Monday, May 30, 2016

Game #57: Might & Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum (NES) - Might Be Making Progress

The first of many breadcrumbs
With most of Sorpigal mapped, I took to wandering outside along the paths as far as random encounters would allow. I ended up running across a note or sign near a desert to the northeast of Sorpigal about Kilburn. I wasn't sure if it was a location or person, but it seemed like a solid lead. A game world like this offers up so little information that I wasn't sure what to find.
Finally some direction, although less specific than I was hoping to find
I didn't feel quite ready to dive into the desert. Near Kilburn I ran into a hermit trading for two pirate maps. I didn't expect him to wipe out my entire first character's inventory in exchange. Unfortunately, he was holding the scroll I was supposed to transport to Erliquin, now vanished. I continued down the many roads poking my nose where I could until I leveled up enough to get the fly spell, which allowed me to quickly check out all the different areas. The only other relevant encounter I found was Arenko Guire who asked me to climb every tree in D3 and return to him. One bad fight in, and my party was wiped out. I noted it for once I gained a few levels.
My early grind spot
I scrounged up enough experience to get fly and started to explore. In A2, I found a red dragon that I somehow managed to kill first try. Subsequent attempts weren't quite as simple, but then something clicked after I retrieved a second Vellum Scroll. Quest items are easily duplicated, and a quick check in the store showed that one of the pirate maps I received from the hermit was worth 1,000 gold. Over 20 times what an average fight provided. The game didn't quite break open with unlimited gold, but it provided answers to many equipment and leveling questions. I purchased might potions to increase my chances against the dragon, and used the slow spell to ensure my guys got off their attacks first. The potions were very limited, but each use increased a character's might by 5. They only lasted a single battle, or when crossing a zone boundary, so it was time consuming to use them.
Everyone's a loser that spins this wheel
Grinding levels on the dragon didn't help as much as I thought, but I'm definitely surviving more battles. Now if only I could make progress on any of the hints I've run across: an ice princess has a key, so does a canine, white wolf castle requires a merchant pass, and there are numerous barriers I can't pass until I gain the appropriate spell. Using fly, I found Erliquin. The wizard Agar told me to seek Telgoran in Dusk.
The towns I've found so far
The desert map prevented me from getting lost while traveling on the desert tiles. I wrapped around the E3 side, found a strange lion asking for a password guarding King Alamar's castle, and made my way north. The password is available from a wandering harpist nearby. In the desert I ran into the ruins of Castle Dragadune and the town of Dusk. Delivering the scroll to Telgoran only led me to another clue, this time about two brothers I must find, with clues in Portsmith and Algary. I'm not sure what Kilburn wanted me to find in the desert, but I'm hoping I will know it once I find it.
Not quite the stat or the boost I was hoping to find, but it's a good start and permanent
I picked up the return scroll from Dusk, and I think it'll come in handy as the fly spell doesn't take me directly to any town except Sorpigal. In the desert I also found Nomads that gave me cactus nectar, and the cleric retreat that boosted my team's personality. I'm not sure what the nectar does, nor the garlic, wolfsbane, or belladonna I found elsewhere, but maybe I mix them into a potion at some point. I also have a 10-foot pole I'm carrying around for some reason.
Who is him?
I have a couple of other clues: "9-9 Raven's Lair" and "Zam 12,2" yet I'm not sure what they mean. I also received a clue that there are 8 statues in Sorpigal, but I've only found 7. I haven't completely mapped out all towns, but maybe it's about time I should. Here are inscriptions from the 7 I've found:
  • Corak mapped Varn and found Dusk
  • Gala worked with Savages of Volcanic Isles
  • One by water, land, air, and sand
  • Wheel of luck pays the more of these menacing beasts destroyed
  • Services rendered secrets untold, the brothers together lead to treasures untold - five towns to travel
  • Ranalou the wizard at Korin Bluffs -- Six Castles -- Doom it quite tough
  • Cruelty and Kindness measured throughout Judgement Day is then sought
Stopping for the night
I can guess at some of the above, but it's hard to know where to begin with them. Kilburn's quest seems to start the castle line, while the scroll has me traveling to each town for some untold treasure. I'm not sure which beasts the wheel requires destroyed, or what any of the other clues could mean. I suppose I'll eventually run across other breadcrumbs as I travel the world map. There have also been a few caves I've come across that I haven't bothered to delve into. The deadliness of the world coupled with the size is what makes this a long game. So far, it's definitely not the amount of plot.

