Archive for November, 2008

Final Fantasy VI: Preparing for Disaster

There comes a point where the world breaks. Kefka reaches the sacred place where magic is kept in balance, and unbalances it. Continents split apart. The sea changes color. Long cutscenes play. The heroes’ airship is smashed like a bowl of eggs, and by the time the player is given control again, a year of gametime has passed. It’s clear that nothing will be the same from this point on.

So naturally my reaction is to immediately restore my last save. Not because I have any plans to prevent this apocalypse, which is clearly an inevitable part of the plot, but because it seems like a lot of doors are closing, and I want to do things in the world as it was while I still have the opportunity. On the most immediate scale, there’s an object near the breakpoint that I didn’t manage to pick up. (The ground splits under you if you approach it by the direct route; I had managed to work out how to get to it, but slipped up when I tried, owing to the Sprint Shoes I was wearing making it hard to control my movement.) Glancing at an online walkthrough to see if it was actually worth getting, I learned that I needed to do something slightly differently in the same scene if I ever wanted the ninja to rejoin my party again.

But even beyond the immediate situation, there are goals I want to pursue in the world as a whole. And here’s another of those false-urgency bits: even though the entire pre-cataclysm scene is built with a sense that you’re rushing to intervene before Kefka does something monstrously wrong, you’re given the opportunity at the last moment to go back to your ship and spend a week or two taking care of business.

The first thing I want to do is get Gau up to speed on the latest monsters. Gau has a special training area, the Veldt, where monsters that you’ve encountered in the rest of game show up. The in-game excuse is that they migrate there when you drive them out of the places where they live, which doesn’t make a lot of sense for the imperial soldiers and security robots, but there it is. You can spend a long time in the Veldt waiting for a particular monster to show up, and the designers have sensibly made it a no-XP zone, like the final areas in FF5. And, like those areas, although you aren’t getting normal XP that lets you level up, you do get the secondary version, Ability Points or Magic Points, which, in this game, lets you learn spells from your equipped Magicite crystals. Joining Gau this time is Strago, the Blue Mage, in the hope that he can learn some new spells from creatures that he never had a chance to observe the first time around, due to joining the party too late. Unlike FF5, where the Blue Mage (or someone with the Blue Mage’s “Learning” skill) had to be the target of an attack in order to learn it, it seems that Strago simply has to observe it. For that reason, I’m pairing him up with his granddaughter Relm, who has the ability to draw pictures of monsters that come to life just long enough to make a single attack. When the monster has an attack that Strago can learn, that usually seems to be the one that Relm produces. Thus, she’s kind of like the Trainer in FF5, in that she forms a natural complement to the Blue Mage, and making them relatives is a bit of a hint at that.

(Something to try in my next session: Can Relm draw the heroes? I hadn’t even thought of trying until now. Most attacks and spells can be directed either way, and there are situations where directing them the wrong way — healing the monsters or attacking the heroes — is actually helpful.)

There are other quests that need completing before the world is torn asunder. If there are any Espers still to be found, I should try to find them. (I almost missed the ones from the auction house. I wonder if the auctioneers know what Magicite does, and that they’re effectively holding a slave auction?) There were a couple of significant-seeming locations that I haven’t found the significance of yet, and which may be destroyed in a year. A minor quest involving delivering letters, which has yet to reach any sort of conclusion. The manual mentions a playable Moogle character, Mog, who isn’t part of my party yet, even though I’ve been through a Moogle den. He was playable briefly during that one tunnel defense scene, so I know he’s around, but Moogles are hard to tell apart when you can’t look at their stats. Maybe he’ll join when I talk to him if there’s an open slot in my party or something.

In the classic Wizardry IV, at the end of the initial level, there’s a sign just before the stairs that says “Have you forgotten something?” — a question that would become a repeated motif in the game, and work into the ending. Seeing it there for the first time was one of the most frightening experiences I’ve ever had in a RPG. Once the question has been posed, it’s hard to stop thinking about it. Have I forgotten something? Is there something else I’m supposed to have done by now? What if I can’t go back? The Final Fantasy games aren’t so cruel that they’d lock you out of victory for failing to notice a pickup, and they sometimes provide eleventh-hour second chances to complete collections. Still, I’d like to do what I can now, before I go to meet my appointment with the irrevocable.

