Archive for 2008

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.

Heroes Chronicles: Spells and Size

Map 3 of Conquest of the Underworld was excruciatingly long, and made longer by my stubborn insistence on building up the mage guild in every town in hope that I’d finally get the Town Portal spell. In theory, once I get it, I’ll be able to do things a lot faster, but the whole pursuit has kind of backfired so far. I probably should have started casting divination spells sooner. There’s a bunch of spells that reveal different things about the map, but for a long time I was doing things the hard way, scouting manually, because I had forgotten all about overland spells. This is not a game that doles out spells in manageble chunks and lets you get used to them bit by bit, so I find it easy to get lost in the spell list and not know what I should be using. Perhaps the designers assumed the player was already familiar with them all from Heroes of Might and Magic 3.

There’s one thing that keeps the options for a spellcaster from being overwhelming most of the time: Cursed ground. This is a terrain type that sucks magic out of the air. When fighting on cursed ground, you can’t use spells above level 1. Most of the Underworld seems to be made out of it. Mind you, even level 1 spells scale in power with the caster’s stats, so this limitation isn’t quite as limiting as it sounds.

After the vastness of map 3, where the chief challenge was getting heroes and creatures where they were needed efficiently, it was a bit shocking how tiny map 4 is. It’s so tiny that there’s no time to build up your forces before taking on the three other armies tussling over it. You pretty much have to just strike out half-prepared and hope to pick up more troops along the way. But then, this seems to be the way that the level designers want you to play even on the larger levels, where the distance separating you from your enemies grants you the luxury of building up an army first if you want to. If you play that way, though, there are scripted events that don’t make sense — for example, you’ll get directions to find an artifact after the enemy has already made off with it.

At any rate, I seem to be getting the hang of this, so I’ve kicked the difficulty back up a notch. Key points:
1. Scout with magic, not with heroes.
2. Take full advantage of roadside monster factories.
3. Don’t be shy about using magic in combat mode, even if you can win a fight without it. Mana is cheap; troops are not.

Heroes Chronicles: Plot

My last session was rather short — I finished up map 2, but that’s about it. So for this post, I’ll just describe the story so far. The story is basically irrelevant to gameplay here, but I’d like to see it unfold all the same; part of the reason I started over was to refamiliarize myself with it, and part of my motivation for writing about it now is to help me skip the early levels if I take another year-long break.

The event that kicks the whole campaign off is the abduction of the knightly King Rion Gryphonheart of Erathia. Or rather, of his soul. His daughter, Queen Allison, has a vision, shared with the player in the opening cutscene: demons sneak into Heaven and carry him back to Hell with them, for purposes unknown.

(Speaking of cutscenes, I should note a peculiarity of the game. Every level is introduced with a brief looping video clip, but they seem to re-use the same clips in every episode of the Heroes Chronicles series. They’re not in the same order every time, but they all seem to be used. For example, one clip shows heroes feasting in a feasting-hall, so every episode has to come up with some excuse to show that scene. Presumably some limitation of the engine prevented them from using anything other than the standard Heroes of Might and Magic 3 clips. It’s a bit like watching an Ed Wood movie, spliced together out of whatever stock footage was available. At any rate, the opening cutscene is an exception, probably because it gets shown before the game proper begins.)

Now, In most contexts, I wouldn’t consider the hallucinations of the grieving to be sufficient evidence to launch an invasion of Hell itself. But our hero Tarnum basically has no choice to go along with it, being a bonded lackey of “the Ancestors”, the patrons of the Barbarians who Tarnum ruled with an iron fist during his natural life. There’s just one part that Tarnum doesn’t understand: Rion was an enemy of the Barbarians. In fact, he personally killed Tarnum. Is this assignment some kind of cosmic joke the Ancestors are playing on Tarnum? Punishment for his misdeeds in life? Whatever the reason, Tarnum has to lead the Queen’s forces incognito.

Well, It turns out that there isn’t such a gulf separating the knights from the barbarians. A lot of the knights have Barbarian blood — they haven’t always been at war, after all. In fact, Queen Allison’s mother was a Barbarian. So I suppose the Ancestors want me to help Allison because she’s the closest thing there is to a Barbarian ruler right now. Not only that, but — you can see this coming, can’t you? — Allison’s mother was related to Tarnum. On that fateful day when Rion faced the Barbarian tyrant, he unwittingly slew his own brother-in-law. He’s like a lamer version of Oedipus. 1Metaphorically speaking, that is. Physically, Oedipus is the lamer one.

That’s basically three levels worth of plot there. There are eight levels total in the episode. One other point I think is worth mentioning: the knights talk about Barbarians, and characterize them as stupid, uncouth savages. This causes Tarnum considerable distress, even though, to most of us, that’s pretty much the definition of “barbarian”. I’d be hard-pressed to say whether “barbarian” or “savage” is more of an insult, but Tarnum takes pride in one label and shame in the other. But he has to admit that there’s some truth in what they say: in the time since his death, his people have started to forget honor. It all reminds me of a bit from one of the later Ultimas, which carries the idea even further, in the diary of an ancient Troll-king that the player can find. This noble and eloquent troll did a rip-van-winkle, emerging from a cave centuries after he went in, and was shocked and dismayed at what trolls had become over the centuries, and how the universally admired troll civilization had degenerated into dirty, oafish brutes who hide under bridges. That troll died, mistaken for a monster. Which is kind of the opposite of Tarnum’s story. In life, he was a monster; now, he’s mistaken for a knight.

1 Metaphorically speaking, that is. Physically, Oedipus is the lamer one.

Heroes Chronicles: Starting Over Again

And now for some unfinished business. Last year, I was in the middle of a game when the IF Comp started up. Unlike this year, I abandoned it in order to play the comp games. So, it’s been over a year since I looked at this game — enough time that I feel like I have to replay the beginning in order to get back into it. This is of course one of the ways that the Stack maintains its size. This time, however, I am unabashedly playing at a lower difficulty, adopting the same attitude as I did towards Etherlords towards the end. And the content is familiar enough that I’m most of the way through map 2 already.

That familiarity. It hit me like an ocean wave to the face when I started the game up after a year’s pause. If learning a game makes circuits in the brain, those circuits go dormant when you stop playing. But, being dormant rather than dead, they perk up again at the right stimulus and merrily go through their paces, grateful for the attention. There’s a real pleasure there that you don’t get from just playing the latest games steadily until you get tired of them.

IFComp 2008: Conclusions and ruminations

Since the judging period is still underway, I suppose I should put in a spoiler break.
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IFComp 2008: Search for the Ultimate Weapon

One last game and I’m done for the year. This one is loosely inspired by the legend of Wu Mei, 17th century kung fu master. Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2008: Cry Wolf

Veterinarian meets werewolf. It’s a clever premise, but how is it as a game? Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2008: Dracula’s Underground Crypt

A humorous day in the life of an assistant vampire hunter. Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2008: Snack Time

A bulldog wrote this one, or so it claims. Spoilers follow the break.
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IFComp 2008: Everybody Dies

A weird little story by novelist Jim Munroe. Spoilers follow the break.
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