Monday, January 23, 2017

Game #67: Gauntlet IV (Genesis) - Dragons All The Way Up (Finished)

Game 67

Title: Gauntlet 4
Released: 1993
PlatformGenesis
Developer: Atari Games Corporation
Publisher: Tengen
Genre: Action-RPG
Exploration - Top-down
Combat - Active
Series - Gauntlet

This title surprised me. First, I had written it off the list for no other reason than it was Gauntlet. How could that series have enough RPG elements to include? Especially as we move right into cutting a game like Landstalker. While having a deeper story, and a richer world, it just doesn't offer the same kind of character customization.
TNE ENG
In Gauntlet 4's quest mode, the story begins with the appearance of adventures seeking a mysterious treasure within an ancient castle guarded by four towers. Each tower holds the key to opening a seal on the castle doors. Take on the role of warrior, valkyrie, wizard, or elf, solo or with up to three friends, and discover the treasure within.
*Plop*
The key here is the quest mode, which adds experience points and stat increases. A quick check of the scale gives the game a 12 due to meeting all (6) character advancement points, stats have a meaningful impact on combat, item management, a story at the forefront, an open world that remains open, and some small puzzles to solve (mostly mazes). I'll compare that to Landstalker next post, but as a spoiler, the lack of experience and multiple characters drops it below the threshold immediately. So we see essentially a basic dungeon crawler come up over a wonderfully designed world filled with NPCs and lore. Maybe my scale is broken. In any case, I've gone over the numbers enough for now.
This is the fire tower, which has damage tiles
Each character has a ranged attack, melee attack, and magic attack (requires potions). The power of each attack is determined by a particular power stat. Shot speed, movement rate, and defense make up the rest of character stats. These stats, and HP, are raised by spending experience points. The amount required increases with each stat raised. Stats are also augmented by equipment purchased from vendors throughout the towers or in the central hub at the beginning of the game.
It's also possible to lower stats, shown above I drop my shot speed to the minimum
The goal of each tower is to either reach the top of fire and air, and the bottom of earth and water. A dragon awaits in each guarding the power to break the seal. To navigate there requires finding the proper path of up and down stairs as well as trap tiles that change the layout of the floor. Finding all four trap tiles clears the floor (removing enemies and treasure). There are keys to open doors, and treasure to collect for added gold. Gold is needed to purchase equipment and items from the vendors.
Buying each level of equipment is inefficient as there's no way to sell old equipment
As with other Gauntlet games, health starts at 2000 and is constantly drained. This is also the max HP, and can be raised by 100 point increments for an experience point cost. Luckily I chose the fire tower first, and found a heal ring early on. Only one item can be readied at any time, and the heal ring prevents this drain. The float ring allows the player to walk over stairs and teleporters, handy to reach some otherwise inaccessible treasure. There's a mirror ring that gives reflective shot, and a fight ring that allows a character to melee with death and mimics.
Each tower has special tiles, fire=damage, water=slip, earth=slow, and air=stream which move the character randomly; the castle has confuse tiles that shift the direction of the d-pad
In addition to the special tiles of each tower, there are tiles in every location that prevent shots or magic. These add an additional layer to puzzles. In one instance I needed to slow my shot speed to destroy a destructible wall located across a couple screen lengths worth of no shot tiles. Death is only vulnerable to magic, but how do you handle him surrounded by anti-magic tiles.
In the earth tower, some of the downstairs worked as pits with no corresponding up stairs
The enemies are well varied with ghosts immune to melee, dragons weaker at melee range, and wizards that phase in and out. Normal enemies don't really pose much of a challenge. A couple of potions can kill nearly all enemies on a single screen, and those along with food respawn when transitioning to floors. Add in the heal drink to restore health to max, and the warp wing that takes the character back to the central hub, you can imagine the majority of deaths I had were from the dragon bosses where these options are disabled.
There was that one time I ran through an army of ghosts surrounded by deaths--dying to regular enemies removes the bonus stat potions found behind each dragon, but they're easy enough to collect again
The castle is like the towers, except it begins on the 5th floor, and must be navigated to the basement before heading to the top. Atop is another dragon, but this one draws power from four elemental orbs that must be sealed before it takes damage. This has to be done while dodging all the normal shots the dragon has, and only lowers his defense for a short period of time before the orbs regain their light. It took a couple attempts to get it right.
Here's the password for right before the final dragon, note the name of the character must match as well
Beyond the dragon was a treasure beyond imagination. I arrived on the roof where a disembodied voice asked if I was ready to enter the land of eternal youth. I then had a choice to enter or not. I chose to enter. I wanted my treasure. You decide if I made the right choice. That same voice proclaimed that finally an heir was found, and the spell was broken.
Suddenly I was in control of a dragon breathing hot death on a character that looked like the wizard
I had turned into a dragon. The other option would be to return to town without the treasure, and always wondering what could have been up there. I definitely wasn't expecting an ending like this, but even in the best of RPGs so far, which I have to say this didn't quite scratch that itch, we haven't seen an evil ending like this. I'm glad I chose it first. The other sounded rather disappointing.