Heroes Chronicles: Underworld Conquered

And now, a little break from Final Fantasy. With my Windows machine no longer acting as emergency backup server, I decided to finally finish up the last three maps in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld. And, having made that decision, Windows XP gave me a deadline. First, it declared that the hardware had changed enough that I needed to re-activate Windows within three days. Then, when I tried to do this, it refused, telling me that my registration key had been used too many times. I haven’t yet decided what to do about this. Get Vista? Buy another XP license? Dig my windows 98 CD out of the closet and install that? That last possibility has some appeal; a ten-year-old OS could possibly help me play games of the same vintage, provided it can make sense of my futuristic hardware. At any rate, I had three days to either do something about it, or to finish Conquest of the Underworld and consider my options at my leisure. I chose the latter route.

Fortunately, the last two maps are relatively short. I spent the majority of this session finishing up map 6. That map was a bit of an enigma: enemy heroes kept appearing even after I had taken possession of all the castles I could find. It turned out that their home was on the other side of a one-way portal, making them absolutely impossible to eradicate completely. Generally speaking, the way I’ve been playing this game is that I first eliminate all opposition, then I spend some time sending my main heroes around to places with permanent stat increasers that I didn’t get to during phase one. This time, during that final phase, I had to keep popping back to the vicinity of that portal via the Town Portal spell to slay those pesky heroes.

Map 7 was small, and I managed to wipe out the sole free-roaming enemy with my supercharged Tarnum before he could mount anything resembling a threat. There was just one catch: when I finished the mission objectives, I still hadn’t found the sixth and last piece of the Angelic Alliance. Turning to a walkthrough online, I learned that it was sitting more or less right next to Tarnum at the start of the level. I had given it to one of the other heroes; it hadn’t even occurred to me that it might be important. Fortunately, I had saved just before finishing the level, so I could go back and have the hero who had it deliver it to Tarnum. I suppose the level would have been easier if I had the Alliance from the beginning, but it’s not like Tarnum was ever in serious danger of losing a fight.

Map 7 is also significant in that it’s the first time that Queen Allison shows up as a hero, rather than as an unseen presence who’s mentioned in the plot text. This is important to the conclusion of the plot in map 8, where she’s taken captive by the demonic troops lent to her by a traitorous demon lord, who claims to be an enemy of the guys who abducted Rion Gryphonheart, but is in fact in league with them. This gives an excuse for Tarnum to enter the final chapter alone.

Amusingly, level 8, the depths of the abyss, is the only place in the entire episode where you can recruit halflings. Heroes of Might and Magic 3 has eight different city types, each with its own roster of creatures, but only four have shown up until this point: the castles of the knights staging the invasion, and the cities of the native demons, undead, and dungeon-dwelling creatures (troglodytes and beholders and so forth). The designers felt a need to provide an in-plot justification for the halflings’ sudden presence, but when you come right down to it, there’s a lot of non-underworldy stuff in the game that the player has by this point learned to ignore. Every time you pick up an artifact, for example, you get a randomly-selected piece of canned text describing how you found it. These text snippets aren’t at all customized for the environment, and sometimes mention things, such as orcs, that just plain don’t exist in the Underworld we’re shown. Then there’s the way that some levels have both “above-ground” and “underground” areas. You see this sort of thing all the time in fan-made levels and mods: someone wants to use a game engine to tell a story that it isn’t ideally suited for, so they do their best to map things in the game to elements in their story and just kind of ignore the ways that they don’t mesh. Arguably, this happens in commercially-published games as well, what with powerups and health-packs that aren’t plausibly part of the game setting — heck, I’ve commented before about gameplay elements that contradict the fiction in Final Fantasy. I think the difference that makes the ill-fitting elements seem more amateurish here is that they seem so avoidable. The scenario designers here could have easily written new artifact text to suit the Underworld environment, if they had that kind of control over the engine.

