed him my dragon scales, he made a set of fireproof "dragon skin boots" from them in exchange for some food. The boots allow me to walk freely across the lava, because lava is perfectly safe as long as it doesn't come in direct contact with your skin.
A scientifically-accurate screen shot.
Level 5 appeared to be the ruins of Sir Cabirus's administration center. It was dominated by a large "High State Chamber" with multiple alcoves overlooking it and a huge rectangular meeting table. These days, it was swarming with headless, skeletons, and giant spiders. Weeds and mushrooms grew in the corners of the formerly-noble corridors, now patrolled by ghosts.
Fighting a headless next to Cabirus's meeting table.
The southwestern part of the level was taken up by a set of "zanium" mines, and the southeastern corridors were the homes of "ghouls," basically just humans who had resorted to cannibalism to stay alive and had thus become outcast from other humans. Some of the ghouls had fallen so far that they lost their minds and became hostile--one might even say "feral"--and attacked me in the areas outside the enclave.
None of this explains why their language degraded.
The northeastern section served as the cemetery for the Abyss, with multiple rooms full of gravestones, and a ghost or skeleton standing next to just about every stone. Oddly, the whole "bullfrog" puzzle from Level 4 was dedicated to finding a back stairway down to this area, but you can reach it without having to solve that puzzle via an obvious secret door. 
In a world of undead, why isn't everyone just cremated?
Level 6 was a complicated level full of lava, platforms above and around the lava, and islands within it. It took a lot of jumping to get around the level. Within that lava, a new enemy was introduced: fire elementals. These bastards are capable of throwing actual fireballs at you. I defeated them by hiding behind nearby walls and darting out to zap them with a Wand of Lightning.
I'm close here, but you really don't want to get this close.
The southern area of Level 6 was dominated by the Seers, including about eight named NPCs who had various side-quests and hints for the artifacts. One of them, named Dominus, agreed to identify my items, which was nice, but he requires 10 gold pieces per identification. Gold is heavy to carry around. I was a little annoyed that he wouldn't take gems or gold nuggets or anything. Still, I left plenty of gold on Level 4, and after this session, I'll probably spend some time shuttling it down.

The first clue I got about an artifact was from a ghoul named Shanklick, who said the pommel for Caliburn was hidden among the tombs in the northeast section of the level. Sure enough, it was just laying there on the ground. I'm glad no one tossed it in the trash. I ran it back up to Shak on Level 2, who reunited it with the blade for 20 gold pieces.
This reminds me of my favorite scene in Lord of the Rings, where the elf smith assembles the broken shards of Narsil on the anvil and starts hammering away at the cracks, as if that's how broken blades are actually reforged.
Caliburn replaced my jeweled magic longsword. I don't care if Caliburn is technically the best weapon in the game or not. It's indestructible, it's magic, and it's a sword. No way am I adding 4 more pounds to my encumbrance to carry something else.

("Caliburn" is, of course, the original version of what would become "Excalibur" in Arthurian legend. The original form is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae of 1136. The sword is called Caledfwlch in Welsh legend and its variants include "Esclabor," "Eschaliborc," and "Estalibore." In the earliest tales featuring the Sword in the Stone, Excalibur is that sword, but in later versions, including Malory, the Sword in the Stone is a different sword, and Arthur gets Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake.)

The next artifact I found was the Ring of Humility. It should have been the first, but when I originally reached the lever puzzle in the northwest corner of Level 5, I had forgotten that one of the knights already gave me the solution.
Getting the Ring of Humility was a matter of flipping four switches in the right order while avoiding the center of the room.
On Level 6, a seer named Dr. Owl was grateful that I'd freed his associate, Murgo, from the lizardmen on the earlier level. He not only gave me a Flam rune but told me where to find the Wine of Compassion under a secret compartment in a checkerboard area of the level.
Is it the wine itself or the bottle that holds the enchantment?
The clue to the Book of Honesty came from a seer named Morlock. To get it, I had to deliver a book to him from another seer without reading it, then answer honestly when he praised me for killing a hydra. The kicker? I'd already found the Book of Honesty by just wandering around.
It's a good thing I remembered I hadn't killed such a beast. I kill so many things.
The last artifact I obtained was the Shield of Valor, held by a stone golem standing on a platform amidst a pool of lava. He warned me when I approached that he was nigh-unbeatable, and that he had been placed there to test knights.

