Archive for May, 2008

Etherlords: Skill Gain

Well, I’ve finally gotten past map 3 in the red/black campaign. I found it easier than the corresponding scenario in the blue/green campaign, but I’m not sure if this is because it actually is easier or because I’m getting better. The use of overland spells seemed important to my victory, but I don’t remember seeing the obelisks that you learn them from in blue/green map 3. Were they absent, or did I just not notice them because they look too much like normal terrain features? I’ll have to go back and find out at some point. If it turns out that I’m just getting the hang of things, all I can say is that the learning curve for the strategic part of the game is pretty steep. Probably the designers didn’t spend as much time on it as they did on combat mode, which is clearly the heart of the game.

Regardless, to a certain extent getting this far was luck of the draw. You might expect that to be the case for something with card-game-like gameplay, but that isn’t even the part of the game I’m talking about. Whenever a hero gains a level, he also gains a skill. Skills are things like Strength (extra hit points) and Resources (lets you carry more runes) and Concentration (draws extra spells during combat). Each can be taken up to 3 times with cumulative effects. There are 15 different skills, but you don’t get to choose from the full set when you level — instead, you have to choose from three that the game picks for you at random. Heroes of Might and Magic does something similar. It’s a nice compromise, if you ask me. If you let the player choose whatever skills they want, they’ll probably assign the same skills to every hero and not get much variation in gameplay, and if you just assign a skill at random without letting the player choose, the player will be frustrated every time they get stuck with something they don’t want and probably wind up loading a save and trying again (kind of like when hit point gains are randomized). Limited choice within a randomized field mitigates both problems.

Or at least it does if the skills are reasonably balanced. In Etherlords, there are a few skills that really help a lot. Gaining experience levels faster than the enemy heroes is important, so Learning (bonus experience) is a more valuable skill than most. Perhaps unintuitively, Mobility (move farther per turn) helps even more. The main source of XP is wild monsters, and a lot of the time they’re spaced out just far enough that a normal hero can almost but not qute travel between them in one turn. In such circumstances, Mobility effectively doubles the rate at which you gain XP. And if one of your heroes gets both Learning and Mobility at once, well, you’ll find it a lot easier to get through red/black map 3. I speak from experience.

Etherlords: The four armies

Magic: The Gathering has five colors of magic:

Red is fire, chaos, and destruction. Red has a lot of direct-damage spells (things like fireballs and lightning bolts), as well as spells to destroy land cards and artifacts. Red creatures tend to be straigthforward melee machines like orcs and minotaurs, and stronger on attack than defense.

Green is the the color of growth and vegetation. Green creatures tend to be either wild animals or elfy stuff. Green has some of the strongest creatures in the game, but it also has good buffs, and can succeed by bringing out lots of small, cheap creatures and making the ones that survive stronger. Green is also a good color for getting extra mana.

Blue’s main theme is magic itself, and to a certain extent intelligence, air, and water. Blue spells specialize in metamagical trickery: spells that affect other spells tend to be blue, as are spells that let you draw extra cards and the like. Blue creatures tend to have special powers, and can often fly (which means they can’t normally be blocked by non-fliers).

Black has undead and demonic creatures, many of which have nasty combat side-effects — for example, growing stronger by killing creatures, or making the enemy discard cards when not blocked. Black is also notable for spells that have negative side-effects for the caster, and in particular has effects that require “sacrificing” one of the caster’s creatures.

White is the chivalry and holiness color, and features most of the healing and protection effects in the game. White creatures tend to be knights and other soldiery types, and there are some white effects that buff everything of a particular type, encouraging the player to create homogenous armies.

Now, you’ll notice that each color has both a theme in the game’s fiction and some tendencies in how it plays. These are separate things, and Etherlords demonstrates this by separating them.

The Chaots have Etherlords‘ version of red magic, with its orcs and kobolds and cheap direct-damage spells. Because of those direct-damage spells, it’s the one side that’s most faithful to M:tG. But it also has good defensive creatures, and it has the Kobold Shaman, which can “rest” 1Etherlords calls “rest” what M:tG calls “tap”. All it means is that this is an ability that a creature can use once per turn, and only if it hasn’t participated in an attack. to do 1 point of damage to any player or creature — which makes it equivalent to M:tG‘s Prodigal Sorcerer, a blue creature. Also, it has the best creature buffs in the game, which makes it more like green.