Anyway, Rion’s soul is free, as is his daughter. Hundreds of people gave their lives to make this happen, but apparently that’s okay, because they’re just troops and don’t count the way that characters with names do. Tarnum’s internal monologue is full of comments to the effect that he’s different from Tarnum the Tyrant because he’s learned his lesson about not callously disregarding the sanctity of human life, but I dunno.

There are two more episodes of Heroes Chronicles still on the stack. The next one, Masters of the Elements, has Tarnum as a wizard traversing the elemental planes. That should be fun; four-elements stuff is always appealing somehow. But that’s for another time.

Final Fantasy VI: Espers

Although the worlds in the Final Fantasy series have a lot of elements in common, those elements differ from game to game in their significance to the plot. Take the spells Meteor and Holy. Usually these are just direct-damage spells that the heroes can learn over the course of the game: Meteor is one of the strongest Black spells and Holy is one of the few White spells that kills things. But in FF7, Meteor is a potential extinction-level event and Holy is the only hope for stopping it. This forms the basis of the chief conflict for most of the game. The spells are turned into pure plot events, not part of the game mechanics at all: each is cast only once, in a noninteractive scene.

Similarly, while the bulk of the roster of summonable creatures is repeated from game to game, a particular summonable can be a significant character with its own backstory and cutscenes in one game, and a mere fireball substitute in the next. FF6 takes the former approach a step farther than the other games, though. I’ve mentioned before that one of the basic Final Fantasy plot devices consists of escalating the situation at the end of act 1 by bringing in a new enemy, a threat that dwarfs the previous conflict. The first enemy, for all its power, is ultimately human. The second is the genie that the first lets out of the bottle. The Shinra Corporation gives way to Sephiroth and Jenova, the empire of Galbadia to Ultimecia waiting at the end of time for everything to join her, the empire of Baron to Zemus in his lunar tomb. In FF6, the human enemy is once again an Empire. 1The Empire doesn’t seem to have a name other than “The Empire” in the version I’m playing. Apparently the GBA port calls it the “Gestahlian Empire”, after its leader, Emperor Gestahl. And the inhuman enemy, the alien threat from without? It’s the summonables. The Espers.

Or so it seems briefly, anyway. The plot is a mass of switchbacks, the player’s sympathy thrown this way and that. First the Empire is the bad guys, secretly keeping a number of Espers captive to drain them of magical power to fuel their Magitek, and ultimately killing them to turn them into “Magicite”. When the remaining free Espers find out, they go on a rampage, destroying most of the Empire as well as countless innocent bystanders. The contrite emperor declares that his war of conquest is over and pleads the heroes for help in making peace with the Espers — Terra, the party’s main mage, is uniquely suited for this, being half-Esper. Then, once you find the Espers and arrange a meeting, it turns out to all be a trick to lure the Espers into the open so Kefka can kill them en masse and sieze the resulting Magicite. Emperor Gestahl shows up personally to declare that this was his plan all along, and that Terra was released from the Empire deliberately in the hope that she’d make contact with the hidden Espers. That turns out to be Kefka magically altering his appearance to taunt you, but then it turns out that he actually is acting on the Emperor’s orders anyway. Somewhere in there, one of the playable characters, a renegade Imperial general named Celes, is accused of being an infiltrator in your party, still secretly loyal to the Empire. I didn’t pay any attention to this calumny at first, but what with all the other betrayals, I’m starting to wonder.

Now, Magicite is the source of magic in this game. Each individual Magicite crystal not only gives its wielder the ability to summon the Esper it came from, it also, over time, teaches you spells. It is in fact the only source of normal spells in the game. Thus, although in theory the death of an Esper is supposed to be a bad thing, you basically wind up hoping it’ll happen more. In that way, it’s kind of like FF5, where the shards of the crystals you were supposed to be protecting yielded new Jobs. The Magicite fragments even look a lot like FF5‘s crystals.

