Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Game 260: Hera (1987)

What passes for a title screen.
I had intended to sacrifice this one to the "notability" guideline in Rule #4, but as I started playing, I realized the flaw inherent in that rule. Cataloguing the obscure is the very reason for this blog's existence. If the game had won an award or had a bunch of fan pages, everyone would have known about it. Someone who writes better than me, like Jimmy Maher, would have already covered it. Perhaps the fact that this game's name has somehow survived for 30 years is "notability" enough. And doesn't the world need to know about the only Ultima clone with an on-screen temperature gauge? I think it does.

So here we are with Jeff Hendrix's Hera, which he started writing in 1985, when he was 18 and living in Lakewood, Colorado. The title screen, such as it is, mentions that it was available through the "shareware distribution system," and the all-caps means I can't tell if that's supposed to be a generic system or a specific system. He asked $10 for registration, or $15 for registration plus documentation. Later, he updated the game for DOS as Hera: Sword of Rhin (1995), but the only copies of that version that still exist seem to be demos.
The land of Hera, per the in-game magic map. Black is water.
Hera is largely a clone of Ultima II with perhaps a little Ultima III influence. It has many of the same keyboard commands, such as (A)ttack, (B)oard, (E)nter, and (T)alk. Combat is just "attack" and a direction. You have the same meters: hit points, food, experience, and gold. There are doors to unlock with keys, chests to open, and expensive items that generate area maps. Castles and towns have NPCs and guards, most of who offer one-line dialogues. If you attack them, they'll swarm you, but if you leave town and return, everything is reset and everyone is cool again. We've been here a dozen times before.
Combat consists mostly of you missing while the enemy hacks away your hit points.
And yet, Hendrix did just enough that was original to keep me interested, starting with the thermometer. As you explore, you run into tracts of desert and frozen tundra. Moving through or staying in their squares moves your the meter up and down respectively. If it goes above or falls below indicated thresholds, you die. You have to look for "normal" squares within the extreme-temperature areas to rest and get back to normal. In at least one area, to survive a long trip through blizzard conditions, you have to warm up to near-death in a desert square first, so your meter has that much further to fall.
Hera is the first game in my chronology in which it is possible to freeze to death in a blizzard.
There is no backstory offered in the game itself, although by talking with NPCs, you eventually piece together that the land is called Hera and it's in the grip of an evil lord named Zarebae. To kill him, you must find the Sword of Rhin and the magic crystal that powers it, then confront Zarebae in his skull-shaped fortress in the sea. There's some business about Zarebae having a magic gem that must be destroyed, which sounds passingly like Mondain and his gem in the original Ultima.
Some intelligence about Zarebae from an NPC.
Players can choose between human, elf, dwarf, and halfling races and fighter, ranger, and thief classes, with attendant effects on the only two attributes: strength and agility. (There is no magic system in the game.) I played a human ranger.
The brief character creation process.
The game starts on top of the town of Helwan (named after an Egyptian city), two squares across the bay from a castle, although it takes a long time to navigate to that castle via the twisty landscape.
As the game begins, I'm already standing on a town.
Towns have the typical services: weapons, armor, food, pubs, and healing. The types of weapons you can use and armor you can wear are governed by your agility and strength, respectively.
It turns out that with my starting agility, I can only wield a dagger or an axe.
There are several NPCs in each town, but Hendrix programmed their dialogue to appear in a window, so they're capable of a lot more text than the typical Ultima clone. In another innovation, many of them will pause after their pre-programmed lines to accept single-letter questions from the player. For instance, a guard in the town of Rara Avis asks "What do you want?," and only by speaking with another NPC do you know to type "K" to ask him about "keys." It's not quite the dialogue options of Ultima IV, but it gets us a step closer.
A bartender suggests a "keyletter" to use on another NPC.
Each city has one or more locked doors that require keys. But in another disruption of expectations, there are actually four types of keys in the game: regular keys, jail keys, boat keys, and submarine keys, each opening a different set of doors. Regular keys work on the majority of doors, but you need jail keys (obtained from the guard mentioned above) to open doors to the city jails and talk with the NPCs there, and boat and submarine keys get you into special areas where you can steal those forms of transportation.
This NPC has a good reason to not want to be associated with me.
At the beginning of the game, you can walk to three cities--Helwan, Rara Avis, and Capaal (from one of the Shannara books)--one castle, a nomad camp that actually moves around the map, and a ghost town called Irray. For the first few hours, it's tough to survive. Your paltry weapons and armor aren't much use against the land's denizens, and you rarely make enough money from a combat to replenish the hit points that you lose. You have to spend almost every cent on hit points, so it's a struggle to afford keys and equipment.

A saving grace comes when you find a small treasure chamber in the southern castle. It opens with a normal key, which costs 8 gold pieces at the guild shop in Capaal. The chamber holds between 30 and 60 gold pieces depending on luck. Since the chests reset every time you leave the castle, you can buy a bunch of keys, enter, pillage the chests, leave, return, and repeat. The walk from the entrance to the chests and back again makes this a somewhat boring option, but without it, you probably wouldn't survive until the next stage.
Looting the treasury right next to the queen.
As in Ultima III (but not Ultima II), the king (King Patrick, after Hendrix's middle name) is in charge of your character development, giving you one point of agility for every 100 experience points you earn. I suspect the king in the other castle (which is surrounded by mountains) does the same thing for strength. 
This is more than Lord British did for me in the analogous game.
The starting landscape offers tantalizing glimpses of cities and dungeons in the midst of mountains and across the seas. Most of the NPCs in Helwan talk about boats, so a clear step on your quest is to acquire one. You can steal them in an area behind a door in Helwan, but the door is locked with the "boat key," and you have to piece together a series of clues and solve a modestly-difficult but original puzzle to find it.
How will I ever get in there?
An NPC in Helwan says, "Find Steve, for he knows of the key." When you find Steve, he says, "Rumor has it that it is on an island." "Look for islands in desolate places," a sailor contributes. And in such places, "water may be your only hope!" says a man named Logan. 

