Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Game 257: The Eternal Dagger (1987)

The team splurged on an opening graphic for this one.
      
No one who enjoyed Wizard's Crown is going to be disappointed with The Eternal Dagger. The creators simply took the same mechanics, fixed a few things, and adapted them to a new story, allowing the original characters to progress even further in their development. It was good practice for the Gold Box series.

The game supports direct transfer of characters, albeit without their equipment, from Wizard's Crown. I expected characters from the first game would tower over their freshly-minted counterparts from the sequel, but in fact they hardly have any advantages at all. New characters in Dagger start with a minimum of 100 points in each skill, and with their primary skills already at 250. (My Crown characters have plenty of skills I never developed at all.) They also start with enough attribute points to put them in the 20s for strength and dexterity at the start. My health is notably better, though.
       
The imported party begins!
       
The new game won't let you have more than 3 mages or 3 priests (including multi-classed characters) in the same party; I guess it ruins the game balance. The new maximum for each skill is 500 points. They dealt with one of my concerns about having to specify the point man and distance every time you leave camp; Dagger lets you set a default. They did not, unfortunately, change the system of movement; you still use a nonsensical arrangement of number keys.

There are a couple of new mechanics that I would call "unwelcome" except most other games do them. Time passes much more quickly during movement on the overworld map, and every few moves, the party has to camp for the night. When it does, there's an automatic hunt. If it's successful, the party eats the game; if not, the party has to eat stored rations from previous hunts or use the priest prayer for food and water.
       
Now, this is the kind of god that would cure my atheism.
       
The morale system is gone; in its place is a "fatigue" system by which the party grows more ineffective the less they rest. Wizard's Crown had resting, too, but only to restore hit points and spell points. Here, it's necessary just to survive. Oddly, though, camping doesn't automatically make the party rest. You have to do that separately. The game has the characters remove their armor to rest, and they can be ambushed at night with no armor.

The combined result of the fatigue and food systems is more mild annoyance than actual challenge (at least, so far). Perhaps it will become more of an issue in large dungeons.

There have been some changes in the skill system, too. "Thrown" is added as a weapon skill, but "Haggling," "Swimming," "Read Ancient," and "Evaluate Magic" are all gone, giving my pure wizard very little to do. The ranger, on the other hand, increases in importance, as "Hunt" and "Track" actually have uses in Dagger. So does "Cure Disease."
         
I pay for not having channeled points into "Cure Disease" in the first game.
       
The story: Arghan was in the middle of rebuilding from the events of the first game when groups of undead and demons started showing up out of nowhere. Seeking the source of the attacks, Emperor Kaitar was able to contact Ssur, "a wizard from the Middle World" (another plane, I guess), who said that his own world had been overrun by the same invaders, and that Arghan would be their new target when their invasion of Middle World was complete. (The parties encountered thus far had apparently been scouts.) The 8 brave adventurers agree to go through a portal to Middle World and take the fight to the enemy. Unfortunately, like in The Terminator, only organic tissue can survive the portal, so they can't bring any weapons or armor. On the other side, they get equipped with non-magic versions of their favorite gear.

The game begins at Ssur's Tower just after we've gated in. If Ssur is supposed to be there, there's no way to talk with him. The backstory says that his island was overrun by undead armies, and the Holy Morningstar was stolen from the temple in Greenbay. The manual suggests that we try to recover the weapon from the dragon who took it, which will make the battle against the "Necromancer and his legions" easier. This was an unfortunately clumsy bit of plot exposition. I didn't realize until much later that "the Necromancer" is not the big bad of the game, but just the first dungeon, and that the dragon and the morningstar are actually to be found on the opening island.

The beginning of the game is quite hard and took me a few false starts. Ssur's Tower has no services, so I set out to find a town. It turns out that the opening island doesn't have one (or, at least, not yet), so there's not much point in collecting things to sell. It does have a temple, fortunately, on the south coast in the ruined city of Greenbay. Since temples are the only place you can restore the priests' karma points, this became my base of operations.
      
"Quick" combat against some goblins and trolls.
      
A couple of new game elements became clear as I explored. First, monsters vary greatly by terrain. In Wizard's Crown, they varied a lot by area, but I'm not sure that individual squares made a big difference. Here, they do. Walking on grassland is likely to put me in touch with "undead farmers" who are trivially easy; swampland, on the other hand, brings nigh-impossible "swamp things."

But you have to explore every square because of the second game element. In Wizard's Crown, important encounter locations were signaled by icon. You knew to search for a shop on a square that had something that looked like a shop. Dagger has a lot more special encounters on things that look like regular squares. The key is to watch the text at the bottom. Sometimes it changes to note a particular feature in the landscape worth examining more closely with a "search." Sometimes, after a battle, you'll get the option to "follow tracks" back to the monsters' origin. But other times, you get no clue at all, so really you just need to step on and search every square. I found some decent treasure piles on some of those squares, but it's still pretty obnoxious and slow-going.
      