In fact, there’s a lot about the whole situation that reminds me of other games in the series. As in FF5, things become summonable by dying, and it’s even more explicit this time. Like FF4, the summonables have a hidden underground home where they live their lives far from the prying eyes of humans. I mentioned in a previous post how the discovery of an Esper buried in a mine reminded me of FF7‘s Jenova, and that’s an impression greatly strengthened now that I know that the Empire was using captive Espers in secret experiments to create magic-capable soldiers. Equipping a crystal in order to gain spells is a little reminiscent of FF7‘s Materia, but the way I keep shuffling them around between characters, not for the sake of the summon ability but for the ancillary benefits, mainly reminds me of FF8‘s Junction system.

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1. The Empire doesn’t seem to have a name other than “The Empire” in the version I’m playing. Apparently the GBA port calls it the “Gestahlian Empire”, after its leader, Emperor Gestahl.

Final Fantasy VI: Comic Opera

I’ve acquired the airship that inevitably appears in every Final Fantasy. In this installment of the series, the inevitable airship is owned by one Setzer, a notorious gambler and ne’er-do-well with a sideline in abducting attractive young opera singers. Still, the moment he’s mentioned, it’s completely clear that he’s destined to join the good guys. It’s clear because of the way he’s introduced: like all the playable characters, you get a brief scene of him standing against a black background with a few lines of text summarizing his character, and then you get an opportunity to change his name from the default if you like.

I wonder how many players actually take advantage of the renaming option? It seems like it would just create confusion. If I were to change Setzer’s name to something else — Jasque, for example — I’d still have to remember that Jasque is really Setzer whenever I talk about the game with anyone else or read online hints or anything like that. I guess that’s essentially what I ran into when I gave individual names to all my pokémon, but that strikes me as different. Those things didn’t have personalities. Setzer is a distinct character, with an author who isn’t me.

At any rate, Setzer’s in my party now, and has quickly taken over the Han Solo role. This part was previously played by Locke, the party’s thief, but his qualifications are merely that he’s a rogue with a heart of gold, whereas Setzer is a rogue with a heart of gold and his own ship.

But what about the attempted abduction of Maria, the opera singer? Surely kidnapping someone in the middle of a performance is more the sort of thing you’d expect from a deformed sociopath in a mask than from a charming rogue! Well, maybe. At one point before the performance an entity known as Ultros forges a letter from Setzer, hoping to mislead the heroes, so I had some suspicion that he might have also forged the letter announcing Setzer’s attempt to take Maria away (which, when you come right down to it, is a pretty stupid thing to write). But after consulting various wikis, I have to conclude that it’s not so.

Who is this Ultros character? When I first saw him sneaking around the opera house, my only thought was that he was a goofy-looking purple spider. But once I engaged him in battle, and got his full character portrait rather than the squashed-down 16×16 version, he turned out to be a goofy-looking purple octopus. Apparently I already encountered him once, but had completely forgotten about it, even though it had to have occurred less than a week ago. An octopus as a boss monster at the end of a river travel sequence is forgettable; the same octopus sneaking up into the rafters of an opera house and threatening to drop a four-ton weight on the prima donna is somewhat less forgettable.

To fully appreciate the situation, you have to understand that the opera content is played more or less straight, and is actually pretty impressively staged, given the 8-bit theatre. The music is convincingly impassioned and operatic, and even though the arrangement is for videogame console, it conveys enough to let us imagine the orchestra that should be playing it. A synthesized approximation of a singing voice accompanied by lyrics on the screen tell us a story taken from the gameworld’s history, one which I have a sneaking suspicion is going to tie into the main plot at some point. Like the overplot, it’s a story of the injustices of conquest. But even without the octopus around, there’s the matter that it’s all being done by 16×16 super-deformed sprites that emote, to large extent, by jumping around. During the normal course of play, I accept this as just a part of the medium, but here, the whole presentation has changed enough for the strangeness, the incongruity of form and content, to call attention to itself again.