Elapsed Time: 8h22m (Final Time: 8h22m)
All adventures who succeed become another dragon, killing the last successful adventurer
Combatant - Combat definitely has some challenging aspects, but on a fight to fight basis it's pretty weak. There aren't many options, especially ones that differ between the characters. If for some reason the player dedicated his time to melee combat, it does give more experience after all, then that character would be woefully unprepared for the dragons. There are a good variety of enemies, but not enough to keep things interesting past the first tower.
Rating: 4
Only dragons, but where do they all come from?
Admirer - There are a lot of ways to customize the characters, and each seems to be viable, although some are definitely better than others. Appearance is fixed, even the color of each character (in this mode). Controls are responsive, although max speed can get a bit unwieldy.
Rating: 3
The same credits are given during the demo mode
Puzzler - With only a main quest to speak of, the game does well to mix in puzzle elements beyond just mazes. There aren't any side quests, and really there's only a single solution to the game, even if the towers are open to any order.
Rating: 3
Each tower gives a symbol on the character, showing which ones are completed
Instigator - The story really doesn't matter. It's Gauntlet, go through the dungeon and hack everything to death. The only decision in the game comes at the end, but it carries a lot of weight. The traders in the hub congratulate and give advice throughout, while a voice welcomes the adventurer to continue on through to the end. It's unclear whose voice that was in the end, but I would guess the final dragon.
Rating: 3
There are more people in the special thanks section than all others put together
Collector - There's not a lot to collect, but if you're looking to buy all items, then that won't happen without a lot of grinding. With no lack of space, there's no reason to worry about where to put the next item. It's easy to tell the strength of each piece of equipment
Rating: 4
Seriously, it goes on for a while
Explorer - I was a little disappointed that a lot of standard Gauntlet sound effects were missing. Green elf never needed food badly. The music is top notch though, with a lot of unique tracks. With a limited area, it still kept my interest in exploring every corner to clear out each floor.
Rating: 4
A great example of wonderful Genesis music
Final Rating: 21 [35%]

Overall a nice distraction after Ultima V before we get into another lengthy RPG. Gauntlet IV isn't a typical RPG, but it's an early example of just enough trappings in an attempt to woo RPG fans to check out the game. I've found that I'm definitely more of a fan of turn-based combat. A sprinkling of action-RPGs do well to stave off burning out from this project.
What other game could I be a dragon?
Next up, Inindo: Way of the Ninja. A game that I missed on the SNES, and probably for good reason. It's a port from an early Japanese computer game, which gives it a very dated look on the SNES. It seems interesting, but I can see it dragging on for far too long. First though, I'll be cutting Landstalker from the pack of RPGs. Go ahead, question my reasoning. It could very well be wrong.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Game #66: Ultima: Warriors of Destiny (NES) - Warriors Rushed (Finished)