In combat with the stone golem.
He was tough, but I was able to defeat him by quaffing a few potions during the battle and using my Wand of Fireball a few times. When I had the shield, I replaced my existing tower shield under the same logic as the sword above.

As far as the Cup of Wonder, I have a couple of clues but no idea what to do with them. A seer on Level 6 taught me how to use incense and a torch to have visions. I got a stark one of what I assume is the Cup of Wonder floating in space.
I mean, it's a nice cup, sure.
Meanwhile, a ghoul named Eyesnack said he used to play the flute for Sir Cabirus, who enjoyed a spiritual called "Mardin's Song of Wonder." Eyesnack taught me the notes to play it, and I have a flute, but I don't know where to play it, only that if "you play it in the right place, wondrous thing happen." Maybe it will become clear on a lower level.
In addition to the artifacts, there were of course plenty of side quests on the two levels. The single ankh shrine on Level 5 was tended by a mage named Anjor who wanted me to help him find a mineral called "zanium" which helps in the process of turning lower metals to gold. The dwarves apparently used to mine it in the southwest section of the level, but the mines were closed and locked by a lever puzzle.
I'm surprised you don't have other priorities here in the Abyss.
A ghoul named Kneenibble had once worked in the mines and knew the code to set the levers, but he wanted 10 fish before he'd give me the code. I had to return to an earlier level and use the fishing pole for a while.

With his code, I set the levers, entered the mine, ran around collecting zanium, and returned it to Anjor. He promised me he'd make me a huge gold nugget, but it would take an hour. I wandered away to do more exploring in the meantime and completely forgot to go back until now, as I type this. I almost don't want to. I don't have space for a huge gold nugget and don't know what I need it for anyway.
Fighting a ghost while collecting zanium.
Also on Level 5, standing on a platform amidst the lava, I encountered Judy, an old woman pining for her lost lover, Tom. She said she used to have a picture to remember him but had since lost it. I got a chill of terror when I met Judy and immediately took a save game that I'm keeping separate. The last time I played Ultima Underworld, Judy fell into the lava, and I was unable to complete the game because she has some key item. (I can't honestly remember if that was the second or only time I played this previously; it's possible that even back in the 1990s, I didn't win the game.) To test how that might have happened, I spent some time bumping into Judy, and while she does fall into the lava, she doesn't sink--she just stands there. So I'm not sure what happened the first time. I just pray it doesn't happen again.
This probably wasn't nice, but I had to know.
Of the other Level 6 seers, one of them told me that there are lost mantras that can deliver items or information when used at shrines. One powerful mantra was "divided into three parts," but she didn't know any of them. Illomo wants me to find his friend Gurstang, but I haven't yet. Ranthru wanted me to return a stolen copy of On the Properties of Runestones and increased my magic ability when I did. Fyrgen recently had a vision of some kind of demon entering our world.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I am heartily sick of being poisoned.
Argh. Enough of this.
  • It's funny how the designers made the ghosts look like stereotypical Halloween ghosts.
Why not just give them cloth sheets?
  • The toughest puzzle I faced on Level 5 was getting out of an area where a grate closed behind me. The solution was to use a key found in the area on the grate. I hope you can understand why it took me so long--what was I using the key on?
The key unlocks what lock?
  • I haven't been mentioning it much, but every time I sleep, the face that started the game--I assume it's Sir Cabirus--appears in my dreams with fragments of text. He never really manages to say anything coherent.
". . . eat a balanced diet."
If you drink more than 2 bottles of regular alcohol, your vision goes wonky. If you drink more than 4, you pass out and wake up in the morning.
  • Sick of encumbrance problems, I ditched my plate leggings for some leather ones, saving 4 pounds. Combat hasn't been hard enough that I need all this plate.
I found the final mantras to the skills on these levels. "Lore" was one of the last that I found, and afterwards I spent four slots on it, but my current level (18) still isn't enough to identify everything. I'm between 17 and 20 with "Attack," "Defense," "Sword," "Mana," and "Casting." Annoyingly, I'm about to hit the game's level maximum of 16. I'm currently at 15. That grinds my gears. A level cap should never be reachable through normal gameplay unless the player does a lot of grinding.

