Robin Hood: Combat Mode

When characters in this game trade blows with sword or staff, they become locked in a combat mode that only ends if one of them is downed (either dead or unconscious) or one of them somehow manages to put enough distance between self and assailant to break it. In this mode, characters cannot take any of their special per-character actions, like throwing coin purses or eating food to heal themselves. (This is why Robin can generally needs to take enemies by surprise to pull off a sucker punch: once they’ve drawn a sword, they can force him into combat mode instead.) Once they’re in combat mode, they don’t need to be told what to do; they’ll just keep fighting. If you want them to fight effectively, however, you’ll want to take direct control.

This is done by means of mouse gestures. Select a character in combat mode and left-drag on the playfield, and the cursor will leave an orange trail behind it, so you can draw a simple shape that determines what you do. A straight line towards an enemy means a thrust, a circular arc means a swing that can hit multiple people, stuff like that. A figure 8 does a slow but powerful finishing blow. It’s all clearly meant to convey a sense of the cut and thrust of swashbuckling, but, like most mouse gesture systems, I mainly find it a little awkward. It’s made especially awkward by context: when the selected character isn’t in combat mode, left-dragging on the playfield is interpreted as a “select multiple’ action, as is normal in RTS interfaces. And in large melees where multiple foes are attacking a character at once (which is to say, the situations where manual control is most crucial), it happens fairly frequently that I try to do a swing just after the enemy I was targeting falls, resulting in deselecting the character I was controlling. There should be a name for this general sort of erroneous behavior resulting from transient changes in state changing the meaning of an action.

Apart from that, I find it interesting that this whole system tends to result in the action centering on one fight at a time. Fights that aren’t currently the focus of your attention tend to go into a holding pattern, both sides fending off most of each other’s automatic attacks, unless one side or the other is greatly outmatched in skill or numbers. Selecting a character to control is, in effect, like directing the camera in the swashbuckling films the game takes inspiration from, telling the game that this is the important one for the moment.

Robin Hood: Little John has Joined the Party

Having now acquired Little John, I get to bring him on missions. As expected, he’s a variant on the Strong Merry 1Tangentially, the game’s random name generator has given me a merry man amusingly named Much Strong. He isn’t even a Strong Merry. He’s an archer. — he’s basically the strongest merry, and has most of the standard Strong Merry abilities plus a couple of additional ones of his own. In particular, he has the same sucker punch as Robin, allowing him to take down most enemies instantly and nonlethally, provided he can get close enough without them engaging him in combat. Having two characters who can do that on the same team is actually something of a game-changer: when Robin fails in his approach and winds up tangled in combat, John can take advantage of the distraction to deliver the punch, and vice versa. They’re like a tag team, the two inseparable friends.

The second plot mission after that seems built to emphasize this use, too. A potential ally is being held prisoner in his own castle, so you have to break him without killing anyone on the way in — those are his own men! (He’s okay with you pummeling them unconscious, tying them up, and leaving them in a closet, though.) I think this is the first time the game has actually forced the player to refrain from killing, rather than just suggesting and encouraging it. For my part, it just meant I had to continue playing the game exactly as I had been up to that point.

I’m really considering ditching the no-deliberate-killing policy at this point, though. It would open up new options, like actually letting Robin use a bow once in a while. As it is, I’m mainly using the same tools and techniques to slowly and methodically win every level. There’s a satisfaction to those techniques — it’s essentially similar to the satisfaction of tidying up — but when I was taking a similar approach in Deus Ex, it was largely to facilitate exploration, and that’s less of a factor here, where the same three castles are used repeatedly.

Recall that the game punishes killing by making it more difficult to recruit additional merry men. But I have more than enough merry men already, more than I can easily manage. And here’s the thing about extrinsic motivations: once established, they tend to devalue intrinsic ones.

1 Tangentially, the game’s random name generator has given me a merry man amusingly named Much Strong. He isn’t even a Strong Merry. He’s an archer.

Back to Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood

I think it’s about time we got back to this game, don’t you? I planned to finish it up months ago — I wanted to get it done before IFComp started! — but things happened, and momentum was lost, and I’ve found it to be a difficult game to get back into. There’s just a lots of little bits of friction: partly it’s the graphics (not quite high-res enough for the level of detail it’s aiming at), partly it’s the UI (just a bit too complicated for its framerate), partly it’s the gameplay (just complicated enough that I can’t just jump back in without a refresher). These are of course the reasons I left it unplayed for so many years in the first place.