Green magic is represented by the Vitals. The elfy stuff has been dropped, leaving creatures like snakes and hornets and giant ticks. Where M:tG has green creatures that can grant you extra mana when tapped, Etherlords has spells that give you an instant mana boost, including the “Sacrifice” spell, which would definitely be black in M:tG. I have trouble discerning overall trends in the Vitals, though. It’s a versatile side.

Blue is replaced by the Kinets, which are described as creatures of icy logic and experts in rapid movement, although I don’t really see how this is reflected by the blue spells. Mainly what we have here is cheap flying creatures and defensive buffs, although, as with the Vitals, this can vary a lot depending on what sorts of creatures you put into your deck. Warrior Spirits, for example, seem like they could be a very effective basis for a Kinets deck, despite not flying, because of their Lifetap ability (which heals you as it damages the enemy), but I haven’t really been able to try it. Maybe on a more advanced map.

The Synthets take the place of black, and are definitely the one side that’s most changed: synthets are bizarre semi-mechanical beings. Apart from the heroes, they don’t even look like modified organisms; they just look like things that naturally have wheels and springs as components. Although it doesn’t have many sacrificial abilities, the overall theme of the Synthet side seems to be not caring whether your creatures live or die. Synthet creatures are disposable, and often have some form of innate ability to regenerate or return from the dead. There’s even a cheap Synthet resurrection spell that, as a bonus, does 1 point of damage to the enemy. Synthets also have a wide assortment of debuffs, as well as the spell “Twisted Enhancement”, an interesting enchantment that grants +2/+2 to a creature, but then lowers its stats by 1/1 every turn until it dies. This is obviously a way to get the most out of one of your disposable creatures, but in some situations it can also be cast on an opponent’s creatures to kill them off.

There is of course no white side. The healing and protection side of white seems to be mostly taken over by the Vitals, while the business of powering up everything of a given type is spread out through all the sides, mainly by means of “Elder” types of specific species (for example, an Aviak Elder powers up all Aviaks). Really, most abilities are spread out through all sides like this. That’s sort of true in M:tG as well, but it’s not as necessary there, because M:tG allows the possibility of making a multi-color deck. In Etherlords, each hero belongs to one and only one side, and can only obtain spells belonging to that side.

1 Etherlords calls “rest” what M:tG calls “tap”. All it means is that this is an ability that a creature can use once per turn, and only if it hasn’t participated in an attack.

Etherlords: Switching Sides

So, here I am again, making repeated posts about my failure to make progress in a turn-based fantasy strategy game. I’ve started the other campaign in the hope that this will help. There are four four sides in the conflict, but in campaign mode, they’ve divided into two alliances, so you have the red/black campagin and the green/blue campaign. I had started out on the green/blue (or Vitals/Kinets, as the game calls them), which gives you just green heroes on the first two maps and switches to blue on map 3. The red/black (Chaots/Synthets) campaign similarly starts you out red, and switches to black on the third map. How it goes after that, I still don’t know.

It’s not at all unusual for strategy games to provide two or more separate campaigns, so you can play as both the good guys and the bad guys — although, as I’ve pointed out, there aren’t really any good guys in Etherlords. How the different outcomes are reconciled varies from game to game: some, like Command & Conquer, treat them as alternate and exclusive events resulting in the complete victory of whichever side you played, while others, like Starcraft, treat them as happening one after the other. The original Warcraft was notable for providing two campaigns that seem like they both end the war in victory, and thus are incompatible, but if you were paying close attention, you realized that they could in fact be taking place simultaneously — and indeed, the sequel is predicated on the consequences of the final missions of both sides.