I spent a long time looking for both literal and metaphorical islands (e.g., lush patches in the middle of desert). The problem is, you can't reach islands without a boat in the first place. Even if you do, there's no "search" command, only "get," so you really need to be able to see the key from afar.

Eventually, I realized that the most desolate place was probably the ruined ghost city of Irray, where all the undead NPCs just moan at you. Sure enough, a map showed me an island in the northeast. There was no way to cross to it, though. A ship sat maddeningly close by, and I could board it, but it was landlocked by a single square.
How do I get one of these boats into that water?
"Water may be your only hope," Logan had said. I tried crossing each square of water but was rebuffed. Incidentally, the island is surrounded by swamp squares, which are always dangerous in Ultima clones. In regular Ultima, they poison you. In Gates of Delirium, they directly damaged you. In this one, some kind of tentacle erupts from them and whacks you, then disappears before you can respond.

Anyway, I wasn't getting anywhere with the puzzle. But in further exploration of Irray, I found a locked door with a water square behind it. I couldn't see how it could help, but when I opened the door, the water followed me! I led it back to the ship, messed around until it placed itself in the square between the ship and the lake, boarded the ship, and sailed across my new water friend. Tell me you've ever seen that type of puzzle in an Ultima clone.
The boat is no longer landlocked.
The island in the middle of the swamp held the boat key, and an NPC standing next to it said, "All of Hera is now open to you. Be careful."
That is one enormous key.
I took the boat key back to Helwan, opened the door to the boat yard, and stole the boat. Based on the NPC's statement, I expected it to open a lot of new locations, but most of the extra dungeons and castles I had seen from the mainland are still blocked by mountains. It really only opened the way to one new place, an island town called Paranor (another Shannara reference).
The interior of Paranor.
More important, though, the cannons offer a powerful way to dispose of wandering enemies, and like in Ultima II (but unlike Ultima III), killing them with cannons still awards you experience and gold. The enemies grew more powerful as my experience increased. You can't see their names, but based on icons, they include things like thieves, orcs, cyclopes, wizards, and demons. On the water, you face mermen and whales. 
I finish off one enemy with my cannons and prepare to take on another.
In Paranor, most of the NPC discussion had to do with bypassing electric walls. I had encountered one guarding some treasure chests in the castle; crossing the wall means instant death. One section of Paranor was walled off by the force fields. An NPC told me that the princess knows of a "special suit" that allows safe travel through the fields.
An "electric wall" fences off a section of this town.
The princess was back in the castle, sequestered in her chambers because, as Queen Linda said, she is "very mischievous." To get to her, I had to open an unlocked door, which was no problem, but I also had to get past a fixed guard. You can't kill guards in this game--at least, not with the weapons I'm capable of wielding--so the only option is to attack them and force them to leave their posts to chase you. With that method, the guard at my heels, I was able to get into the princess's chamber and speak to her.

She didn't just know where the special suit was--she had it. Thus, I couldn't just reload after getting the intelligence. I had to escape the castle with dozens of guards dogging me. My health went from over 1,500 to about 200 before I escaped, and it took me a couple of reloads to avoid getting boxed in by multiple guards.
Notice the guards already lining up to ruin my day.
Back in Paramor, I used the suit to cross the electric walls and found an NPC guarding something called a "sub key." The entire time, I'd been expecting to find some way to climb mountains, like a grappling hook. But I realize now that all of the places surrounded by mountains have a single water square next to them, which means that the real solution is probably to board a submarine and sail it beneath some of the land squares. That's an original element.
I had to cross some "hot" squares to reach him, too.
Unfortunately, this is where I'm stuck. I suspect the submarine is in Rara Avis--it's the only other city with a bay. There's a door that opens the way to the bay, and a selection of landlocked ships, but none of them are subs. I think the sub is actually in the middle of the bay, but I have no way to get a boat into the city.
I'm sure the endgame is going to be here. I just have to duck beneath that square of land.
Based on NPC clues, I suspect the answer has something to do with letting a pirate steal my boat and sail it into the bay through a secret mechanism, then killing him and taking it back. "Pirates are the only ones who can steal a boat and get away with it," a jailed NPC offers, echoed by an imprisoned pirate who confesses to a compulsion to steal boats. "I hear only pirates have been able to sail into the cove. The reason? Nobody knows," says the bartender at Rara Avis.
This pirate's name is Becky.
The one time I found a pirate outside, he did indeed steal my boat--but he just sailed away. I've been trying to find one closer to Rara Avis, but no matter how long I wait, none appears. I'm not sure the specific mechanism by which this would work anyway. Since towns just reset when you leave and return, it's hard to imagine entering Rara Avis and finding a pirate in the cove with my stolen boat. There's got to be something I'm missing.

I've written to Mr. Hendrix for help and for more information about the game and its remake. Obviously, I'll welcome hints here from anyone who has played the game. Either way, we'll wrap things up in a second entry later this week.

Time so far: 5 hours

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Game 259: Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra (1991)

When I first ran through the Might and Magic series as a teenager, I thought the game mechanics were fantastic but the storytelling was poor. Each game would make allusions to some broader plot but never really engage it. The science fiction elements always seemed tacked on. I dealt with them, shrugged, and just focused on the elements I enjoyed.

If not for this blog, I might still think this way. Fortunately, the process of documenting games has forced me to pay closer attention to them--to read every line of text carefully; to experience the gameplay twice, once as I play and once as I sort through my screenshots. Thanks to this process, I've come to regard the plotting of the Might and Magic series as much deeper and more deliberate than I realized before.

Many series have a trope that ties the entries together. In the Elder Scrolls, it's that the protagonist always begins imprisoned. In Ultima, it's that the Avatar always gets called through a moongate when Britannia needs help, and Shamino, Iolo, and Dupre are always there. In Might and Magic, it's that the heroes are always local yokels on a world in which cosmic things are happening. They only get glimpses of those things. They have to piece together the story. If they're not paying attention, they can "win" without ever really understanding.
The introductory screens to this game are quite explicit about that.
Nowhere is this more apparent than late in Might & Magic VII (1999), and the next three paragraphs are going to contain some pretty big spoilers for that game. The opening cut scene of VII seems impenetrable at first: eight SCUBA-suited aliens emerge from the surf. They argue. Four go one way, four go another.