A slight improvement on the standard black screen with The End
Well that was an unexpectedly fast end. In fact, the game itself feels rushed: combat has some serious balance issues, the Avatar's companions don't level up, and combat spells are superfluous with no way to generate income to replenish reagents. When I dropped Jaana for the escaped Gorn inside Blackthorn's castle, I was expecting a higher level character. Instead, he was level 3 as well, but at least his strength was higher. I found Hassad inside a cell, and received the word of power from him. Blackthorn was in the central hall, watching me do both without reacting.
Don't mind us, we're just going to take Gorn, and be on our way
Blackthorn stands guard in front of a sealed door. Talking to him results in combat with four daemons unless the Avatar has learned the oppression's secret password. There's also an insignia badge to gain as well, but it's only the password that's necessary to avoid combat. Beyond that door is Lord British's crown, the power of which was greatly overstated. It's said to seal magic, but the enemies don't even use magic.
Banishing the second shadowlord, I just noticed that equipped items are all blue or white, which isn't the same as they appear in inventory
After Hythloth was completed, and the shadowlord banished, my only lead was to speak to the owner of the Arms of Justice. The reason it took so long to find was because I didn't note the place. I didn't note it because they didn't sell anything there. It was just a man. His name is Chamfort, the smithy. He was already useful in giving me a mantra, so I wrote him off when I first visited Empath Abbey and Yew. On this subsequent visit, he gave me the password to the resistance. Giving this to Thurd, to get the jeweled sword, only rewarded me with a regular sword. Providing it to Landon, and then Fiona provided the power word for Covetous.
At the bottom of Covetous was a full set of magic equipment for the entire party
I was still missing the power word and location for dungeon Wrong, which was the key to getting rid of the final shadowlord. Without a good lead, I went through dungeon Destard, which led to the amulet that allowed me to enter dungeon Doom. I hadn't found that either, or its power word (turns out it didn't need one). So, without any more leads I dived into Shame, which led to Doom, where I immediately died to the shadowlord of hatred. I suppose that's the reason we need to banish them.
Dying is actually the only time we see Lord British, and he's not even really there
So, the way to Wrong was the only way to go. To find it I searched every mountain range, and discovered it far to the west of Minoc after searching many others. The word of power I lucked upon. There's an NPC in the jail of British Castle. His greeting (first thing he says), is "Good Morning" with the dialogue option to ask his job. Every NPC has different options, and some unlock additional topics either through conversation with them or a different NPC that refers to them. The answer to his job, "prisoner." That's it. This gave me no indication, and no one else did, that he was a member of the resistance. A different prisoner mentioned the resistance, so I decided to check out his options after learning the password. Nothing new was gained, so I thought why not talk to the rest of the prisoners. Pure luck.
British's Sceptre was used to banish the magic barriers in Doom, and I thought, the crown must be useful for something
With the final shard gained from Wrong, I banished the final shadowlord, and returned to Doom. With no guardians, the dungeon was the same as any other. I made my way through it thanks to the pack-in map, and arrived at a house with a mirror. Taking the direct hint to use the box from British's castle on the mirror, I freed British and the ending played out. Suddenly, Lord British had an orb that opened gateways, and we were speaking to Blackthorn.
Blackthorn was given an ultimatum of facing punishment or exile through a strange red gate I could swear I've seen before
Blackthorn chose banishment. Lord British then sent the avatar home after a grand banquet. All is right once again. What was in the box? We'll never know. A lackluster ending to a lackluster edition of this game. I'll say it again, it feels rushed.

