Friday, February 26, 2016

Below the Cut: Ax Battler: A Legend of Golden Axe (Game Gear)

(Source: Wikipedia)
Ax Battler: A Legend of Golden Axe - Rating(5 RPP)
1) 0 - Character Advancement: practice/experience based advancement, stat or level increases, multiple classes or characters, customize characters
2) 0 - Combat: character stats used for combat, additional combat options, turn based
3) 0 - Items and Equipment: store to buy and sell, equipment decisions, item decisions
4) 2 - Story: main story at the forefront; world full of hints and lore; descriptions for objects, people, and places
5) 2 - Exploration: open world from the beginning, visited locations remain open
6) 1 - Quests and Puzzles: side quests not related to the main quest, puzzles and riddles to solve

Ax Battler was compared to Zelda II at its release; however, Zelda II does quite a bit more. First of all, this game has no experience levels. Beyond health, I'm not sure there are any stats to consider. Combat is action based with options limited to attacking and jumping. With the limited scope, I think the game has more in common with Gargoyle's Quest than Zelda. Towns exist, but don't support the usual stores. They're merely hubs for information on the next dungeon to tackle. There are training houses to gain special abilities like high jumping.

The game has a top-down overworld, random side-scrolling battles, and dungeons that include platforming in the same side-scrolling perspective. I'm not fully sure there are side quests, and no puzzles I saw in the first 15 minutes. Exploration is fairly linear, although I marked it as open in case it opens later. As far as I can tell, there aren't any items or equipment decisions, although upgrades exist.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Game #51: Wizardry: Knight of Diamonds (NES) - A Grandiose Grind (Finished)

A final screen that could pass as the first
When last we left the party, their corpses lay at the feet (hands?) of the magic gauntlets. That encounter was by far the largest spike in difficulty I'd ever seen in an RPG. With the stakes so high (essentially perma-death), I decided to grind until I had a party capable of withstanding at least one turn against them and still stand. Admittedly, I went a bit overboard.
About halfway through the grind I switched up three of my six fighters to spellcasters
My initial plan was to train everyone as a fighter until about level 20. At some point I decided I needed some spells, and switched out three to gain cleric and mage spells. By the time I'd gotten through those, and ready to swap them back to fighers, my front line fighters were nearing level 25 and capable of great damage without any new gear. I considered keeping some characters at level 1, hoping they would be immune to level drain; quite the opposite it turned out. Level 1 characters that are drained are lost completely. Luckily I'd heeded the advice of some viewers to try it out with some stand-in characters. I decided on a new plan. I'd keep my front line fighters, and make a ninja to open chests.
A ninja with 4 strength is useless on the front line
So, I shuffled my classes around again: I upgraded one spellcaster to fighter, and changed a fighter to wizard for some additional spell power. At first I was grinding on Murphy, but I found the Magic Armor was worth more experience and only required dropping the KOD Armor to spawn again. After a while, I realized I could fill my characters' inventory with junk to avoid picking up the armor altogether. I also found that the magic sword was susceptible to magic, but it also had a chance to kill a fighter with a single blow. So, I grinded on magic armors. Five hours later I felt ready to tackle the gauntlets.
After 1 turn, my fighters are nearly level 40 and hit like a ton of bricks
The sixth floor turned out to be mostly superfluous. There were immediately four doors after entering, and one led to an apparition that said, "One alone." I unfortunately explored half the floor before finding that one, and had some other clues that didn't lead anywhere. I figured I should return to that door with one fighter wearing all the pieces of the Knight of Diamond. I decided that fighter should be Strato as he was the only one with spells, so I leveled him up until he had over 300 HP, just in case. Well, it was completely without cause as Gnilda was waiting on the other side and just handed over the staff. I then returned to town to watch the ending sequence.
This felt good
I was much closer to the end than I had realized. I feared exploring the entire sixth floor, but had most of it mapped by the time I attempted to enter that door solo. I knighted five other characters that assisted Strato, and then the credits rolled. I think the best part of putting this one behind me is knowing I don't have the third or fourth games on my list.