Much later in the game, after the party has chosen whether to support good or evil, they are introduced to three "advisers" for the lords they have chosen to support. The lords of light are advised by Sir Caneghem, Craig Hack, and Resurrectra. The dark lords are advised by Maximus, Dark Shade, and Kastore. Either way, these strange advisers have a variety of quests for the party. But who are they? Where did they come from? What do they want?
This guy will one day train me in the "blaster" skill.
The answer is right here, at the beginning of Might and Magic III. The six names above are the six names of the members of Terra's default party: two good, two evil, two neutral. (There's one more adviser to each of the lords in VII, not offered in the default party but perhaps accounting for the two NPC slots.) The strange NPCs in Might and Magic VII are your characters from this game, ascended. The argument on the beach is about where they should go and who they should support. As well as I know Might and Magic VII, I don't remember this game at all, so it will be interesting to see how my party gets from Terra to the strange shores of another planet.

(Funny aside: I was just reviewing my 2010 first posting for Might and Magic, in which I said, "the first Might and Magic of which I have any real memory is III." I either mis-spoke or, more likely, the last 7 years of game-playing have dulled that memory to the point of non-existence. Either way, I"m starting III not remembering anything at all.)

26 years along, we live in a different world. It's a world of fan sites and wikis and "the world of" books. We can trust the developers at Bethesda to maintain a consistent lore between Elder Scrolls titles. We know that Bioware has thousands of pages of canonical background documents to aid their Dragon Age developers. We've learned to trust the producers of franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to care as much about internal consistency as the fans do. We didn't live in this world in 1991. Origin happily retconned every new Ultima title with whatever fancy crossed Richard Garriott's mind. SSI didn't worry about inconsistencies between books and games, or between one game and another. The focus was always on whatever was new, and players couldn't fundamentally trust developers to maintain the integrity of their own game worlds.

John Van Caneghem might be the one exception, and a few years ago, I wouldn't have thought so. If you had made such a statement, I would have said, "What?! The Might and Magic games may be fun, but don't look to them for a story. Nothing ever makes any sense. The story in the manuals never has anything to do with the games. Play Might and Magic for the mechanics, not the plot." But now I've slowed down, learned to pay attention to details, and I realize that this series is planned, perhaps years in advance, in a way that we can't say about the series' best competitors. The opening scenes and manual texts do relate to the plot (although I apparently didn't think so in my caption to the first image of Might and Magic II); they just don't make it obvious.
The titular Isles of Terra look like an interesting place to explore.
Let's cover what we've learned so far, without reference to any future revelations. Might and Magic concerned six local adventurers who started off with no goal except to adventure. Fittingly, the first game doesn't even offer a backstory in the manual. During the course of their wanderings, they come to realize that all is not right in their land of Varn. They find a crashed alien spaceship in which a dying alien warns them of an escaped criminal. They finally encounter the alien fugitive in the guise of King Alamar. He throws them in a dungeon, but they escape after discovering that the alien is named "Sheltem." They confront him and he flees.

Ultimately, they find their way to the "inner sanctum," which turns out to be a computer room staffed by a beleaguered sysop. He informs them that "Varn" is actually VARN: Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle, a kind of artificial biosphere floating in space. The administrator ushers them along to the "gates to another world"--the only time in the series that the same party continues between titles.
We never find out what happened to this guy.
The "other world" is actually the center of the various VARNs attached to the same vehicle, a place called CRON (Central Research Observational Nacelle). The backstory for Might and Magic II concerns Corak the Mysterious, who learns of Sheltem's landing on the VARN and goes off in pursuit of him. Although Corak is referenced in several messages in the first game, none of them suggest that they have to do with his pursuit of Sheltem. Rather, he seems to have been a frequent visitor to VARN, known for exploring and mapping.

Corak dies during his pursuit of Sheltem, as the characters encounter his ghost during their adventures. The core adventure is about going back in time to ensure that King Kalohn survives his fight with the Mega Dragon and thus remains on the throne instead of passing it to his ineffectual daughter. Only after that plot wraps up do the characters, almost incidentally, wander into a dungeon in Square Lake, find Sheltem, and kill him.

A message on a computer informs the party that the CRON and "all of its VARNs" were programmed by someone called "The Ancients" (not Might and Magic's fault, but I'm kind of getting sick of typing that) to populate the world of Terra. But Sheltem, calling himself the "ruler of the planet Terra," didn't want that to happen, so he flew his spaceship to the CRON, made his way to the control room, hacked the flight controls, and aimed the CRON for the sun. The characters stop this disaster, but we don't learn what happens next.
Apparently, he didn't stay dead.
Oh, there's a lot that doesn't make sense. How does the mythology of the elemental lords work into the plot of the Ancients and VARNs and CRON? How are magic and monsters and undeath justified in a science fiction universe? How does time travel work? But unlike the first time I played the game, I'm now convinced these questions have answers. We just have to look for the clues.

The opening animation for Might and Magic III indicates that it "stars" Corak the Mysterious and Sheltem, "Guardian of Terra and Nemesis of the Ancients." Sheltem's battered face soon appears and offers a message to the player (in spoken sound): "I am Sheltem, guardian of Terra. Twice now, you have defeated my tests, thinking yourself worthy of invading my world. Walk carefully, then, through this third challenge, and take heed that your final decision is truly what you desire--for the course of destiny cannot be turned once set in motion." Already, the game is undermining its own NPCs' expectations: the party that will face Sheltem here is not the one from the previous games, but rather a fresh group of amateurs.
Sheltem, looking very unlike himself int he previous games, threatens us.
The manual's 32-page backstory, purportedly written by Corak, covers both the mythology of Terra and Corak's journey across the Isles with a group of companions, filling in pieces of the ancient lore. The mythology is much like that of the second game: the land was born out of a destructive war between the four elemental lords. Somehow, elves, gnomes, dwarves, half-orcs, and humans arrived and populated the land. The elemental lords weren't fond of this, so they arranged to use their combined powers to scour the planet. Five "Forces"--gods, I guess--observing what the elemental lords were doing, gave powers of war, arcane and divine magics, and stealth to the mortal races so they could establish the first "classes" and fight the elemental threat.
The game weaves descriptions of races and classes into its backstory.
The story of Coark's journey serves in part to introduce the player to the geography and cities of the world. His companions are named things like Asa Milchima, Rapha, and Supha, and at first I hoped beyond hope that these were the names of the default characters in Might and Magic II. Alas, no. Various fortunes and ills befall the party as they cross the game setting. The story isn't really interesting out of context, but I might refer to it as I visit each new place.

