Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Orthanc: Like The Dungeon, But Not Quite

After my summer hiatus I'm playing Orthanc again, and progressing in fits and starts.  Technically I could have completed the game already; I've had several characters advance to the point where they could have retired to live with the king.  But I said I was going to map all ten dungeon levels of this game, and by hell that's what I'm going to do.

The problem is that I keep dying, and as with all of the PLATO games so far there's no way to recover a character once it's dead.  I'm currently mapping level 4 of the dungeon, but every death sets me back to square one, and I have to grind my character up again until he's strong enough to survive on the lower levels.  Thankfully it doesn't take all that long to advance.  One decent haul of gems or jewelry can be worth a few thousand experience points, enough to gain one or two levels.  It gets frustrating after the third or fourth time I have to do it in a single night, though.

My first impression of this game was that it played like a slightly more advanced version of The Dungeon, and I stand by that.  The game retains much of the same game-play, and a lot of the same features.  Combat is still a simple case of attacking round after round, with the only tactical option being your spells.  The option to flee is still determined by whether you're in a room or corridor (you can't flee in a room).  Most notably, the dungeon doesn't refill straight away after you leave.  Just like in The Dungeon, the rooms you clear out stay cleared out (at least for a time), and you have to foray ever deeper to find more treasure.  On the positive side, it makes retreating to the surface a lot easier.  Unlike The Dungeon, a dungeon level will be restocked with monsters once you clear most of it out, and this can be deadly if you're caught too far from the stairs when it happens.  You'll have to fight your way to the surface, often with depleted hit points and spell power.  I've lost a few characters in this way.

One of the biggest differences comes with the variety of monsters.  In The Dungeon there were a total of 36 monsters in six categories.  They were little more than sacks of hit points that could damage you, with a few spell immunities thrown in.  Orthanc mostly continues that trend, but the number of monsters has greatly increased, as well as becoming slightly more interesting.

The monsters are organised into eight categories: nasty bugs (spiders, scorpions, etc.), man-types (starting with warriors and bandits, and working up to titans and elvenlords), goblin-types (kobolds, orcs, ogres, etc.), animals (a very inclusive category ranging from real-world creatures like rats to slimes and mythical beasts), undead (featuring all the usual suspects), mythical types (which funnily enough includes some genuine mythical creatures, as well as some D&D monsters that Gary Gygax came up with), magic users (conjurers, druids) and animated types (such as golems).  In total there are 100 different monsters, and while most of them are differentiated only by their icons, their hit point totals and the amount of damage they can deal, the game finds several ways to differentiate them.

Continuing the grand tradition begun in The Game of Dungeons: computer nerds as dungeon monsters

The most obvious of these is done via the categories.  Undead are immune to the otherwise great Sleep spell, but take double damage from Magic Missile and Blastbolt.  Magic users get double the amount of normal attacks in the first round of combat, to simulate their spell-casting.  The animated types are immune to the first three spell levels, and this makes them especially difficult to defeat.  All of the damage-dealing spells are in the first three levels.  The only fourth level combat spells are Teleport and Dimension Door, both of which act by transporting the monster elsewhere on the same dungeon level (Teleport moves the monster further away, but has a higher chance of failure).  If that option fails, you have no option but to fight the creature in melee combat (and all of the animated types are really strong).

A more subtle method of differentation is done by varying the different combinations of hit points and damage output.  Most of the monsters have both values on a  fairly even level, but there are other examples such as the spider, which only has 1 hit point but can deal up to 20 points of damage, more than enough to kill most first- or second-level characters.  At the other end of the spectrum is the Willowisp, which can have hit points ranging from 15 to 150, but deals a meagre 1-3 points of damage per round.  Or the Fairy, which has from 31 to 961 hit points, but seemingly has no ability to do damage at all.

Every monster has a level (yes, I know it gets confusing with spell levels, monster levels, character levels and dungeon levels.).  The game tells you the monster's level whenever you encounter one, so you do have some guide as to whether you can handle it or not.  Monsters are pretty easy to deal with on the first couple of dungeon levels, as a Sleep spell is an auto-kill on most of the things you'll encounter.  Naturally the monsters get stronger the deeper you go, and any monster stronger than level 4 is immune to Sleep.  There's nothing as terrifying in the game as landing on a chute, and being sent to a deeper level of the dungeon.  Invariably it will be a level that I haven't mapped, with monsters that are too strong for me.  It's my own fault for not using Levitation to avoid them, I guess.