Elapsed Time: 9h59m (Total Time: 34h00m)
I wonder what other gems they've created
Combatant - Wizardry is punishing. It actively discourages taking risks. So much so that grinding on a safe single enemy is much more productive to accomplishing the end goal. Experience points don't scale well, and item drops are rare. Experimenting with spells, and how effective they are against each creature is discouraged by having a chance at a full party wipe. In the end, the path to victory is easy, except for those gauntlets.
Rating: 7
The enemy art is very well done, and quite detailed
Admirer - Choose a name, and you're off. With little graphics there's not much to say about this category. Controls are menu based, which isn't the best for console. Aside from class changing, there's no customization.
Rating: 2
Full roster of characters
Puzzler - Honestly I expected a bit more in the way of puzzles. There's one huge fetch quest to get keys, which was trumped by point where instead of a key the party needs to teleport past it without any clue. Maybe some of this was lost in translation or porting, but there was another incident that spoke of different effects to certain spells that never was fully explained.
Rating: 1
"the stuff"
Instigator - What? Story? Oh yeah, there's a dungeon where you collect a bunch of stuff and kill random creatures indiscriminately. At least when Werdna was running the show there was a pretense for why all these random creatures were about. There is a bit of lore here that's fun to toy with, but in the end it does little to sell itself. The little notes all about don't really help. Just enjoy the dungeon crawling for what it is.
Rating: 2
Truer words never spoken
Collector - There is a wealth of rare equipment to find, but probably won't because you're too busy grinding on Murphy (or Magic Armor). The economy gets trashed by the mid-game that the developers put a useless money sink on floors three and four. Equipment strength is only gleaned by the resale value, and even that isn't an accurate indicator.
Rating: 4
The last of dragons seen here, obviously the rest were vanquished by the numerous dragon slayer swords
Explorer - The graphics for the monsters are well done. The music is also really enjoyable. It's too bad exploring the dungeon feels so empty. There's nothing to find outside the of the keys that unlock the rest of the dungeon, and little else needs to be found. Just grind on magic armor to win.
Rating: 2

Final Rating: 18 [30%]
Is that the same Andrew Greenberg of Star Saga fame?
I definitely enjoyed this more than the first game, but the "final boss" is really a bit much. Sure it goes well with the rest of the series, but for this title it felt out of place. I expected the final encounter to have Tiltowait at its disposal, but with no way to actually stop it (no lucky silence) the party just needs the HP to tank it and deal physical damage capable of taking them out quickly. There's really no other way around it, and no sense of the impending doom. I'm not sure there's going to be a Wizardry game that turns out recommended. This one is another straight grind, with only a slightly more interesting dungeon to explore. The mapping was the best part.
Many test players who never realized that the gauntlets are inaccessible outside of teleporting
And on that note we move on to games not so trying of my patience, and many more maps to make. Pool of Radiance is right around the corner, and Order of the Griffon offers a similar experience. First though, let's cut Ax Battler and move on to another D&D license: Warriors of the Eternal Sun.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Game #51: Wizardry: Knight of Diamonds (NES) - A Bitter Betrayal

