Archive for March, 2007

Time Zone: Historical Context

Time Zone was released in 1981 or 1982. (Again I’m finding contradictory claims. The edition I’m playing says “Copyright 1982”.) It was the sixth of Sierra’s “high-res adventures”, and the fourth designed by Roberta Williams. Graphic adventures had been around for about a year, but they were still a novelty, and Sierra didn’t have any real competition. I said before that it uses the same engine as Mission Asteroid, but there was one significant enhancement to it: the use of multiple disks. If I understand correctly, the only previous multi-disk game from Sierra was Ulysses and the Golden Fleece, and the only thing resembling a multi-disk adventure game predating it that I know of is the Eamon adventure/RPG system (which isn’t really the same thing, because instead of being parts of a whole, the disks there were unconnected modules, sharing only the character data on the loader disk.) Sierra was pretty much the first to need multiple disks, because they were filling those disks up with graphics. They’d continue to make multiple-disk games even as disk capacities increased, ultimately turning out several multi-CD FMV behemoths. As far as I can tell, their code for handling resources spread across multiple volumes didn’t change in any fundamental way from King’s Quest 1 onward. But in these earlier days, the Apple II days, things were a little shakier, the seams more obvious. As I mentioned before, different areas in Time Zone recognize different verbs; this seems to correspond to what disk you have currently inserted.

In content, Time Zone reflects a medium in transition. The earliest adventure games, such as Zork and Scott Adams’ Adventureland, were imitations of the original Adventure: treasure hunts set in caves, in an eclectic vague fantasy setting. There’s no story to such a game, there’s just a player’s progress in exploring the cave and collecting the treasures. But after a while, adventure games started mutating into interactive fiction. I think of Steve Meretzky’s Planetfall as something of a watershed in this regard: it was the first adventure game I played that really tried to provide a believable setting and a story that’s revealed by that setting, rather than a premise that’s just an excuse to put the player through a bunch of puzzles, and a backstory which is brought up at the beginning and the end and otherwise ignored. Planetfall was released in 1983, after Time Zone, and while Time Zone isn’t a dungeon crawl, it’s also everything I’ve just said that Planetfall is not. It belongs to a period when the people creating adventures were branching out into other settings, but still treating them like dungeon crawls.

I’ve noted that Time Zone has a repeated puzzle type involving enemies, both human and animal, who will kill you one turn after you enter their rooms unless you first defeat them with some appropriate weapon. This is turning out to be the dominant type of puzzle in the game, not just because it’s used so often, but also because it takes so much longer to solve than other puzzles. It’s basically guesswork, and guessing wrong ends the game, making you restore a save, which involves swapping disks. It’s a terrible piece of design, and it’s repeated over and over. And it may well be the game’s most influential feature. In 1985, an adventure authoring tool called GAGS was created, incorporating foes governed by a slight variation on this mechanic (GAGS monsters don’t necessarily kill you after one turn, but they do prevent you from leaving the room). I may be mistaken when I attribute this to direct influence, but the resemblance is strong. GAGS games tended to use monsters of this sort a lot, because GAGS was a rather primitive system, capable of only a few predefined puzzle types (also including locked doors and darkness). GAGS later became the basis for a more advanced tool called AGT, which was the first really popular adventure engine available to the public. There are scores of freely-available AGT games on the net, many of them entries in an annual competition held on the Compuserve Gamers Forum. And a lot of them contain the monster mechanic that AGT inherited from GAGS, and which GAGS stole from Time Zone.

Time Zone: Dirt Quest

time_zone-caesarWithout a doubt, the one game I know that was most influenced by Time Zone is Legend Entertainment’s Timequest, a 1991 graphic adventure by Infocom alumnus Bob Bates. Whether the influence is direct or indirect, I don’t know. But Time Zone and Timequest share an overall structure, based on a grid of location/time period combinations, as well as a few specific scenes: both games contain run-ins with Robin Hood, Cleopatra, and Julius Caesar. The encounter with Caesar in particular reminded me of Timequest: in both games, you get an audience with him through a victory in the arena. What you do with that audience differs, however. In Timequest you need to be on hand to prevent an assassination attempt — not because you want Caesar to live, but because history requires him to be assassinated later. Whereas in Time Zone, you need to borrow his ladder. 1That is, steal it.

