Monday, October 17, 2016

Pools of Darkness: Summary and Rating

The implications of requiring a hard drive didn't occur to me until now. This must have been a tragedy for C64 owners who'd enjoyed the previous three games.
Pools of Darkness
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1991 for DOS, 1992 for Amiga and Macintosh, 1993 for PC-98
Date Started: 18 September 2016
Date Ended: 7 October 2016
Total Hours: 68
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I feel like we've reached the end of something. Pools of Darkness is not the last Gold Box game, but it's the last of the original series--the last time we'll see Phlan and the Moonsea region. Names like Corymr and Hillsfar and Zhentil Keep won't appear again in CRPGs in our lifetime, unless I'm mistaken. (We will, of course, encounter Myth Drannor again, but that's better forgotten for now.)

Reflecting on the entire series, Secret of the Silver Blades seems the least "necessary" of the four; the appearance of Priam aside, there are the fewest plot ties to the other titles. It was important for character development and inventory (more on that below), but the cycle really could have been a trilogy. Between Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, and Pools of Darkness, each title opens up more explorable area of the Moonsea and adds more to the "Banite" plot. I might even recommend that modern players approach it that way. You don't lose that much in the way of experience and character development; you'd hit encounters like the Cult of Moander, Myth Drannor, and Mulmaster while their prior references are fresh in your mind; and inventory acquisition in Pools would be much more meaningful.
Pools of Radiance let's you explore basically the northwest quadrant; Curse of the Azure Bonds takes place across most of the western half; this game doubles the map to the east.
In an earlier post, I suggested that Pools might be the Gold Box game that finally surpasses Pool of Radiance in the GIMLET. I no longer think so. The primary problem with Pools is the lack of meaningful character development. In the first 10 levels of a first edition AD&D game, spellcasters learn most of the most valuable spells, fighters become notably more powerful and get a second attack, and clerics learn to turn just about every type of undead. The next 30 levels are boring by comparison. Sure, spellcasters get more and more slots and a few extra spell levels, but not enough to make a serious difference. In Pools of Radiance, each map might only have 3 or 4 safe resting spots, so you have to conserve spells in between and use every resource you have. In Pools of Darkness, each map has those same 3 or 4 resting spots, but this time you can't possibly cast even all of your "Delayed Blast Fireballs," let alone all your spells, before you have a chance to rest again.

Similarly, you gain very little in inventory development in Pools. I started the game with several +5 weapons and armor, but I think the highest I found in Pools was +4. For the most part, my characters ended the game with the same equipment they started with, excepting Vorpal Blades, Girdles of Giant Strength, and Boots of Speed, most of these items not appearing until end of the final map.

Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but I also think that this is the last time we'll see characters of this experience level in a D&D game. I think I got into the 20s in Throne of Bhaal, maybe around the same in all the expansions of Neverwinter Nights. Of course, in those games, high-leveled characters have a lot more to work with--feats and skills that don't exist in first edition AD&D--making them arguably more powerful. It's frankly bizarre that the game lets you get so high. Pool of Radiance is meant for Level 1-8 characers; Curse of the Azure Bonds caps out around Level 12; and Secret of the Silver Blades stops you at 15. If Pools of Darkness had ended at Level 20-22, it would have been enough to get into the highest spell levels but not so high as to create staggeringly overpowered characters. I guess the greater length required more levels.

I happened to watch Captain America: Civil War on a plane last night, and I began to think of parallels between the Avengers and my Pools of Darkness party. I thought about how eager everyone was to see us to a ship and send us to parts unknown. The game presents it as if it's some kind of reward, but in reality it seems like exile. But then again, what do you do with a bunch of Level 40 characters running around? My mages could level the city. Two of my fighters could defeat a phalanx of city guards. There are no Sokovia Accords in the Forgotten Realms. And my 6 characters aren't even all good by alignment (though none are evil). Perhaps it really was time for this group to retire.

