82 – Veil of Darkness

Look, I’m not NOT proud of it, but I cheated. One puzzle was just beyond my reach. The solution in itself is clever in retrospect, but is one of those adventure game puzzles that’s just difficult to derive. There’s a man who’s been cursed to take the form of a tree. I’m running around asking every character about TREE and CURSE and no one’s giving me anything–I just can’t figure out how to uncurse him. The solution is to light the tree on fire, burning it into ashes, and taking said ashes to the monastery to get him revived back into human form. Once you have the ash pile, it’s extremely obvious what to do–the monk very specifically requests ashes rather than a corpse–but the bit about burning the tree on fire is left field (and, in fact, the man isn’t particularly grateful about the method you chose.)

Swaying me further from the solution is the fact that, in the forest area, which is sprawling and mazelike, a man tells you that the banshee “can reduce a man to ashes”, and so I’m wandering around the forest looking for a man who’s been reduced to ashes and just not finding one. I’m not even finding the banshee, and somewhere in the forest there’s a blue spinning circle that I can’t seem to interact with in any way. It turns out that the spinning circle is the banshee, and the reason that it’s not doing anything to me is that I happen to discover, hours earlier, a necklace that protects me from it. It’s a case where you’ve solved the puzzle but the game gives you no feedback that you have.

And so with the seal broken and the walkthrough consulted, I finished the rest of the game following it. I’d hit about the 3/4ths point. The rest of the game featured many more clever-in-retrospect puzzles, and maybe I would have solved some of them with more effort, but it didn’t matter.

There are tons of adventure games that people play over and over again–by the third time through Day of the Tentacle you’re not solving puzzles so much as you are performing them. Looking at a walkthrough is being handed the script as opposed to deriving the script through your own efforts, and maybe one is purer than the other, but in all cases you’re dealing with executing a series of specific actions.

And so the last bits of Veil of Darkness, the parts I played with the walkthrough, represented a shift in tone which actually matched what was happening in the game. The initial stages of the game are about investigation, about learning the world, about poking into crypts and meeting people and slowly uncovering the valley’s secrets. The endgame is about action–about your final preparations, about your showdown with the vampire.

The final showdown is a multi-level puzzle–essentially the head vampire makes a series of assaults that you need to be prepared for counter. He tries to hypnotize you, so you have to figure out how to avoid that. He tries to bite your neck, so you have to figure out how to repel him, and so on. You can methodically derive the counters to each attack, dying and restoring each time, and many of them are obvious (you’re gonna wear the garlic necklace you have, for example, because duh), but in a way it transforms the game into an interactive movie in the best of ways if you know exactly what to do. It shifts from the cerebral elements of investigation to the realm of the active. It’s almost like watching along with the final scenes of a horror movie, where the protagonist is gearing up for that final confrontation, and let’s face it, there’s times when seeing the hero die over and over again takes the fun out of it.

I think about how Ben Kingsley was in BloodRayne and admitted that he took the role out of a childish desire to run around in a cape and bite people on the neck. Veil of Darkness isn’t the deepest game I’ve ever played, it’s got its flaws, but hot damn, it was fun to be that adventuresome pilot running around Transylvania and trying to solve the mystery.

And more importantly, there’s a charm and a respect that comes from it. If Veil of Darkness is a Transylvania simulator, it’s an excellent Transylvania simulator. It’s pulp: It’s great pulp. You stake the evil vampire in a series of gorgeously-drawn panels (have I mentioned that the art is fantastic), you restore peace and sunlight to the valley, and you and the (admittedly damseled, look, it’s by the numbers) girl sail off to wherever life takes you. I mean I’ve got so much fucking angst in my life already. Do I really want to play a shooty game that yells at me for playing a shooty game?

81 – Veil of Darkness

Anatoly Shashkin tells me that Veil of Darkness–another SSI game!–is a lost gem, and dammit, he’s right: A single screenshot on his twitter convinced me that what I needed to be doing today was playing this game.