This is a common adventure game device: heroic efforts to obtain mundane household items. Timequest isn’t completely innocent of this particular crime against mimesis either. What makes it particularly absurd in this game is that you actually have the option of visiting your home in the present whenever you like. There, realistically, you would have easier ways to obtain a ladder (and a canteen, and a flashlight…) It’s just one of those adventure game things, stemming from the genre’s origins. In a cave crawl, it makes a certain amount of sense: if you’re trapped in the Dungeons of Doom, you have to make do with whatever tools you can find in situ, and a ladder could be a major find. Likewise for various other settings: desert islands, post-apocalyptic ruins, and in general the sort of isolated and solitary environments that adventures have always found most comfortable.

It’s a common enough syndrome that it really should have a name, but it doesn’t seem to have one. I suggest “dirt quest”: questing after something that is, or should be, as common as dirt in the game’s milieu.

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1. That is, steal it.

Time Zone: Tropes

time_zone-lostOne thing, more than anything else bar the graphics, establishes Time Zone as having been written early in the history of the form: although it’s a time-travel game, it lacks the usual time-travel tropes. There are basically two tropes, with sundry variations, pioneered by Infocom in the mid-80’s and almost obligatory since then:

  • Avoiding changing the past. Taking care to clean up anachronisms and/or paradoxes, lest you rupture the space/time continuum. Sorcerer and Spellbreaker both had memorable scenes of this sort, and many time-travel games, including Timequest and Jigsaw, make it the player’s primary goal.
  • Deliberately changing the past in order to affect the future: planting acorns so you can climb oak trees a century later and suchlike. Zork III may have been the first game to play with this, but Timequest and Day of the Tentacle are whole games organized around puzzles of this sort. And on the larger scale, changing history is the player character’s chief motivation in Trinity 1Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game. and Lost New York.

Time Zone doesn’t do any of that. The time periods are effectively islands, connected only by the fact that you can carry objects between them. And you often can’t even do that: anything that would be anachronistic in the era you’re going to (such as dynamite in 1000 AD, or any manufactured item in the age of reptiles) gets vaporized in transit. So you can’t alter history by leaving ahistorical technology lying around, accidentally or deliberately. More direct alterations, such as assassinating Christopher Columbus, are prevented by the poverty of the game engine: if you try it, you’ll just an error along the lines of “I don’t understand that”.

More broadly, the tropes I speak of (or at least the second one on the the smaller scale) are reliant on non-local effects. Internally, past and future are modelled as separate rooms. For the past to affect the future, you have to have a mechanism whereby an action in one room can affect the state of another. The engine used in the Sierra High-Res Adventures might not in fact have this capability. Judging by the way that some verbs are understood in some areas and not in others, it seems like different areas are in some way treated as separate programs. It seems a little incredible, but having tinkered with the various King’s Quest engines, I can attest that they did something similar, albeit with less noticeable side effects.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just that the author was used to thinking in terms of local effects, because that’s how early adventure games generally worked. The whole idea of non-local effects was a major leap in sophistication for adventure games, arguably more significant than the full-sentence parser. (See the T/SAL “Phoenix” games for examples of what can be done with a two-word parser and a sophisticated world model.)

At any rate, if it’s not doing time-travel puzzles, what is the game doing with all that space? To a large extent, it’s establishing its own tropes. There are certain puzzles that are repeated with different details all over the map:

  • Dark tunnels that need a light source
  • Dangerous people or animals that, when you enter their location, you have one turn to use the right object to keep them from killing you.
  • Merchants and traders who will give you something you need in exchange for a specific other item. (In most cases, they’ll only accept one other item, but won’t tell you which.)
  • Expanses of hazardous terrain (either desert or frozen wastes) that you can’t cross without some way of getting food/water/rest/warmth.

Notably, even when two places have identical problems, they’ll have different solutions. The vaporizing of anachronisms, which seemed cheap when I first encountered it, is important to making this work: it provides a general rationale for the solution in 2082 AD not working in 50 BC. I mean, it’s still cheap to bar objects from certain areas by permanently destroying them, rather than by, say, preventing the time machine from launching until you ditch them, or just automatically leaving them behind. But at least there’s some justification to barring them at all.