Only late in the story does Corak confess that "the real search is not for legends and lore but my nemesis Sheltem," who has "twice planned the extinction" of the islands. This contradicts Sheltem's claim of being the "ruler" or "guardian" of Terra. Corak thinks Sheltem's plan involves using various pyramids on the world, and it somehow places "much importance on the three manners of men we have come to call alignment: Good, Neutral, and Evil." Corak then offers some advice for those who might "follow" him and the text ends.

So how are Corak and Sheltem alive again? Is it possible that this game is a prequel, not a sequel, to the first two? (Probably not, given Sheltem's monologue.) Or did the CRON reach Terra and deposit all its humanoids, dragons, vampires, and monsters among the islands? Are we picking up thousands of years later? What happened to the Might and Magic I and II party? Again, how are tales of the elemental lords related to the real history of the Ancients? Is Terra a true planet or another space vessel--or is there really even a distinction? Perhaps these questions will be answered over the course of the game. Even if not, I suspect that John Van Caneghem knows the answers. I welcome your guesses (trying to avoid spoilers for this game, of course).

Someone asked me to stretch this game out, and here I managed to get an entire entry done before even starting the character creation process. I hope that's a good sign.

Time so far: 0 hours

Thursday, August 24, 2017

MegaTraveller 2: Summary and Rating

MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients
United States
Paragon (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga, possibly Atari ST
Date Started:  29 July 2017
Date Ended: 16 August 2017
Total Hours: 42
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 41
Ranking at Time of Posting: 214/260 (82%)

Unfortunately the "evil path" I mentioned last time didn't amount to anything. Grazer gives you $50,000 for killing Trow Backett and then asks you to kill another Ancients expert going by the name "Cocoa" for another $50,000. I wasn't able to do the second part because I'd already spoken to Cocoa as part of the main quest, and the game had decided he was no longer a "green" NPC and thus wouldn't let me into his building. But I read online that you just get the money and that's the end of the thread. You still have to save Rhylanor if you want to "complete" the game.
It's a poor trade-off, since Backett buys things from you for well over $50,000.
It occurs to me, though, that this is one of the few games so far in the chronology that you could play 99% evil. You can make your fortune through piracy, taking the "evil" quest options (e.g., helping vile dictators suppress rebellions), and killing other NPCs for their stuff. You still have to save Rhylanor at the end, but you could argue that you're just doing that for the money.

I messed around a little more before wrapping up. It is possible to kill the Duke--he dies in just a couple of blows, in fact--but it has no effect on the game and he still shows up at the end to give his speech.
The Duke lies dead on the floor. But that doesn't mean we lose!
In the first entry, I noted that the predictions the slime would take "7 years" meant that you probably have 2,555 days to win. In fact, the slime finally hits Rhylanor Startown at 2,710 days. It swallows Rhylanor's other cities along the way. After about day 1,200, you can no longer travel to other cities.
The goo closes in on the planet's capital.
Once it covers Rhylanor Startown, you get a special "game over" screen.
I could technically still zap the planet with the terraforming device.
I know my last couple of entries have been fairly positive, so I feel that I have to clarify: MegaTraveller 2 is not a good RPG. It fails in every aspect of RPG mechanics, including character development, combat, and equipment. The story isn't even really that good. Its world-building is minimal. Although you encounter about a dozen races in the game, there's no real characterization attached to them. And yet this bad sequel to a bad game manages to offer something that no other RPG has offered in the chronology: a truly open world with nonlinear gameplay and dozens of side quests. I would really like to know who on the team insisted on that. He should have been working for a better company.

What's particularly disappointing about both games in the MegaTraveller series is the skill system. It's certainly an original approach to an RPG: Have most of the character development occur during the character creation stage. Instead of starting with a young Level 1 peasant who slowly becomes a hero, start with the hero, and role-play whatever selection of skills and experiences brought him to that stage in life. 

I suspect, however, that tabletop Traveller gives its characters many more occasions to use their skills. The computer RPG didn't even try. The manual for the game lists about 125 "skills that can be used to complete the game." A lot are weapons skills, but they also include "Bribery," "Disguise," "Admin," "Forgery," "Carousing," "History," and "Forensics." If these came into play anywhere in the game, it was so subtle that it might as well not have been included at all. 
Why couldn't I use "Admin" or "Bribery" or "Forgery" at a time like this?
The hintbook lists a more realistic 19 skills that are "used most frequently." Even this list seems too long. "Broker" and "Trader" are useful to get the best prices, but the economy is such that a character with no skill in these areas can still make plenty of money. The weapons skills are nice, of course, but success in combat seems to depend more on the quality of the equipment than the skill of the user. "Recruiting" is only useful if you accept your characters' deaths. "ATV" and "Grav Vehicle" are both on the list, and both can be used by anyone regardless of skill.

As far as I can tell, the only absolutely essential skill to get through the game was "Medic." "Interrogation" helped with the main plot, but its utility is duplicated with the truth serum. Maybe I would have made more of "Engineering" and "Turret Weapons" if I'd insisted on piracy early in the game.

In general, we have an RPG that both minimizes any skill development during the game (I've commented enough about how rare and erratic that is) and barely uses the skills that make up your characters' backstories. I can't believe no one realized how bad this was during the development of the game. With so many planets, so many side quests (the hint book lists at least triple the number that I explored), there were a thousand opportunities to employ each skill set, to use skills as alternatives to combat, to use skills as an alternative to having certain items in the inventory, but they missed every one. Did none of them play Wasteland?