And then there’s the position I had left it in: stuck in my attempt at rescuing Little John because of the interference of a mounted knight. The good news is that I’ve now gotten past that level. The bad news is that I basically didn’t learn anything from it. I just replayed from a save until I somehow managed to clear out all the enemies in the vicinity of Little John without the knight noticing. I don’t know how I did it, and I certainly don’t know how to deal with knights in general, which seems like it’s going to be a problem from here on. Afterwards, I attempted a side mission, just another “mug a tax collector” bit like I’ve done several times already, but this time there was another mounted knight in his escort. I’m going to be seeing a lot of these guys, it seems. Maybe there’s a trick to subduing them than I haven’t discovered, or maybe they’re just there to encourage stealth. I just don’t know. I’m going to have to learn.

Stepping back a bit, this whole problem, of beating levels by save-scumming instead of by doing whatever it is the designer intended you to do, is probably something I encounter a lot, particularly in RTS games (a genre that’s cousin to this game). Back when RTSes were best-sellers, there seemed to develop an assumption that anyone who bought a new one had already mastered the form. Well, I’ve played through Warcraft, and Command & Conquer, and half of Command & Conquer: Red Alert, and I pretty much save-scummed through them all.

Robin Hood: The Knight

I seem to have hit the point where this game suddenly becomes hard. I’m off in the depths of the forest trying to rescue Little John from basically an entire army, because that’s what it took to subdue him. For most of the map, my usual MO stands up: Render enemies unconscious, ideally by having Robin sneak up on them one by one, but with a Strong Merry as a back-up in case I wind up pulling aggro. Tie them up before they come to. When possible, help this process along with trickery like luring enemies into an ambush. (Honestly, the efficacy of ambushes is one of the things that really makes this game feel Robin-Hood-like.)

The big problem, then, is that this mission is the first to feature a mounted knight, and I don’t know what to do about it. He’s unprecedentedly fast-moving and hard-hitting, and I haven’t found a way to take him down permanently — using the Strong Merry’s biggest attacks, I’ve managed to stun him to the point where he’s no longer considered a valid target for attacks, but he recovers alarmingly quickly, and apparently can’t be tied up while he’s on that horse. (Would I have to tie up the horse too?) Up to this point, to minimize deaths, I haven’t been shooting people with arrows. For this guy, I finally break out the bow. He shrugs it off.

Clearly, then, the best way to deal with him is to avoid him altogether. The problem is that he’s positioned to notice when you go after Little John. Even if you avoid his line of sight, and do stealth take-downs of all the other guards in the vicinity, the act of freeing John from his bonds ineluctibly causes another soldier to appear and raise the alarm. Maybe the key is to just book it at that point, but even that seems tricky. I can’t outrun that horse.

One thing I’ve been shamefully contemplating is making a sacrifice. Get the Strong Merry into a fight with the knight elsewhere to distract him. But is that something Robin Hood would do?

Robin Hood: Merries

Two more critical path missions down, plus a couple of optional caravan ambushes to get extra cash. I don’t really have a use for all this cash yet, but the story has got to get around to asking me to ransom King Richard at some point. There’s nothing really unexpected about the story. It’s taking care to give all the Robin Hood fans out there what they want, introducing the old familiar characters one by one: Will Scarlet, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck. No Little John yet, although I’m sure he’s coming. Will Scarlet is the only one who’s actually joined my outlaw band back at the base in Sherwood Forest, though. The rest of my recruits are generic Merry Men.

The generics all have individual names, and can be trained up in combat individually, and the game tracks their individual health and inventory from one mission to the next. In terms of abilities, though, they come in just three types, which the manual calls Strong Merry, Aggressive Merry, and Mustachioed Merry. I’ve been finding the Strong Merry to be by far the most useful in combat: under player control, he can do big sweeping moves that knock out multiple people at a time (including any friendlies standing too close). But you can’t neglect the skills that the other Merry types bring to missions, like healing and lockpicking. Robin Hood stories and Robin Hood games sometimes make the mistake of making Robin simply the best at everything anyone does, making you wonder why he’s keeping everyone else around at all, but I think the RTS influence in this game’s ludic makeup helps it to avoid that, making the focus on the coordinated actions of a team.

What do all the extra duplicate Merries do while you’re on a mission? Whatever jobs you’ve assigned them to back at Sherwood HQ. They can produce supplies to take on missions, such as arrows and healing herbs and throwable coin purses (with extra-weak seams to make them burst on impact and scatter their contents over a wide area), or they can train in hand-to-hand combat or archery, or they can just rest and heal. This is all done with the same UI as missions: home base is a kind of Sherwood Treehouse Playset that characters walk around in, with stations you can leave them at to tell them what to do. The annoying thing about this is that with dozens of controllable characters, you can’t select who to control in the more convenient ways, like the 1-5 keys. To select someone, you have to click on them, which can be difficult if they’re walking around. If you try to click on someone and miss, the game interprets it as telling the currently-selected character to walk to the spot you clicked on. I really wish sometimes that I could pause the game and still give orders, Baldur’s-Gate-style — not just here, but in combat too. But I suppose that’s the downside of the RTS influence.

