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.

61 – Planescape Torment club?, Zest update, Gothic II

So I’ve never played Planescape Torment because I’m obviously a terrible person. I didn’t play a lot of CRPGs growing up–missed Ultima entirely, played and hated Might and Magic II, didn’t play Fallout till college, have never gotten past chapter 1 in Baldur’s Gate. Weird, because I can tell you pretty much everything about every JRPG released in the states till about two years ago. Torment is one of those big holes in my gaming life: I’ve played through a chunk of it, but it’s such a big Thing in some ways that I’m nervous to approach it.

Well, I’ve reinstalled the game and I’m going to be playing it in the next couple of months, and based on some preliminary talk on Twitter, it seems like there’s a lot of people who’d be interested in some kind of Book Club thing. Now, I don’t know quite what form this should take. I don’t want to do the “okay let’s all play this much of the game this week and all discuss it”, particularly because it seems like one of those sprawling RPGs that isn’t conducive to that sort of thing. Maybe it would be enough to just encourage a ton of people to play and write about this game on their own blogs and we can link each other. Perhaps Joel Goodwin of Electron Dance could be convinced to give up some real estate in his forum for discussion.

Either way, if you’re interested–let’s say July-ish?–let me know, and if you’ve got an idea about how this thing could work, please, I’m all ears!

–In Zest news, the basic flow of the game has been outlined. The flow of the game is going to consist of  about a half dozen “time blocks”, each of which essentially has a different “deck” associated with it. The player’s stats influence a degree of randomness–we’ve actually been throwing out the tern “narrative roguelike” to describe the basic feel. My current goal is to come up with a couple dozen basic cards in all the separate categories; once that’s done, I’m handing it off to Lectronice and PaperBlurt who will respectively finish programming the card system and come up with some preliminary CSS. I’m shooting for a hundred cards int he final version–like TWEEZER, I want it to be a game that encourages many very short play sessions. We’re targeting an early July release–that’s part of the reason I’d like to do Planescape around them–so watch this space.

–Again, for a game with comparatively few verbs and stats, there’s a lot to learn in Gothic II. I keep learning new tricks for playing it–where I need to stand in order to pull certain enemies, the timing on how to chain certain attacks, what stats I need to increase to effectively kill things–and there’s plenty more. I still haven’t begun to figure out whether there’s a more efficient way to buy and sell things.

At this point I’ve done a broad survey of the bulk of the island–there’s a lot of stuff I certainly haven’t found, and I’ve only really seen the surface of most of it, but I’ve been, at some point, on every corner of the map, even if there’s only about a quarter of the game I’m able to navigate without trouble. What keeps striking me is I’m just on the first *chapter*.  There’s a lot to see and do in this game, and not all of it consists of doing quests–again, it’s the kind of game that’s rewarding just to poke around in.

–My save–which I’m going to get to as soon as I finish typing this post and will play until it’s time to go to work, I love this fucking game–has me in the middle of an area I have never been to in the middle of the night. Night is scary–or, rather, it’s more threatening than the rest of the game is, and the rest of the game is pretty threatening. While I wouldn’t say Gothic ever becomes a horror game, the sense of vulnerability never quite goes away. The game is like Dark Souls–I’m sorry, I’m sorry!–in that even beginning-of-game enemies can kill you at any point if you’re being too cocky. ANd while Dark Souls has much better creature design, there’s something hilarious about how my Gothic II character ran, panicked, from two chickens–who never fucking give up pursuing and who run fast–and accidentally pulled aggro from two boars, only to run headfirst into a lizard who killed him instantly. Props to the sound department, too: Each enemy has its own cry, and usually–there are a ton of trees–you end up hearing them long before you see them, and so it’s one of those games where the second you hear an animal howling at you, you either relax, though not completely, and maneuver into a position where you can be at the advantage, or you realize there’s two of them and you can’t take on two of them, or it’s something you’ve never heard before and you just run the fuck away.