I expect some extremes in the GIMLET. Let's see.

1. Game World. You can feel them really trying in this category, going so far as to commission the creator of the RPG to write the story. They designed all of these races and created 117 planets with double that number of cities, each with a unique profile in terms of technology, law, and government. It almost makes this effort relevant during gameplay but doesn't quite. The story itself is only "adequate." Frankly, I found the history of "Grandfather" and his offspring to be goofy, and the whole "Ancients" thing is getting old by now. "A" for effort; "B-" for execution. Score: 5.
The developers programmed new tiles indicating a "lusher" Rhylanor after you win.
2. Character Creation and Development. The creation engine is so good that it was designed to support tabletop RPG creation. There are so many potential careers, so many things that can happen during those careers, and so many skills, that the possibilities for the final character are essentially infinite. It's just too bad that, as above, the game does essentially nothing with the characters after that. Score: 3.

3. NPC Interaction. The actual mechanics of chasing down green dots wasn't fun, but NPCs are a vital part of the game. Just as in the Ultima series, you wouldn't be able to complete the quest without their clues. They impart lore, quests, and hints. There are no dialogue options, but there are a handful of role-playing choices. Score: 6.
NPCs are crucial to understanding the world and making your way through it.
4. Encounters and Foes. Your only enemy in the game is other people, and in combat they differ only by equipment. There are a variety of non-combat encounters that blend with the quest system, but these do not offer meaningful role-playing choices. Score: 2.

5. Magic and Combat. Horrible. Target and attack. That's it. No tactics, no strategies, no input, even, for 4/5 of your party. You get no feedback on the health or even names of your opponents, and the tiny interface keeps you too far from the action to really see what's happening.

I don't expect magic in a science fiction RPG, but I do expect something that substitutes for magic. Stims, chems, tasers, psionics, special futuristic technology devices that paralyze and stuff, active use of skills--any of these would have sufficed. Score: 1.
Space combat is so equally boring that it doesn't even qualify the game for an extra point.
6. Equipment. There are a lot of weapon types in the game, but even at the end, I don't know how to figure out which is likely to do the most damage, including the role that skill level plays in the formula. Laser rifles for everyone seemed to work fine. There are a couple of suits of armor, but most everything else is quest items. I'm annoyed that there wasn't a single place in the game to use my forensics kit or hand-held computer.

The one saving grace: MegaTraveller 2 is one of the few games of the era to offer detailed item descriptions. Click "Examine" on any item and you get a well-written paragraph or two. Score: 4.
This doesn't really tell you anything about the suit, but I like the text for the text alone.
7. Economy. The economy is really the driving force of the game--the only reason to engage in the many side quests. I admire its complexity: lots of ways to earn money, and lots of ways to spend it. It just needed better balance. Rewards should have been more commensurate with their effort, and costs more commensurate with their utility. By the game's midpoint, you have so much money that it would be silly to waste time making more. Score: 5.
Money is used almost entirely for travel in this universe.
8. Quests. A strength of the game. In addition to a couple of intertwined main quests, there are hundreds of side quests--more than a single player is likely to experience--and some of them even offer some basic role-playing choices. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. I don't have any particular praise for the main interface graphics, but the cut scenes occasionally offer a nice image. The dits and boops and occasional explosions that make up the sound effects are fine, nothing special.

Worst was the interface. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you have less than 26 commands, there is no excuse for not just mapping them each to a key. Sure, offer the mouse interface too, but not exclusively. Running after NPCs and trying to click on the "Converse" button and then "Hail" when I should have just been able to hit "H" was infuriating. Even the mouse interface had problems: with the menu selections often small and close together, it was too easy to click on the wrong one. Score: 3.
The description and graphics of the Ancients sites are particularly well done. It's too bad there isn't more to do in them.
10. Gameplay. The nonlinearity is of course a huge asset. I also have to give it points for replayability, given the numerous ways characters can make money to pursue the main quest, plus the sheer number of side quests. (Alas, it would be even more replayable if the skills mattered more.) On the negative side, it falls on the "too easy" side except for a few unnecessary combats. While 40 hours is a respectfully modest time, the game often feels unnecessarily large and empty, particularly when you're running through empty corridors and streets looking for one small item or NPC. Score: 6.

That gives us a final score of 41. That feels right. 35 is usually my threshold for whether I'd recommend the game at all, and above 50 I'd say definitely play it. Between those two scores is an area that says "the game has strengths you'll enjoy, but it sabotages those strengths with as many weaknesses." It also compares well to the first MegaTraveller, which I gave a 34.

I find my opinion echoed by Scorpia's November 1991 Computer Gaming World review, which bemoans the wasted skill system and "worthless" training halls, and the disappointingly purposeless Ancients sites. Like me, she liked the nonlinearity. However, she liked the combat system, considering it improved from MegaTraveller, with which I 100% disagree. The first game's combat system was hard to figure out, true, but it actually offered tactical considerations. And you had grenades. Scorpia also complained about "too many side threads that have nothing to do with the main plot," which of course is the whole point of side quests, but I forgive her because side quests weren't really a "thing" in RPGs in 1991. It probably took a few games to build up a taste for them. Overall, I can't disagree with her conclusions: "An improvement over the previous game, [but] it hasn't improved quite enough. Skills have to be more fully integrated into the game."

Of course, I had to find out whether Dragon praised the game with 5/5 stars or slammed it with 4/5 stars, but it doesn't appear that they reviewed it--which is odd given its tabletop lineage. I would have thought they'd prioritize this one. I was also curious if our old Amiga Computing friend, Stuart Campbell, had written a review. His assessment of the first game remains my all-time favorite hyperbolic review quote: "If you took the Pacific Ocean, stacked another Pacific Ocean on top of it, and then attached two more Pacific Oceans to either end, it wouldn't be quite as deep as MegaTraveller 1." Alas, despite his praise, he seems to have missed the sequel. In general, Amiga magazines rated it poorly. I'd like to make fun of them like I usually do and say their primary complaint was the graphics, but only a few mention graphics. Most of them just thought it was boring.