Elapsed Time: 11h49m (Total Time: 24h00m)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Game #57: Might & Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum (NES) - Looking for the Magic

Game 57

Title: Might and Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum
Released: August 1992 (July 1990 JPN)
Platform: NES
Developer: New World Computing (ported by G-Amusements)
Publisher: American Sammy Corp.
Genre: RPG
Exploration - First-person
Combat - Turn based
Series - Might and Magic

Strangely, 1991 doesn't fit any date I can find online
There's not much to say about the story of Might & Magic. Most of the game is figuring out what to do while fighting off enemies at every turn. The manual only references the Inner Sanctum as a place the party has come together to discover. I suppose I will follow the rumors of taverns and seek out those in power once again. Having already played the second game, I can imagine how it'll end. The two are very similar.
The game begins unlike the second by only naming a lead character, who is then automatically fitted to the role of male knight. I planned to have a full party, one of each character, and reroll until my eyes bled. Unfortunately, those plans were dashed when I was left standing in front of the inn with my sole character. The inn had a cast of preset characters with randomly rolled HP.
I spent a few minutes hoping to roll some good ones, but always managed at least one character with 2 HP
The manual has a map of Sorpigal, but doesn't mark the guild where it's possible to re-roll characters individually. It's strange, but the game has a whole cast of characters spread out in the various towns. Much like the second game, I don't see any reason why these level 1 characters would ever find room in the party. Most of them have fairly average stats. It took nearly an hour to find the guild without a single death in the party.
There were a number of reliefs with some very cryptic information displayed in an art gallery
At the guild it took a while to roll proper stats for my characters. Stats matter quite a lot, at least in the early game. A couple points of might means a 50% increase in damage. Speed controls turn order, and is essential for acting before the enemies. Endurance influences HP, but rolling at the guild means a character starts with the max value. Unfortunately, it has some side effects; it wipes all gold, items, and experience from the character, but sets food to 20. The small amount I'd saved up searching the town was nearly voided out.
With a full party I confidently stepped into the world
For some variety, I chose to have a character from each class and race, with a mix of male and females, and two of each alignment. The knight is the basic fighter, cleric and wizard (sorcerer in the manual) are the base spellcasters, paladins and archers are their fighter hybrid classes respectively, and robbers are pathetic in battle. I went in search for some easy battles. Combat has a few peculiarities to this series compared to other RPGs, but more in common with D&D. Armor only increases the chance of an attack missing, and damage is determined purely by the weapon plus bonus for high might times the number of attacks.
That is, unless you're a bugged enemy called Locust Plague that does a base damage of 255 HP
Experience is earned for each defeated monster, but gold is only found in sacks or chests successfully searched and opened after battle. If the party moves away from the square after battle, the gold is lost forever. Both sacks and chests are potentially trapped, and thus comes the only reason to have a robber in the party. Yet, at level 4, he still fails to disarm traps, but at least I have the potential survive now. A failed disarm could wipe out the entire party.
Collecting some rumors from the local tavern
So far I haven't found much of a story to the game, and the only "quest" I have is to deliver a scroll given to me by an old man in the Sorpigal catacombs. I have no idea where Erliquin is, but I've barely scratched the surface of the over world. The guards at the gate wouldn't even let me leave until all party members were level 2. I slowly saved up, bought some ranged weapons, and filled out the rest of my equipment slots. Leveling up costs increasingly more money each time, and gold can be hard to come by (especially when purposefully avoiding trapped treasure). I've managed to keep up, but I can see it becoming a problem eventually.
This over world map is not nearly as useful as Might and Might II
I scouted all of C2, and small portions of other areas, but only found two towns. Portsmith has traps that drain males of HP. Algary was much more welcoming, and the equipment shop there had further upgrades I wish I could afford. Tips from the tavern like "the queen can be helpful" and "the swamp was once a City of Gold" aren't as helpful as I was expecting. A group of wyverns took my party out easily. A gypsy woman told me the color of my party's auras, which may come in useful later. I also found two fountains, and remembering how useful these were in Gates to Another World, I dove right into them, but there were no effects as far as I could tell. Lastly was a lion that asked for a password. I have no idea where to go, or what to do.
It's nice when the more difficult enemies are out of range on their turn
Back to combat for a moment, range works strangely in this game. Only the first two characters in the party are usually within melee range, but the monsters will often surprise the party, which puts other members in the front line. The monster party, which consists of up to 15 individuals, on the other hand always only allows the first three to be attacked (including with ranged weapons). Spells can reach any of the first six, but the potentially other nine are completely obscured. There are eventually some spells that allow all party members to enter the fray, and even one to reduce or eliminate surprise attacks. When running from combat the party retreats to a specific square on each 16x16 map.
In Might and Magic fashion, I end each night with a nice party wipe
As expected, the early game is progressing slowly. I've been mapping as much as I can on foot, but feel like things will really start to pick up once my wizard reaches level 3 and the fly spell. I'm only level four though, and at this point I'm at the whims of a game that seems bent on wiping out any progress if I stretch myself too thin. My current plan is to continue branching out in every way I can while struggling my way to the next level. I just hope I can afford it once I get there.

