Friday, November 21, 2014

Lords of Xulima: Made for Me

Almost two years ago, when I was in the midst of Tangled Tales, an anonymous poster commented and said that, inspired by my blog, he decided to create an RPG called Lords of Xulima. He linked to the blog of the studio developing it, Numantian Games. I was suspicious of the comment, given that the linked site (worth reading) referred to my blog as a "book." As it violated my comment rules anyway, I deleted the post and suggested that "it felt a lot like the author had simply plugged my name into that location and then tried to use my blog for free advertising."

Two years later, I feel kind of bad about that:

It turns out that the "book" thing was just a mistranslation (the developer is Spanish) and the developer really is a big fan. In an e-mail exchange a few days ago, Numantian Games director Jesús Arribas said that if not for my blog, "Lords of Xulima wouldn't exist." He also offered me some free Steam keys, so I absolutely had to check out the game.

It's not Jesús's fault, but the timing is horrible; I have no more time this month to play new games than I do to play old ones. I devoted about four hours to it--not enough time for a full review--and I really like it so far. In his e-mail, Jesús said that the game "is a tribute to those awesome old-school classics like Might & Magic, Wizardry, and Ultima," and you can definitely feel the influences as you play.

In basic design, Xulima feels a lot like an Infinity Engine game, with an oblique angle view as you march across some absolutely gorgeous terrain. Although you really need a mouse for fine-tuning, most of the commands have comfortably redundant buttons and keyboard shortcuts. Any part of the terrain--chests, corpses, plants, tree stumps, wells, and so forth--can have some kind of loot or encounter tied to it, so you have to move your cursor around to find those that you can interact with. Some people find this interface torturous, but I rather like it; it feels like you're truly exploring as you move around.

Finding some treasure under a rock.

Where it separates from the Infinity Engine is in depicting the party, depicting enemies, and combat. Your party is represented by a single character, as are fixed parties of monsters. These fixed parties don't move. A right-click on them depicts their true number and composition as well as the "awareness radius" that you have to enter to guarantee combat. It's possible to encounter random monsters, too, but they don't show up on the screen until you run into them.

Just as my party is represented by the one icon of Gaulen, so these three "Askary" are represented by a single on-screen creature.

Combat whisks you to a separate turn-based interface, more reminiscent of Wizardry or Might and Magic, but with far, far more options. The combat system is, in fact, one of the best I've ever encountered, offering a few features that I've never seen before. Chief among them is a long, continually updated list of icons, on the right side of the screen, depicting the current attack order--influenced by speed, initiative, and luck. Knowing exactly the order in which you and your foes will move introduces an entirely new tactical dimension to the battle, as you try to plot the order in which you attack, cast spells, and heal your party. Each successful attack carries the chance of stunning the enemy, knocking him further down the list, and I'm constantly deciding whether to concentrate attacks on low-hit-point foes or concentrate them on the next enemy slated to move, increasing the chances that I can keep my own party at the top of the line-up.

The icons on the right indicate who will attack in what order. The ones across the top represent the major actions: attack, defend, use an item of equipment, or cast a spell.

Even without this list, the combat system would be excellent. Like the earlier games to which it harkens, positioning is important; unlike the earlier games, you can constantly adjust positions in battle. There are considerations associated with types of weapons (missile weapons and polearms can attack across ranks), spells, item use, and fleeing, among many other things.

It's system of resting and restoration is, at first glance, drawn from Might & Magic. The party can rest for 8 hours at almost any location, and 8 hours of rest fully restores hit points and spell points. That makes it sound a little too easy, just as Might & Magic often was, but you have a supply of food that continually depletes as you move and rest, and you can't rest if it's gone. Might & Magic had that, too, but the difference here is that food is rare and expensive. You can find some in the wilderness and buy it in town, but a few days' supply costs a couple hundred gold pieces, and at the beginning, at least, finances are tight. This means that you can't abuse the rest system, and the game manages to find that nice balance between individual combat difficulty and accumulation-of-combats difficulty that characterize Might & Magic and Wizardry, respectively.

The world map provides a strong Might & Magic feel.

The other thing that I like about the resting system is that resting for 24 hours resurrects dead characters. At first, this seems illogical, but if you brush past that, you can see how it better serves strategic considerations in the game. If resurrection was impossible, or cost thousands of gold pieces in the nearest town, every character death would be an automatic reload. Here, where each character death is simply a depreciation of precious food, you're more likely to live with the consequences of a bad combat. This, in turn, encourages you to take more risks.

From Ultima, the game draws its attention to carefully-crafted world-building and expositional dialogue, and I admit that this is one area that simply hasn't gripped me. Part of it may be that I simply don't have much time this month, so I lack patience for complex histories and lore. The game takes place on a planet with two continents (one image suggests that it's Earth, 800 million years ago though I don't know how literally we're supposed to take that), Rodinia and Xulima; the latter pronounced "SHU-li-ma."