Although both this game and its predecessor were products of Paragon Software, the specific teams don't share many of the same names. In particular, Paragon co-founder F. J. Lennon, credited with the manual in MegaTraveller 1, moves up to "writer" and "co-designer" here. In my MegaTraveller 1 review, I remarked that the manual was the best thing about the game, and you can see the quality of Lennon's writing in both the documentation for MegaTraveller 2 and the solid in-game text. Lennon isn't credited on Twilight 2000 (coming up soon), and I suspect the game will suffer accordingly. We'll see his work again on Challenge of the Five Realms (1992).
Paragon wouldn't last another year. Although it released 13 titles between 1989 and 1991, most under either its GDW or Marvel licenses, none of them got good reviews. MicroProse bought the company in 1992 and either didn't acquire their GDW and Marvel contracts or didn't care to develop more games based on them. GDW, its attempts to translate its properties to the computer having been bungled thrice by Paragon, itself went out of business in 1996. Traveller, despite all its acclaim as a tabletop game, never saw another computer edition. Or hasn't seen one yet, perhaps I should say.

Let's remember this one for its strengths. Paragon Software, a company whose previous RPG offerings gave it no reason to be ambitious, suddenly got ambitious in a way that no previous developer had. MegaTraveller 2 is such a minor title that it's hard to believe it influenced later open-world, multi-quest RPGs, but it sure did anticipate them. If only they'd taken a page from SSI or Origin or literally any other RPG developer on character development and combat, we might remember this one as one of the greats.


Further reading: MegaTraveller wasn't the first implementation of the Traveller rules; that was the copyright violator called Space (1978). You may also want to check out my coverage of MegaTraveller 1 (1990), plus Paragon's other GDW titles, including Space: 1889 (1990).

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Game 258: Gates of Delirium (1987)

Gates of Delirium
Diecom (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for the TRS-80 Color Computer
Date Started:  13 August 2017
Date Ended: 16 August 2017
Total Hours: 8
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 25
Ranking at Time of Posting:110/260 (42%)
There are "Ultima clones" in the sense that they were clearly inspired by Ultima's mechanics and use an iconographic interface, and there are "Ultima clones" in the sense that they copy practically everything about one of the Ultima games, including the keyboard commands, the combat system, the magic system, what NPCs have to say, and the existence of a continent on the other side of the world with shrines that boost your attributes. Gates of Delirium is one of the latter. TRS-80 Color Computer owners, I realize that the vast majority of RPGs weren't available for your overpriced machine with its silly nickname, but this wasn't the way to go about it. This is just sad.
Compare the geography above to the opening of Ultima III. We're not off to a good start.
If Gates of Delirium has anything to do with its namesake on Yes's 1974 album Relayer, I don't see it in the documents or gameplay. Instead, the game is a copy of Ultima III, right down to the geography displayed on the title screen, where you can watch a little vignette of characters and monsters dancing around some very familiar tiles. Commands, too, are drawn directly from the Ultimas, including (K)limb and (Z)stats.

The same, alas, cannot be said of the production values. Aside from the cover, it's simply typewritten in a monospaced font. It does a decent job outlining the races, classes, menu commands, spells, and monsters, but offers no backstory. If you think, "Cool! The story and quest will slowly emerge through gameplay!," let me disabuse you now: no, it won't.
The "topside" game world from the documentation. Apparently, the land is called "The Land of Gates."
The player begins by choosing a name, sex, and race from human, elf, dwarf, gnome, and orc options. Classes are fighter, thief, magic-user, cleric, paladin, druid, and illusionist--the last character seeming in name only, as there are no illusion-specific spells.
Character creation.
You can ultimately get other characters to join your party, but much like Ultima IV, the character starts alone, weaponless, with 150 food and 750 gold.

I naturally began by exploring the town near the starting area. A welcome "sign" near the entrance named it "Casa." Little animated NPCs roamed the streets. Yes, we're back to the days of generic one-line NPCs. Guards say, "Be off!" Fighters say, "Ugh!" (but, I must admit, do not add "Me tough!"). Thieves say, "Your money or your life!" Clerics say, "Evil is everywhere!" Jesters say, "Tee hee hee!" Occasionally, someone will offer something valuable. These NPCs are usually fixed in one place. An NPC mage recommended that I "use OTHER commands," referring to an input (H) that allows you to type your own command keyword. An NPC cleric clued me that one of those commands is JOIN.
One in a hundred NPCs offers actual information.

Most offer nonsense like this.
I bought some ring mail and an axe. Weapons and armor are referred to by letters from A to H. A is hands and skin; B is a dagger and cloth; H is a two-handed sword and plate mail. The Eternal Dagger just let me wear things like Storm Plate +5 with an added "Invisibility" spell, but I don't think that will be possible here.
This is Ultima III's list of weapons exactly.
Experienced with Delirium's sources, I knew the most important NPCs would be hiding in darkened squares behind buildings and such. Sure enough, in a corner, I found an elf cleric named Gazer who happily joined my party. He brought no food or gold with him. I had to purchase him a hammer and cloth armor. And that was about all the excitement in Casa.

It was time, I reasoned, to head outside and see how the game had implemented combat. Plus, I could tell I was going to need money for food soon. My first battle was with trolls, and it followed the Ultima III model right down to the amusing use of "Conflict!" as the inciting world. You fight on a basic tactical map with no terrain considerations, and you can only attack in columns and rows. My priestly characters don't have anything in the way of offensive spells yet, so all I could do was advance and use melee weapons. As in Ultima III, enemies can attack and move on the diagonal but you can't.
We must give the developers credit for originality where it's due: they use only one exclamation point after "Conflict," not Ultima III's two.
The half-dozen trolls had knocked away about half my hit points before we killed the last of them, earning 3 experience points per troll. (Experience goes to the character who strikes the killing blow.) They left a chest that poisoned us when I opened it. I figured I'd just cast "Cure Poison," but it turns out that's not one of the listed spells in the cleric's book. I didn't find healers in towns until much later, so it was fatal for me this early in the game. I reloaded. I soon discovered that hit points regenerate at a rate of 1 per 10 moves. I tried to accelerate that with "Cure Light Wounds," but I could only cast one before I was out of magic points, and it took me 20 steps to regenerate them.
Another screenshot of fighting trolls.
The spell system is based on Ultima III. Characters get a certain number of spell points based on a combination of intelligence and wisdom (depending on their class). These spell points therefore do not increase as you level up; to improve them (and to cast any of the higher spells at all), you have to visit the antipodal continent and make offerings to shrines. Not calling said continent "Ambrosia" is another originality point in the game's favor.