I stopped leveling "Search" because I seem to do well enough finding secret doors at its current level (14), and honestly, I'm not sure what the skill really does because it seems to me that every time you eyeball a secret door, it tells you. I haven't found a lock I've needed to pick in about two levels, so I stopped leveling that skill. I have not once used my 11 points in "Repair," since my items rarely degrade below "serviceable." "Swimming" no longer seems a good investment, but I suppose a few more points in "Acrobat" might have helped against some damage. Frankly, the most baffling skill to me is "Traps." Is there a single trap in the game? 
Some of the ways that the game teaches you mantras are amusing.
I am pleased to report that I at last have a complete rune bag. My last two were Flam, given to me by Dr. Owl the Seer, and Vas, the result of following a complex set of instructions from a seer named Gralwart. Perhaps now is the time to start casting more spells than In Lor ("Light"), In Mani ("Heal"), and In Mani Ylem ("Create Food").

I'll try to test more spells from the spellbook on the last two levels, especially since I've learned so many undocumented spells, like "Monster Summoning," "Sheet Lightning," and "Turn Undead" from scrolls and NPCs.
This would have been more useful on the earlier level.
As for the monsters that I might encounter to test the spells on, a quick scan of the bestiary shows that I have yet to face any golems other than the stone golem, imps, reapers, invisible "shadow beasts," or wisps.

Despite my demonstrated ability to tackle two levels at a time, I suspect the events on the next two will be complicated enough that I'll need at least two or three more entries to finish this one. Still having a great time.

Time so far: 21 hours

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Nippon: The Age of Sail

My discoveries in the top half of the game world.
I'm not ready to say that it works particularly well as an RPG, but Nippon is turning out to be an interesting game that puts an emphasis on open-world exploration. It has an Ultima III-V quality of needing to find cities, people, and clues, but with less guidance as to your overall mission and goals. 

Combat plays such an incidental role that I suspect you could win the game without it. I don't know for sure. It's possible that later stages will have some necessary combats, and I'll be grateful for whatever time I spent in weapons training and character development. So far, however, I think I could have avoided every fight by just ignoring enemies and running past them. They don't really pursue you. In fact, your icons can run right over each other, so they're not even capable of standing in your way. Moreover--and again I could be wrong about this, but I don't think so--the game doesn't seem to have any dungeons. Most of your time is spent in cities and towns where combat isn't even an option.
 I still fight a lot between cities in case experience points become important.
After the last session, I decided to get more serious about my approach to the game. I brought the world map into ArcGIS as a raster and created a layer on top of it to record the locations of cities, castles, and other physical features. I spent a long, snowy day exploring all of the landmasses in the top half of the map, recording as many locations as I could find. I'm sure there are some others hidden behind impassable mountains, but I have to find some manner of flight before I can record them. There were more than a dozen cities in this area, and almost 150 NPCs. 
Unsurprisingly, ArcGIS can't figure out the projection and coordinate system for Nippon.
I ended up re-visiting some of the cities I'd already visited, because I discovered something new (and somewhat annoying) about the NPC "stance" system. Not only do NPCs refuse to speak with you if you pick the wrong stance, but some of them don't offer all of their dialogue keywords unless you choose a particular stance. All this time, I thought I'd chosen the "right" stance because I picked something like "normal" or "friendly" and the NPC continued to talk with me. But it turns out that I needed to pick a different one to get the full story. Expecting players to get it right, or to go outside and return several times for every NPC, was terribly unfair of the developers. There are a few places in which NPCs give you hints about the right stance to take, but they're certainly not ubiquitous.
Finding the in-game maps of cities continues to be vital, but so far I haven't been crazy enough to bring them into my GIS system to pinpoint NPCs.
Also, based on the fact that a few NPCs in early cities had more to say after I visited other cities, I suspect that some keywords don't unlock until you've spoken to other NPCs. Fortunately, such cases are usually determinable through the context of the conversation. For instance, if Yoshimoto tells me that he heard a rumor from Takagi in Yugure, I know I have to revisit the latter NPC.

I won't give you a blow-by-blow of my visits, but here are the summary highlights.

