Heroes Chronicles: Masters of the Elements

So, on into Tarnum’s third adventure. The story so far: In Warlords of the Wasteland, Tarnum was a Barbarian in a land conquered and enslaved by evil wizards. He led a successful rebellion, then became a conquerer and enslaver himself, slaughtering his own people when he considered them counterrevolutionary, murdering his advisers when they told him he was going too far. Episode 1 ended with his star still in the ascendant, but when you’re the best gunslinger in town, everyone starts gunning for you, and it’s only a matter of time before one of them gets lucky. And so somewhere between episodes 1 and 2, Tarnum went and got himself killed.

But instead of just going to Hell like you’d expect, he somehow wound up staying in the mortal world as a servant of the “Ancestors”, apparently working off his bad karma. At least, until Episode 2, Conquest of the Underworld, which had him actually invading Hell, but not to take up permanent residence. He was there on a mission to rescue the abducted soul of one Rion Gryphonheart, the former king of the Knights who took over after Tarnum’s Barbarian empire fell — and the person who killed Tarnum in battle. Tarnum didn’t much like the idea of helping his mortal enemies, and considered the possibility that it was all some kind of immense joke at his expense on the part of the Ancestors, but it turned out that they chose him for the task to teach him a lesson, that the Knights and the Barbarians aren’t so different, that in fact he should be calling them family.

Masters of the Elements takes this a step further. One of the defining properties of the Heroes Chronicles series is that each episode focuses on a different subset of the various playable sides from Heroes of Might and Magic, giving Tarnum himself a different character class from episode to episode. This time around, he’s a Wizard. The one thing he despises the most. The thing he led a continent-spanning crusade to wipe out during his mortal life. I’m only a little way into the story, but he’s already made plenty of disparaging comments (via triggered text pop-ups) about the people he’s forced to work with here. I think he’s already gradually coming to appreciate their point of view, though. The entire mission here would be impossible without magic.

The essential idea is that a ten-thousand-year truce between the Ancestors and the Elemental Lords is ending, and rather than wait for them to attack the prime material plane, Tarnum is heading to their home turf to forcibly convince them that renewing the truce is in their best interests. The whole idea of visiting the Elemental Planes, similar to the Underworld back in episode 2, is essentially just a coat of paint on standard HOMM3-engine dungeons, but those dungeons are themselves essentially just a texture swap on the above-ground bits, so I suppose it all evens out.

The differences between Barbarian, Knight, and Wizard, on the other hand, have distinct gameplay effects. It’s been a while since I played any of the other classes, but nonetheless, I’m getting a very strong sense that using spells in combat is a more viable and indeed essential option than previously. Also, playing with the types of creatures generated by wizard towers gives you access to some very powerful ranged attacks. Every type of town has some kind of low-level unit, like gobins or imps or skeletons, that can be produced very cheaply or picked up for free from outbuildings, and that you can wind up with hundreds of in a stack. The low-level unit for Towers is the gremlin, which can be upgraded (still pretty cheaply) into the master gremlin, which is, I think, unique among the cheapo creatures for having a ranged attack. They die by the dozens if the enemy can close with them, but the ranged attacks are pretty good at preventing this from happening. It’s the “glass cannon” approach, traditional role of wizard-types since D&D.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Heroes Chronicles: Lamplighting

hc2-structuresOutside of the cities, there are free-standing buildings scattered throughout the map. Some of them, such as the training camps that improve the stats of visiting heroes, are intrinsically neutral, and will serve heroes on either side. Others can be claimed. A banner on the side indicates by its color the owner of such a structure, and typically any enemy hero passing by can change the color of that banner by tagging it. It’s possible to leave troops behind as guards to prevent this, but this is seldom if ever worthwhile, as it leaves fewer units in the hands of your heroes.

Some of the claimable structures, such as mines and sawmills, provide resources to their owner every turn, and it’s very important to claim as many of these as possible — even if you don’t need the resources, it keeps them out of enemy hands. Others produce troops on a weekly basis, provided that a hero comes along to pick them up. It seems a lot less important who owns these; it just matters who can reach it, tag it, and recruit the troops first every week.