In a game with asymmetric sides, providing multiple campaigns is also a way to give the solo player the full experience, letting them use everything and have everything used against them. And the sides in Etherlords do play rather differently in combat mode: blue has cheap flying units, red has lots of direct-damage spells, and so forth. (I’ll have to do a fuller post on the differences, once I have a better handle on black.) But combat mode isn’t really where I’m having problems. It’s in the strategic map that I can’t seem to get things organized fast enough, and that’s basically the same for both sides, apart from the graphics. Still, playing as black, and seeing what tactics I fall to as black, might give me some ideas about tactics to use against black. Better tactics could mean that I could challenge the high-level heroes earlier.

Etherlords: Third Map Syndrome

The first time I tried playing Etherlords, I managed to get as far as the third scenario of the campaign before giving up. I’m at that point again now, and once again, I’m finding it tough going. I recall also getting stuck on the third map in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld, which I really should get around to finishing at some point. There may be a general pattern at work here. Two examples isn’t really enough to establish this, but these games have a common structure in the early levels that it’s easy to imagine other similar games falling into: the first map is basically a risk-free tutorial in basic UI features, and the second is a gentle introduction to the mechanics of what you’ll actually be doing in the game, so it’s only on the third map that the game starts treating you as if you already understand the game, even if you don’t really.

Beating an enemy in this game essentially comes down to leveling one of your heroes fast enough that he can take on the enemy’s strongest hero, preferably before that enemy hero starts destroying your castles. If you can do that, everything else is just mopping up. Good choice of spells can help you take out a hero that’s a level or two higher than yours, but unless I’m missing something, that’s pretty much the limit. So, in the map I’m stuck on, I’m facing down the red and black teams simultaneously. I’ve managed to successfully subdue red’s level 6 champion using a level 4 character, but once I do that, black seems to suddenly develop two level 9 heroes that I’m just not ready for yet.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of strategic or tactical advice for this game on the web — such is the price of obscurity, I suppose, although tons of gaming sites have lists of cheat codes for it anyway. One of the few suggestions I’ve seen is to throw several expendable low-level heroes at the enemy before engaging him for real. This is the sort of thing you’d do to a hero stack in a normal game, but I hadn’t been going in for it here, because the point is usually to kill off the enemy’s troops bit by bit, and this game doesn’t quite work that way: all combat troops are summonned afresh during combat mode. However, the enemy, like the player, needs “runes” (spell ammo) to cast any spells (other than the few cantrips you start off with). So the idea here is to send your sacrificial lambs to make the enemy waste as many runes as possible before the real fight begins. I haven’t tried this technique yet, but will probably give it a whirl tomorrow.

My failures make me kind of wonder if I’m doing this all wrong. Not in a conventional strategic or tactical sense, but on the meta level: how often I save the game, how soon I go back to an earlier save and how far back I take things. Maps 1 and 2 were pretty laid-back about all this — on map 2 in particular, I kept losing heroes to ill-considered elective skirmishes, but kept going anyway, and eventually won. But map 3 demands efficiency, and making things efficient requires a lot of failed experimentation.

Etherlords: Undue Complexity

Frankly, I think Etherlords makes things excessively complicated. And I’m not talking about combat mode here. The M:tG model easily lends itself to becoming a mass of special cases and exceptions, but the core rules are actually fairly simple, and Etherlords streamlines them further. But outside of combat mode, on the overland map? Just the opposite: there are few exceptions because the very basics are byzantine. In order to assign new spells to a hero, you have to go to a magician’s hut and buy them. But there’s no money: you buy things with combinations of seven different non-interchangable resources, all with unhelpful wizardy names that tell you nothing about what they’re good for — a given spell might cost 4 Mandrake Root and 1 Black Lotus, for example. Once you have the spells in your spellbook, you have to go to a portal and buy “runes” to actually use them — each rune is good for only one use, and a hero can carry at most five runes per spell, unless endowed with a special skill that expands this limit. (There must be a better word than “runes” for this mechanic. Reagents, maybe.) The purpose of all this? Mainly just to put limits on what you can cast in combat — something that’s already covered by the differing mana costs of spells. 1Actually, the game calls mana “ether”, but I’ve been calling it mana so far, so why stop now? There’s also an eighth resource used solely for casting overland spells (such as summoning new heroes).