This is particularly true when you consider that the party and its strength, in effect, caused the core crisis of the game. From the opening animations, it's clear that Bane is wreaking havoc on the Moonsea region specifically to punish the party for its previous successes. Like the Avengers with Ultron, we created our own enemy, and the world is paying the price. I'm not really fond of plots like this, where the world doesn't gain any net benefit and the heroes simply deal with a problem that they created.
Just a thought: maybe the powers of good should have stepped in now.
I always like checking out the unused journal entries when I've completed a Gold Box game. There won't be many more of these. I counted 20 unused entries, but some of them might just have been entries that I didn't find. A couple were just nonsense tavern tales--one of them warning the party not to go through the "magical gates" because they deplete strength. Others hint at enemies that never show up--The Frostmaiden, the Red One, and some mysterious "rider in red." There's one fake entry that has Bane himself talking to the party, saying that the party is wasting its time defeating the lieutenants when in fact a "rider in red with a sword of flame" is the real enemy. Another tells the party to "seek out the Flaming Sword" to defeat Bane. Less obvious misleading stuff than in some of the earlier titles; there was probably a sense even among the "fake" journal entry authors that the journal's time was coming to an end.

Let's see how she rates:

1. Game World. In my final rating on Curse of the Azure Bonds, I discussed my basic problem with the Forgotten Realms, amounting to there not being any "there" there. For the era, the Moonsea is a reasonably well-defined place, with a variety of factions and each area steeped in lore. I liked all the call-backs to previous games and the ability to re-visit some memorable areas. On the other hand, as I note above, I didn't really care for the overall plot, particularly the end. Score: 6.

2. Character Creation and Development. Nothing new added in this installment except higher levels, which (as above) is a lot less rewarding than advancing in lower ones. Even dual-classing doesn't add much here because you get to Level 10 in the space of half a map. The title otherwise has the general A&D and Gold Box strengths, although the level caps for non-human races become completely unworkable here. Pools seems to offer fewer encounters in which character race, sex, or class actually matters; the optional Dave's Challenge is the only place I can think of. Score: 6.
An end-of-game character sheet.
3. NPC Interaction. There are some memorable NPCs--Nacacia, Shal, and Sasha stand out as "characters" more than any previous Gold Box denizens. I like the way that so many different NPCs can join you briefly for mini-quests and play out their own stories. On the other hand, the series refuses to advance at all when it comes to NPC dialogue and role-playing options. Score: 5.
The last we'll see of Sasha.
4. Encounters and Foes. Again, we must reflect that the Gold Box series, in using the AD&D monster manual, is giving us a much greater variety of foes than just about any other title of the era. Practically every encounter is a mid-term exam that requires player to recall the strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks of the foes. (And as we saw, I often forgot some of them despite my experience with the titles.) There are a few original, high-level foes created just for this game. Many battles are preceded by some contextual text, which I always like. You can grind as much as you want. Oh, I found some of the enemies annoying, but really that's a minor complaint when you consider the breadth and depth of what's programmed here.

I'm sure the game has more monster types than any of its predecessors. The manual describes 40 monsters, the same as Secret of the Silver Blades, but it's missing a bunch, including 4 different types of vampires, wights, wraiths, all of the human enemies, and many of the animal enemies you fight outdoors and in Mulmaster at the end. This is the first time that I've noticed that the manual doesn't exhaustively catalogue every enemy in the game--did I just not check in previous titles? 
A fitting pre-combat message.
On the other hand, the series still hasn't managed to out-perform Pool of Radiance when it comes to non-combat encounters. When I think of true "role-playing" in the Gold Box series, I think of maps like the Zhentil outpost, the buccaneer base, or the lizard man village in the original game, where you could play the entire series of encounters in different ways depending on your preferred approach. I think of the final battle, where you can have your evil party members join Tyranthraxus. A handful of encounter options with gate guards and whatnot don't rise to that level of roleplaying. Score: 7.

5. Magic and Combat. In general, all of the strengths and weakness of the previous titles. I honestly love the Gold Box combat system, and I don't think I'll ever tire of it, but that doesn't mean I didn't tire of many of the battles. We've already talked in this series about how overpowered "Delayed Blast Fireball" is--and how it's almost impossible to force yourself not to use it regardless. 

As many commenters have pointed out, combat in Pools of Darkness amounts largely to a "quick-draw" in which you have to hope you can blast a group of enemies with magic attacks before they blast you. Either way, combat is usually over within a few rounds. I miss the longer, grander battles of the early games in which making use of terrain, holding a line, concentrating physical attacks, exhausting all your spell options, and healing in battle really made a difference. (You could argue that the Moander battles meet these criteria, but the game ruins that by offering too many of them.)

