Archive for February, 2010

CotAB: Cover Girl

One bond left. That means I’m into the endgame. There are five villains, but you defeat one in the intro chapter and one is saved for the very end, so the midgame has three. The last one I beat, the cult of Moander, was such a cakewalk that I suspect I’ve been doing the three middle sub-quests in the wrong order (if indeed there is an ordering; possibly they’re all designed to be accessible to new characters, and just became easier as my characters leveled up).

curse_of_the_azure_bonds_coverartIn Moander’s pit, I teamed up with Alias, the protagonist of the novel. I honestly didn’t think she was going to show up in the game, seeing how her function in the novel is taken by the player characters, but I suppose the leaving her out would have made a lie of the box art. Taken directly from the novel, and repeated within the game as its splash screen, it shows the heroine with her 80’s hair and ridiculous peekaboo armor. That armor seems to be her chief defining visual trait: the makers of the game even went so far as to make a special combat-mode sprite for her, with a visible diamond-shaped flash of skin on the chest.

The reasons behind this character design are as obvious as the target demographic it’s intended to appeal to. Selling games through sex appeal is hardly new, and hardly rare. At least the cover art here shows something that’s actually found in the game, which makes it more honest than a lot of games of the same era. But still not especially honest: anyone who bought it with the intention of ogling Alias during gameplay would probably be disappointed in her EGA representation, and also in how little time she sticks around. The idea of making good on the promises of the cover art — of making a young woman in revealing clothing into a constant feature of gameplay — really didn’t take off until Tomb Raider, which was still years away at this point.

The bait-and-switch approach is still alive and well, though, and has reached its pinnacle with Evony, the mediocre web-based kingdom-building game whose infamously irrelevant ads, showing pictures of lingerie models, have far passed the point of being distinguishable from satire. I’ve blocked Evony ads on this site, because I frankly find them embarrassing, but if there’s one good thing they’ve done, it’s exposing the sleaziness of game advertising in general through a kind of reductio ad absurdum. It’s easy to get inured to exploitative imagery, but now, when I look at Alias, I can’t help but see her as a step on the road to Evony.

CotAB: Knowledge

I said in a previous post that Curse of the Azure Bonds is a sequel to a novel, but was told in reply that it’s more like a re-imagining. And I can easily believe this. But if so, it’s one those peculiar sequel/remake hybrids, like Desperado or Evil Dead 2. I keep running into characters from the original who mention that something similar happened to a friend of theirs a while back.

In fact, the game is full of continuity nods, to the extent that I spend most of my involvement with the plot wondering what the significance of various things is. At one point a war broke out, and I overheard some people looking for “red plumes”, as if I were expected to know what that meant. And, well, okay: red plumes are in fact mentioned at one point in the manual. They’re a mercenary force from the city of Hillsfar. Perhaps I would be familiar with them if I had played Hillsfar, another SSI game in the same campaign setting, released around the same time as Pool of Radiance (but with a different engine). But are they good guys or bad guys? There isn’t much to indicate this in your early encounters with them, and it’s something important to know in a combat-based RPG. At one point, a Red Plume shouted for help stopping some escaping prisoners, and I had to make a snap decision about which side to help. The one thing that helped me there is that the prisoners were said to be “Zhentil spies”, and the Zhentrim are one thing I am familiar with, from their appearance in Pool of Radiance.

In fact, Zhentil Keep and even Phlan are visitable in this game. Phlan is just another city not directly related to the story, but it’s definitely the same Phlan: the dungeon-type area attached to it is an as-yet-untamed district of the city. (What, I missed one?) I suppose that the more of these Forgotten Realms games I play, the more experiences I’ll have to relate to the made-up names. And I suppose this is the appeal of these shared settings.

And it makes me think once again about the potential of games for education. If I’m going to be absorbing facts about a setting, why not make it real-world knowledge that might possibly have practical application? Well, for one thing, no one has exclusive ownership of facts about the world; once you’re a Forgotten Realms fan, you’re locked into buying official Forgotten Realms products, which is a plus for the developers. Also, it’s probably easier: basing a game on facts would require research, whereas using a fictional setting just requires making things up. I mean, okay, there’s some research: breaking continuity with other works in the same setting is, while inevitable, frowned upon and avoided, so there is a certain amount of established material that Forgotten Realms authors would have to learn. But the key words there are “certain amount”. It’s finite, definite, and completely knowable. This is probably part of the appeal of fantasy worlds for the audience as well: it’s not messy and uncertain like our knowledge of reality.