Elapsed Time: 12h11m (Total Time: 12h11m)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Game #56: Knight Quest (Game Boy) - Where There's a Will (Finished)

Game 56

Title: Knight Quest
Released: July 1992 (September 1991 JPN)
Platform: Game Boy
Developer: Lenar Co., Ltd.
Publisher: Taito
Genre: RPG
Exploration - Top-down
Combat - Turn based
Series - Standalone

Knight, check; quest, check; the end, check
Knight Quest is about as generic a fantasy RPG as it comes, complete with a kidnapped princess, dragons, and evil lords. The developer, Lenar, seems to have dabbled in a number of genres, but only a few ever made it to the west, this being the only RPG.
The game runs unbelievably slow on normal speed; optionally set money to many for an extra 300 starting gold
Will, 14 years old, dreamed of becoming a knight. He was granted an audience to see the king. The king instructed him to slaughter goblins to the north. Should he survive this suicidal task, then he would be allowed to train as a knight. At least he was given a sword, armor, and a small amount of gold.
About the only interesting thing about the game is the combat system. Will's attack comes in four different styles: Swallow, Sea Gull, Falcon, and Eagle. Each attack has a different effectiveness on each enemy. For most, one particular attack is their Achilles' heel, and they take massive damage from it compared to the others. Figuring out which attack is best is (I suppose) where the fun comes from.
Buying the next level sword from the shop
The town offers an inn that fully heals Will for 10 gold. Shops sell a variety of magic, three tiers of potency for healing items, as well as equipment upgrades. Visiting the king provides a password, helpful for restoring the game after a break. Enemies offer fair gold and experience rewards, but grinding early levels is necessary. Losing all HP in combat sends Will back to the castle with half his gold, not a huge setback.
I hadn't lost a battle yet either at this point
After defeating the Goblin King, Will was whisked back to the castle where the king rewarded his bravery with another quest: investigate a giant tower that suddenly appeared on the cape. Getting into the tower required finding a key hidden in some woods to the west of the tower. Defeating the wizard led to another quest to seek out help from Tabasa the witch in defeating the Dark Lord. Tabasa lived across the river to the west of town. The Dark Lord ruled over the Gido Empire, and the king was worried an invasion would soon follow.
Evil castle to the northwest
I became a bit lost at this point. There was a lost woods I explored for a bit before I found a logger's hut who offered to repair the broken bridge. Collecting lumber with the axe he provided allowed him to repair the bridge. I then skipped Tabasa's house to the south of a small village because they had already told me he frequented the north shore town. He wasn't there, and a haunted mansion was inaccessible until I actually made the trek out to the empty house of Tabasa. This necessitated a trip back to the shore town to learn Tabasa had just left for the mansion. Then, and only then, was the way into the mansion accessible.
If you've sealed his power, can't we just leave him be?
When I found Tabasa, he was battling an arch wizard. The strain of sealing his power was too much though, and he expired at the end of battle. The Arch wizard was pretty powerful; I fell the first time I faced him with no healing items. I returned with three hearts (top tier healing), and killed him on the second attempt. The king didn't have time to mourn the loss of his friend as his daughter had been kidnapped. A dragon had been spotted to the north, but the mountain pass had been blocked by rocks only breakable by a magic hammer. I picked it up from the grave-keeper after learning Tabasa had left it with him. I also found the third level sword in a shop hiding off nearby.