AKA GourdskiIt all reminds me a little of Osamu Tezuka, the renowned “god of manga”. Tezuka’s comics often addressed serious themes, but he never forgot that he was ultimately a professional doodler. His characters were always these softly rounded caricatures, their gestures often ludicrously exaggerated. And whenever he felt things were getting too heavy, he’d throw in some gratuitous visual silliness to break the tension, most often the sudden appearance of a “hyoutan-tsugi”, which is something like a patched-up gourd with a piglike snout. Sometimes he’d suddenly have a multitude of them suddenly rain from the sky and bounce off people’s heads. Tezuka basically created the Japanese animation industry; as such, he’s indirectly responsible for the style of much of today’s imported Japanese culture, including Final Fantasy. Tezuka died when the Final Fantasy series was still in its infancy, so we’ll never know what he would have thought of what it became. But I think he would have approved of Ultros.

Final Fantasy VI: Bridging the Gap

Usually, when I play a series of games, I play them in order of release, even if that means suffering through the crummy ones before I get to the ones everyone raves about. Final Fantasy has been an exception, and that provides me a rare opportunity to observe the earlier ones with full knowledge of where things were heading. FF6 is a bridging element in my experience of the series: I’ve already played FF5 and FF7. And it’s interesting to me to see the ways it fits a niche halfway between those two games.

As I’ve commented before, the setting of FF5 seemed to be a medieval veneer over advanced industrial technology. The designers wanted to use submarines and force fields and interplanetary travel, but they still wanted to present it as basically a standard pre-industrial fantasy gameworld with castles and dragons and so forth, so the high tech came off as somewhat incongruous and anachronistic. In FF7, this was reversed: the swords-and-sorcery stuff was the anachronism in a setting that’s basically modern and even futuristic in places. Now, FF6 still has castles and kings, but the idea of technology substituting for magic is central to the premise, so they can’t try to sweep it all under the rug without comment the way FF5 did. On the contrary: whenever there’s technology around, which there frequently is, the characters essentially keep saying “Look! Technology!” One of those kings is a playable character, and also a gadgeteer who’s fitted out his castle with all the latest things, including engines for burrowing into the sand and traveling underground.

The character system also has aspects of both FF5 and FF7. Like the former, you have job skills: only the thief can steal things in combat, only the gadgeteer I just mentioned can use clockpunk contraptions, etc. Like the latter, character class is inextricably bound to individual characters, and each “class” has exactly one character in it. Class doesn’t really mean all that much in FF7, though, since the function of job skills — the main thing the whole Job system was used for — is taken over by Materia. The characters differ only in their base stats, what kinds of equipment they can use, and their “limit breaks”, the special attacks that you only get to use after taking a lot of damage. FF6 seems to have a proto-limit break system. At least, the manual claims that characters can make more powerful attacks when they’re low on health. I haven’t observed this myself, because it’s hard to keep a character low on health long enough for them to make an attack: any enemy group capable of reducing someone to that state is probably also capable of finishing them off unless you provide massive healing at the earliest opportunity. I suppose this is why the designers altered the rules when they made FF7. (“Has taken a lot of damage” is not the same as “is currently low on health”, and is a much easier state to achieve.)

I can’t say much about the plot at this early stage, but so far it’s revolved around an “Esper”, a being of great magic, discovered embedded in a crystal in a mine. The empire wants it, and the player characters don’t want them to have it. After a while, it essentially hatches from its mineral shell and somehow merges with the party’s magic specialist, Terra, who transforms into something other than human and flies away. This could be seen as FF5‘s defend-the-crystals plot combined with the FF7‘s business about Jenova, a powerful alien being discovered underground, whose living cells were injected into humans in a super-soldier project. Or is that too much of a stretch?

Final Fantasy VI: Playing Defense

Twice now, I’ve encountered a special sort of mini-game in Final Fantasy VI, one where you have to defend a position by moving troops around on a network of tunnels, taking care to keep all possible routes blocked. FF7 had something similar to this, in an optional bit where you could get some special Materia by defending an egg on a mountaintop, but that was more of a pure minigame, with mechanics completely separate from the main game. Whereas in the FF6 version, each confrontation is fought out in the regular combat engine, using the same characters that you’ve been using all along.