CotAB: Inside Out

It’s been said that D&D is about fighting evil in its own lair. The stereotypical dungeon has a boss in its deepest depths who’s in charge of some sort of trouble, and who needs killing. You spend your time working your way through the guards and the traps and so forth with the goal of penetrating the inner sanctum. And that’s pretty much how most dungeon-crawl RPGs work, too, not to mention a large portion of videogames in general.

Curse of the Azure Bonds doesn’t work like that. It seems like most of the major confrontations have some kind of shortcut to where the quest boss is — say, a friendly NPC from the novel guides you in or something. Only after the confrontation do things get dangerous. The bulk of your time isn’t spent penetrating the inner sanctum, but trying to get out.

It’s a bit like those scenes I spoke of in Wizardry where you walk through a teleporter or a one-way door and have to hunt for a way back to the stairs, hoping you can make it before everybody dies. Except not quite: in CotAB, it’s possible to rest and heal in the dungeon. I’ve been doing that quite a lot. Monsters often find me as I sleep, but not often enough to make it a net loss. It does frequently violate the fiction, though, when the story at that point involves a chase or a brawl or some other time-limited activity that’s somehow still going on after I’ve had a good night’s rest.

Note that even with the ability to rest and even save the game mid-dungeon, getting out is still an urgent concern. There are a lot of things you can only do in town, such as identifying items, leveling up, and curing some of the nastier status effects, such as being turned to stone. (Mere death I can cure on my own by now.)

CotAB: Guidance

Not all of the content in Curse of the Azure Bonds is related to the main quest. Pretty much every town on the map has a dungeon of some sort attached to it, as if the presence of ancient ruins or natural cave systems is some kind of prerequisite for settlement. These little dungeons are like a regularized form of optional side-quest. And it’s kind of strange how that feels.

I am of course comparing it in my mind to Pool of Radiance. PoR was composed mainly of optional quests, but there wasn’t a great distinction drawn between side-quests and the main quest line — if indeed you can even claim that there was a main quest line beyond the general effort to gain enough experience levels to stand a chance of beating the end boss. The whole thing was an undifferentiated soup of missions, and the assignment of those missions was more like suggestions than orders; you could generally collect the reward for doing obviously beneficial things for the colonists, even if they hadn’t been requested yet.

In contrast, CotAB, with its five separate sub-quests, makes it clear when you’re making progress in the plot. Which means that I’m acutely aware that I’m not making progress when I explore a cave just because it’s there. It has to make the distinction clear, because it doesn’t provide a lot of external guidance about where to go or what to do. The closest thing it has to the PoR‘s council clerk is a mysterious cloaked figure who you meet by a historically-important standing stone. He’s probably Elminster. I have only a vague notion of who Elminster is, but he’s mentioned a few times in the docs, so he must show up in some capacity, and this is the closest thing a Gandalf-like adviser I’ve seen so far. But he doesn’t advise very much; he basically just tells you “Seek your next adversary in the northwest” or whatever.

Without Probably-Elminster’s vague advice, there would be no obvious reason to pursue one major sub-quest over another. It seems likely that he puts you through things in optimal order — that is, from lowest-level to highest, matching your characters’ advancement — but I’m not entirely sure that’s the case. For one thing, he’s kind of out-of-the-way. Nothing guides you to him from your starting location, and if I had chosen to go around the north edge of the world map first instead of the south, I wouldn’t have met him until after I had been through the second or third of his advised route, and you’d think the designers would have planned for that. Also, the first place he told me to go seemed a lot harder than the second. But perhaps that’s just because I hadn’t yet got a lot of extra experience points from optional side-quests.

CotAB: Travel

One major change from Pool of Radiance I should mention: the wilderness. Where PoR had an Ultima-style third-person grid outside the cities and dungeons, Curse of the Azure Bonds has a network of set paths, navigated using the same sort of menus that are presented at other major decision points in the game. At each node, you typically have a choice of two or three other places to go to, as well as options to make camp and (where relevant) enter the city or dungeon you’re currently at.