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1. Trinity is a peculiar case: by allowing time travel only to sites that are about to be destroyed in nuclear explosions, it manages to avoid the question of whether or not history is mutable until the very end (although there’s some foreshadowing). This narrative device prevents the game from using either trope on a scale smaller than the whole game.

Time Zone: More Whinging

Several hours into Time Zone, I’m just starting to get past the initial exploration phase and start finding solutions to problems. In most adventures, the exploration phase includes a certain amount of experimental poking at objects and scenery. That hasn’t really been the case here, as there aren’t very many objects around, and those few have limited pokability. Exploration has been a matter of exploring the map, with its neat grid of hundreds of filler rooms, each of which pauses to stroke in its graphics whenever you enter. I should turn off my emulator’s governor.

time_zone-surpriseThen there’s the instant-death areas. Since this game is both (a) old-school and (b) written by Roberta Williams, there are plenty of them. It’s easy to forget, in the post-Monkey Island age, about the ubiquity of death in the old days. The way that games would kill you for walking in the wrong direction, off a cliff or into a river, where newer games would stop you with a warning. And no “undo” feature. When you die, you have to start over, which means swapping back to disk 1, even if you’ll want to immediately restore a game on a different disk. Of course, since I’m running the game under emulation, there are no actual floppy disks involved. Swapping disks is a matter of selecting a disk image from a file-selection dialog. Still, this is a minor nuisance, and not something I want to do very often. Perhaps I should look for a better emulator, one that has its own snapshot quicksave/quickload interface, so I don’t have to rely on the in-game save/load system.

I really have to close this post, though — I’m running out of time until my self-imposed deadline, because I’ve been spending so much time playing the thing. I’ll try to have something more to say about the content next time, after I’ve seen some more of it.

Time Zone

timezone-parisMission Asteroid was just an appetizer. Now for the main course. Time Zone, which uses the same engine as Mission Asteroid, originally shipped on twelve Apple II floppies (or possibly six double-sided floppies; my information is a little iffy here), making it easily the largest microcomputer game ever released at the time. I vaguely remember that Roberta Williams said it would take well over a year for anyone to complete it, and was disappointed when someone managed it within a week of its release. But this story may be apocryphal, or might be true of a different game entirely.

It’s a time-travel game featuring eight areas (seven continents plus one alien planet) in eight time periods, which makes for 64 possible combinations (65 if you include the “Home” setting), although apparently only 39 of them are actually visitable. I haven’t gotten very far in it yet. I’m still in the wandering-around phase, and will remain wandering around for some time. There are a great many filler rooms: mazes of featureless streets, King’s Quest-like grids of empty wilderness. This was released at a time when the size of an adventure game was often measured in rooms, an idea famously discredited by Level 9’s Snowball, with its thousands of useless algoritmically-generated locations. At least Time Zone gives each filler room a unique illustration, which accounts for most of the disk usage.

Mission Asteroid

mission_asteroidOK, let’s play something historical. Let’s get way on back. There are ten games in the Stack from before 1990. Three of them are Apple II games from Sierra, as re-released in the 1997 Roberta Williams Anthology. Today, I play the oldest: Mission Asteroid, Sierra’s “High-Res Adventure #0”. 1Actually the third released in the series, after Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess, both of which are already off the Stack.

The story of Mission Asteroid is basically the same story as Michael Bay’s Armageddon, but without the complexity. There’s an asteroid on a collision course with Earth, so you go up in a rocketship and blow it up with a bomb. That’s it. That’s pretty much the entire game right there. It was meant as a simple introductory adventure for beginners, and simple it is. Most of the game consists of following instructions and using things for their intended purpose. There’s one bit requiring a small leap of intuition at the very end, and I was briefly stuck on guessing the command to get through a door in the very beginning, but for the most part, the only serious obstacles are time limits: there’s an overall limit on the number of turns you can take before asteroid impact, and a smaller restriction on the air supply in your spacesuit.