There it is, the screen we've all been waiting for
I can't say I was surprised to get a full party wipe, but each time it happened was a reminder of just how brutal this series is without some kind of character backup. Last session ended innocently enough as I gained my first set of upgraded weapons. I added Mace of Pounding, Sword of Slicing, and Dragon Slayer to my front line. I took the new gear to Murphy to see which one was more powerful. I couldn't really tell much difference at all. Confident in my new power I went grinding on the battles on the third floor to collect more. That's when things started to turn.
Level drain is the single worst enemy ability I've encountered
Ako, my ninja, was doing fairly well. Slightly above average agility with good luck, and hadn't failed to disarm a trap once. Come a few unlucky encounters with level drainers, and he was down three levels. So, I grinded on Murphy a bit to get him back up to snuff. Stat gains in Wizardry are random, and they can go either way a single point. All three levels saw agility go the other way, and now I had a very useless ninja that eventually lead to the death screen above after triggering a teleport trap into solid rock on the fifth floor. Luckily being inside rock meant the characters were transported to town, but they still lost some equipment for dying in the dungeon.
Finding a magic fizzle square on the fourth floor
A small setback, but not a total loss. I managed to get some unique sounding items: ring of metamorph (learned through use it changes class to a Lord), ring of jewels (no clue), ring of rigidity, sword of slashing (best sword I've found), and something called a "stone stone." At the point I'm currently at though I've lost all of that equipment and more, but we'll get to that. I branched out to the fourth floor to fully map it. I paid 100,000 gold to learn some cryptic gibberish that probably has something to do with the end game.
Everything is a combat spell except Latumapic, so I'm not sure what this actually means
I ran into a familiar figure as well that shouted out, "Mapiro Mahama Diromat" before being whisked away back to town. There was a similar square on the third floor that teleported the party back to town for a mere 5,000 gold. Most battles result in about 500 gold at that level. Without a reliable disarming character, I ended up using Calfo to identify the trap. I left it alone if was one of the more dangerous, and forced it open otherwise. I've been enjoying the variety of monsters. Some are found in the standard fare of fantasy bestiary, but others are quite unique.
Does any other game offer a Were Amoeba?
I was slowly gaining back my momentum, regained my sword of slashing and a new blade cusinart'. I turned my ninja into a second mage for some added power. I stored a lot of my equipment on a separate character just in case, but I hadn't accumulated much when the inevitable struck again. This time I ran into a new monster that I didn't take seriously enough. Poison giants, which I thought might only poison my characters, had a breath attacking capable of 30 - 40 damage. Multiplied by four in the group and their advantageous initiative, I really didn't stand a chance with my highest HP total at 120. I marked the tile I died, and grinded up a new party, specifically a new mage to get to level 13 for Malor. The rescue party was assembling.
I can't imagine ever having enough HP to face off against 9 Poison Giants
And so I did what I thought wouldn't be necessary. I grinded on Murphy's Ghost like no other. All to get a mage capable of teleporting to the party and back out. My only saving grace this time was that the enemies I died to weren't a set encounter. Some squares have a guaranteed encounter the first time the party enters the floor. At first I started grinding up a full party, but I eventually dropped the cleric and an extra fighter to make it go a bit faster. Once my mage was high enough I took one fighter and the cleric down to the spot where the main party had fallen.
There's a menu accessed by the select button to search for party members, but you have to be on the exact square they died
It takes two trips to drag a full party out because they need to be added to the current group. This means you need to take less than a full party into the maze in the first place. Really the only way to feasibly do this is to have a mage capable of teleporting, and hope you don't run into an encounter. I took stock of my missing equipment, and it wasn't too bad. I lost some armor, but it was easily replaced. My patience for this game waned as I realized it was intended to be unfair. There's no gauge for how much the game expects you to grind, and the punishment for being wrong is so severe.
Don't do it! This game is just one big trap
I ended my map of the fifth floor by finding a blue fountain at the end of a riddle. I was unsure it was time for the fountain, and I mapped everything else, so I finally went back to the magic armor. There was a door on the fifth floor as well, but it sent the party back a square with a message that implied I didn't have the right key to continue. I easily collected the magic armor (KOD armor), the magic shield (KOD shield), the magic sword (Hrathnir), and the magic helm (KOD Helm).
I wonder if all the magic items have a special spell they die to
Most magic fails against the KOD armor, so it's strange that Tzalik so easily destroyed the magic sword. Even the great Tiltowait failed against the shield. After the helmet was a teleport square to the same stairs I'd taken down to the fifth floor. Up to this point were a special set of stairs previously unreachable leading to each magic item. I had mapped everywhere, and couldn't find another option. I decided to try to wade through the blue fountain with all four pieces equipped on one character. I knew there was a fifth, but couldn't locate where, so I hoped the fountain was the key. Before I realized it Tillbot had permanently lost 8 HP. It took myself a night of sleep to realize I could try teleporting beyond the door and past the tile that bounced me back. I expected this action to be blocked, but I faced off against two magic gauntlets.
There's no way my current party could take these out first try
Everyone except Tillbot was wiped first round. He was left with ~20 HP. I tried to run, but ended up getting bounced into the same room because I didn't have the key. Starting the battle again with a fresh pair of gauntlets meant I stood even less of a chance. I accepted my fate and rerolled new characters. I used the fighters from my previous grinding, and decided what I really needed to do was start with max vitality and six fighters. Get them up to near 200 HP, and class change to mage, cleric, and back to fighter might enable them to survive. Then I'll leave the front row at level 1 (hopefully immune to level drain), grind out some equipment, and then see if that Tzalik on the Magic Sword was a fluke or what. It's possible there's a special spell for each piece, and I need to find the one for the gauntlets to stand a chance. My main party remains unrecoverable until I can defeat the gauntlets. I tried to duplicate the KOD equipment, but as soon as a character carrying it dies it's wiped, and the encounters don't spawn as long as any character (in or out of party) is carrying it. Welcome to Wizardry; welcome to the grind.
That's how this game feels like
Elapsed Time: 14h49m (Total Time: 24h01m)