16

I have been merrily hitting up GOG sale after GOG sale because that’s how they get you. Replaying Lands of Lore put me in the fuzziest of moods–it was one of my favorites when I played it in middle school. And yet something about games where you, first-person, navigate a dank dungeon has always left me cold. PC RPGs in general have always been daunting. I’ve never liked Ultima, had a lot of trouble with one of the Might and Magic games that came with my computer in fifth grade, and I’m absolutely hopeless at playing Infinity Engine-style stuff.

So I’ve been taking this opportunity to educate myself–I’m still eyeing that Might and Magic 6-pack to complete the pagkage, and I’ll eventually be writing about a lot of what I’ve purchased from the sale–but the one that’s hooked me the most has been Wizardry 6, which is actually not a sale item and which I picked up because my silly head told me to.

Knowing me, you would think that my initial impression of the game would be I’d get hopelessly lost in the character creator, wander around for about ten minutes, then get myself killed by a bat and turn off the game and go to sleep, and that’s exactly what happened. Shit, I thought, well that was a waste of six bucks.

The next day I bought a pad of graph paper and colored pencils, sat down, began to map, and didn’t look up till about three hours later when I had to go to band practice. After practice, I played the game until I passed out, woke up early, played some more, and guess what I’m going to do once I finish this piece of writing.

I’ve actually never played a game where I’ve had to make my own maps. Any first-person games I’ve played have always had an automap feature. And yet this is what’s fascinating me about it the most. The game takes place not solely in the screen but in a weird hybrid of the pad of paper on my table and the screen. I’ve played plenty of games which require taking notes, of course, but few which have required such a dedication to its level design. And so far, the game has been extraordinarily rewarding on that front. The very first level is huge–I’ve logged eight separate floors so far and I’m not even finished–but what’s particularly striking about it is how logically laid out it is. You could build this–stacking the map pages together almost makes a 3-d model. The manual mapping forces an intimacy with the level design that an automap simply doesn’t have. And particularly coming off of Lands of Lore and Legend of Grimrock which, while both wonderful games are mazes first and buildings second, it’s one of those games that breaks your fucking heart when you realize that Skyrim is its descendant.

I’m playing in Easy mode, but I’m finding the combat at least to be very straightforward. One of the reasons I was interested in Wizardry was because it’s generally credited, along with Ultima, with inspiring Dragon Quest, and I am a huge Dragon Quest fan. While Dragon Quest has always featured third-person dungeons, its battle system and Wizardry’s are almost exactly the same. There’s some divergent evolution going on–I can discuss, from memory, the development of Dragon Quest’s battle system from the first through the ninth, and if there’s anyone who can do that for the Wizardry series, please let me know so we can have a hopelessly pathetic conversation together that both of us will find fascinating–but they’re brothers.

I fully expect the game to get very difficult soon.

And yet the game is giving an extreme sense of freedom. I’m very slowly discovering more and more features. I’ve just figured out how to pick locks. Suddenly entire areas of the castle are opening up to me. I still don’t know where the hell to go right now, but I feel very at ease sifting through map pages.

I kind of missed this era of computing–I was just too young for it—but have always felt like it was something special. I’ve read posts by people who imported their characters from game to game over a decade. People who still hold on to yellowed Ultima maps. It’s funny; Wizardry 6’s manual bills the game as a “fantasy role-playing simulation” rather than simply as a game, and there’s all this nonsense in the first pages about how the game’s actually a magic portal to another land. It’s cheesy as shit but I totally get it. There’s a richness to the game’s systems, even now and especially for the time, a complexity which I find very respectful. Really, the game is providing further context to the maps, which are mitigated in my head in the form of a working picture of the castle which is more detailed than either could be on their own. Most of the things you see in the castle’s rooms are text descriptions. I don’t need to go into the role of the imagination and the Iconic again.

Anyway, I feel that this is a journey I would like to complete because, in many ways, it symbolizes a particular resolve to become a particular sort of gamer. I’m tired of gaming like a little kid; Wizardry 6 is serious shit.