But on level 3 of Conquest of the Underworld provides a motivation to claim everything you can, even things you have no intention of using. It has to do with the “fog of war”. Every level I’ve seen so far starts out with most of the map dark, revealing it through exploration, as is typical in these games. But in levels 1 and 2, once an area was explored, it stayed explored. In level 3, the only things you can see on the map are the areas that can be seen by your heroes or from your buildings. Dark areas aren’t even considered as navigable by the game’s pathfinding algorithm if you’ve seen them before and know there’s a way through. So keeping those roadside towers under your control is an important convenience, even if you have no intention of ever recruiting what they produce. (Heroes can only have so many creature stacks under their control at a time, so recruiting everything you see isn’t always an option.) And when an enemy hero slips through, he brings darkness.

I don’t remember episode 1 well enough to know if this returning darkness is the state of most levels or if it’s a special feature of the underworld. It shows the game’s age somewhat, though. More recent games with fog-of-war effects tend to have three states: not just “visible” and “not visible”, but “visible”, “not currently visible but explored”, and “unexplored”.

Heroes Chronicles: Futility

hc2-eventI’m back to level 3 of Conquest of the Underworld which is where I was when I decided to start over. So far, it’s proved pointless. My main heroes (Tarnum is allowed to take two other heroes with him between levels) all have Earth Magic and the ability to learn the Town Portal spell, but the spell hasn’t been offered yet.

Heroes mainly learn spells from the mage guilds that you build in your cities. Each mage guild, when built, gets a random assortment of spells. I wonder how random it is? It might be possible to repeatedly load a saved game and rebuild the mage guild until it gives you the spells you want. Which would be cheap. But putting a die roll in the way of crucial permanent effects encourages cheap behavior. That’s why most CRPGs these days don’t randomize hit point gains from levelling: to eliminate the temptation to quit without saving when you don’t get enough.

Somehow, even though I knew the second level better this time, it took me longer to finish. Consequently, I got to see some plot events that I had missed the first time around — events in the form of narration in a dialog box. Some events are just color text (as when Tarnum gets a letter from Queen Allison, his boss for this adventure, asking about his progress), some have effects on gameplay (as when Allison’s letter is accompanied by funds for recruiting more troops). But past a certain point, you know they can’t be essential to the story: any sufficiently skilled player will miss them.

Heroes Chronicles: Starting Over

hc2-increaseSo, I decided to start over from the beginning in Conquest of the Underworld. To explain why, I’ll have to desribe the game mechanics a little.

In the Heroes of Might and Magic system, everything that you do outside of the cities you control is done through entities called “heroes”. Heroes have various stats and skills, can wear magic items to affect those stats and skills, and improve with experience like a character in an RPG, but they don’t participate in combat directly. Instead, they gather troops and creatures under their command.

Creatures are produced every seven turns — every week of gametime — in cities and certain free-standing structures. But they can’t do anything on their own. Any creatures that you recruit in a city will simply wait there and defend it until a hero scoops them up and carries them away. It’s useful to think of them as wargaming minis that the heroes carry around in a box.

Now, the kind and number of creatures that a city can produce is determined by the structures that have been built there. For example, in order to produce Griffins, a city must have a Griffin Tower. Turn it into an Upgraded Griffin Tower and you can produce Royal Griffins, which are stronger and faster. Build a Griffin Bastion as well and you can get an additional three griffins per week. But it takes time and money to build these things. By the time a city can produce the best units in any quantity, the action has moved far away. Getting your troops to the front as quickly as possible is a big part of the strategy of the game.

One of the basic techniques is to use a “bucket brigade” — a string of heroes stretching from the city to the front, positioned a day’s ride away from each other, ready to pass that box of minis all the way from the castle to the hero who needs them. In this way, troops can travel arbitrary distances in a single turn. But hiring heroes costs money, even if you’re going to just use them as delivery boys, and setting up a bucket brigade takes some time and effort, especially when you suddenly have to shift it to point in a different direction.

Another thing that helps a lot is that some cities — the “inferno” types, the ones that produce demons and hellhounds and the like — can build Castle Gates. Heroes can travel instantly between any two cities with Castle Gates. But these are expensive and not likely to get built until late, and, as I said, only help for transporting troops between Inferno cities. While this scenario has more Inferno cities than may be regarded as typical, there are also an awful lot of Castle (knight-type troops) and Necropolis (undead-types).

What I have just learned is that there’s a spell called Town Portal that could help a lot. In its basic form, it teleports a hero to the nearest friendly city, but a hero with Advanced Earth Magic can use it to teleport to any friendly city. Thus, it is really useful to have the Earth Magic skill. And there’s a seer back on level 1 who teaches this skill, but I ignored it, because you have a limited number of skill slots and I thought I had more important things to learn.

Well, now I know better.

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