The manual is pretty lengthy, which I suppose is one way that the game shows its age. Today’s games tend to cover the details in-game, through context menus and other discoverable means. Indeed, that’s how combat mode works here: aside from a few points like how mana channels work, you can pretty much learn how to fight by right-clicking on things to discover their significance and special properties. On the overland map, everything is at least one step removed from its significance. You can right-click on a mandrake farm to learn that it yields mandrake root to its owner, but not why you want mandrake root. You can right-click on a portal to learn that it sells runes, but only the manual or a lot of experiment will tell you that runes = spell ammo. On the level I’m on, I can see a spellbook guarded by a monster. I can tell that it teaches Bless, but it doesn’t tell me what the effects of Bless are. The only way to know how urgent it is to spend turns on acquiring it is to try and see, and possibly restore afterward. Or, I suppose, read that manual. But even documentation isn’t necessarily adequate to give understanding of implications.

There might be a bit of a grognard capture in effect here — goodness knows I’m not much of a strategy gamer, and the genre was popular enough when Etherlords was written (the golden age of Warcraft and Command & Conquer) that a game written just for the hard-core fans could get a wide release. But even so, the designers of Etherlords were taking a risk by jamming two such grognardy genres together. It’s like a game aimed just at those people who are enthusiasts of both strategy games and CCGs. Okay, so those two fandoms have a pretty large intersection. I just have to contrast it to Puzzle Quest, which seems to me extremely accessible, choosing as it did a simplified RPG model and an already-simple combat mechanic.

1 Actually, the game calls mana “ether”, but I’ve been calling it mana so far, so why stop now?


etherlords-aviaksI recently mentioned that the magic system in Puzzle Quest was reminiscent of Magic: the Gathering, but here’s a game that takes that to an extreme. Etherlords is basically a turn-based strategy game with mechanics on the large scale derived from Warlords and Heroes of Might and Magic, but combat mode is very specifically patterned after the mechanics of M:tG. Both sides have a hand of spells chosen at random from your “library” (or deck); spells in hand are used up when cast, but you automatically draw one new one every turn. Some of those spells summon creatures, which are characterized chiefly by two numbers, attack rating and health. The summoned creatures can be sent to attack the opponent, but can be blocked by your opponent’s creatures, and so forth. Concepts like “summoning sickness” are imported without alteration.

In fact, the combat mechanics are so close to M:tG that it’s more instructive to list the ways in which they differ. Things are tuned so matches generally end faster than in M:tG, as is reasonable for the context. Attackers hit before blockers, rather than both damaging eath other simultaneously. And, in general, Etherlords takes advantage of the fact that it’s not a direct adaptation of a card game by discarding some of the more literal points of simulation. Spells are not drawn without replacement, like cards from a deck: you have exactly fifteen spell slots, and when you draw, each has a 1 in 15 chance of coming up, even if you already have another copy of it in your hand. (If you want a spell to come up more frequently, you can assign it to multiple slots.) Also, there are no “land cards”: the mana you need to cast spells comes from “mana channels”, which automatically increase in number over the course of combat, at a rate determined by the hero’s experience level. Thus, more powerful characters are able to cast more powerful spells earlier.

There are no “colors” of mana, but the four armies in the story, and the sorts of spells they get, clearly correspond to the red, green, blue, and black magic in M:tG — but with the interesting alteration that black creatures, instead of undead, are primarily cyborgs. (White magic is left out: as the intro cutscene makes clear, there are no good guys in this story. Everyone involved is motivated solely by lust for power.) As a result, it feels a little strange that the spells are all so different. For example, if you have a primarily green deck in M:tG, you’re likely to spend your first turn summoning Llanowar Elves (1/1, tap for 1 green mana). 1At least, that’s how it went when I last spent time playing M:tG, many years ago. It might all be different now. Llanowar Elves are almost essential to what it means to have a green deck, and Etherlords doesn’t even provide a close analog to them. Instead, your basic low-level green summon is Spitting Fingus (0/2, can’t attack, sacrifice to do 1 damage to target hero or creature) — something that M:tG would probably make blue or black. It’s like a version of M:tG from an alternate universe where some early design decisions went differently.