When "follow" becomes an option, you definitely want to take it.
       
There were a few key encounters on the small island map. The most important was with a dragon in the southeast area. He demanded all my magic items and attacked when I refused.
      
We need more characters named "Torgk."
        
I fought the battle in tactical mode and got a couple of my characters killed, but afterwards I raided his hoard and found the "Holy Morningstar," which does a lot of damage and raises the wielder's "Turn Undead" skill by 50 points.
      
Fighting the sole dragon in "tactical" mode.
       
Later, on the northern section of the island, some warriors offered to give me a dragon-slaying sword. I guess I was supposed to encounter them first. I kept it in case I encountered more dragons.

During my explorations of the island, I was of course improving my equipment. With no "evaluate" mechanic, this game just tells you exactly what each item does and how much it's worth. The equipment system has been updated since Wizard's Crown in that pluses (up to +6) and effects like fire and frost aren't mutually exclusive. You can have them both on the same weapon. Items can also have random miscellaneous effects, such as conferring "Invisibility" or raising a random skill by a few points. Almost every battle brought me some upgrade.
     
A nice treasure cache.
      
Development also continues to be swift and rewarding with skills. When skills get over 200 points, it starts taking a lot of experience to raise them by even a point or two, but that's compensated by having each battle deliver more experience than in Wizard's Crown.

Eventually, I found a cave in the northwest part of the island that took me to a much smaller island. This one, in turn, had an entrance to a two-level dungeon. Thankfully, the developers got rid of the party movement system in dungeons. The entire party is represented by a single character, although you can still rotate who that is. Even though there were more combats than the standard Wizard's Crown dungeon, progress was so much faster.
      
A nice dungeon shot. You basically want to examine every door and piece of furniture.
       
There were a couple of tough combats, mostly with undead. One of them, with undead lions, tigers, and bears, I couldn't defeat and had to skirt around. There were a few light puzzles involving finding passwords in one room and reciting them to another. After finishing the first level, I was dangerously close to being out of karma points (necessary to heal after combats), so I limped all the way back to Greenbay to rest at the chapel there.
      
I never defeated this group.
    
The map culminated in a battle with the Necromancer and some undead allies. A note in the Necromancer's study suggests that he was ordered to help with the battle against the elves by someone named "Anawt the Overlord." Whether he's the main villain or just the villain of the next chapter is unknown.

After that, I couldn't find my way out, so I returned to the entrance. The game noted that it collapsed behind me. When I got out, some changes had been wrought to the landscape. The tiny island was now connected to the main island, there were far fewer wandering encounters, and all the swampland had disappeared.
      
A lot has changed in the few days it took to hike there and back.
      
More important, when I got back to Greenbay, I saw that it had been replaced with a full menu town. I sold the excess magic items I had been carrying, paid to enchant a few objects, and took a long respite at the inn. A shipyard in town seems to be the mode of passage to other islands in the game world.
      
Collecting everything into a single menu town was a nice addition, too.
      
It was a fun beginning session. The developers fixed many of the interface problems with Wizard's Crown and arguably came up with a better story, even if the role of the Necromancer is a little confusing. If it's the same length as Wizard's Crown, it should be a satisfying game that may even rate a little higher.

Time so far: 9 hours

26 comments:

  1. I laughed at your third caption. Then I thought, well, you're camping. What if it's a god that delivers hot dogs, baked beans, and s'mores, but nothing else? I think that'd leave me at least quasi-agnostic.

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    Replies
    1. I think that only happens if you worship Mel Brooks.

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    2. Or, if the God gives hot dogs, baked beans and snores then asks you if that's what you really really really want, that's Mel B.

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  2. Also, the name Ssur poses the question, is there a Russ involved in this game? (Having used the name Ssor on occasion, I'm primed for that backward name, though the double-S to start kind of gives it away. Unless he's a snake.)

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  3. Okay, last comment. Lions, tigers, *and* bears? Oh my! I'm wondering if they're just tough, or if you're supposed to get tricky. Maybe one needs to 1) throw apples at them, 2) scare them off with a scarecrow, or 3) recruit a tin woodsman for the fight?

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  4. This does seem like an early foreshadowing of Pool of Radiance. The Dragon treasure hoard reminded me of the Kobold king's hoard, albeit more useful in the former case. I especially liked the Bragandine armor. I have seen many medieval pictures, usually from the Hundred Years war era, showing that piece. It is nice to see something besides mail or plate.

    Also clearing the area from the Necromancer reminded me of the Yarash quest to stop the pollution of the Stonjanow river. I guess SSI's wargaming roots made their quest design more direct than say Wizardry or Ultima.