Veil is one of those adventuresome games with some RPG elements–some light RPG elements, I stress: There’s no XP (an automatic strike against full-blown RPGness in my book), and everything seems to be built more around weapon types than any particular statistics: In other words, you’re gonna use a mace to bash a skeleton, and a silver sword to fight undead. Stuff like that. Combat, as is the case with a lot of these kinds of games, is horrible and awkward, half dice rolling and half finicky placement that, in my case, requires some shifting from mouse to keyboard and dancing around while you bop whatever enemy you’re facing, but for whatever reason, the combat is coming off as endearingly horrible and awkward.

Basically, Veil of Darkness is Quest for Glory 4 without the puns. You’re an incredibly Aryan, incredibly blonde, incredibly square-jawed fellow taking your daredevilly plane over mountains of Transylvania–as you do–when the local vampire flings a few bats at the cockpit, causing you to crash–there’s a great scene where the vampire is gloating in his castle as he sees a vision of your plane. The art is gorgeous, I must add. The valley is so isolated that nobody even knows what a plane is, and you’re prophesized to save everyone from the supernatural curses. The prophecy itself serves as a neat riff on the quest journal–it’s in the form of a cryptic poem, as these things usually are, and as you decipher each line and solve the related problem, it fades away, allowing you to track your progress as you go through the steps of the prophecy.

The game is very well-paced–it opens up new areas steadily enough that the initial stages give off a sense of progress even though most of what you’re accomplishing is simply meeting characters and learning the locations. Many of the quests are in several parts–find the goblet, the ashes of someone you want to resurrect, AND three somewhat-rare silver coins is a major one. I’ve found the goblet in the course of other branches of investigation, and while I don’t need to resurrect anyone just yet, this sequence is firmly held in a balance between the satisfaction of progress and the mystery of an unsolved puzzle. And in the same location, there’s a locked door and another character who has his own curse. The quests are very intricately knotted together.

Veil, being an adventure game made in the very early 90s, is, at its heart, a gigantic puzzle which uses its narrative as its puzzle pieces. There’s a keyword dialogue system, and not every keyword is decided for you: One character requires a certain herb, and you find another character chewing on a sprig of it. She suggests you ask her son; you’ve got to remember that and type the keyword in. Which reminds me that I haven’t been taking very careful notes; I think you need to take notes. The RPG elements are just kind of there–you can warp out to a healer with a couple of clicks at any time, it seems, and get freely healed to 100%–but the challenge of the game lies in untangling the knot.

The interconnectedness of it goes a long way towards worldbuilding. If everything is General Transylvania, it’s a fairly well-realized version of it, and the story even goes out of its way to not make it a simple Dracula retelling–there’s a short story in the manual which details a fairly original backstory for the main villain, and its one which, purple as it is, goes a long way towards reinforcing the plot. The characters all know each other, and many of the situations are a nice little soap opera of so-and-so wrongfully accusing so-and-so for someone else’s murder; a witch, who’s intent on wresting a secret from the monastery, has a spell cast on the wrongfully-accused man; her grandfather, in ghost form, is guarding the mausoleum–frankly, it’s hilariously ridiculous typing it all out, we’re practically in Dark Shadows territory. When it’s revealed that a catatonic woman who knows a secret was the fiancee of another character’s previously unmentioned dead son–I mean, this shit is awesome.

80 – Thunderscape

It’s hard to tell what’s gonna click and when. The first few times I attempted Thunderscape I petered out somewhere in the second level. Where the first area is a somewhat open area filled with a couple simple puzzles, the second is a winding cavern, and a fairly awful automap made the experience a miserable one. Yesterday I gave it a whirl and ended up playing for five solid hours.

Thunderscape comes to us from the World of Aden, which was a setting that SSI really wanted to happen but, frankly, couldn’t really get off the ground. In addition to Thunderscape, they published a game called Entomorph: Plague of the Darkfall as well as three novels, and what I’ve played of both games gives kind of an idea as to why the setting might have failed. It doesn’t really seem to have an identity: Both games are very different: Thunderscape is a broody first person turn based dungeon crawler where Entomorph is a third person hack and slasher set in a colorful insect laden island. I’ve only scratched the surface of Entomorph, but Thunderscape doesn’t do a great job of making the setting clear. That’s a problem too.