Overall, it’s amateurish by today’s standards, more like what I’d expect from sample code for an adventure engine than a work you’d release on its own merits. It seems a little ungracious to pick on a game written under the technical limitations of the Apple II, but some games age better than others, and the ones that hold up the worst are those, like this one, based primarily on showing off new graphics technlogy. It’s clear that the authors spent most of their effort on creating the “high-res” 280×192 2The dimensions of the screenshot thumbnailed above are twice this, because that’s how the Apple II emulator included in the Roberta Williams Anthology renders it. illustrations for each room, and the vector-based graphics engine that draws them, stroke by stroke, as you watch. The parser and world model are barely capable of supporting even the minimal story that the game tells, and on three separate occasions resort to special-case disambiguation questions where the two-word parser is inadequate. The same authors would go on to create King’s Quest, another triumph of technology over content.

I note with interest that, even at this early stage, Sierra provided the convenience of toggling graphics by hitting the ‘return’ key on an empty command line, a feature that other illustrated adventure engines would imitate. But here, you can’t turn the graphics off permanently: the graphics come back as soon as the illustration changes, whether because you’ve changed location, or dropped something, or just stood still while the view through the window of your orbiting craft changes.

mission_asteroid-ironyOf course, no analysis of a work of asteroid-impact fiction would be complete without criticism of the physics involved. Blowing up an asteroid doesn’t make the matter disappear. It just breaks it into smaller pieces and starts them moving away from each other. If it’s mere hours away from Earth when blown up, as in this game, will the chunks be moving apart fast enough for most of them to miss the Earth entirely? Or will you just wind up “shooting yourself with a shotgun instead of a rifle”, as one astronomer put it? Mission Asteroid takes the pessimistic view here, and I can only assume it does so inadvertently. If you succeed in your mission, you get a “congratulations and thank you for playing” message, but the game doesn’t halt. You can keep on playing if you like, even though there’s nothing left to do. And if you do, the time limit is still active. A few turns after I won, the asteroid impact happened anyway.

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1. Actually the third released in the series, after Mystery House and The Wizard and the Princess, both of which are already off the Stack.
2. The dimensions of the screenshot thumbnailed above are twice this, because that’s how the Apple II emulator included in the Roberta Williams Anthology renders it.

Throne of Darkness: The End

tod-endIn the end, after you’ve defeated the demonic hordes assembled against you (preferably by using magic to kill them through a wall), it’s just four of you against one oversized demon who can knock you across the room before you get within sword’s reach. Fortunately, you have bows. More to the point, you have a wizard who can summon “dragons”. I put that word in scare quotes because the “dragons” you can summon are nothing like the dragons you fight elsewhere in the game. Instead, they’re basically automated gun turrets in the form of a ghostly dragon head sticking up through the floor. I’ve found that the best way to kill single extremely tough monsters in this game is to lay lots of dragon emplacements as fast as you can and then just run around in circles, adding more dragons as you go: the more you add, the more often the baddie gets hurt. It takes a lot of mana (or ki, as it’s called in this game) to pull this off, but as this is the final confrontation, I figured I may as well buy as many mana potions as I can carry. And so my wizard defeated the demon warlord Zanshin more or less singlehandedly, his companions being there mainly to keep the enemy distracted while I set up the initial dragon array.

After that moment of triumph, the final cutscene is a slap in the face. Basically, this is the point where the designers show just how slavisly they’re imitating Diablo. So be warned that I’m about to spoil the endings of both Diablo and Throne of Darkness.

If you’ve played Diablo, you probably remember the shock of the ending. Having defeated the titular demon and locked him back into the crystal he came from, the player character picks up that crystal… and stabs himself in the forehead with it. Which momentarily confuses the player, until you remember enough of the backstory to understand that the hero is binding Diablo’s essence to his own body in order to contain it, making the ultimate sacrifice of becoming a living vessel for the fiend, sealed away underground. It’s a dark, dark ending. There’s no earthly reward for the righteous, and a distinct possibility that the hero is going to eventually crack and let Diablo loose again, beginning the cycle anew.

The creators of Throne of Darkness were clearly aiming for something similar. After you defeat the Dark Warlord, the daimyo of your clan teleports in, takes the Dark Warlord’s sphere of power, and immediately transforms into the new Dark Warlord, turning the seven player characters into his new undead minions. (The final levels contained a “Dark” version of each of the player classes: Dark Swordsman, Dark Archer, etc. Presumably that’s what your team turns into.)