Rodinia is the home of the kingdoms of men, while Xulima has, since time of creation, been the home of the nine gods. In recent years, the wars of men have become so destructive that some of the gods felt that they should intervene. Others disagreed, leading to a civil war among the gods. Rather than risk destroying the Earth in their conflict, the gods departed the planet, but not before one of them, Golot, appointed as his Herald an "explorer" named Gaulen, instructing him to travel to Xulima. Upon arrival, he and his party are surprised to find it populated by men, as well as a variety of monsters; the suggestion here is that the monsters represent failed creations that the gods declined to send to the main continent. The shrines of the 9 gods have been overthrown by human conquerors, and apparently a big part of the game involves liberating these shrines.

Already, I'm a bit confused by aspects of the back story, and I probably have some of it wrong, but there appear to be some conflicts between the story told in the game documentation and some of the information that you receive in-game. In the end, after a few hours of gameplay, I'm still not sure what my primary mission is, but I suppose that's something that might be revealed as I go along.

An awful lot of exposition from one dialogue.

NPC dialogue so far has also been slightly disappointing, consisting primarily of info dumps rather than meaningful role-playing choices. Nonetheless, there are choices--something I find lacking in a lot of contemporary games--and I like the way that the game differentiates significant NPCs, with dialogue trees, from those that simply stand around and occasionally impart a bit of lore.

One of the latter.

In the first town I encountered, I was disappointed by the fact that the buildings were non-interactive. The innkeeper stands outside his inn, for instance, and you have a drink and listen for rumors from a menu; you can't actually walk into the inn. The opening chapter has also felt a little linear. Technically, you can take two major branching paths from the opening city, but most of the pathways are blocked by clearly impossible monsters for low-level characters, forcing you to proceed in a mostly pre-determined sequence. The literature on the game promises an "open world," so I expect this is just to help new players and things will open up soon.

These mushroom creatures, blocking one path, dismantled my party in seconds.

Let's get back to the good stuff. While I don't typically like being forced to role-play a named character, that's only true for the first one (Gaulen). The player gets to create and name five others. Of the nine available classes--soldier, cleric, thief, mage, barbarian, paladin, arcane soldier, divine summoner, bard--we've seen seven before, but the game still has a unique take on each of them. Each has different starting attributes, weapon skills, spells, resistances, and different hit points per level, and each requires a different investment to improve in certain skills. Choosing only five of them is a relatively difficult decision.

One of the things I enjoy are the number of ways to amass skill points and improve in skills and attributes. When you level up, you get to improve two attributes (strength, agility, speed, constitution, and energy) by 1 point each, then spend a pool of 5 skill points on whatever weapon, magic, and thieving skills you want to advance. But in between level-ups, you can find skill books, potions, trainers, blessings, magical well water, and other mechanisms that accomplish the same thing. There's an entire "herbalism" system by which you can use the various plants you find to directly affect skill points, attributes, or resistances. A separate talisman, found by Gaulen at the beginning of the game, collects energy that you can expend on healing or, at high levels, the improvement of abilities. Finally, there are plenty of inventory items that work on attributes, skills, or resistances directly. In general, it's awesome to have so many ways to improve the characters, particularly since combat is quite difficult and even a one-point bump in speed can make the difference between victory and defeat.

(The game offers three levels of difficultly: "Normal," "Old-School Veteran," and "Hardcore." I'm naturally playing the second one.)

Tutorials assist you at the beginning of the game.

The beginning portions of the game have handy tutorials to help you walk through. I've had no problems with the interface, and I like the way that left-clicking executes an action and right-clicking brings up information about an object. The graphics are lovely, and the sound effects offer satisfying clangs, thuds, whooshes, zaps, and so forth in combat, as well as gurgles, chortles, and taunts from some of the enemies. A great automap annotates key locations and allows you to add your own notes. Lockpicking and trap-disarming bring up a couple of mini-games that I haven't yet mastered. Good or bad, at least they're original.

Lockpicking involves tracing the correct path from gear to gear. Every time you choose the wrong square, you lose a lockpick. This is a very difficult lock; easier ones have more squares already blanked out for you.

Overall, I had a lot of fun in the 4 hours I was able to devote to Lords of Xulima. I'll take Sr. Arribas's compliments about my blog in the spirit that they were intended, but the true inspirations of Xulima are the classic RPGs that I've written about, and like Might & Magic X did with its franchise, Xulima does a great job paying homage to the past while offering plenty of 2014 innovations. I recommend it and am happy to offer free Steam keys to the first three commenters who say they want them.


This is not, alas, the end of my break, but please be patient for just a little while longer. I've managed to finish my major work projects, but now it's time to take Irene on a much-needed vacation. When I get back, I have a work trip that will probably take up my time for the week, so I suspect the resumption of my blog will take place around December 7.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Hiatus Drags On

Hi again, everyone. Sorry that it's been so long since the last post. I gave the wrong impression in a comment somewhere; my recent lack of productivity is not due to "burnout" but rather because I've been given a chance to work on some very important projects for my profession, and I don't want to screw them up by over-indulging in RPGs. While it's true that the upcoming crop of games has "facilitated" this hiatus by not interesting me very much, for the moment we can regard that as a good thing.

I'll be back as soon as I get these projects completed enough that I'm confident I'll make their deadlines. I don't have any interest in altering my plan.

I'll leave comments open, but I will be deleting this post when I start blogging again, so don't say anything that you really want preserved for posterity.