All enemies have an attack animation and different attacks that do varying damage as well
The next area required further grinding to get the level 4 armor, and save up enough gold to purchase hearts to help me survive against the next boss. I found a magic fountain that produced an endless supply of potion 2s to help with the grind. I rescued the princess after purchasing the new armor. She told me that the Dark Lord was behind the kidnapping. Will then commandeered the dragon and rode it all the way to his castle.
A nice little town at the base of the dark lord's mountain offered a small respite
There was no turning back as the dragon had suddenly disappeared. I saved up for a level 4 sword, and then delved into the castle. There was a healing heart inside that continuously respawned after transitioning floors. I collected it enough to fill my inventory. Then I skirted nearly every enemy on the way up, and ran from those I stumbled into. The dark lord fell quite easily.
He really didn't stand a chance
Elapsed Time: 4h29m (Final Time: 4h29m)

Combatant - I liked that they tried to do something different with combat. Giving the player attack styles to choose from was meant to add strategy; however, I don't think it quite worked. Aside from magic items that were under-powered compared to just attacking, the only strategy is to figure out the best attack and stick with it. The enemies were a combination of fantasy creatures and overgrown animals, some nonsensical like jellyfish. Gold and experience rewards were fairly well managed that I only really needed to grind in the beginning and near the end.
Rating: 4
Suddenly the dead rose again!
Admirer - I suppose Game Boy games aren't robust enough to score highly here. There's no customization, and sprites are static. Controls are well done, and avoiding combat is possible with careful planning as all enemies are visible and move on the over-world.
Rating: 2
The only cutscene in the game was a nice touch
Puzzler - One point for a main quest, and that's it. No puzzles, nothing to solve. It did offer some non-combat portions to the main quest that I thought were nice touches, but they honestly weren't very deep (e.g. cutting the tree to make a bridge). There's only a single solution to every problem. The Tabasa portion felt a bit arbitrary by forcing me to stop by her empty house and the town she frequents.
Rating: 1
What is it about fantasy characters living on through legends that developers thought was so appealing as an ending?
Instigator - It's a basic story for a basic sort of game. The dialog isn't terrible, and NPCs do talk about the current quest. The game lacks descriptions in-game, and the chapter-esque division between the plot points removed any chance to immerse myself in the story. There are no decisions to make, and no way to impact the story.
Rating: 2
Driving the point home even further
Collector - Most of the points awarded here have to do with the ease of equipment upgrades, and an economy that stayed relevant throughout the game. Buying the heart healing items became necessary at the third boss, and I went through many on the fourth, and final. There are a good number of magic items, but I didn't talk much about them because they're all useless money sinks. Inventory is limited, and there's no indication of getting all items.
Rating: 3
Potions on the map respawn after leaving the screen
Explorer - The sprite work was well done, although plugging colors into the game looked a bit strange. The music wasn't memorable, but I had no inclination of turning it off or down. There are a few places where exploring rewards the player with some early healing items for free, and the world is mostly open from the beginning (aside from the broken bridge, rock slide covered pass, and mysteriously locked mansion). I don't think a Game Boy game has the space to put in random discoveries that have nothing to do with the game.
Rating: 4
100 more adventures *gasp*
Final Rating: 16 [27%]