One thing that I constantly wished for is the ability to revive unconscious characters and to cast "Resurrection" and "Stone to Flesh" in combat. That would have turned a lot of hopeless combats into real tactical challenges. I guess canonical spellcasting times would have made this impossible under AD&D rules.

All that said, the game is still significantly ahead of anything else in the era when it comes to the tactical nature of combat and spells in particular. Few other titles, before or after, can match Pools of Darkness in the variety, logistics, and utility of so many spells. For that alone, it deserves a high score, and nothing is going to surpass it until we get to an era of better enemy AI overall. Score: 7.
My party in the thick of the final battles.
6. Equipment. The equipment system in general remains quite good in the Gold Box titles, and I appreciate the addition of helms to this outing. Melee weapons, missile weapons, ammunition, armor, rings, helms, boots, gauntlets, girdles all add to character development, and wands, potions, scrolls, and a few special items add to combat tactics. That said, this game offered fewer honest rewards than any of the previous Gold Box titles. I ended the game mostly equipped with the same items that I had at the end of Secret of the Silver Blades, which offered several +5 items, compared to what seemed to be a +4 cap in Pools. Making me wait until the last area of the last map to get a couple extra Boots of Speed and Girdles of Giant's Strength was a particular slap in the face. Score: 5.
My thief's inventory at the end of the game.
7. Economy. I offered a double guest post on how much it "sucks," and I think that pretty well covers it. You only need to buy a few items (mostly Elixirs of Youth) in the game, and the developers could have saved everyone a lot of time by just making everything free. Score: 1.
8. Quests. Decent main quest. No opportunities for role-playing or alternate outcomes, but more than any previous title, we see a lot of optional areas and side quests. In fact, in general these side quests were better than the main plot. I particularly liked Myth Drannor and Dark Phlan, and it was fun to clear up little "pockets of evil" in between the marked places on the map. Score: 6.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. The interface remains fantastic--supporting very intuitive keyboard, mouse, and joystick inputs. It's a model for others to follow. The graphics are getting dated. Although many of the cut scenes are well-composed and animated, the blank hallways and empty rooms are getting less defensible. The sound is probably the worst part of the game. Amidst a bunch of mediocre sound effects are a few that are so grating (the Wilhelm scream that accompanies the death of every enemy is the primary example) that I had to play most of the game with the sound off. Score: 5.
I didn't take many screenshots of blank corridors even though they make up 80% of the game. This is supposed to be Gothmenes' "palace," and the text has to tell me that there's a pool in front of me.
10. Gameplay. We had a little argument in my first post about whether the game is "linear." I maintain that it at least presents itself in a linear manner, meaning that you start in the northeast, end in the southeast, and there's an obvious sequence to your exploration by going counter-clockwise around the Moonsea. If you do that, you'll hit the main plot points in a sensible order (running right to the Moander dimension would be suicide, for example). I know that the game supports different orders, and indeed you can get quests from both underground Phlan and Arcam's tower if you don't approach things that way, but that doesn't change what 90% of players are going to do on a blind first run.

Still, given that there are some alternate dialogues and encounters to be found if you do things in a different order, that makes the game slightly replayable.

For difficulty, I rated it an average of "hard" above, which I don't mind, but what matters more than the average is the variance--and that, unfortunately, is quite significant. Deliberately nerfing characters by making them abandon their best equipment just before the hardest battles, and then removing spells--a huge part of the game--for the final battle are both a little hard to swallow. In general, the pacing is good, though I think it clocks in a little on the long side. Score: 4.