Gold turns out to be a non-issue if you're willing to spend some time. Since cities re-set every time you leave and return, so do the hoards of gold. In Ubamachi, I could pick up almost 600 gold pieces per visit for the cost of two keys. In Takedo, it was double that amount. This revelation had the effect of making combats particularly pointless. Picking up gold, leaving the city, swapping disks, re-entering, and walking back to the gold is somewhat boring, but if you're binging Jessica Jones at the same time, it's not hard to get into the tens of thousands of gold pieces.
Your riches are limited only by your patience.
Weapons and armor upgrades, and the associate weapons training, cost a bundle--far more than I could have made from killing enemies at 30 gold pieces a pop. I thought weapons were cheap because they started out at 80, 100, 120 gold pieces in the first few towns. But for good weapons, you need to spend many thousands. Every time I thought I'd seen the most expensive weapons, I found a shop that sold even more expensive ones. And the more expensive the weapon, the more expensive the training. You need three training sessions to get at 100% with the weapon. I wanted to keep a ranged weapon for its obvious benefits, so I finally settled on a kind of bow called a dai-kyu, which I think cost 4,000 gold pieces plus another 7,500 in training.
That was a lot of trips to the treasure rooms.
It was a long time before I found a shop selling good armor. They're not nearly as plentiful as weapon shops. I bought a set of samurai armor for 2,000, and it looks pretty elaborate on my character portrait.

Character development came from visiting the various Buddhas and solving their riddles. I eventually found my way to both of the Buddhas described last time: the "invisible maze" had a solution by walking through a false pillar, and to solve the other one, I had to purchase a yari for 4,000 gold pieces and give it to a statue.

Each of the Buddhas poses a multiple-choice question about the game's lore, and I'm honestly confused about the whole thing even though I got some of them right. For instance, the Buddha in Samusa-Toshi asks: "Once there were war magicians. They fought in a warlike time. What are these wars called?" The answers were "Battles of the Shugenjas"; "Wars of Power"; "Wars of Shatun"; and "Battle of Yugure." I found the answer--Wars of Shatun--in the "story" labeled "version 3" on the Nippon Museum site. But several of the later questions had answers found in version 2 or version 4, so I'm more confused than ever about which versions were presented to the original players, and in what format.
Buddha poses a test of knowledge.
Another puzzle, having to do with the city in which the "first tree" is found, doesn't appear in any of the backstories and can only be answered by visiting that city. 
It was pretty clear when I got there.
The Buddhas I answered correctly all provided increases to my attributes--I guess. If you look at my attribute bars, you'll see that the lower portions are shaded and the upper portions are lighter. Generally, only the upper portions increased. What's the difference? At first, I thought the shaded portions represented my actual attributes as opposed to my maximums, but when I fight in combat, the unshaded portion of my health seems to disappear first, suggesting that it is real health, not theoretical health. Then I thought that the shaded portions simply represented my starting attributes, so I could easily see how far I'd come, except that the shaded portion of "agility" increased at some point. So in the end, I really have no idea what's happening.

Experience points also continue to be a mystery. I gain them with every battle, but what do they do? Why can't I see how many I have? Do they affect the attribute increases conferred by the Buddhas? Do they do anything? Seriously, I'll take explicit spoilers at this point.

The game apparently has a few skills for you to learn. In a dense forest in Kokuso-Do, I met a man who taught me the "Hide" skill, which will supposedly make it even easier to elude enemies. Learning the skill added yet another menu icon. There's also apparently a "Swim" skill to learn in the city of Mizu-Do (which I have not yet found). I need it to visit the Buddha in Hayashi-Tori, among other locations. I might have missed another potential skill in Hayagake-Do, where a monk said I could learn to stay awake for a long time, but then didn't give me any way to do that. There was also a Buddha in the city that wouldn't respond to me no matter where I burned incense in front of him.

Part of my time was spent tracking down special items. I can't remember exactly where I first got a lead on a magic ring. It had been stolen and re-stolen from so many NPCs that I lost track, but I ultimately traced it to Bakamana in Namazaki. When I spoke to her--she had been cursed to stand still by witches--she told me that she hid it on a "rocky island north of here." That island is unfortunately fully enclosed by mountains, as well as surrounded by water, so I'll need some flight mechanism.