As in Warlords and HOMM, there are basically two sorts of things you fight: enemy heroes, and “wild” creatures not allied with any side (and typically set on crucial choke points on the map or guarding valuable resources). But even the wild encounters have heroes, because that’s essential to how M:tG-style combat works. If you encounter a giant rat on the road, the combat will be against a rat spellcaster that summons other sorts of rats, smaller versions of itself. There generally seem to be three or four versions of every summonable creature type to support this kind of specialization.

The first time I tried playing Etherlords, back in 2001 or 2002, I found myself unable to make headway on the third map of the campaign, and eventually gave up. (Frustration with long loading times was also a factor. I think my system at the time didn’t really have enough memory for all the graphics, and had to swap even as it loaded. Anyway, moot now.) I think my main problem, as is usually the case for me in games of this sort, was timidity: I didn’t want to commit to invading enemy territory until I knew my heroes were tough enough, when I should have been out there stealing resources before the enemy could get to them. I’m thinking now that the key is to be clever enough in your choice of spells that your hero can take on enemy heroes that are nominally more powerful. We’ll see how that pans out.

1 At least, that’s how it went when I last spent time playing M:tG, many years ago. It might all be different now.

Puzzle Quest: Lord Bane

After all the side-quests were done, I had two options for the end: enter Lord Bane’s citadel, or follow my sword as the necromancers instructed. I did go so far as to try the latter, but when you do so, you get some dire warnings from Princess Serephine (who threatens to leave you if you continue on that course) and a final opportunity to chicken out, which I took. I may play through again with another character class, and if I do I’ll definitely want to give the alternate ending a look. But for now, Bartonia is safe.

Beating Lord Bane took me five tries, with various different collections of stuff, including some items I forged specifically for this fight. Lord Bane’s basic trick is that he casts spells that make him more powerful. For each element, he has a spell that destroys all of that element on the board and increases his mastery of that element by the number of gems destroyed, and in addition, his equipment makes his elemental masteries benefit him in other ways. The biggest problem, in my opinion, is his shield, which gives him +1 to all resistances for every 3 points of Earth mastery. So if you let him get enough Earth mastery, your spells start fizzling more and more. As I see it, there are three things you can do to overcome this. First, you can do what you can to hurt him with spells at the beginning of the fight, before he can resist it. Second, you can try to forestall his resistance by having high earth resistance yourself (to keep him from casting the spell that raises his earth mastery) and by using up the green gems on the board before he gets them. Third, you can increase the damage you do when matching skulls so that you’re less dependent on spells to kill him.

Here’s the combination of equipment that ultimately worked for me:

  • Spells: Channel Air, Entangle, Forest Fire, Sanctuary, Lightning Storm, Charge!
  • Equipment: Quartz Relic (+5 damage for each full mana reserve, +8 Air Resistance), Armor of Minogoth (prevents 1 point of damage when you receive 2 or more, +15 Earth Resistance), Deep Edge (+6 damage when you do 6 or more damage, +8 Earth Resistance), Frozen Harp (+4 to all mana reserves when you match 4 or 5, +8 Fire Resistance)
  • Mount: a level 8 Wyvern (Rend spell, +6 to Battle skill)

By this point, I had enough Battle skill that just matching three skulls did 6 damage, and thus triggered the Deep Edge bonus. Like I said, I wanted Earth resistance more than any other kind, but this loadout provides a certain amount of resistance in all elements (water resistance being provided by one of the companions). As for the spells, I basically didn’t use Sancutary (adds to your resistance in a randomly-chosen element) at all, and would have swapped it out for something else if I had to give the fight another try. The most useful spells were Entangle and Charge!, both good for setting up moves; if you can get a foursome out of them, they can almost pay for themselves, given the effect of the Harp. Charge! is notable in that it takes advantage of the board in ways that Lord Bane can’t, so it’s relatively safe to cast when he has high resistance: you lose an opportunity, but at least that opportunity can’t be used against you. In the end, despite Lord Bane’s increased resistance, I struck the final blow with the direct-damage spell Forest Fire.