Each spell depletes a set number of points. There aren't many spells. Magic users get "Burning Hands," "Light," "Magic Missile," "Continual Light," "Invisibility," and "Lightning Bolt." Clerics get "Turn Undead," "Find Traps," "Cure Light Wounds," "Protection from Evil," "Continual Light," and "Create Food." That's all the manual lists, anyway, covering letters A through G. Letters H, I, and J produce a message that I don't have enough spellpoints, so there are clearly more spells to "find," probably from talking with NPCs. One of them is "Cure Poison," but it requires so many spell points that the average player probably would never get it.
Using "Turn Undead" on some skeletons. I am obliged to note that this is also cleric spell "A" in Ultima III.
There was a castle mere steps away from Casa. A king and queen--or maybe two kings--reigned side-by-side, but their only advice was to "seek more experience!" Clearly, they perform a level-up service just like Lord British in Ultima III. There was a rations shop and a chapel full of clerics who encouraged me to "use the gates of luna!" Not "moongates," mind you, but "gates of luna."
You know how the only way you can kill Lord British in Ultima III is by stealing a ship while inside the castle and shooting him with the cannons? Yep, they even copied that.
Continuing around the continent, the city of "Ghost Town" was (appropriately) mostly deserted except for a "healing fountain" that actually poisoned, a couple unmanned shops, and a cleric deep in some woods who told me to "use gems to see all!" I can't remember if there were gems in Ultima III, so maybe the developers lifted this one from Ultima IV. At a pub, in a system going back to Ultima II, the bartender rewarded overpayment with tips, including not drinking the water because "some water is poison."
I feel like this would be hard to read from the actual road.

Further south, I ran into my first "gate of luna," which took me to the southern continent on the main map, but I didn't last long there because of the sheer number of monsters.

By now, I had resolved not to continue with the game, but I couldn't stop before checking out at least one dungeon. This was currently impossible as neither of my cleric spellcasters had enough magic points for the cleric's "Continual Light," meaning I'd have to find a place selling torches or find a mage NPC. Either way, it meant more town explorations. Unfortunately, I didn't find any other towns on the accessible part of the large northern continent. It turns out there are some accessible by water only and one that requires you to walk across a huge swamp (which doesn't poison your characters but causes damage every step instead). Clearly, I either needed a ship (the manual promised roaming pirates) or to go through the moongate to the monster-infested southern continent.

Before I could do either, I settled in for a period of grinding near the castle. Orcs, trolls, skeletons, and thieves showed up every five minutes or so. That seems like a long time when grinding, but any more often and I wouldn't have been able to replenish hit points between battles.

Treasure chests are a huge pain in the neck. At least 50% of the time, they're trapped with acid or poison. Acid does a couple dozen hit points damage, so because of it, you'd better have more than 50 hit points before you even consider opening a chest. Poison has to be cured by a healer until very late in the game. It costs 100 gold pieces, against an average haul of around 30 per chest. This is less of a consideration than the fact that you'll probably die of the poison before even reaching the healer. Fortunately, there's a "Find Traps" cleric spell that automatically removes the trap and gives you the gold in the chest; unfortunately, it often fails and you have to stand there and wait to replenish spell points.
This party didn't last long after this.
Still, it's a better option than saving and reloading. You can save anywhere in the game, but reloading means killing the game and rebooting, which is almost as much a pain on the MAME emulator (more below) as it must have been on the original machine. 

Speaking of saving, Delirium does offer one major difference from its source: the world state is saved permanently to disk. When you start a new game, you create a play disk that has all the town and dungeon information on it. If you kill an NPC or open a chest in a town, the act is written to the disk when you save. Thus, you can't kill the same NPC multiple times for experience and gold, or loot the same group of treasure chests simply by leaving town and re-entering. In this, it shares characteristics with Deathlord from the same year.
As in Ultima III, you can loot groups of chests in shops. But unlike Ultima III, those chests don't respawn when you leave and return.
I did do plenty of reloading during this session. The game has no compunction about sending large groups of giants or other high-level creatures at you even at Level 1. Because your only "heal" spell only cures about 5 hit points at a time, and it takes 10 steps to regenerate 1 hit point, you're almost chronically under health.
Owning a ship greatly improves the combat terrain in the player's favor.
But even at my maximum, I couldn't survive the swarm of enemies waiting for me on the other side of the moongate, so I was thrilled when I saw a pirate ship on the horizon. As with the early Ultimas, acquisition of a ship is a major deal in this game, allowing you to fully explore the land and, if you don't feel like fighting enemies, blast them with the ship's cannons. (You get no experience or gold from that, but it's an easy way to clear out tougher enemies.) Perhaps most important, it gives you a way to fight regular battles in which enemies can only approach you one at a time.
I think I'll weed out the fighters, giants, and thieves and just fight the skeletons and orcs.
With the ship, I was able to pick my battles better and amass the 200 or 250 experience points that I finally needed to level up.
Despite his proclamation, he increased my hit points, not my wisdom.
More important, the ship took me to a previously-inaccessible part of the starting continent, a town called Tirary, where a shop sold torches, keys, gems, and magic horns that stop time briefly. I bought mostly torches. A magic user in the northwest corner offered to join my party. He was Level 1 and named Merlin.
You wouldn't think torches would be such rare commodities.
Without preparing much, I entered my first dungeon, near the starting area. Dungeons in this game are not 3D like Ultima III but rather large and top-down mazes. There are enough chests to suggest that dungeon-delving is probably the key to wealth.
Arriving in a dungeon.
Encounters are sparse in dungeons but lean towards the difficult side, and my party was soon killed. If I was going to continue with the game, I'd do some topside grinding first, get to Level 3 or 4, buy some better gear, and make sure I was fully healed before going to the dungeons again. But I'm not going to do that because the game is boring and derivative, and if I'm going to spend dozens of hours across multiple posts on a 1987 game, it's going to be one that has some original ideas, like Deathlord.
This dungeon shows a ladder, a couple of chests, and some lava next to pathways to my south.
Plus, you don't need me to document this one. That was already accomplished by frequent commenter Stu, blogging as "yakumo9275" on Armchair Arcade back in 2007 (coverage starts here, but skip to here for things that I didn't already cover). To summarize his findings, each of the game's 10 dungeons is enormous, with dozens of large levels, at least one spilling the player on the other side of the world. Those that don't require fairly tedious backtracking once you've finished exploring down to the bottom level.

