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.

Might and Magic: Whence Heroes?

The Might and Magic series is of course the source of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. So as I play the former, I’m keeping an eye peeled for connections to the latter. And, frankly, I’m not finding much. There are some spell names that the two have in common — in particular, the Town Portal spell, which I anticipated so greatly in Heroes Chronicles: Conquest of the Underworld, looks like it’ll just as useful here — but that’s pretty much it.

To be fair, this is the first episode, and it’s likely that it just hasn’t developed its identity yet. Most of what I’ve seen so far is just undistinguished D&D-style fantasy. But Final Fantasy started off the same way, and look where that ended up. Ultima was half sci-fi to start with, but toned that down considerably from episode 4 onward, when the Virtues of the Avatar became its defining characteristic. Might and Magic seems to have gone in the other direction, becoming more of a science-fantasy over the course of the first five episodes at least, with horizon-dominating planetary bodies becoming prominent on the cover art. But that’s an aspect that’s completely absent in HoMM as I know it. Considering that the first HoMM came out when the most recent Might and Magic game was set on the planet Xeen, I have to wonder what was going on there.

The one major thing I can see as an influence on HoMM so far is the outdoors sections. For one thing, the mere fact that they’re there. Might and Magic had an explorable wilderness before other Wizardry-style RPGs did — it predates the far simpler and less-varied outdoors in The Bard’s Tale II by a year or two. As a result, it establishes from the very beginning an environment for outdoor monsters. Venture into the mountains, for example, and you can wind up fighting herds of centaurs or pegasi — the same cantaurs and pegasi that would become core troop types for “rampart”-type cities in HoMM3. Obviously these aren’t unique to M&M — they’re part of the Narnia-esque mishmash of myth that forms part of D&D‘s core, and therefore the core of early RPGs in general. But that’s the part that’s generally neglected by other early RPGs in favor of the abominations-of-the-dungeon side, the troglodytes and oozes and spiders and so forth. It would be incongruous to find a pegasus wandering the corridors of an underground maze. (Not that Wizardry shied away from the incongruous.)

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.

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