Now, neither of these games is high literature, but the Diablo ending has a bit of tragic depth to it, with the self-sacrifice for the greater good, while the Throne of Darkness ending comes off as no more than cheap irony, and mean-spirited at that. In Diablo, even if you take it that the world is still doomed, at least it’s spared for a while — longer, anyway, than the thirty seconds it takes the daimyo in Throne to render all your efforts pointless. If I had been playing the power-hungry Tokugawa clan, it might have seemed a more appropriate ending, turning into monsters as the ultimate result of placing ambition above all else. But I was playing the lawful-good Mori clan (it was the first one in the list). So the heroes are turned into monsters, not in punishment for their iniquities, or as a result of a tragic flaw, or in an act of self-sacrifice to spare others (as in Diablo), but “just because”.

Still, the final level had its virtues — mainly that, even with the most powerful characters and gear that I could reasonably hope to make, it still required some tactical thought. It’s significant that the monster supply, and thus the XP supply, is actually finite. In an RPG with an infinite XP supply, you have the option of avoiding the more difficult fights until you’re powerful enough to not have to think about them. Even here, I put off the final few castle floors in order to spend time levelling up. It helped, but it didn’t make things trivial. So, good overall balance, even if it did get tedious in the midgame.

Throne of Darkness: Fours and Fives

tod-hiI’ve explored all four slopes of the mountain now. Sure enough, the last one contained the Single Quest I had been missing. This was the Wizard’s quest, so it’s a good thing I went to the trouble of levelling him up.

This quest involved defeating a sequence of seven boss monsters, each alone in a separate chamber of a dungeon. Each chamber had a large kanji inscribed on the floor, possibly a hint about what sort of spells you’d need: 土 (chi/tsuchi, soil), 火 (ka/hi, fire), 電 (den, electricity), 血 (keshi/chi, blood), 気 (ki, spirit), 空 (kuu/sora, void or sky), 水 (sui/mizu, water). (The order may be randomized.) It’s a peculiar assortment. Fire, water, earth, and electricity are the four elements of the game’s magic system. Fire, water, earth, and void are four of the five classical Japanese elements, but air/wind is pointedly absent. Why blood and spirit are included is anyone’s guess, but I’ll note that both 土 and 血 can both be pronounced “chi” in Japanese (depending on context), and 気 is pronounced “chi” in Chinese.

I’m definitely overanalyzing this, but thinking about the element systems, it strikes me that the overall architecture of the game, like the classical elements, is in fours and fives. You’ve got four clans, each with its own castle, in a ring around the castle of the demon-possessed overlord Tsunayoshi. It’s tempting to declare that the four clans correspond to the game’s four elements, and that the central castle, on the mountaintop above the others, corresponds to kuu in the sense of “sky”. Well, okay, there’s one castle that’s surrounded by marsh, and which thus naturally corresponds to water, but that’s about as far as I can take this.

Reading the descriptions of the four clans in the manual, however, I think there may be a different base-four architecture at work. I hadn’t mentioned this before, but you can play any of the four clans, and presumably your choice affects the quests you get: the more noble and altruistic leaders will get quests to save surviving villagers, the more ruthless ones will seek out powerful foes solely to seize the sources of their power. From the manual:

Mori Motonari, the youngest Daimyo, is by far the most capable ruler of the four daimyos… He is currently under the impression that if Kira Tsunayoshi can be saved, they have every obligation to save him…

Seething with ambition, Oda Nobunaga leads a group of men who will stop at nothing to ensure he takes the throne. This attack has become a prime opportunity for Oda Nobunaga to destroy any obstacles, while having a legitimate reason to commit regicide… Oda’s ruthless tactics and heavy-handed rule are nevertheless brilliant…

A realist, Tokugawa Ieyasu has not only planned the entire offensive against the Dark Warlord, but has also created plans for his eventual attainment of Shogun himself… Although he will gladly join forces with any of the other Daimyo to increase his personal power, Ieyasu will be quick to exploit any weaknesses shown by the other clans…

Hideyoshi is a boisterous leader, and well liked by the normal troops because of his farming roots… Hideyoshi became known as “Hanuman.” … [H]e is called this for both his cunning and whimsical nature (like the monkey god’s namesake)…

In short, the four daimyo are respectively:

  • Loyal and honorable
  • Cruel and destructive
  • Scheming and machiavellian
  • Good-natured and whimsical

Which is to say, they are Lawful Good, Chaotic Evil, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Good.