Elapsed Time: 4h25m (Final Time: 15h00m)
We don't even get to see the banquet
Combatant - There's no strategy to combat. In the beginning, monsters are so deadly it's best to avoid it completely. The punishment for dying is nearly nonexistent though, so explore away. Stats do play a role, but there's some reaction time to activating combat, and the AI won't attack until the Avatar attacks. If monsters dropped chests or gold, maybe it'd be worth it; as it is, it's not.
Rating: 3
Blame
Admirer - The controls are terrible. There's no customization (e.g. the Avatar is always male). The only thing I could partially credit here is the ability to advance in power through repeated combat. That's a tedious proposition though, and not very rewarding.
Rating: 1
Blame
Puzzler - There are enough clues to discover and continue on with the main quest. Strangely, there aren't any side quests. I suppose some of the main quest feels optional (going to shrines and meditating), but they aren't really differentiated from the main. I awarded points for the open world, and multiple ways to approach each task along the main quest. There wasn't anything obviously out of place.
Rating: 3
Blame
Instigator - The best aspect of this game is done better on PC with a vastly deeper world, more NPCs, and a parser far beyond what a menu driven system can handle. The descriptions for places, items, and inventory is severely lacking with 3 types of scrolls and talisman all with the same generic name (only color or shape differentiate them). For an Ultima game, I should give negative marks for the lack of player influence on the story. No matter who you rob, or how you act, there are no consequences. The Avatar can turn over Fiona to the oppression, or sell out the resistance to Thurd, and nothing changes.
Rating: 4
This wasn't that bad, at least things were identifiable
Collector - There are a lot of items, and a very limited inventory. I had to drop many items as I came across them. It's hard to tell if one weapon is better than another, but the armor is fairly obvious. In the end, find the magic equipment, and you can ignore nearly everything else. I say 'nearly' because gold is still an issue, and the best way to accumulate wealth is by finding equipment and selling it off.
Rating: 3
BLAME
Explorer - During the game, the entire game, there's one, one music track. In towns, in the wilderness, at sea, in dungeons, in the underworld, everywhere, one track. There are also no sound effects. Just the music, on a 20 second loop. All game. Now, that's not the only music the game has to offer. There's the title music, the intro music, and the ending music. Combined, you hear those for maybe three minutes. The world is somewhat interesting at first, at least the towns, but there's nothing really to discover--merely equipment, potions, and scrolls.
Rating: 3
Second helping of blame
Final Rating: 17 [28%]

Overall a poor rendition of an Ultima game. I'm not sure what motivated Origin to take over development of this console port, but as you can see, none of the Quest of the Avatar development team was involved. It's difficult to find information on why the changing of the guard took place. Maybe the previous two games didn't sell well in Japan... notably, it seems this title was released only in the US. Maybe the company that ported Quest of the Avatar were too busy with the port of The False Prophet, which we'll see early in 1994 (although some sources place it in late 1993). Anxiously, I see that they were not involved in The Black Gate, which seems to be all Origin staff once again.

Moving on, we have Gauntlet IV. I'll have an extensive post about why I consider it an RPG, or an extensive post about why I was fooled into thinking it was one. Place your bets now.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Game #66: Ultima: Warriors of Destiny (NES) - Promised Destiny

Game 66

Title: Ultima: Warriors of Destiny
Released: January 1993
Platform: NES
Developer: Origin
Publisher: FCI/Pony Canyon
Genre: RPG
Exploration - Top-down
Combat - Active battles (enemies take turns over time)
Series - Ultima

It's difficult to know where to start with a new post. I struggle how to approach condensing my time with a game into a limited amount of words. Knowing which details to put in, and which to leave out comes down to my personal experience and how much of an impact a part of the game had on me. I try to point out fun Easter eggs as well. In the end, I hope I do the games some justice with my summary. Even the bad ones.
Like Quest of the Avatar, this game begins with a series of moral questions to determine character stats
Once again the Avatar is transported to the world of Britania, but all is not well as he had left it. Lord British is missing, and someone named Lord Blackthorn has assumed leadership. Three shadowlords roam the world imposing their evil visage.
Shamino is attacked while bringing the avatar back