Overall, it's a simple game that offers everything in the first 30 minutes, repeated 4 more times. As a portable title, I think it's a good game for a short distraction. The use of passwords instead of battery saves makes restoring a bit of a pain; however, the continue system allows anyone to finish it fairly quickly.
Sequels were another thing developers seemed to count on
There's part of me that wishes more games were this short; however, that won't be the case for the next one. Might and Magic is probably going to be the longest NES RPG. From what I hear, it's a faithful port of the original, and well-made with great sprite work and music. I remember trying to play it at some point, but getting absolutely nowhere. I definitely didn't get out of the first city. So, while this is mostly new to me, after playing for some time I can tell that my experience with the second game (released on the Genesis a year earlier) will help tremendously.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Below the Cut: Ultima: Runes of Virtue I & II (Game Boy)

(Source: MobyGames)
Ultima: Runes of Virtue - Rating(9 RPP)
1) 2 - Character Advancement: practice/experience based advancement, stat or level increases, multiple classes or characters, customize characters
2) 1 - Combat: character stats used for combat, additional combat options, turn based
3) 1 - 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

Initially I wrote this off as a Zelda clone. Now that I've taken a closer look, it's right on the edge of the scale. There are stats, but in the short time I played I never saw them increase. At the same time, it's not clear if str, dex, or int affect combat. Most enemies die to a single hit. There are four characters to choose as the hero. It's possible to collect money, but not to sell any items.

The most impressive part that I missed was how open the world was. There are a lot of puzzles in the dungeons, and many NPCs to help out with hints. While the game is light on text, it does well to fill out the world with a nice cast of characters familiar to those that have played Ultima. In the end though, I don't think this has enough trappings to fall within the RPG genre, even as an action-RPG.

(Source: MobyGames)
Ultima: Runes of Virtue II - Rating(9 RPP)
1) 2 - Character Advancement: practice/experience based advancement, stat or level increases, multiple classes or characters, customize characters
2) 1 - Combat: character stats used for combat, additional combat options, turn based
3) 1 - 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

It seemed to either do well enough to garner a sequel (also on the SNES), or the publisher had enough time with the license to pump out a second game. This one started out with a full length intro that described how the evil guy was bored and kidnapped somebody just to annoy Lord British. Again, I'm not sure the characters have any actual development. I'm sure it's possible to increase stats (at least health), but once again combat seems too simple for them to actually matter. I may be wrong about that, and if anyone has more experience with this game to explain how I'm wrong, then I'll revisit both. Even the idea of side quests might be wrong, but none jumped out in the first few minutes of the game.

Unrelated to playing all console RPGs, I've started playing through the Game Boy library as well. Once I play through the entirety of this game I might either post an update with a better description, or create an entirely new post to cover it. It's hard to judge something from the first 10 minutes, and I'd rather not play through all games considered by RPGs from random lists. If time permitted, I probably wouldn't even have a distinction, but as it stands I'm still not making headway on the list.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Game #55: Order of the Griffon (TurboGrafx-16) - The Order of Things (Finshed)

Game 55

Title: Order of the Griffon
Released: 1992 (US only)
Platform: TurboGrafx-16
Developer: Westwood Associates
Publisher: Turbo Technologies; Strategic Simulations Inc.
Genre: RPG
Exploration - Top-down + First-person
Combat - Tactical Turn-based
Series - Standalone