Robin Hood: Learning How to Deal With Other People

I haven’t quite gotten through the second mission yet. This is a save-a-prisoner-from-the-gallows mission, one of the classical Robin Hood scenarios, and it’s quite daunting from the start, especially if you’re trying to cooperate with the game’s discouragement of killing. The place is crawling with soldiers, and worse, they’re clustered in small groups and watching each other’s backs. With only one playable character, you only have two nonlethal ways to dispose of enemies. First, you can sucker-punch them before they draw their weapons, which only really works on isolated individuals, and only on the weaker sorts at that. Secondly, you can throw a purse of gold into their midst, causing them to fight each other over it. Ideally, the brawl leaves only one guard standing, thus turning them into an isolated individual who you can sucker-punch. But again, the tougher guards are immune to this trick, and you can only do it so many times — you can retrieve the gold from the unconscious guards, but oddly enough, throwable purses are a limited resource.

The whole deal, then, is that you can’t do much of anything on this map with just one playable character — because this is the level that teaches you how to use multiple characters. With the man you’re rescuing, and three other condemned prisoners who just happen to be there too, you have a party of five, which seems to be the maximum the game accommodates, judging by the UI. Different characters have different abilities: this guy can pick locks, that one knows how to use healing herbs, and so forth. The two most relevant skills for the above discussion are the ability to tie up unconscious foes so they don’t pose a threat when they wake up, and for big strong guys, the ability to pick up the unconscious, dead, or bound so you can hide them where they’re less conspicuous. In short, your standard stealth-game stuff, but it takes multiple people to do. Most of the time, I’m using just those three characters: the big guy, the bondage guy, and Robin, who knows how to sucker-punch.

Not that sucker-punching is always necessary! The big guy carries a bludgeon that lets him deal nonlethal damage in combat mode. Still, the most effective way I’ve found to conduct combat is: One of my merry men engages the enemy in combat, and while he’s thus distracted, Robin comes in from the side and sucker-punches him. I’ve basically got it all down to a science now, and have been indulging in the same sort of foolishness as I did in Deus Ex: maximizing my freedom by clearing the map of all threats and stuffing them into the same few picturesque half-timbered buildings, where they are no doubt stacked like logs. This is why it’s taking me so long to finish the level.

Robin Hood: The Legend of Sherwood

A random conversation got me thinking about this game, so I pulled it out and played it a bit. When I first tried it in the early 2000s, it struck me as fairly original in concept: it looked and controlled like a RTS of the time, but it had stealth mechanics and puzzles. I’ve since learned that the Commandos series did it first, but I haven’t played those.

At any rate, this is a game that supports both stealth and combat approaches, and allegedly rewards choosing stealth: Robin’s ability to function as a folk hero and attract followers depends on people’s opinion of him, which is affected by how many murders he’s responsible for. I haven’t gotten far enough into the game for that to be a factor, though. All I’ve gotten through so far is the first mission, in which Robin Hood isn’t even really Robin Hood yet. Back when the game was newer, I didn’t even get that far; I got stuck in perfection paralysis, repeatedly realizing that there were better ways to do stuff as I learned the game’s vocabulary and restarting the entire level.

When run as-is under Windows 10, the game is unplayably sluggish. To get around this, I installed a patch that turned out to just be a little wrapper for running it under DxWnd. I’ll have to remember to try DxWnd for other games that display similar symptoms. It does create two new problems, though. First of all, the cursor leaves trails behind it in the game’s menus, including in-game message boxes. Secondly, it breaks the game at higher resolutions. By default, the game runs at 640×480, but the options menu lets you dial that up to 800×600 or 1024×768, and it’s a shame that I can’t take advantage of that. I’m basically stuck with 640×480, which looks brutally coarse to me, although I can already feel myself adapting to it.

[Addendum 22 Sep] It seems like the failure of the other graphics modes must be linked to the introductory FMV cutscene. This plays automatically when you start the game, and it always plays in 640×480. So if you have the game set to play at any other resolution, it has to change graphics modes on the fly. DxWnd doesn’t appear to handle that well. A lot of older games for Windows do this sort of thing, switching resolutions for FMV, and it’s never really worked very well. On every single PC I’ve ever owned, switching graphics modes takes a few seconds, with the typical result that you wind up missing the start of the video.