The shadowlords, sensing I was the avatar, fled before facing my wrath. The avatar dragged Shamino to Iolo's hut where we tended his wounds while Iolo filled me in on the story. Lord British disappeared while exploring the Underworld. Blackthorn was a kind ruler in his stead until the shadowlords appeared and corrupted him. Iolo pleads that I find Lord British and restore him to power.
*Plop*
Tackling an open world like Ultima is daunting at first. Lucky for me the map came with the game, and it's similar to Quest of the Avatar. The only notable changes are Yew moved to the south of Empath Abbey, and Blackthorn's Castle arose from the volcanoes where Mondain's skull was found. I set out to first visit every town and collect all the clues I could on a first pass. First though, I had to wrap my head around the new interface, and the day/night cycle for NPCs.
David the pirate shows up at night in Iolo's hut... got something to tell us, Iolo?
Before I even left Iolo's hut I gained the sextant from David, and learned of a couple people in Buccaneer's Den. The sextant gives the coordinates away from British's Castle at 0,0. So, I made my way south, passing a solitary house in Yew where a faithful inquisitor of Blackthorn lives. He wanted me to confess something, but I thought better of it.
Dialogue and shopping happen on a separate screen
I started in Empath Abbey and Yew, then down to Britain and Paws. I picked up lock picks in Paws. On the way back to Yew to open up a locked door I accidentally walked into a poison field, which is a slightly blue tile on the ground. Poison at the beginning of the game killed Iolo. I resurrected him at the chapel, but it raised him at 1 HP and still poisoned. The next game tick turned him back into a ghost. The game has an active system where the game ticks by for AI in combat and movement. This gives the game a bit of stuttering feel, especially when moving. Healing and resurrecting Iolo again took quite a chunk of my starting money.
Found a magic carpet in British's castle early on, which helped me reach all the towns
The controls are just as clunky as the movement since they're only detected at certain intervals. The developers seemed to have realized this as holding down a button for an action will queue it, effectively pausing the game, until the button is released. They got rid of the menu system completely. The A button access and uses items in hand, usually weapons. The B button is used to interact with the world, searching the ground for items or talking to NPCs. The start button accesses the party's inventory where potions and scrolls are used immediately, while other tools are equipped to a hand and used during the game.
Only four characters can join the party at one time, and I opted to have Jaana tag along as she seemed to know more about the resistance movement
Like the previous game, the Avatar's quest takes him to every town to learn mantras of the eight virtues. Each mantra is chanted at shrines hidden throughout the land. The dungeons that run counter to the virtues are now sealed though, and statues guard against any attempt to enter without finding the proper word of power. What makes this difficult is the small view window coupled with the day/night schedules of the NPCs. I've found NPCs in houses previously empty because I had searched at a time they weren't there.
Lord British revives the Avatar when he dies; I later found out that the cost for death is half the Avatar's experience, which can actually lower his level
Another issue I've had with the game is a lack of income. Enemies don't drop chests or gold. In fact, they don't drop anything. There's food that slowly depletes, and the lack of income makes me hope I don't run out of both. I've been staying afloat by picking up everything no matter where it lay. This includes a magic shield, sword, and axe in Boardermarch that made combat actually manageable. Strangely though, the Avatar is the only one that gains experience, and thus levels. Levels seem to improve the Avatar's HP, and determine which magic he's able to cast.
There are a couple places that have NPCs outside the towns, Sin'Vraal's hut is one where I learned a bit about the nature of the shadowlords
Every town corresponds to a virtue, and inside or near each one I've found the mantra and power word related to it or at least some clue for it, except for a couple power words. I've managed to chant all the mantras at the appropriate shrines, the easier of the tasks. I was then told to find the Codex of the Avatar, which I did, but it was mostly a bunch of gibberish about the virtues (noted for later in case it becomes important). The power words are guarded by a group called the great council. I found the first near Britain, but following the clues to Minoc I hit a roadblock. I can't find the man that guards the power word to Covetous.