Was the group from Warriors of the Eternal Sun  still remembered?
It's the lesser known games that I'm usually more excited about playing. Yet often times those are the ones that seem to disappoint the most. Obviously there's a reason they're not well known, but I had hoped it was due the console they were on. Order of the Griffon was exclusive to the TurboGrafx-16, and only in the US. It mixes first-person exploration and tactical combat similar to the gold box games, but the strategic depth is on the same level as Warriors of the Eternal Sun. With rules based on original Dungeons & Dragons, the simplicity is evident from the first combat. Try as I might, I could never reliably protect my spellcasters, and ranged combat options were limited.
These classes look familiar
Fighters, dwarfs, thieves, and halflings are all very similar. Elves are like fighters with less HP, but able to use mage spells. The drawback being they level slower. Clerics can turn undead, and eventually cast unique spells (mostly healing and hold person). Unlike Warriors of the Eternal Sun, spells go up to level 4, although my elf never reached high enough to cast them.
Summary text lies, and all spellcasters memorize the same number of spells
The selection of characters is limited to three pre-made characters per class. There's a summary text for each character that doesn't reflect the reality of each character's ability. Falcone memorizes the same number of spells as any elf or mage of the same level, and another elf that claims to cast spells more quickly usually ended up going last each turn. I figured that once again thieves would be completely useless. I decided on a dwarf, elf, cleric, and mage.
The story begins
The party was hired to investigate a rumor of  a vampire in the area. While Lord Korrigan doesn't believe the rumors, he is concerned about the rising number of undead. He offered a 200 gold advance on promise of full payment once the situation was resolved. The party was rushed out of his room.
As I turned around to speak with Lord Korrigan again, my way was blocked by a guard. After a short speech I was given the option to leave or attack. At my level I didn't dare attempt it, but later on (when I was stuck) I found there were two battles and a reward of a ring of protection; however, Lord Korrigan was nowhere to be found inside. Radlebb Keep had a number of such encounters, many of them not so friendly.
Purchasing some gear at the armory
The characters came with melee weapons, but lacked shields and armor. I purchased some slings as well, but ranged weapons are a bit cumbersome to swap out on the spellcasters. They are permanently equipped with their respective sources of spell power. Swapping weapons took a trip into the inventory screen each time per character. Most of the time I didn't bother with melee weapons at all for them.
This option never succeeded, but I wonder what the party gets out of it if it did
A tavern offered little more than random events. The magic shop sold spells, but I gathered more scrolls than I could scribe in two spell books. The shop had a couple of strange options: "look around" did nothing all game in either shop, and "identify" is listed in the manual as identifying magical items but neither it nor detect magic do much of anything. Magic items are always identified. The temple offered healing, raising dead, as well as potions. Strangely the potions were the most expensive, but the least helpful.
Joining the Order of the Griffon and getting my first quest
Most of the other buildings were unmarked, and I stumbled into a number of combats with rats, skeletons, and thieves before I finally found the titular Order of the Griffon. Before I headed out to slay some wolves, I finished up my survey of the keep. I ran into a group of guards angered by our presence. There was a locked door I decided not to tempt open. A plot to poison the duke was averted when I stumbled upon some ne'er-do-wells in the kitchen.
The riddle sounds interesting, but wasn't necessary to solve any quest
I made my way to the wolves' den without much incident. The overworld display is a top-down view where random encounters occur without warning. There are two ways to save in the game, either via a password or using a console with a RAM expansion. The password only works while outside. Luckily I had the later, and saved often. Dungeons only offer fixed encounters. Although, random encounters can still occur while the party rests to restore spells. Falcone and Chanda had such little HP that they'd often die to a single blow.