Throne of Darkness: Words

I haven’t mentioned that objects in this game tend to have Japanese names. That is, you don’t get a two-handed sword and a full helmet, you get a nodachi and a kabuto. I was pleased to see the word “kanmuri” used for one of the weakest helmets, as I had seen this word before in a completely different context: in writing Japanese characters, a kanmuri is a radical that goes on top. Apparently it means “crown”. It’s all a little reminiscent of playing the Samurai class in Nethack, with its name substitutions for items, but in Nethack only a few items are covered, and here it’s nearly everything.

tod-kunimichiSome of these words have already percolated through gamer culture (is there anyone who doesn’t know what a shuriken is?), others have not. (What on earth is a shinjyu? Or a ka-ho? 1Answers: The “shinjyu” in the game, an enchanted string of beads, is probably 真珠, which means “pearl”. There’s also an item-enhancement component called a “pearl”, but I think that’s just a result of the developers not paying much attention to translations when they were choosing names. “Ka-ho” in the game is a gem that enhances your stats, and is probably 果報, “good luck”. ) Some may be made up or misapplied: the strongest armor in the game is called “kunimichi”, which googles primarily as the name of a famous swordsmith. I suppose that there aren’t any famous armorsmiths, and they ran out of real armor terms. (They ran out of monster names too, but solved that with the time-honored gimmick of shoving prefixes in front of everything: Forest Oni, Fire Oni, etc.)

To the extent that they refer to unknown things, the Japanese names are an obstacle to understanding. I’ve noticed before that I generally have an easier time getting used to the relative power of things in fantasy games than in sci-fi games, because “dragon” and “unicorn” are extremely clear and distinct ideas in my mind, while “photon cannon” and “tachyon beam” both get filed under technobabble. Similarly, even though I’ve studied Japanese a little, this game is full of what I can only see as Japanobabble. To someone learned in traditional Japanese martial technology, the difference between a “shibata” and a “nisun nobi” might be obvious. Me, all I have to go on is the pictures. They both look like bows.

But I suppose it’s educational. At least, in those cases where they didn’t just make up the words or assign them arbitrarily.

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1. Answers: The “shinjyu” in the game, an enchanted string of beads, is probably 真珠, which means “pearl”. There’s also an item-enhancement component called a “pearl”, but I think that’s just a result of the developers not paying much attention to translations when they were choosing names. “Ka-ho” in the game is a gem that enhances your stats, and is probably 果報, “good luck”.

Throne of Darkness: Unready

tod-guttyThe second floor of Castle Tsunayoshi ends in a transition from traditional Japanese decor to Hellmouth, complete with pointy teeth. And climbing the stairs to the third floor brings me to another one of those points where my party is slaughtered swiftly and mercilessly. In part, this is just the nature of stairs. When you climb stairs, you wind up in the middle of an unexplored space; there’s no safe area to fall back to. The archer and wizard can’t hang back in the rear if you’re surrounded. But also, it’s just that the monsters are suddenly a lot harder again.

So I left the castle and gave a thorough explore to the southeast slope of the mountain. This was a pretty meaty chunk of adventuring, with two small optional dungeons (in addition to the big one that leads into the castle, which has entrances on all four mountain paths). Several of my samurai gained levels, and my ninja has maxed out his skill in the “Fire Kanji” spell, effectively making him as powerful as my wizard as long as I keep buying him mana potions. My current plan is to keep on doing the slopes until I run out, then assault the castle again.

The general RPG design concept of making areas available before the player characters are actually ready to tackle them is one that I’ve praised in the past (Wasteland is a good example), but it doesn’t work quite so well at this moment. Mainly because of the way the game leads you around the gameworld by assigning quests. For the most part, just following the lead of the quest system takes you through the game in optimal order. There comes a point where the mountain trails become available, but your assigned quest is to continue to the next castle in the proper sequence; ignoring your quest and charging up the slopes quickly proves suicidal. But here in the endgame, that’s reversed: obeying orders and continuing into the castle is suicidal, and the sensible thing to do is to wander around in the wilderness, which makes no sense in the story.

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