I found her, but she says nothing of her father or the power word
I suspect there's some place to locate him that I just haven't tried at the correct time. Likewise, I've been told to seek out the owner of the Arms or Justice, but I've been unable to find such a place. I'm guessing he's the one that will reveal the power word for dungeon Wrong. I'm fairly close to the end now, at least the end of my clues. I've fully explored the dungeons of Despise and Deceit. Each dungeon leads to the Underworld, which appears similar to Britania. Under Despise was a man, Captain Johnne, that told me he had found the jewel of Mondain, but it shattered into three shards. The shadowlords were born from these shards. I would have taken him into my party, but I didn't find out until later that to make a party member leave they need to have nothing in their hands.
I bought a boat too
To banish the shadowlords, we needed to find the shards located somewhere in the Underworld, at the bottom of three different dungeons. Deceit led to the shard of Falsehood, and I banished the shadowlord Faulinei by learning his name, blowing the horn of honesty in front of the flame or truth, and chucking the shard into the flame as soon as he appeared. There wasn't any fanfare, so I hope I did it correctly. The next two are located at the bottom of Hythloth, which I just found the power word for inside Blackthorn's castle, and Wrong, which may be the roadblock that extends this game for far longer than needed. Aside for Covetous, I'm also missing the power word for Doom, which seems to be the final dungeon.
Inventory management became a concern at one point
A couple things of note, I did find a grappling hook that once belonged to a pirate, and lets me scale mountains very slowly. I had a clue that Lord British was in the Underworld trapped in a mirror, and I needed a box from his private room to release him. While fumbling about, I realized that one of the objects in his room was a harpsichord, and I just happened to have some sheet music to the magical piece called Stones. Using this on the instrument opened the portcullis, and allowed me entry.
Instead of including horses, this guy talks about meeting a special horse that asked him to pass along a message, and the word Infinity is just given to the Avatar
The moon gates are still present, but much less effective. They only appear at night now, although sometimes they're randomly open during the day. The phases of the moon are much slower, so the number of locations I could travel to is much more limited. I tend to travel over land for more convenience, or use the ankh talisman to transport to a random town until I arrive at a closer one to my destination. Due to the money situation reagents are in limited supply, so I don't rely on spells that often. I mainly use them for healing and curing poison. Before I found the skull key, I also used a spell to unlock magical doors. There are a lot of combat spells, but the magic sword kills all enemies so far in a single hit, and switching to the spell book seems like a waste of time. The only other spell I've used is disperse field that allows me to pass energy fields.
Finding some treasure in a dungeon; equipment can only be sold to shops that sell it--this is how I've been subsisting (and yes, that is the ghost of Iolo following the party)
I'm not sure what's at the bottom of Shame or Destard, but I have the power words for both. I suppose if I run out of leads, or get stuck, then I can explore them for fun. I've almost found a way into Blackthorn's inner circle, but I need to find a way to expose Fiona of Minoc as a member of the great council. There's a man in Serpent's Hold that wants to trade the resistance password for his fabled jeweled sword, which I can't imagine is much better than the magic sword. Rumors of glass weapons don't really interest me. I'm sure I couldn't afford them anyway. The Avatar arms are supposed to be at the bottom of Covetous. I wonder if the Underworld is actually connected, and if I could scale the mountains without going through all the dungeons.
In case that wasn't enough quest items, there's British's sceptre, crown, and amulet to find, although their use is shrouded in mystery
I can see why this game wasn't well received. I'm definitely liking the story and feel, but I think I'd like it better on the PC. This revision of combat and interface is clunky, and reduces the amount of strategy involved. Most of the puzzles have become simpler with a lock and key method of adventuring extending to dialogue. Not that it would help with my current situation, but key words like Infinity and the dungeon power words might have had more of a riddle to them. Overall, I'm enjoy it, but hope to finish soon.
It feels strange that the world doesn't wrap
Elapsed Time: 10h35m (Total Time: 10h35m)