The backstory, and the most salient bit of lore that we get (Thunderscape’s manual has no flavor text, no short stories about the world, just a little bit of handwaving around the different possible player species) is that sometime in the recent past, something called the Darkfall happened in the peaceful world of Aden. You’ve read fantasy novels before so you can probably figure out the gist of it: During this night, demons and other monsters called Nocturnals invaded. A magical barrier called The Shield prevents their main forces from full-on destroying everything, but a small force of Nocturnals manages to disable the barrier. In Thunderscape, your party is tasked with restoring it.

Thunderscape plays like a cross between Ultima Underworld and Wizardry, and if it isn’t quite as good as either, it’s also–I wouldn’t call it casual by any means, but it is a much less tasking game. The automap, while terrible, is ultimately legible, and once that’s done the bulk of the exploration is fun enough, the puzzles generally hitting that degree where they’re all very solvable but not insulting. I gave up on Wizardry 7 because, even with the hint book, I couldn’t make head nor tail of some of the puzzles or where to go, and it’s not a bad thing to have a direction in mind.

Thunderscape simply doesn’t feel as sprawling as Wizardry can get. The starting area more or less branches in two different directions–troll caves on one side, a cave with a steampunk complex underneath on the other. The troll caves are hidden behind a password and the steampunk complex behind a key found in the troll caves. Ultimately a barrier prevents you from going further, and going further into the troll caves takes you into the area I’m in now, an area I believe will let me remove the barrier.

I’m playing with combat on easy mode, and combat is *extremely* easy–but frankly, the balance is so bizarre that I’m not sure switching to a higher difficulty would be satisfying. For one, you’re given several different types of attacks–if you’re armed with a club, for example, you can do a normal attack, hit vitals, or do a mighty blow–which I’ve found hits just about every time and does so much more damage that it’s a waste to even consider regular attacks. That fellow is doing, let’s say he averages 100 damage. My other attackers are doing about 30-40, and my magic users somewhere around 10. Magic, beyond healing, seems to be useless–casting a spell at a low level does maybe a point or two of damage, and increasing the charge of it uses so much mana that it’s not worth the tradeoff.

I’m not quite sure what I’m finding so compelling about the game but I think it might simply be fun enough and easy enough that it’s a nice relaxing experience. I don’t want *every* game to be grueling, you know.

79 – Serpent in the Staglands, Take 3

And finally it clicks. I roll up an actual party, I manage to give them some actual skills, I go to those two foxes who insisted on eating me and I give them the fight of their goddamn life, I figure out how to get a shield up and how to heal my characters, I get my 6 XP, I save my game, and I go in the opposite direction of the pack of dogs. I encounter a crop goblin–which I will forever call Crap Goblins because that’s funnier–and my team clumsily orchestrates a battle and wins it. We fight another crap goblin, and another, and two at once. We are cocky. We fight a lizard and we win.

We find a tree with a hollow in it that’s too small to enter, but The Schall casts a spell that turns him into a cat and in he goes, where he meets up with a “possessed child”; the only option is to attack, which ends badly. We reload. We avoid the tree. We kill more crap goblins, more lizards. We are drunk on our power and we find a swarm of lizards. And we fight valiantly and we defeat many but one by one, we fall, first Skrellnik, who was in the middle of things; then The Schall, who had no particular combat skills; then Pagan Joe, my healer and my only hope of survival; and finally Godot himself, the deity lost in the unforgiving Staglands.

I think I’m ready to roll up my real party now.

78 – Serpent in the Staglands, Take 2

It turns out it was not actually a pair of wolves who showed up to eat my characters the moment they walked outside–it was, more embarrassingly, a pair of foxes; and even more embarrassingly, I found it out while I met them for the second time and got eaten again.

(This time I’m putting the blame on the game–like Dark Souls, it doesn’t seem to pause when you open your inventory and so my party was getting quietly mauled while I read some scrolls.)