Mind you, the first time around, I hadn’t yet accumulated the palette of playable characters I have now, so only one of the three groups I controlled had established characters in it. The rest were filled out with moogles. The second time, I have seven characters and have to divide them into three groups, which makes for a nice bit of tough decision-making. I want each group to be capable of wiping out an attacker in one or two rounds; this requires characters with special skills that let them attack multiple enemies at once, and I only have so many of them. Ideally, I also want a healer in every group, but I only have two mages.

Gau the wild-boy may be the key to that. His special ability is the ability to mimic the attacks of monsters he’s watched you fight. In other words, he’s kind of like the Blue Mage in FF5, but with some key differences, such as that you can only tell Gau what creature to imitate, not which of that creature’s attacks to use. (I understand there’s another Blue Mage-like character to come, and I will probably go into more detail when I encounter him.) At any rate, one time I found a creature that lets Gau cast a resurrection spell. It didn’t do much good, because no one in my party was dead at the time, but it gives me the hope that I might be able to find a creature that lets Gau cast healing spells. He knows a lot of creatures, though, and it’ll take some time to try them all out, so I’ll probably get through the current defense mission before discovering it. I’ll just have to rely on potions.

I think I basically prefer the FF6 version of the defense game to the FF7 one, because of the way it’s integrated into the game, but there’s one thing I find annoying about it: it’s constantly interrupting me. The whole thing is realtime, you see. If I decide that I want to move one of my groups to a particular spot, the enemy keeps advancing while I do it. If they engage a group other than the one I’m currently controlling, I immediately have to fight the new group. By the time that’s done, I’ve lost track of what I was trying to do on the main map; by the time I’ve got it figured out again, I’m plunged into another fight. Maybe it would be better if the main map were turn-based, but that would be contrary to the nature of the game as a whole, with its “active battle” system. I think what I really want is for it to be mouse-based, or in some other manner to allow me to tell a unit to go to a particular destination, rather than having to control it every step of the way with the D-pad. In other words, an RTS interface, because an RTS is essentially what it is.

Final Fantasy VI

And it’s about time to break this one out, I think: the last Final Fantasy to play before I catch up to where I came in with FF7. 1At least, until I get a system capable of playing FF3. The Jobs system from FF5 is gone again, replaced by a plethora of playable characters, each with their own class, and each with a special ability comparable to the Job skills. If there’s ever a point where you can swap characters into and out of the party at will, though, I have yet to reach it. There’s a point I’ve reached where the party splits up into three groups and you can choose which group to follow, but you ultimately have to play through all three scenes, so you’re really only choosing the order to play them in.

The premise as described in the initial cut-scene was kind of intriguing: it sets up a Magic vs Technology scenario, but with magic, not technology, as the threat that throws everything out of balance. There was a vastly destructive mage war, followed by a thousand years without magic, and now a certain General Kefka is rashly trying to reawaken the old powers in order to help his empire take over the world. Unless he has a personal agenda, of course, and is just using his position in the Empire to pursue it. Kefka’s a cackling, hand-wringing sort of villain, and it won’t be surprising at all if he turns out to be a thousand-year-old wizard or something.

The thing that bugs me about this is that the premise is almost completely ignored by the game mechanics. We’re promised a world in which magic is all but unknown, and then immediately find that the imperial army is heavily based around something called “magitek”. As far as I can tell, the only difference between magic and magitek is that magitek doesn’t use mana, which would seem to make it preferable to magic proper. Similarly, a lot of the monsters are capable of producing what third-edition D&D would call “spell-like effects”. I suppose the implication from the backstory is that magic has the potential to be much more powerful than sufficiently-advanced technology. But right now, I’ve got this genuine mage in my party, someone considered valuable enough to the Empire that they’re sending armies to hunt her down, and she’s not all that. Yet.