Falling to my probable doom.

While my progress is slow, I am at last making constant progress in mapping the dungeon.  And I do love a dungeon game that can be mapped to a grid.  It's a small pleasure, but it's one that's carrying me through this game at the moment.  I feel like I've got a handle on how Orthanc works now, and I should be able to speed things up.  If I experiment with the spells a bit more I might do even better. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Games of Summer

I haven't posted here in a while, so you'd think that upon my return I'd have plenty to say about Orthanc, the game I was playing when I last posted.  I'm still playing Orthanc, and I should have a post up about it next week, but most of my gaming over the summer (yep, I'm a southern hemispherian) was done in other areas.  So this week I'm going to do some capsule reviews of the games I played when I should have been playing Orthanc.

Castlevania: I've played this game a lot over the years, but I decided late last year that I was going to knuckle down and finish it without the aid of save states.  It didn't take too long; it's a short game, and not particularly difficult once the trick to beating the bosses is discovered (i.e. spam them with holy water).  I've always been impressed with this as a top-notch platformer, but what struck me this time around is just how well-designed it is.  The platforms and the background elements mesh together perfectly, in a way that most other platformers neglect; you won't find a single floating platform that doesn't have a logical reason to be where it is.  Little touches like that transform a very good game into a great one.

Castlevania II - Simon's Quest: I enjoyed Castlevania II, but this is a game with problems.  Konami tried to expand the series by adding more adventure game elements, and the result was mixed.  The game has a great atmosphere, and the game-play is still pretty good, but the game itself is just far too obtuse.  The solutions to the various puzzles aren't intuitive at all, and that's not helped by the fact that most of the villagers' hints are outright lies.  Technically, the clues to completing this game are all there if you're willing to go around searching for secrets on every patch of ground.  In practice, you'll probably only stumble across the solutions by dumb luck.  I had to consult a walkthrough, I'm sorry to say.  There are plenty of things to like about this game, but overall the frustrating elements outweigh the fun ones.


WWE Supercard: This game consumed my life for about a month.  It's not that it's a good game; it's basically just a glorified version of top trumps.  It is addictive, however.  A match doesn't take long, and whether you win or lose you still get rewarded with more cards at the end.  More than once I found myself playing "just one more game", grinding for new cards for hours and hours, unable to bring myself to put the thing down.  I've broken away from it for the moment, but there's still a part of me that wants to play it right now.

Crossy Road: Speaking of phone games, this is a little indy game that plays somewhat like Frogger.  You have to guide your character across busy roads, log-jammed rivers and train tracks, all the while avoiding various obstacles and keeping on the move.  It's a lot of fun, and it has the same "short game/frequent reward" qualities as WWE Supercard.  Much of the fun stems from the number of characters that can be unlocked, ranging from normal animals, to vampires, robots, basketball players, internet memes and even weirder stuff.  Each character plays pretty much the same, but they all come with changes to the way the game looks and sounds. For example, when you use Frankenstein's Monster, the game turns black & white, and the screen crackles with film grain.  Crossy Road has a genuinely charming sense of humour that still has me coming back for more, trying to unlock the next character so that I can see what it does.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: I'm a massive fan of the Legend of Zelda series, having enjoyed all of the games from the original on NES up to Wind Waker.  It's one of my favourite game franchises of all time, which is why Twilight Princess is so frustrating.  This game bores me to tears.  It looks like a Zelda game, it sounds like one, it even plays like one; but even with all of these elements it feels as though the heart of the game is missing.  The game feels really linear, and I don't enjoy playing as a wolf, which is kind of the selling point.  I hate the cut-scenes, and the scripted encounters.  I've put in about 20 hours so far, and I really struggle to motivate myself to find time for it.  People tell me that Skyward Sword is even worse, so I'm not even looking forward to finishing this so I can move on to the next one.  Mainly I just wish the game would leave me alone to explore, and stop throwing so much damn plot at me.