You lose a lot of freedom this way, but possibly just enough — as I said in a previous post, PoR‘s total lack of restrictions on travel made exploration of the wilderness uninteresting. CotAB doesn’t even have exploration of the wilderness in the same sense. It does use the word “wilderness”, but in a different way: when you choose a destination, the travel menu often gives you a choice of moving through the wilderness or following the trail (or, sometimes, going by boat). Your choice here can trigger different special events, but usually seems to just affect how much cover from trees and the like there is in any random encounter along the way. Regardless, there’s no hunting around the map for unknown points of interest; you have to already know where you’re going before you can even try to go there.

It has to be said that the CotAB approach is a lot more like how the world outside of dungeons and other planned set-pieces is handled in live D&D. There, as Starmaker said, the usual philosophy is that “nothing important happens in the wilderness”: you tell the DM where you want to go, and the DM rolls for random encounters, and that’s it.

CotAB: Story compared to Pool of Radiance

At some point when I was googling for more information about Curse of the Azure Bonds, I saw a review that praised it for having a stronger story than Pool of Radiance. I’m not sure I agree. The two games have different stories, certainly. PoR‘s is like the RPG equivalent of a police procedural. The player characters are just doing a job. That job brings them in contact with a larger story, but the story is not fundamentally about them. The PC’s are no one in particular, just a group of wandering adventurers attracted by the opportunities in the city of Phlan, like many others.

In CotAB, on the other hand, it’s all about the PCs. You are the Chosen Ones! Characters in the game actually use that term, although it’s somewhat inverted from its usual meaning, because it’s the bad guys who did the choosing. And, well, fair enough: your party is at least level 5 now, and that makes them good choices. I recall reading an analysis of the third-edition D&D rules that came to the surprising conclusion that the most skilled people in the real world — the Albert Einsteins and Michael Jordans and whatnot — are the equivalent of fifth-level D&D characters. Beyond that point, we’re in the realm of pure larger-than-life fantasy. At any rate, while the player characters in PoR were special by the end (being chosen to storm the castle and all), they had to earn that position through hard work within the framework of the story. Your special position in CotAB, on the other hand, is unearned. But that’s okay, because it’s also involuntary. (It’s funny how that works.)

The story in PoR is largely backstory; you generally only show at the end of each plot thread, because you’re the one doing the ending. (This adds to the police-procedural-like tone: much of the story is communicated through discoveries about what happened before.) In CotAB, the story is happening to you, as you play it. This doesn’t mean the story is more interactive, though. Quite the contrary. The premise of the Bonds provides the author with not just an excuse to wrest control of the characters away from the player, but an obligation to do so. And this gets into the most peculiar thing about CotAB‘s story: the premise involves villains with schemes, but you can’t actually do anything to stop them. All you can do when a scheme is executed is to read some noninteractive text describing how the scheme went down: the villain took control of your actions, but it all somehow went wrong anyway, due to circumstances beyond your control. And sure, you get to kill them after the fact, but that’s it.

I’ll say this for the CotAB approach, though: because you’re the center of the plot, the villains aren’t necessarily sitting in their lairs oblivious to your approach, as in PoR. They have reason to seek you out, and occasionally do so when you’re not expecting it.

CotAB: Information

Unlike with Pool of Radiance, I started off Curse of the Azure Bonds with full access to the documentation. This still leaves me with less information than a set of D&D books would provide. For example, there’s an area-effect spell called “Ice Storm”. What area does it affect? The manual here doesn’t say. I think it’s roughly equivalent to the Fireball spell (which, indoors, extends three tiles in all directions around the point you cast at), but it’s hard to tell exactly, because you only get to see its effects on the monsters that don’t resist it, and the monsters I’m dealing with at this point have pretty good magic resistance.

Or consider the Drow arms and armor. I know from experience in third-edition D&D that Drow equipment melts when exposed to sunlight, and sure enough, that turns out to be the case here. But if I defeat some Drow on the way into a cave, and I know I’m going to be spending a while exploring it, should I bother taking their stuff? Or is the gear I already have better? I knew I could tell how good a character’s armor is by looking at the character’s “AC” rating, but it took me a while to realize that the “THAC0” rating similarly includes the bonus on the weapon.

This is because I’m not used to the concept of THAC0. I played first-edition D&D as a kid, and more recently played 3rd and 4th edition as an adult, but THAC0 is a second-edition concept. My first encounter with it was in Planescape: Torment, which (bafflingly, to my eyes) treated it as one of the basic D&D concepts that you’d naturally be already familiar with. I’ve heard that it had been replaced by the concept of Base Attack Bonus, but that’s apparently not quite right, because BAB doesn’t include situational modifiers like what kind of sword you’re wielding. I had been letting my eyes glide over that spot in the character info, assuming that it was beyond my ability to affect, much like the character stats. Perhaps I would have noticed my error earlier if I were playing a single character instead of six. I almost certainly would have if the game displayed figures that had changed recently in a different color, like a lot of more-recent CRPGs do.