Third time’s the charm: With a slightly better idea of how the system works, I rolled another party, met up with the foxes, and killed them, losing only one party member and getting 6 whole XP.

Down the road, my game pauses: I’ve learned about the autopause settings and have it set for whenever an enemy is in sight, and at the edge of the screen is a single dog. I can totally take a dog. Combat is Baldur’s Gate-style real-time-with-pause, so slightly empowered by reading the manual again, I queue up some spells and set my melee fighters to take care of business, and unpause the game…

…at which point a literal dozen dogs appear from just off of screen and rip us all apart.

Now that it’s the weekend, I’m going to spend a good chunk of time trying to actually get into the system and figure the game out–it’s not that it’s so convoluted that it’s impossible to navigate menus or anything like that, but it’s very much its own beast. While the UI may be slightly too complex in certain spots, it’s not unmanageable. Probably the biggest thing of the game is navigating the spells and skills: From what I can gather, spells are more focused on buff/debuff kind of things rather than the one fireball spell, and I get the sense that the buffs and debuffs are actually useful provided you can figure out how they hit up against each other. There is a moment waiting in the wings, I can tell–a moment that’s gonna have everything click, and I’m looking forward to that very much. This game is a very particular vintage–it’s explicitly not intended for kids, so to speak–and I am so glad that we’re in this weird CRPG renaissance. It’s like the late 90s all over again!

77 – Serpent in the Staglands

Le premier est pour le chien: It’s true for crepes and CRPGs. Most old-school games, if they include enough options for different character builds, have a pre-generated party, the reason being not necessarily that you’re going to actually play these characters, but because if you’re playing with a new system, particularly one with a wide variety of skills, you’ll need at least a little guidance. So you take the starter party, which is usually a fairly decent set of well-rounded characters, and you gauge roughly how stats work in the game, how many levels you’re going to gain, and after you’ve sunk a few hours and made your beginner’s mistakes, you start over and roll a new party. That’s how I did it with Might and Magic, it’s how I did it with Wizardry 6, with Wasteland 2–and it’s how I expected to go through Serpent in the Staglands.

See, SitS is billed on how hard and old-school it is. The manual literally tells you to take out a pen and paper because you’re going to need it. There’s a subtle, friendly challenge in all of the marketing material: This game doesn’t hold your hand like all of those other games do. This is one you’ve got to figure out yourself.

And in that spirit, Serpent in the Staglands does not contain a pregenerated party, gives you only so many stat points available and so, so many types of skills you can put your points into, with their own dependencies–it is a game that quite literally begins and then throws you to the wolves, as in, I began the game, talked to a couple of people outside the first room, walked about 20 feet, and immediately got eaten by a pack of them, at which point, I put the game away, said a few prayers, and fired up Disciples: Sacred Lands, which sucked away two hours of my time and I’ll write about that later.

But it’s shit like this that’s my bread and butter. In the first area, you find a couple of scrolls, one containing a runic language you’ll have to translate, another detailing a keyword-based magic system. That’s separate from the regular magic system which you pour points to. That’s separate from a book that asks you to draw symbols in your own blood. It is a game that incarnates you, gives you hints of some of the challenges to come, and then immediately murders you.

Welcome to the Staglands!

76 – Elminage Gothic

The Big Three of 80s RPGs–Ultima, Might & Magic, and Wizardry–all finished up in different states circa 2000. Ultima 9 is spoken of bitterly if at all–even if it weren’t a bug-ridden mess it still goes against a lot of thematic and tonal things that were long established in the series; at least Ultima Online was popular in its day. Might and Magic 9 isn’t an inherently *bad* game, and it is very much a Might and Magic game in spirit, but it’s underdone: Every single element feels like a rough draft that needed another year to refine and pare down; as it is, we get gigantic, aimless areas with nothing in them. Wizardry ended up the best–6 and 7 were and are very well-received, and if Wizardry 8 is not without its flaws, it features some frankly heroic direction on the part of Brenda Garno-Brathwaite-Romero–one of the most interesting takes on a turn based battle system I’ve seen, with this weird real time system that I haven’t seen any other game pick up on. The stats–which, frankly, in 6 and 7 were confusing and slightly convoluted–were also completely revamped, and for the first time, character classes had distinct abilities and passives, as opposed to the earlier games which mostly affected stats and equipment. I read that one of the first design-related things she ever did, as a teenager, was rewriting the encumbrance rules for a game she’d been playing with her friends, and I guess what I love about Wizardry 8 is how it takes a set of mechanics that had worked fairly well and makes a few tweaks here and there and suddenly they’re that much better.