As always, sleep is a powerful spell at low levels
The fixed encounters in the wolves' den included a few patrols of men and wolves, a group of prisoners (adventurers on the same quest), and a hidden cache of items. The prisoners told me of an old village beyond a door in the back of the cave. There I would find the staff I sought. In a large hall was a wolf with a key around his neck; the key to the door. He was meeting with humans working for the vampire. They disputed an agreement concerning a rival group of wolves. The bandits claimed to have killed the leader, but the wolf Collum wanted the entire pack wiped out before he would relinquish the key.
I seem to have found a bug while trying to equip a scroll during battle in order to attempt to read from it; equipping outside of battle merely attempts to scribe it in the character's spellbook
A passage beyond the door led to the old village of Koriszegy. In addition to some magical equipment, there were encounters with skeletons, bug bears, and devil swine. The last of which held a key to a door with a dragon emblem. Beyond it was an easy riddle to choose the center door of three, followed by some undead, and then the staff of life that I sought. Attempting to take the staff caused my party damage three times before I was finally able to take it with me. The third was too much for Falcone, and he keeled over.
I'm not sure who's voice this is, or where the place is\
I quickly returned to the Order's Guild, and became full fledged members. Our first real mission was to take the staff to the crypt of Koriszegy. I was told the staff would open one of three doors, and recover two gems. I then raised Falcone, and headed to the crypt. Inside was a mural with a slot to place the staff. Doing so caused a faint blue light to glow, but I strangely found myself unable to enter any of the three doors. I was thoroughly stuck, unable to progress, and I had already saved over my game slots. I tried each slot to no effect. With no way to progress I tried to speak with Lord Korrigan again.
For anyone curious, this is the password for the save outside the crypt where this issue happened
I restarted with another party, ran through all of the above once more, and two hours later arrived at the crypt with a working staff. The only difference this time was ensuring all my characters were alive before I spoke with the Order, and a different set of characters. Beyond the first door was a pool of red. Dipping the staff there unlocked the red mist door. Another series of chambers led to a green pool, which turned out to be fake. In a side passage was a blue pool that allowed access through the blue door.
I'm glossing over most of the encounters, but the above obvious trap was the most interesting
Beyond the blue door was a rather annoying maze, followed by a second maze filled with teleporters. The lack of random encounters made it a bit less cumbersome walking through the maze many times, but at the same time there was nothing to break up the monotony. Eventually I came upon a statue where I placed the staff and gained a diamond. A final teleporter in the middle of that room led to an area where I found the death gem, a lot of fixed encounters, and a dragon.
By this point, Lhaeros had learned web, which apparently no one is immune to, not even dragons
Upon my return, the Order took the gems and destroyed them. Next quest was to infiltrate the vampire's keep through his cellar. However, before I set off into another dungeon, I had thousands of gold pieces and nothing to spend them on at the keep. I made my way to Specularum to the east. There I stocked up on all the magical equipment I could afford. The manual had a map that showed a third city to the northeast. The store had the same equipment as Specularum, but there were a number of encounters that offered great treasure and experience without combat.
The over world offers random battles while the party walks about
The cellar door locked behind the party as they entered. There were many were-creatures such as rats, bats, and boars that required magical weapons to kill. Stand out spells were sleep, hold person, turn undead, and web. I didn't quite have fireball yet, and third level cleric spells were useless as always. I fought a Nosferatu, apparently not the vampire I sought. Web works on any enemy with no saving throws. It stuns them so they can't act, but unlike sleep they don't die to a single blow. Strangely, hold person works similarly.
Cleric spells, level 3 consists of only curse
The Order then directed me to Duke Stefan in Specularum. His daughter was kidnapped by a group called the Iron Ring. They requested as ransom the staff of King Halav, which is apparently one of three items necessary to kill the vampire. I was provided a pass to see Master Higgins at Stefan Manor. The duke was suffering from some malady that he directed I ignore until his daughter was safe.
Web is also effective on spectres of all things
The duke's daughter was easily rescued from a cave deep inside the forest of Radlebb. My elf reached third level spells and started slinging fireballs nearly every battle. There was one difficult battle with four mages that resulted in a few resets. Charm person is very effective against my party as well as web. On the other hand, I found my silence spell was completely useless. Returning with his daughter, I was informed by the duke that he needed king Halav's chalice to cure his ailment. The tomb was an easy task to complete. It dragged on for quite a while as I collected the chalice, shield, and then four keys to escape.
"Oh yeah, have this staff" -- Order of the Griffon
The chalice and shield unlocked the final battle with the vampire, and the staff was used to kill him once he retreated to his coffin. His lair had a lot of difficult battles including a number of dragons. A couple of webs locked them down individually, but more than one made for difficult adversaries. There were three levers to pull once I entered the vampire's inner sanctum. This unlocked the path to the final battle, which wasn't the most difficult battle I'd faced. Defeating all enemies led to a short sequence before ending on the final screen shown at the beginning of this post.
This the second game to use the trope of a vampire retreating to its coffin
Elapsed Time: 19h06m (Final Time: 19h06m)