All in all, this was a satisfying game. Tile-matching games provide one of the purest experiences of flow, and RPGs, with their promises of greater power if you keep leveling, provide buckets of player motivation even when the gameplay isn’t particularly compelling, so it’s a winning combination. And on top of that, it has excellent production values. I haven’t even mentioned the sound: cascades involve one of the best thunderclap sounds I’ve heard in a game, and the background music has prominent bassoon solos. (Or possibly english horn. It can be hard to tell sometimes. Regardless, it’s a good thing.) I understand there’s a sequel due out soon, with a sci-fi setting and hexagonal tiles. I’ll definitely be playing that when it’s released for PC, which will probably happen months after it’s released for everything else.

Puzzle Quest: Comparisons

I started off this whole series of posts by comparing Puzzle Quest to Bookworm Adventures, and I’m not the only one to make that comparison. It’s a pretty obvious comparison to make, since they’re two of the only representatives of the Puzzle/RPG Fusion genre. But now that I’ve experienced them both more fully, when I look at them side by side, BA seems little more than a proof-of-concept, while PQ is a full-fledged game, as complete and complex as any RPG on the market. I’m probably being a little unfair to BA because of its length, but even taking that into account, PQ has a more involved system of stats, provides more freedom of action on the main board, and gives you more options during combat — which is a little strange, because I’d call the underlying tile-matching mechanic weaker in that respect than BA‘s word-making. It seems to me that the main reason for this is PQ‘s decision to make both sides use the same board. BA had the computer opponent not act on the board at all — instead, it just hit at you and did damage. This meant that your actions on the board didn’t affect what the opponent could do, which put limits on the kinds of tactics that the game could support.

I also compared Puzzle Quest to strategy games such as Heroes of Might and Magic. It turns out that there’s a closer connection than I suspected: PQ officially takes place in the same campaign setting as the Warlords series (hence its subtitle, “Challenge of the Warlords”). I’ve played a couple of the Warlords games, long ago, but I’m basically not familiar enough with their trivia to recognize the names of its gods and kingdoms and so forth; apparently to a real Warlords fan, the connection would be obvious the moment the game said “Bartonia” or “Lord Bane”. Anyway, Warlords is basically the thing that Heroes of Might and Magic stole most of its ideas from, including the whole business of besieging cities, and running around to collect regularly-replenished resources. So now we have a direct reason for those elements to be present in PQ.

One final comparison. There is at least one blatant PQ imitation on the market: BattleJewels, a game written primarily for those few handheld platforms too geeky for PQ to run on (such as PalmOS and GP2X). Except that apparently it’s not an imitation: according to the developer, Stephen Bickham, it was in development for years before PQ was announced, and his real inspiration was Magic: the Gathering, so the massive similarity is just coincidental. Well, I’ve already noted how PQ has some M:tG-like aspects, so that part is believable. And there are some significant gameplay differences: BJ by default doesn’t refill empty slots, and it doesn’t have the whole campaign scenario and map treatment (being more geared towards PvP). To me, the campaign is a large part of the charm of the game, so I don’t feel compelled to plunge into BJ‘s context-free fights. In their basics, though, the two games are amazingly similar, even down to the choice of skulls for the damage tiles. But I’m not saying Bickham ripped off PQ, like many others have. For one thing, for all I know maybe PQ is the rip-off, and for another, there’s been such a general exhaustion of the possible variations on match-3 in recent years that it’s inevitable that some would be used more than once. Anyway, you can compare them for yourself, as both games have downloadable demos. PQ‘s has limited content, BJ‘s is nagware.

Puzzle Quest: Choices

It turns out that level 50 is indeed the highest attainable. I have attained it, and I am now spending my time doing the last remaining batches of side-quests, forging new items, and researching spells. I’m a little reluctant to pursue the main quest line, because it seems to be funneling me towards another potentially regrettable decision.