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1. At least, until I get a system capable of playing FF3.

The recent unpleasantness

Last Tuesday, my server went down. This is not unusual; when you run your own server, you come to expect service to be interrupted once in a while. Usually it’s the router, and usually all I need to do is power-cycle it. Until recently, if this happened while I was at work, I’d just dash home and fix it. My current commute makes this impractical, so the downtime can last multiple hours, until I get home.

This time, it was even worse. When I got home, before I even got in the door, I could hear the alarm from my battery back-up. Something had gone seriously wrong with the system, presumably with the PSU. The machine was unbootable.

In times past, when my server suffered catastrophic hardware failure, I’d fix it with a transplant from my Windows machine, and then go buy a replacement part as soon as the shops open the next day. But this assumes a certain equivalence of hardware. Ever since I moved across the country, and left my old server behind to minimize downtime, my server has lived in a small-form-factor Shuttle box. This has a nice quiet PSU, but it’s a nonstandard size and shape, designed to fit snugly in the one case it was optimized for. I do like the system a lot, and I’ve been saying for some time that I should replace my big noisy Windows machine with another Shuttle box when I upgrade again, but since I started this blog, and have devoted most of my gaming hours to old stuff, I’ve had little motivation to upgrade.

There was another option for a transplant, though: move the hard drives into the Windows machine. Having done this, it failed to boot. Attempting to do an emergency repair of the OS, I discovered that the version of Linux I was using (Debian Sarge) didn’t recognize several of the system’s internal devices, including the specific ethernet adaptor and the SATA port. So it couldn’t access my data or the Internet, which kind of made it a failure as a server.

At this point, I was thinking that I’d need to get some replacement hardware before I could get the server up and running again. Which posed another problem: With my current commute, I can’t shop for hardware on weekdays. My job is in a location with nothing around it except cheap office space. My home is within walking distance of an excellent computer store, but it’s not open yet when I leave in the morning and closed when I get home. In desperation, I placed a rush order with newegg, telling them to deliver to the office, but this ran into validation problems because my credit card company didn’t have the office listed as an address of mine. By the time this got striaghtened out, the advantage of ordering online had been lost: the weekend was approaching, so I figured I might as well wait it out and buy the necessary components personally.

Which, ultimately, I didn’t do. When Saturday rolled around, I got the server up again by upgrading Debian Linux to the newest stable release, which recognizes the hardware on my working machine. Upgrading to a new release of Debian is always a pain — that’s why I was still running Sarge after all this time. Even now, after a day of tinkering, I don’t seem to have the mail server completely right. Nonetheless, it’s up, as you can tell by the fact that you’re reading this.

It’s not entirely happy with the new hardware, though. The load average keeps on getting into double digits. I’ve set up a cron job to restart mysql and apache every 15 minutes, which keeps it from getting entirely wedged, but clearly this is not an ideal solution. Also, it was periodically overheating, especially when doing something computationally intensive, like attempting to install upgraded Linux packages. The OS is smart enough to throttle down when this happens, but whenever it did, it would issue a warning to all consoles (messing up any text editor I had open) and beep. And then it would beep again a second or two later when the temperature came back to acceptable parameters. It’s as if the system had hiccups. I managed to turn off the warning and the beeping, but it’s just one more reason I need to get this system back into something it’s happy with, before it burns down the house or something. It all makes me wonder what was going on when the same hardware was running Windows. Was it running hot and simply not telling me?

Anyway, I have more hardware on order — not a rush order this time, because the crisis has passed. But in the meantime, I’m without a Windows machine. Which means it’s time to switch over to the PS2 for a while. As far as I’m concerned, the big lesson from this whole experience has been that it’s really inconvenient to not live near where you work and also work near where you shop. I suppose other people would derive a different lesson: that it’s not worth it to run your own server, not in the 21st century when there are plenty of reliable free alternatives. But that’s crazy talk.