That give us a final rating of 52, not anywhere near the 65 I gave to Pool of Radiance, which I rated for a better story, better character development, better non-combat encounters, and a better (though still bad) economy. But it outperforms Secret of the Silver Blades (50) and puts the title in my top 10%. More important, it ends the overall series with honor. It's not a perfect game, but it's epic and ambitious and a worthy bearer of the Gold Box label.
This Drow woman featured prominently on the box cover and game ads doesn't actually appear in the game, unless she's one of the random Drow mooks in Kalistes' realm.
My review aligns fairly well with Scorpia's December 1991 Computer Gaming World review. She disliked having to give up equipment at Limbo--calls it "idiocy," as a matter of fact--and has a lot of venom for the end of the game:
[Your party has] just finished a task whose proportions are almost immesurable, turning back, virtually single-handed, powers of darkness and defeating what is nothing less than a demi-god. What's the reward? Nothing. That's right, nothing... No cheering crowds, no banquets, no speeches not even a thank you. After all they've been through, there is nothing for your party to do except slip out quietly by ship, either for retirement or Dave's Challenge. What a downer!
But aside from these flaws, she calls the title "otherwise the best in the Gold Box line to date." She loved the Moander portion.
I'm still a little confused as to why we're just leaving.
Dragon gave it 5 stars on its usual scale of 5-5.

Amiga magazines, which always seem to favor graphics and sound over good RPG gameplay, were generally less charitable, offering scores in the 50s-80s (out of 100) on average. The worst comes from our old friends at Amiga Power (whose criminally incompetent review of Secret of the Silver Blades I covered in my final posting on that game). The reviewer, Dave Golder (a different one than the Secret reviewer) gave it 22/100. Among his complaints are a "plot so thin it makes Lena Zavaroni look like Mike McShane." This is a cringe-worthy simile, given that Ms. Zavaroni suffered from anorexia all her adult life and died in 1999, in part because of the disease. But it's also cringe-worthy because he clearly didn't play the game long enough to grasp the plot--he believes that it is "Lord Blane" (not kidding) who is jumping around using the Pools of Darkness. He complains about the speed of combat messages, apparently not bothering to note that you can slow it down, and the "sub-menus" of the interface. This is clearly someone who never played anything that wasn't an easily-controlled, first-person blobber (he praises Eye of the Beholder in the same review).

But the most mysterious comments are at the end: when you meet NPCs, he says, "you can't actually engage in a proper conversation with them, which goes completely against the spirit of role playing." I mean....okay, I guess I can't disagree, but what games was he playing in 1992 where you can have strong role-playing conversations with NPCs? I sure haven't run into them yet.

Despite Amiga Power's hope that this would be the last of the series, of course we still have Neverwinter Nights (1991), The Dark Queen of Krynn (1992), Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992), and some Unlimited Adventures modules (1993) to check out. I'm sure I'll have a huge Gold Box retrospective some time next year, but for now, I'm sorry to be leaving the Moonsea for the last time. We had some unforgettable times in the Forgotten Realms. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Pools of Darkness: Won!

I actually think it's time for a big celebration and then I retire in Phlan with my riches.
There's a surprisingly large amount of game left to play after the "final battles" of Pools of Darkness. It's not the first game to allow continual play after winning, but it might be the first to have actual interesting content in the post-victory world.

Once you've struck the final blow at the end of the three battles, Gothmenes' wounded body (despite the battle screen clearly stating that you "killed" him) goes flying into the Pool of Darkness. Gothmenes cries out for Bane to save him, but Bane doesn't because of reasons.
I honestly did not intend to pull you back.
Gothmenes is consumed by the Pool of Darkness. Moments later, a vision of Elminster waves at you creepily from the same pool. He says that "the powers of good [have] undone all of Bane's plot" and "everything is as it was--only ye and I know what fate the realms almost bore." Some "fog lifts" and the party stands on a street in Phlan, where we were when the game began.
Okay, I know we're at the epilogue here, but could the storytelling have been any lazier? The party is somehow magically transported back to the beginning? Everything is reset? No one remembers? Why not just say it was all a dream? I wanted a victory parade, damn it!

But not all is the same as it was before, because NPCs who were in other places are suddenly wandering around the streets of Phlan. You meet Priam, wondering what adventures we could possibly have together, given how peaceful everything is.
You do realize the Moonsea is only a small part of the Realms, right?
Shal says hello and thinks she recognizes us but can't place us. Vala slaps us on the back and talks about stirring up trouble in Vaasa. Nacacia invites us to visit her in Elven Court someday.
Sure. Maybe I'll explore the ruins of Myth Drannor.
Finally, Elminster pops up and offers some nonsense explanation for the way things are ("when the greater powers returned the cities, 'twas needful of them to return time as well"). He says he's arranged passage for us on a ship to "a land ye can call home," as if Phlan wasn't good enough for that. He notes cryptically that there's a second ship at the docks that Rolf will tell us about. He then takes off for Shadowdale.
Is there a reason you're trying to get me out of here?
In the town hall, Sasha dismisses us completely.
You know what? I think I'm over you.
The seer in the old slums says she can't see our future.