Monday, February 1, 2016

Game #51: Wizardry: Knight of Diamonds (NES) - A Familiar Friend

Game 51

Title: Wizardry: Knight of Diamonds
Released: 1991 (1992?) (March 1990 JPN)
Platform: NES
Developer: Game Studio (original game by Sir-Tech)
Publisher: ASCII Entertainment Software (aka Asciiware)
Genre: RPG
Exploration - First-Person
Combat - Turn based
Series - Wizardry

It's really hard to pin down US release dates. I originally used GameFAQs suggestion of April 1992, but the manual and MobyGames refer to 1991 as the copyright and release respectively. Even stranger is a second copyright date of 1990 attributed to Andrew Greenberg. My understanding was that Werdna's namesake had left Sir-Tech well before that time. He had worked on Star Saga One and Two in 1988 and 1989, so I wonder how he got attributed to this title personally. Due to the lack of an import feature, the game was reworked as a standalone title, so maybe he provided some input.
There's a nice set of black and white art paired with exposition detailing the new story
The city of Llylgamyn was protected by the Staff of Gnilda, which shielded the city from all forms of attack from outside. Unfortunately, it didn't protect from within, and an upstart evil tyrant named Davalpus seized this opportunity after the fall of Werdna. He slew the entire royal family, all except the prince and princess. After some time, Alavik returned wearing the armor of the The Knight of Diamonds and wielding Gnilda's staff. Davalpus fell, but so did the castle. With no sign of the staff, the city was now defenseless, and it was up to a brave band of nameless adventurers to retrieve it.
Wizardry is a rare breed of console RPG that requires building the party from scratch. There is a default party, but they have generic names like Fighter2 and Thief1. When rolling up my first set of characters (I expect many to come) I decided to roll for 10+ stats, and aimed for an evil party with Fighter, Samurai, Cleric, Cleric, Wizard, and Mage as my starting classes. I remembered the Calfo spell incorrectly, and thought it also disarmed traps. In this game, it only identifies the trap type with a high reliability, but a thief or ninja is required to disarm it. For the first couple of levels I ignored chests, and after a couple of levels had my fighter take the brunt of trap damage until I could class change my wizard to a ninja.
I nearly had one from the very beginning
From character creation, to stripping the default party, to purchasing new gear, I didn't actually enter the maze for the first hour. I was a expecting a trial by fire the way the first game had, but I think this version is a bit fairer in the early game due to the re-balance. The only time a party member died was due to running into a pit trap, then opening the menu, which caused the pit to hit a second time when I exited it. After that small setback, I fought some early creeping coins for a good amount of experience, and I was level 3 before I knew it.
Even the cost for resurrection seems adjusted
I was feeling confident with those early levels that I hardly thought of the gold I was leaving behind. Low level thieves usually fail disarming rolls anyway. On this first floor I found an are deemed for officers only, a corroded key, and a kobold king that dropped a gory badge. I also found a dusty statue with a golden light. You know what that means, right?
Our old friend Murphy is back
I didn't spend much time with Murphy, but the opportunity is there to grind out some early levels with fighters followed by a class change to mages in order to get higher HP. As it stands, my current mage only has 33 HP, and would easily die to most breath attacks or high level mage spells. If the first Wizardry has taught me anything, it's that I should be able to survive at least one tiltowait by the end of the game. I feel like I'll need a good number of class changes before that happens. The drawback to grinding on Murphy safely is that special items are only dropped on the lower floors, and those battles are actually worth a good amount of experience.
Much like the first game, the main quest is revealed while inside the maze
Gnilda appeared before the party in a small room. She claimed responsibility for the disappearance of the staff and armor, and declared only those worthy of her favor could reclaim them. I'm not sure what "the five" are or what the seven barriers entail. If it means the keys and badges, then I've crossed at least five barriers so far, and traded for a couple more keys. The manual says there are only six levels to the dungeon, and I'm about halfway through mapping the fourth. It's a rather short game if that's really the case, and I'm not sure there's enough content to support leveling very high.