There have been several choice points in the game so far. The first one occurs when you’re told to recruit Syrus Darkhunter, famous slayer of undead. When you first meet Syrus, he asks for your help capturing a necromancer named Moarg and bringing him to a prison in a city where Syrus is unwilling to set foot. Why won’t he set foot there? He refuses to say. Moarg, on the other hand, is quite willing to give you information, provided you set him free. Now, as far as I’m concerned, Syrus has only himself to blame if I don’t trust him. I’ve had experiences in D&D with NPCs who were supposedly on my side but who put everyone’s safety in jeapordy by withholding plot-crucial information for no good reason, and this scenario reminded me of that a lot. (See also Yeesha vs. Esher.) So I accepted Moarg’s proposition, hoping that his intelligence would be more valuable than Syrus’ assistance. It turns out that it wasn’t particularly valuable, but to my surprise, I got Syrus’ assistance anyway, due to my character lying to him.

Only in Lord Bane’s realm, when we were fighting Moarg’s colleagues, were my unintentional lies exposed. And so Syrus left the party — not a great loss, since his “10 damage to undead at the start of battle” is a mere drop in the bucket at this point, but still, a loss. I suspect it might have been possible to keep him by temporarily disbanding him before fighting the necromancers, but I didn’t think of it at the time. Removing people from your party is something you don’t usually don’t have any reason to do in this game, sort of like closing doors behind you in an adventure game.

Another early choice involved a potential ally who wanted me to escort his daughter to another city, where she’d be forced into a loveless political marriage. Once more, I struck a blow for freedom and against keeping promises, gaining the princess as a party member and incurring some extra encounters later on when her father sent soldiers to get her back. In general, though, other choices have been less morally ambiguous — things like choosing whether to return a magic item to its rightful owner or keep it for yourself. (I’ve been forging my own magic items anyway, thank you very much.)

That choice about Moarg, though, apparently “started me down the dark path”, if the necros are to be believed, and there’s someting I can do with a sword Moarg gave me if I “want to know true power”. I kind of want to defeat Lord Bane and achieve my primary mission objectives for the whole game, but I’m also curious about what the bad guys are so eager to show me. So far, their one big claim to power is that when they die, Lord Bane just raises them from the dead again. And as the player, I have that power already.

Puzzle Quest: Shifting Gears

I seem to be approaching the end of the game. At least, I’ve reached the vicinity of the castle of Lord Bane, God of Death and primary antagonist, who’s appeared personally a couple of times to taunt me and set his minions on me. I’m also nearly up to character level 50, which may or may not be the highest attainable level — it’s certainly the last point at which you get a new spell just for levelling.

At this point, a couple of things are happening to change gameplay. First, my opponents and I have high enough skills all round that any move has a significant chance of being followed by a free extra turn, especially if there are combos and cascades involved. Things can change very rapidly without your being able to do anything about it. Second, elemental resistance is becoming a large factor.

The way elemental resistance works is this: Each side has a percentage rating in all four elements. That percentage is the chance that a spell cast by the enemy will fail if it uses the relevant color of mana. Resistances don’t usually go very high — the highest I’ve seen was a Fire Elemental that had something like a 30% resistance to red. Still, even a 10% resistance is enough to put paid to certain tactics. For most of the game, I’ve been making heavy use of Entangle, a spell that makes your opponent skip a number of turns determined by your green mana reserves. Whenever there were multiple sets of skulls ready to go off, or other tempting targets, I’d cast Entangle to get them all — not even necessarily to get them myself, but to keep them from being used against me. In other words, I was using it at exactly those moments when I least want to risk losing a turn to a miscast and giving the enemy first crack at everything.

Resistance isn’t the only thing that’s making spells useless. Some of the more advanced undead have abilities that drain green mana, making it a lot harder to cast spells with green components. Now, I know a lot of spells, but you’re only allowed to take six of them at a time with you into combat (plus a seventh determined by your mount). I’ve been making only occasional adjustments to my loadout through most of the game, as I learn new spells or decide to experiment with new tactics, but now I’m starting to pick my inventory on an enemy-by-enemy basis. I commented before on emergent changes in effective tactics. It’s nice to see that this is still going on, in a reasonably unforced way, this late in the game.

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