    SSI made the best Civil War computer game, No Greater Glory. There is even some light roleplaying in it. If you play the North, you must decided if you can stomach putting Simon Cameron at the War Dept. simply because he clinched the Republican nomination for you? He is the most incompetent possible cabinet appointee, but also the most politically powerful.

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  5. Three highly interesting posts in a row. Thanks, am looking forward to know how et and mt2 develop!

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  6. I'm glad to see you're enjoying the game so far. One thing you'll find out (or may have already found out) is that magic is much more powerful because casters with over 250 skill can often cast two or three spells in one turn. This makes spells like "Create Terrain" and the low-difficulty damage spells much more useful than in the first one. I suggest playing with every spell in the list to find interesting tactics for some of the tougher combats.

    The 3 mages/3 priests restriction can be circumvented by importing a party from Wizard's Crown. One of my parties from Wizard's Crown had six priests, making some of the longer dungeons much easier.

    One subtle thing about both Wizard's Crown and The Eternal Dagger is that as you slay the same monster types, they become less common as random encounters and they also give you less experience points per kill.

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  7. Have you considered using some keyboard mapping software or a macro program to remap the movement keys to the numpad or something? Having to constantly figure out which number moves which direction seems like it would slow down gameplay a bit.

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    Replies
    1. As a kid I just drew the arrows on the c64 keyboard.

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    2. Oh, sure, I could always do something like that, but unless a game is absolutely unplayable, I prefer to play it with constraints similar to what players of the time would have suffered.

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    3. Have you considered remapping your keyboard to be closer to an Apple 2, C64, etc keyboard? I know some of them had more then slightly different layouts.

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    4. Generally, in cases like this, the keys don't magically make sense on the old hardware - it was a clumsy makeshift 30 years ago because the more convenient key groups we're used to today simply did not exist on those platforms.

      Remapping would not help in the least, largely because the emulators already remap the keys in the first place.

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    5. Other part might be historicity. SSI started to use this method of navigation around 1980, so if they shuffle it up, it would be unusual for their regular audience.

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  8. I've been looking forward to posts on the Eternal Dagger since Chet opened up the blog to non-IBM PC games. I remember really enjoying this one, although I never finished it as my save file got corrupted right before the end. Eleven year old me quickly learned his lesson to back up saves after that!

    I'm not sure how much you rely on quick combat, but I found that tactical combat was generally much easier. Fights that were fairly trivial in tactical mode would slaughter my characters in quick mode, so I remember basically doing everything tactically unless I was really overleveled. It may have to do with the AI inefficiently using magic, since the game balance definitely favored spellcasters as Tsu pointed out. That did make the game slog a little bit and made me not want to replay it from the beginning.

    As an aside, Wikipedia claims that the Dragon magazine review gave this 1.5 stars, so this may be the only game the Lessers didn't like.

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    Replies
    1. I'm relying too much on quick combat. I'm going to offer a post just on the tactical combat options so I can ensure that I fully explore them all.

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    2. And yes, that Dragon review is amazing. I've never seen a score that low--and for a game that exemplifies tactical combat in a tabletop-style RPG. I honestly have no idea what Dragon was looking for in a computer RPG.

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    3. I remember laughing when they gave Wing Commander 6 out of 5 stars. Perhaps Eternal Dagger would have scored higher a few years later just with story-based cinematics!

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  9. There were some squares in Wizard's Crown that had different encounters. There was a square where you would always encounter white rabbits (tough fight, but good treasure).

    The best party is probably:

    3 Fighter-Sorcerer
    3 Fighter-Priest
    1 Ranger
    1 Thief or Fighter-Thief (I would probably pick thief and have him use the eternal dagger later on).

    Of course you need to be sure to distribute slash/bash/pierce weapons due to damage immunities for some monsters.

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    Replies
    1. Looks like it must have a touch of "linear fighter- quadratic mage" syndrome.

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  10. "If it's successful, the party eats the game..." On first reading I did not interpret that sentence the way I think you intended me to.

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  11. Hello, I was just curious what platform/software you were using to play Eternal Dagger. Been wanting to play it again, but I'm afraid my Apple IIc has long since ceased to function.

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    Replies
    1. He played Apple II version of wizard's crown and has transferred the chars here so it must be Apple II version. If i recall right he uses AppleWin emulator to play old apple games.

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    2. That's correct. I'm playing on the Apple II using AppleWin.

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  12. I'm still working with the Atari ST version of The Wizard's Crown. It's worked very nicely, and its intuitive numeric keypad movement eliminates one of Chet's major gripes with the game. It took a few minutes to get the Atari ST "steem" emulator running, but all the needed items and instructions are available on the
    http://steem.atari.st site. Having never used the ST, I didn't know anything about the experience they were emulating, but steem seemed fairly intuitive.

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  13. That Dragon looks like a disappointing house lizard.

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