Heroes Chronicles: Big Room

Well, I finally got the Town Portal spell. And just in time, too: map 6 is the kind of vast, sprawling thing where it’s really needed. It’s also highly open. Since this is the Underworld, most of the maps have been largely made of narrow tunnels, which makes it harder to find your way to where you want to go, but at the same time makes it easier to defend your turf. With tunnels, you pretty much don’t need to leave troops to defend your castles. On an open map like this one, enemy heroes can just slip through the gaps between mine and make a beeline for my castles. Which means I need a way to get defenders to my castles quickly, which is presumably why this is the level where the Town Portal spell appears.

It reminds me a little of the “big room” level in Nethack, which also puts you into an open space where it’s harder to defend. The similarities pretty much end there, though.

Town Portal helps, but I only have three significantly powerful heroes, and I’d really like them out in the front most of the time, exploring new territory and conquering new castles instead of playing defense. I’m kind of getting the hang of how this works. In the past, my chief priority was to buy as many creatures as I could as soon as they became available for purchase and get them to the main heroes as quickly as possible. That’s not such a concern now that Tarnum is Mr. Overkill. Instead, the thing that makes sense is to wait until an enemy approaches a castle and only then fill it with defenders. The troops available for hire build up over time, and this way I don’t wind up wasting my money on pikemen in a castle that never gets attacked.

Purchasing the defenders not only makes the castle’s defense stronger, it makes them unavailable for purchase in those cases where the enemy takes over the castle anyway. And that’s another change made by this level: Castles are plentiful. You don’t have to hold onto them like grim death; if an enemy takes one, you can probably take it back next turn. If you’re lucky, he’ll even spend some money on a new building. But it’s a nuisance when they actually manage to grow their army in the process.

And that’s about all the enemy is to me at this point: a nuisance. Maybe it’s time to turn the difficulty up another notch. It’ll have to wait, though, for reasons I’ll get into in my next post.

Heroes Chronicles: Angelic Alliance

I’ve just had a bit of a relief. Back in map 3 of Conquest of the Underworld, there’s a scripted event wherein someone advises Tarnum to keep a certain enchanted helm, sword, and necklace on his person at all times. This was worrying because I had only found the helm and the sword. Had I missed the necklace? Would I have to start over yet again to find it? Looking at saved games from the previous levels, I found that I had done a pretty thorough job of searching them, and thus I plunged ahead. It ultimately showed up on the fifth of the game’s eight maps.

I’m guessing that the misleading text there is a holdover from an earlier draft of the plot, one where things happened in a different order. The helmet, sword, and necklace referred to are pieces of a six-part ensemble called the Angelic Alliance, one of the uniting features of the campaign as a whole. Each piece is a powerful stat-booster in its own right, and apparently obtaining the full set makes you even more ridiculously buff. Each map except the first and (I assume) the last contains one piece.

Now, there’s a long history of this kind of synergetic uber-outfit in CRPGs — Wizardry 2 may have been the first to do it. And it’s a pretty good fit to RPG-like gameplay. But Heroes isn’t a RPG. At least, it claims to be a strategy game, and it’s hard to see how the Angelic Alliance can avoid exacerbating a problem endemic to hero-stack-based strategy games: that the strategy tends to devolve into just putting all your troops and magic items and so forth onto one hero and sending him on a rampage. Being able to simply overpower your opponents is anathema to actual strategic thought.

It all comes down to the positive-feedback problem again. Even without the power duds, the three heroes that I’m allowed to bring with me from map to map have stats well above the norm for their experience level, due to having gone through five maps worth of permanent upgrades. The same thing happened when I played the first Heroes Chronicles episode, Warlords of the Wasteland. I responded then by turning the difficulty up, and I’m doing the same thing now.

But really, it’s like the designers don’t see it as a problem. They embrace it, encourage it even. Not only have they designed the whole campaign around an opportunity to turn Tarnum into an unstoppable badass who can take down a demon horde with a handful of pikemen, they actually have that NPC I mentioned in the first paragraph. Just in case you decided to spread the stat boosts around among your heroes, he’s there to tell you that you’re doing it wrong.

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