You can take the party outside Phlan's walls and re-explore the entire Moonsea region. All of the evil fortresses are ruins that you can't enter. Manshoon has sealed Zhentil Keep. 
There are still scattered encounters in the wilderness, mostly with land-sharks.

All of the former craters now have menu towns.
There are no menu towns in the main part of the game. They programmed this just for the endgame.
The one exception is Mulmaster. If you visit there, a guard informs you that the arena monsters have escaped their pens, and you can run around fighting them if you want. Personally, I felt more sympathy for the monsters. 
Have you heard the "enemy of my enemy" theory?
Back in Phlan, Rolf offers you a choice of two ships. The one will bear the party to parts unknown, because there's no possible good a group of Level 40 adventurers could possibly do in the Realms. The second ship "limped in with a busted mizzen t'other day" and the captain says "he is here to offer you a challenge."
If you take the first ship, you get a final series of screens in which the party ruminates on the changes they have wrought to the Moonsea region, feeling pride, etc., and once and for all abandoning any idea that you can role-play the games as an evil party:
You board the ship, which soon has its sails smartly set and a bow wave rising before it. You look back at Phlan and the Stojanow River rolling peacefully into the sea. What changes your hands have wrought!

When you first set foot towards adventure, the region was aboil with evil and corruption. Now, its citizens will know a lasting peace, free from fear. What wonders will they create in this golden age?

Turning your musings inward, you know a deep satisfaction in your deeds well done, and realize that it is time to say farewell to the land and the many people you met there.
Then there's the other ship. It takes you to Dave's Challenge, an optional final area of the game. (It's named after co-developer David Shelley; we had a dungeon of the same name at the end of Death Knights of Krynn). I gave it a shot after I resurrected my dead characters, healed, leveled up, and retrieved my old equipment from the hold of Rolf's ship--let's not worry about how it got there.
Sounds like an RPG developer.
The challenge is presented as a special dungeon erected by some lunatic for the specific purpose of challenging high-level adventurers. From the moment you enter, the only goal is to leave. It's a standard 16 x 16 map, but only about 60% of the squares are used.
Arriving at The Challenge.
I save-scummed liberally as I mapped the Challenge, trying to figure out the optimal order in which to do things. There are three major issues in the challenge:

1. There's only one place that you can rest. It's off a hallway where lightning bolts shoot at you randomly. You can only rest there three times.

2. There are squares where your spells are wiped away. Various sites say that you lose your "mage spells" or "cleric spells," but the reality is that you lose all spells for mage and cleric characters. Since all my spellcaster are dual cleric/mages, all of their spells get wiped on every square.
This happens all over the place in Dave's Challenge.
3. You play the dungeon with all monsters on "champion" level.

