Heores Chronicles: Power to Max

Having learned my lesson about difficulty settings back in Conquest of the Underworld, I’m keeping things set to the default for the moment. Progress is nonetheless slow, owing to my insistence on getting every last crumb of permanent upgrade on the map before continuing. There are obelisks that grant experience, enchanted trees that instantly raise any visiting hero’s experience level (subject to the maximum imposed by the map), towers where you can improve defense strength and shrines where you can raise your maximum spell points, and so forth, all usable once by each hero. Furthermore, the tooltip for such things helpfully tells you whether the currently-selected hero has visited them or not, making perfectionism all the more tempting.

I’ll probably stop being so obsessive about it at some point as the maps grow larger, at least with my lesser heroes. At the point I’m at, I can take three in addition to Tarnum from one map to the next, but this might not last for the whole episode: I recall reaching a point in Conquest of the Underworld where suddenly everyone but Tarnum was taken away, and I think this may have happened in Warlords of the Wasteland as well (at the point when Tarnum had everyone who he felt was a threat to his power killed). So this may be one of the series’ repeated plot points/gameplay mechanics, and if it is, there will come a point when buffing anyone but Tarnum isn’t worth it.

As for Tarnum himself, there’s already some indication that we’re heading for him becoming an invincible superhero again by the time we’re through. This being the episode that focuses on wizards, this means improving his spellcasting. There’s a set of four artifacts, elemental orbs, found on different maps: as with the Angelic Alliance, they remain with you from level to level. Now, the whole spell system in this game is linked to the four elements: every spell has an associated element, and each element has a “mastery” skill (Air Mastery, Water Mastery, etc.) that improves the effects of spells in that element and makes them cheaper to cast. I’m being careful to make sure Tarnum keeps enough open skill slots for all the masteries as they become available, because eventually he’s going to have all the spells. Every single one, including all of the rarest and most powerful ones. That’s what the orbs do: each gives its bearer access to all the spells in its associated element. Knowing how this game works, there may even be some additional synergy effect for holding them all.

The orbs are significant to the story as well: they’re the heroes’ only way home. I’ll go into more detail about this later, when I’ve seen more plot.

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.

Random Pick

As promised, a random pick today. The first roll of the dice got me Arthur’s Knights: Tales of Chivalry, a Cryo adventure from 2000, but I wasn’t able to get it working. I remember initially shelving it because of the GeForce bug that made the background render partially on top of sprites, but now it doesn’t even get far enough for that to manifest. Putting it into Windows 95 compatibility mode gets me as far as the main menu, where I can tweak the options to my heart’s content, but actually starting a game from there makes it crash to the desktop. The only concrete advice I’ve found online was a suggestion to turn off DirectX sound acceleration, which is already on my list of things to try when Windows games prove recalcitrant; apparently it worked for someone here, but not for me. If anyone reading this has better suggestions, I’d like to hear them, but for the moment, this is going back on the shelf once more.

So, having given up on that, my next random pick was the final episode of Heroes Chronicles, the episodic series of Heroes of Might and Magic III scenarios. My usual practice for random picks is to treat anything from a series as representing the series as a whole, so what I’ve actually picked is episode 3, Masters of the Elements. Yes, this practice means that my random picks are more likely to hit things with many sequels on the Stack. I consider this a good thing. Those are the games that really need playing.

Moreover, the Heroes Chronicles series as a whole became a wider target quite recently. You may recall that, in addition to the episodes that were published on CD-ROM, there were a couple of extra episodes available only online — one that you needed two registered episodes to download, and another that you needed three. Two more episodes besides those were added later in a collection package, making the extra episodes equal in number to the original retail ones. And that collection package was recently made available (and temporarily put on sale for five bucks) at GOG. So now the series occupies six remaining slots in the Stack instead of just two.

Even though I have Masters of the Elements on CD-ROM, I chose to install the GOG download, just to eliminate the inconvenience of physical media. Oddly enough, given my retrogaming habit, this is my first real experience with GOG. I’ve had an account with them for a while now — I registered when I was having difficulty getting Tex Murphy: Overseer working and I noticed that they had a version rejiggered to work with modern machines, but I changed my mind about buying it from them when I saw that it wasn’t the DVD-quality version. I do like their curatorial approach, though, and even though I don’t recall having incompatibility issues the last time I played a Heroes Chronicles episode, I appreciate knowing that the likelihood of running into them has been minimized, especially after my troubles with Arthur’s Knights. (I wish they’d pick up the Cryo games. I always seem to have problems with them.) And now that I’ve used their custom downloader and front end — something that’s completely optional, by the way — I have to say the experience is positive, nicely practical and minimal and unobtrusive.

Next post, I’ll try to talk a little about the Master of the Elements content.