Wizardry is, however, Big In Japan–it’s one of the inspirations behind Dragon Quest–and there’s been a fairly solid base of dungeon crawler fans over there; not only are there tons of clones, but due to a quirk of rights or licensing or something, there’ve been a *bunch* of Wizardry sequels developed in and for Japan–one or two have been released in the US, but that’s only been in the past few years. The Nintendo DS was (is?) a pretty good time for these kinds of games–stuff like The Dark Spire and Etrian Odyssey had a natural home on there (and there’s probably an essay or two about how the Nintendo DS exposed a lot of people to things like roguelikes and more avant-garde RPGs, and man, I’m gonna start waxing nostalgic for the PS2 days if I continue on this way). They’re usually, oh, about as hardcore as a niche genre of Japanese-developed RPGs can be, which is to say, you’re gonna be grinding, you’re gonna be bashing your teeth against it, it’s gonna be hard. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen–masochism is half the fun.

Elminage Gothic is one of these such games; it’s the kind of game that I spent some time mapping the first level, looked up, and realized two hours had passed: If you’re the kind of person who likes drawing graph paper maps, it’s got you covered. I can’t say I understand the mechanics as far as character stats are concerned, but I’m playing with the default party, and it’s the kind of game that, you can tell is going to encourage you to swap your party in and out. (One of my favorite parts of Etrian Odyssey, in fact, was its extremely low level caps; when your character hits it, you can “retire” them and swap them out with a character with higher starting stats and a higher cap. By the end of the game, I’d cycled my entire party out a good two or three times, each incarnation stronger than the previous one, and a completely different party than I’d started the game with–giving the feeling of managing a guild of adventurers rather than actually role-playing as one.)

In some ways it’s a few step back from Wizardry 6. Wiz 6 begins with your party trapped inside a ruined castle they’re exploring, and throughout you get short messages talking about the abandoned decay. DW Bradley writes, frankly, fairly purple, but it kind of works–it has a melodramatic tone of elegance corrupted into decadence and finally rot. And the very substance of the level propels you through–it’s shaped like you’d imagine the floor plan of a castle to be, and you’re restricted to certain sections that you gradually unlock, Resident-Evil style. The castle also serves as a sort of hub–you branch out into other areas which lead back to the castle through different ways, unlocking deeper areas of the castle. Even the endgame takes place behind what is more or less the last door you couldn’t get through.

“There’s monsters in the cave,” a messenger says at the beginning of Elminage Gothic, and by golly, you’re gonna solve it–and that’s about as basic as you can get and fine for a game of this type. But there is nothing to the cave beyond it being a cave–there’s no flavor text, and I guess that’s what I’m missing. There’s a couple of bits where it basically says, oh, a bloodstain! or oh, some bones!, but it’s very flat and matter-of fact. A couple of NPCs give gameplay tips to you. That’s about it.

You know, it’s clear that this is just the first level, and it is enjoyably twisty to map. I’m also finding the game surprisingly easy, to the degree that I double-checked to make sure I didn’t have a setting on. Again, I’m playing with a default party, which may simply be stronger than a created one, but I also do have the feeling I’m gonna eat my words soon enough. The monster design is very good.

The equipment also feels a few steps back: In the shop screen, there doesn’t appear to be any way to compare a prospective piece of equipment against your current one. I can forgive Wizardry 6 for not having that–even though by 1990 when W6 came out, there was beginning to be no excuse, Wizardry was necessarily foot-dragging in that regard–but as old-school as Elminage wants to be, that’s not not so much a convenience anymore as it is a requirement.

I am looking forward to defeating the monsters n the cave, though.