The fact that THAC0 is in this game at all also reveals something that I’ve been mistaken about all along: I’ve been saying that these games are based on first-edition rules. They’re not. I’ve tried to find some resource online that is to the first-edition rules what d20srd.og is to third-edition, but to no avail. (Which makes sense, because the 1e rules weren’t released under a public license like the 3e rules were.) But now I know that even if I had found such a resource, it would have been wrong.

And really, even a set of 2e core rulebooks wouldn’t have information specific to the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, and even a set of Forgotten Realms sourcebooks wouldn’t be completely accurate as a description of the rules in the computer adaptations. GameFAQs has a nice little writeup of the 2e rules for players of the computer games, but it’s not content-specific enough answer the kinds of question I have. So I suppose I’ll have to continue figuring things out by trial and error. Which is how Gygax wanted players to do things anyway; early editions treat the Dungeon Master’s Guide as secret knowledge that should never fall into a the players’ hands. (A futile sentiment, since every D&D group I’ve ever been in trades off DM duty to different players from time to time.)

CotAB: Spell Memorization

I said before that it’s rare for CRPGs to implement anything like D&D-style spell memorization unless they’re explicitly using the D&D license. (The only other games I can think of offhand that use it are the ones in Infocom’s Enchanter series, and those are adventures, not RPGs.) In early titles like Wizardry, the shift away may have been primarily a way of saving memory. But once mana systems and the like were established as viable, they were obviously more appealing to players. Being forced to choose a subset of the spells available to you means losing the full freedom and flexibility that those options represent.

But limitations are at the heart of what makes a game. Perhaps there’s something that we lose by abandoning the memorization system? Sometimes, I think there is: a level of preparation. If you know in advance what sort of enemies you’re going to be fighting, you can tailor your spell roster to them. I did this a fair amount in Pool of Radiance: going to the graveyard to fight undead, for example, I knew full well that Sleep would be useless.

My experience with playing D&D live is that there’s almost never an opportunity for this sort of advance preparation. Most scenarios seem to involve either walking into a mostly unknown situation or responding to an emergency that doesn’t allow you the rest period needed to prepare new spells. The engine used in Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds sidesteps around both of those contingencies. In grand CRPG tradition, emergencies are illusions: if you can find a safe place to rest, you can rest there indefinitely and pick up the emergency where you left off. And nothing comes unexpected when you’ve gone back to a previous save.

And yet, my spell choice is seldom driven by circumstance. Usually I pick the same spells that have proven useful over and over: Fireball, Magic Missile, Cure Light Wounds, Hold Person, etc. Sleep stopped being useful somewhere in PoR. Now that I can cast Cure Serious Wounds, I’ve toyed with swapping out an instance of Cure Light Wounds in favor of a utility spell like Detect Magic, but when you come down to it, you never have enough healing power. And I’m told in the comments to the last post that it only gets worse at high levels!

I’m pretty sure this is the fault of the D&D spell list, rather than of the basic mechanic. I can imagine alternate lists making spell selection into a vital part of the game. Indeed, other games do this routinely, just not with spells: consider Pokémon. Or, closer to what a game like this one would do, consider what some games (Blood Omen, for example) do with variously-enchanted weapons and armor. Of course in order to make that into a prep-time activity, the game would have to prevent you from changing weapons and armor mid-fight, and the engine used here doesn’t do that. (Yes, you can change out of plate armor between sword-thrusts; the only thing preventing players from noticing this is that you usually don’t have any motivation to do so. Everyone should be wearing their best equipment all the time.)

CotAB: Premise

Curse of the Azure Bonds is a sequel to two things, a game and a novel. The game is of course Pool of Radiance, and I’ve just gotten far enough into it to see how the plots are linked (the end boss has apparently returned). The novel is Azure Bonds, a Forgotten Realms novel by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb. I had no idea about this until after I started playing, but just looking at the book’s description on Wikipedia, I see that certain minor characters in the game were drawn from the novel. I suspect that the story would be a little easier to follow if I were already familiar with them.