The antipodal continent has a few towns and four shrines where you can pay 100 gold pieces for 1-point statistic upgrades. This is the only way to get more magic points.
Stu finds one of the seven gate keys.
More important, a southern island in the other world holds the titular Gates of Delirium. Entry is barred by seven doors for which you need to find keys--six of them in dungeons and one of them in a hidden town (you find clues that tell you how to get there).
Stu approaches the Gates of Delirium.
Unlocking all the doors and walking up to the gates brings you to the endgame screen, which simply says that you solved the game and gives you four "secret messages." Back when the game was new, you wrote those messages on a card and sent it to Diecom to be entered into a contest, one prize of which was a brand new Color Computer so you could play more games like this. Anyway, Stu doesn't offer a summary of his experience, but the tone of his posts is largely negative and he had to resort to cheating to force himself to finish.
The end of the game, from yakumo9275's LP.
I give Gates of Delirium a 25 in the GIMLET. It does best (4s) in the area of NPCs--who can both join the party and impart key information--and economy, which never stops being relevant. It does worst (1) for the game world, which offers not a hint of history, lore, or purpose for the quest. It suffers for its length; the size of the dungeons is simply inexcusable. I did not subtract points for essentially plagiarizing Ultima II-IV, but its appropriations make me think worse of it than the score suggests.
They didn't even change the amounts you have to tip a bartender for clues.
I try not to be too insulting in these reviews--the developers are real people, and were probably young at the time--but it's hard to argue with the label that Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice affixed to Delirium in their book Vintage Games: a "shameless and insipid clone." You know who I feel bad for? Charles Dougherty. He goes and creates an original game (Questron) that owes little to Ultima except the use of top-down tiles, and he can't publish it without eating crow and giving a cut to Richard Garriott. Meanwhile, Rings of Darkness, Deathlord, Wrath of Denethenor, and Gates of Delirium do this with impunity.
I forgot to show you what a dungeon entrance looks like. These can be hard to spot.
Back in the mid-2000s, a group of nostalgiacs named Andrew Ayers, Michael Crawford, and Tim Lindner, whose parents hadn't loved them enough to buy computers capable of playing Ultima III, got together and created the "Gates of Delirium archive," a web site with links to the game files, documents, maps, notes, and technical information. My snarky comment aside, it really was well done. It would be a model fan page except that it disappeared some time after 2008.

Fortunately, CRPG Commenter Adamantyr (who has his own summary of the game) preserved the entire site offline and sent it to me several years ago, when I was mixed up and thought the game was a 1984 title. I held on to the files.
The manual cover is at least original. [Edit: as commenters pointed out, no it's not. It's a copy of the image of a ghoul in the first edition D&D monster manual.]
Actually getting the game to play took most of a day. For technical reasons I don't understand, it doesn't work with the Color Computer emulators I already had. (By now, the number of emulators I've downloaded for the Color Computer easily exceeds the number of RPGs available for it.) Notes from the archive identified a couple of emulators that it did work with, but neither of them work with Windows 10. Finally, I downloaded the latest copy of MAME (which incorporates the multi-system emulator formerly known as MESS). MAME is a tremendously impressive and valuable project, capable of emulating dozens of systems and arcade games, but damn was it hard to set up. It's interface is far more cumbersome than single-game emulators, and it took me forever to figure out how to bring up the configuration menu (allowing me to switch disks, among other things) during the game itself. I suppose it was a good exercise, though, as MAME is bound to come in handy in the future.

(In case anyone finds their way here via Googling keywords and has the same problem, the issue is that the default key for the configuration menu, TAB, isn't enabled unless you first activate "UI Mode." The key to do that is mapped to the "Scroll Lock" key by default, which many laptops don't have. You have to use the configuration menu in the master emulator re-map that function.)
An advertisement for the game makes it a minor title among Diecom's catalogue.
Gates of Delirium was designed by Canadian developers Roland Knight, Dave Dies, and Dave Shewchun and published by Diecom, an Ontario-based developer whose best-known title seems to be an adventure game called Caladuril: Flame of Light (1987). All three developers have several other titles from Diecom during the same period, including an adventure game called Lansford Mansion (there's a good review of the game on the "Gaming After 40" blog), an action knockoff of Gauntlet called Gantelet, and an action knockoff of Boulder Dash called Bouncing Boulders, and an original action game called Bugs. Dies and Knight have later programming credits involving translations of arcade games for the Camputers Lynx.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, and certainly we'd be nowhere in the RPG genre if developers didn't copy and adapt each other's best ideas. But it's just creepy when your game seems to have no original ideas, owes too much to a single predecessor, and doesn't even offer an homage in your materials. This one, which doesn't even have the excuse of being shareware, borders on shameful.

Speaking of which, the next game on my 1987 list, Hera for the Apple II, is yet another Ultima clone. What was the deal with 1987? It seems to be an independent game, so I may exercise my new Rule #4 with this one.


For further reading: My review of Ultima III starts here. If you like hearing about Ultima clones, The Ring of Darkness is another particularly shameless one.