In Hayashi-Tori, I learned of the Stone of Toshi, hidden in the far corner of the forest. It wasn't too hard to find the spot. When used, the stone reveals the entire surrounding area, even if the tiles would have been obscured by trees or mountains. 
Most of this area would normally be dark because of the trees. (My character has no clothes because I had to give up my outfit to a statue.)
A common theme is for little bluish statues to demand an object to allow passage to otherwise-inaccessible areas. Most statues, when you stand on them and search, are unremarkable. But a few demand something. I lost my suit of clothes in Hayashi-Tori to reach the center island, for instance. There was the one that wanted a yari to show the way to the Buddha. Others have wanted specific food items. I have a "to do" item to return to Kokuso-Do when I have a honeycomb.
"Thank you. Go freely," a statue says, opening the way southward, after I give it a fish.
Only late in the game did I make any kind of progress with a potential magic system. I gather you have to find the game's half dozen spells on individual scrolls. In Haygake-Do, an NPC named Fuji-San said he made a counterspell to work against witches, and I could find it on an island west of the city. I did find the location, but when I searched, the game just said I found something but couldn't use it now.

Some time later, in the town of Teijnashi, I met a sensei named En-No-Gyoja who taught me zaubern, which translates either as "conjuration" specifically or "magic" generically.
"All wizards start" with this sensei, so perhaps I needed to learn from him before I could learn any other magic?
I got a new icon, but nothing shows up when I try to use it. I wonder if I need to go back to the island and search for the scroll again, or whether there are different types of magic, and I need the right types before the associated scrolls will work.
Learning zaubern.
As for the plot, despite all the discussions with NPCs, I still only have threads. I'm sure the endgame is going to have something to do with the Wheel of Time I found on one of the northern islands. It allows you to set a year, month, and day. I fooled around with it but kept dying "in the course of time," so I assume something is necessary to protect the player from the ravages of time travel before you can fiddle with it.
Setting things randomly turned out to be a bad idea.
In Tsusho-Jo, I met King O-sama Siramoto and his court. He was depressed after losing his daughter, Princess Kikoro, to Emperor Subarashii. This is the story related in the game's backstories, and I suspect I'm going to have to go back in time to prevent the marriage.

There was something going on with the entire northeast island, containing the cities of Fuko-Mura and Yugure, as well as a pool of lava on a western peninsula. I learned in Fuko-Mura that the volcano had recently erupted because a careless wizard messed around with it. The eruption destroyed the other two cities on the island, including Yugure. Yugure, in turn, was populated by floating heads who proudly announced that they served a demon and were planning to conquer the world.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • The world has an edge, like Ultima VI, and if you sail too close, the currents pull your ship over it. 
My character spends forever in the void.
  • I kept meeting "horse doctors" who offered grooming services. I have yet to find a place that sells a horse.
  • My slave, who just sits in my inventory, apparently allows me to carry an extra weapon and armor set. I also bought a guard dog who watches over me while I sleep and prevents me from getting attacked in the night. 
  • I found two mountains that appear to have some kind of force field across their tops.
Preventing the volcano from blowing?
  • I'm not going to test everyone's patience by repeatedly complaining about it, but I also don't want my silence to be taken as a sign that I've come to terms with the joystick-only interface. It is a constant and unnecessary pain.
  • In some cities, I've found masses of what look like teleporters, as in the image below, but they don't seem to do anything.
This is where a (L)ook command would come in handy.
In probably the most interesting and yet useless adventure, I discovered a "town" called Ulti-Tori on one of the western islands. The interior of the town was shaped like Sosaria in Ultima III, and NPCs stood at the locations of cities, dungeons, and special encounters in that game, relating information about those locations and the roles they played in Ultima. I didn't find anything actually useful in the city (although I was unable to speak to Exodus; I suspect I need to "Swim" skill), but it was a fun homage.
An NPC represents the castle of Lord British and explains what happened there.
I started this series of entries wondering if the developers really did base their approach on Ultima. This city at least makes it clear that they played it.
Though they were incapable of actually depicting the silver snake.
That's about all I learned in 16 hours of exploration and note-taking, and in some ways I remain more confused than ever. But I'm committed to exploring the second half of the world and seeing if things become any clearer. I am somewhat curious to see how it all plays out.

Time so far: 16 hours