Not that it’s exactly been hard to follow. The premise is a simple one — it’s essentially a fantasy version of The Manchurian Candidate. Before the game starts, the player characters are captured by bad guys, who afflict them with mind-control tattoos: five blue glyphs running down the arm, each representing a different master who can take control of your actions. Before you can leave the starting city, you’re compelled to attempt regicide.

It’s the sort of premise that has the potential for interesting gameplay, and I suppose that’s why they chose that particular novel. I’m not sure if it actually translates into game mechanics here, though. I’m imagining situations where your ability to give commands to your characters is constrained, like in Tower of Heaven, and the engine probably doesn’t support that; the one time I’ve been compelled so far, it happened in a noninteractive text passage. Still, the five bonds give the game an obvious structure: five symbols, five enemies. I’ve already defeated an entire guild of assassins, resulting in the erasure of one symbol, although I’m not sure how that works, or why they didn’t just compel my characters to march right out of the guild’s hideout or stab themselves in the throat or something. I suppose the whammy must have limitations of some sort.

As the game’s intro sequence asserts a couple of times, what’s at stake here is “control of your destiny”. And this raises a point of unity of form and content, although I’m not sure whether this was intended or not. Up to the point where you get rid of the first symbol, the game is quite linear, and seems particularly so in contrast to Pool of Radiance. Afterwards, exiled from the realm where you start (because they can’t blame you for being mind-controlled, but at the same time it’s too dangerous to have you around while it can happen again), you get your first real choice: where to go next. So, as a result of getting rid of the bonds, you gain control of your destiny. We’ll see if this continues.

Curse of the Azure Bonds

So, going straight from the first game in the Pool of Radiance series to the second, what’s changed?

Well, first and most obviously, it’s higher-level. PoR started you out with freshly-minted level 1 heroes and guided them to level 6, 8, or 9 (depending on character class), at which point additional experience points simply pile up, any additional leveling deferred until you import the characters into CotAB, which takes you as far as level 10, 11, or 12 (again depending on class). CotAB doesn’t even support low-level player characters; newly-created ones start at level 5.

Higher levels means more complexity: more new spells, more new special-case rules that kick in at high levels. A level 10 Thief, for example, has a chance of successfully casting spells from a scroll — another of the less-imitated D&Disms. And apparently the developers felt that if they were throwing in new complications, they might as well let us have dual-classed characters (a concept distinct from multi-classed characters, although as a child I found this all too arcane to follow), as well as a couple of subclasses.

Back in first-edition D&D, it was apparently considered important that every player character be essentially one of the four classic base classes (Fighter, Magic User, Cleric, and Thief), but subclasses provided some variation. Thus, they’re the forerunner of what later editions would call Prestige Classes and Paragon Paths, although most of the specific first-edition subclasses are simply base classes today. 1The exception is the Illusionist, which isn’t even a class any more. Illusionist spells simply got folded into the regular Magic-User spell list. Ranger and Paladin, the subclasses of Fighter, are the only ones available here: there’s no Illusionist, Assassin, or Druid, although the manual lists a few basic Druid spells because Rangers can learn them. This means there are six classes available, exactly the right number to have one of each in your party (much like in Might and Magic). This is what I’m trying first, even though the result seems kind of lopsided to me: three fighter-types and only one mage. I suppose it’ll smooth out a little once two of the three fighters start learning spells. If not, I can always swap out the vanilla Fighter.

In presentation, the game isn’t much changed from PoR. The window borders are different now, PoR‘s twisted-cord motif replaced with fractured stone. The ludicrously crude customizable character portraits are gone (so no more putting the bearded dwarf head on the chainmail-bikini chyk body), but the customizable character icons are still around. The horrible UI has some small improvements: for example, multiple spell-memorizations are now displayed stacked. (That is, if you memorize Magic Missile three times, it’s listed in the spell-selection menu as “Magic Missile (3)” instead of occupying three rows.) Probably the biggest improvement is the Fix command, which you can activate in camp to make your Cleric(s) cast Cure Light Wounds as many times as possible, then rest up to memorize it again, and repeat the process as many times as necessary to get the entire party to full health. This is a process I went through countless times manually in PoR. So it’s good to see that the developers were actually paying enough attention to how people played to see a pattern worth streamlining. It sure isn’t the improvement I would have asked for first, though.

1 The exception is the Illusionist, which isn’t even a class any more. Illusionist spells simply got folded into the regular Magic-User spell list.

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