Combatant - Combat is relatively satisfying, even into the mid-game where the party slowly becomes nigh unkillable. Magic is really influential on the outcome of battle, and in turn so is initiative. There's rarely an easy battle that includes multiple mages. Enemy AI is lacking when it comes to pathing, and most of the strategic options revolve around magic. It would have been nice to get more utility out of spare scrolls and certain spells like silence. By the end of the game I was running from nearly every random encounter since the rewards were pitifully small. It's too bad only elves and mages could use wands.
Rating: 6
Half of the final battle group, the vampire chills with his pet red and green dragons
Admirer - Pre-generated characters are rarely customized, and this is no expcetion. Every character in a given class is the same. Each has different stats, but they seem so poorly implemented that differences are hard to distinguish. Equipment doesn't change appearance, but each character has unique art. Controls are a little awkward, especially swapping weapons, and how combat spells initially target the caster. There aren't any advancement options, and equipment boils down to relatively simple options.
Rating: 2
You've reached this point in the plot, time to kill a vampire
Puzzler - There are some encounters, but most of them lead to combat no matter the option. The main quest is well laid out, but there are no side quests per se, merely side encounters. The world is nicely built, but only a single solution exists. All of the riddles and bits of story presented as clues don't have any bearing on how to approach the encounters.
Rating: 2
You fools! You have played the game!
Instigator - The story is acceptable, but it's the detail in the odd side encounters that carry it into a believable active world. Descriptions are lacking, but there are enough NPCs to ensure the direction to the next plot point isn't hanging. There aren't any decisions to make though, as most are rendered ineffectual soon after.
Rating: 3
A random bit of story from the very beginning where none of it really matters
Collector - There are a good number of items in the game, but most of it boil down to a basic piece of equipment with a +. The problem is there's no way to tell the difference between weapon types in the game. The economy only peters off after the staff is obtained near the end of the game. Inventory space is limited, but not enough to make it an issue. No massive collection, but even so, I did carry around the Sword +1, +3 vs dragons just because it had cool art.
Rating: 4
That final battle loot I'll never use because the game doesn't let me play anymore after this
Explorer - While the world is completely open from the beginning, it's so empty and devoid of reason to explore. At least one town offers some nice early equipment if one can avoid all the random battles along the way. The music has a glitch where it cuts out after the first action in combat. Very little eye candy or unique areas to explore leave the game feeling underwhelming.
Rating: 4

Final Rating: 21 [35%]
Much like my enthusiasm for this game
Overall I enjoyed the encounters. The game dragged on for a bit longer than necessary, especially the filler near the end that was hardly balanced for high character levels. I'd always thought I'd find a hidden gem on one of the more obscure systems, but (while not terrible) this game is hardly what I'd recommend to others. It's a curio of the time. By today's standards it's hardly worth a play unless you're like me and enjoy delving into this type of game. I think having a second mage instead of the second fighter wouldn't have made much of a difference.

Moving on, I have an Ultima game to cut that's not really an Ultima game. Then we can finally get to Might and Magic on the NES. We'll be in for the long haul on that one. It's predicted to be the longest RPG on the system. Actually, I got a bit excited. See, I've already beaten Knight Quest, so I'll write a bit about that as well before getting to Might and Magic.