Of course, the manual also says elite classes like Ninja and Lord are reached by characters level 18 - 25
With a ninja in my party, I was able to start disarming some trapped chests. The most troublesome at the moment are those that give random status effects to mages or clerics. I found a living magic armor, that very well could be the Knight of Diamonds' armor, but I ran away before finding out how tough it was. I'll make another attempt after I've exhausted my options on the lower levels.
It's available fairly early on the first floor in the officers section, but I still fear it may be too soon to tackle it
Most of my exploration has led to empty corridors giving the game a eerily quiet feel punctuated by the sudden appearance of monsters capable of wiping the party given the right set of circumstances. On the second floor I traded the kobold's badge for an emblem, which allowed me to exchange the corroded key for a black one in the officer's area. The black key was then traded for another key I didn't bother to identify that opened the path to the third floor. There I let my guard down for one second, and was sent down a chute to the floor below in complete darkness.
That square marking on the ground denotes tiles where events take place. Up to this point they've all been items to find, stairs, or helpful messages, but now they include chutes. Luckily, I had already located the stairs down to the fourth floor, so I knew where I needed to go to get back up. How to get there was another matter to figure out. I managed to get out alive without teleportation while running low on spells. I'm very glad I picked a party that included two clerics as the extra healing is more helpful than a second mage. I think my first set of class changes will be to increase my overall spell potential.
In the first Wizardry, this is a deadly battle that could result in instant death
I could be jinxing myself here, but so far this game is much easier than the first Wizardry. The idea that there are six floors gives me hope that the game could end soon; although given my HP totals, I feel like I should change classes two or three times before I actually venture further. Most of the ninjas in the battle above fled instant of attempting their instant kill attack. The only truly nerve-racking battles are those against enemies with breath attacks, or the carriers capable of paralyzing on touch. I'm going to spend a bit more time on floors three and four to collect some higher level gear. I don't have many magic items, but I did manage to wrap up my last session with a sword of slicing, slayer of dragons, and mace of power. To save money, I made my own ID-GUY after I found some cursed items would auto-equip upon identifying them.

I'm not really sure how he's dual wielding a Sword of Wishes and Epee of Dismay, but that's probably not good for his health, especially given his AC 15
My spellcasters are nearly able to use level 7 spells, which is really only a big deal for mages that gain tiltowait and teleport. I think once that happens I'll move one cleric to mage, and possibly swap my current mage with my samurai (who has been underperforming with minimal HP gains). I realize now that I'd have been better off going all evil instead of mixing in neutral alignments as those are locked out of clerical classes. If I were truly min/maxing, I'd go all fighters to level 13 or 14 for HP, then half to clerics half to mages, and swap once level 7 spells were unlocked. Repeat until satisfied with HP, and a final class change to include a thief or ninja, fighters for the front line, and a wizard for identification. I like the challenge though, and the tension this party has deep in the dungeon is palpable when I encounter a new enemy type.
Hold reset, then power off; we never knew why, but we always did it even with games without battery saves
With any luck, I'll have this game wrapped up by the end of the week. Without any luck, I'll have a new party and might be implementing the plan above. At least Murphy will be there for me when I need him. I think one reason I didn't really get into the first Wizardry may have been my choice to solely grind on Murphy without bothering to get gear from floors 5 - 9.

Elapsed Time: 9h12m (Total Time: 9h12m)