A central room contains a beholder who gives you hints the first two times you enter, then attacks with a large group of beholders the third time. I was only able to defeat them using the "run up/run away" trick.
Breaking one of the "bonds" that keeps me in the dungeon.
The goal is to break four "bonds," each aspected to a particular class: thief, mage, cleric, fighter. (If you don't have one of each of these, you can't win.) The thief's bond is the easiest--you just have to fight a single battle against some rakshasa and iron golems along the way. The others are much harder because you lose all your spells when you enter their areas. Some of the battles include multiple Blue Minions of Bane and are theoretically harder than the final battles in the main game.
3 of 7 Minions of Bane on this map. If I didn't have my items, this battle would be harder than the final battle in the main game.
I say "theoretically" because I had one major advantage here that I didn't have in Gothmenes' palace: items. I had lots of wands, potions, and scrolls in my cache back at the Phlan docks, and once I saw what awaited me in Dave's Challenge, I was able to reload and buy more. Since I hadn't burned them earlier in the game, I had two Scrolls of Protection from Dragon's Breath (and each scroll is capable of multiple castings), which really ended up saving the day.
The most important item in the game.
After a few false starts, I learned where my spells would disappear and made sure to cast every buffing spell before that happened. I carefully spaced out my rest breaks. I ultimately was able to break all the seals and make my way to the final battle, where a mysterious voice indicated that he'd rescued Gothmenes, Tarental, Thorne, and Kalistes. Immediately before the battle, all your spells disappear yet again.
Wow, Dave has some serious power.
The final battle comes in two waves, with no rest in between. First, Tarental and Gothmenes attack with a bunch of Bits o Moander and maybe 8 Blue Minions of Bane. I never would have survived the breath attacks of the Minions without using the Scrolls of Protection from Dragon's Breath first, but with them, it wasn't too hard. I concentrated my fighters' attacks on Gothmenes and Tarental (despite the "champion" level, each went down in a single round from a hastened fighter) and then the Moander bits while my mages used scrolls and wands with "Fireball" to kill the Minions of Bane.
Killing Gothmenes never gets old.
The second battle was with Kalistes, Thorne, and a bunch of Pets of Kalistes and Red Dragons. Again, it wasn't so bad. My high-level characters were immune from the "Disintegrate" and "Charm" spells the enemies tried to use, and the scrolls kept me safe from the dragons' breath. It took a long time to whittle them down, but I wasn't in a lot of danger in the meantime.
Part of final battle #2.
Without those scrolls, I'm not sure the battles would have been winnable. I'm grateful for my hoarding tendencies.

When the battle was over, I wandered around before walking into a square that asked me to "Repeat the mystic clue." I had no idea what it was talking about. I still don't. I looked through all my screenshots for any kind of clue and couldn't find any. Eventually, I had to consult a spoiler site to learn that the clue is "Oh, well"--comma and all. Does anyone have any idea how I was supposed to know that?

Entering the clue took me to a small "reward" area where I found a chest with thousands of gems and jewels, two Girdles of Giant's Strength, two pairs of Boots of Speed, and some high-end weapons. There was also a fountain that I didn't know what it was doing at the time (it just says "you get wet") when you enter, but apparently it was increasing my experience by 400,000 for each trip (up to the maximum you can achieve between levels). 
The largest treasure reward in the series.
Beyond that, an exit led back to Phlan, where I leveled-up, rested, and saved, then exported my characters for....well, nothing, I guess. Perhaps a replay at some point in the future, or maybe I'll use them to trounce my way through Treasures of the Savage Frontier.
You'd like to think so, but you have nothing on Wizardry IV.
Two quick notes:

  • The druid's "Protection from Fire" apparently never wears off. When I checked which spells were in effect at one point, she had multiple editions of the spell active, since the previous ones hadn't been "eaten up" by fire attacks in previous combats.
I guess she really doesn't need any more.
  • Recovering all spells at these levels, after your mind has been wiped, takes almost 5 days of rest. The game maxes the automatic resting at 2 days, so you have to rest 3 times in a row to recover everything. I didn't know this at first and spent a lot of time wondering where all my spells had gone.

It's been a long game! Let's GIMLET the thing and get back to the list.


As for that list, the next game is anyone's guess, and you might see some dramatic shifts to the "recent & upcoming" list in the near future.

I would really like to play Fer & Flamme, which turns out to be Ubisoft's first game, except I can't find a manual and I can't get past the character creation screen. The game makes you manually type in the character class, and without a list of valid options, I'm stuck. I've tried French translations of common RPG class types--guerrier, voleur, sorcier, etc.--to no avail. [Edit: Someone found the manual already and sent it to me.]

At the same time, I'm having trouble finding a workable download of Le Fer d'Amnukor, the sequel to Tyrann, which exists only for the Oric. I'm new to the emulator, so that might be causing part of the problem.

Moonstone is proving so frustrating that I might add a "keyboard control only" restriction to my master game list. I have a Logitech controller that, after some effort, I basically have working with DOSBox, but either it's reading my inputs erratically or I just suck. I can't even win the practice battles. Adjusting the CPU speed doesn't seem to help.

Knightmare is giving me the usual issues working with the Amiga, which in this case means that it freezes on loading most of the time, and when it doesn't, it doesn't stop asking me for a disk even though I've inserted one. No luck with the ST version, either. This one is probably more solvable than the others, but I reached it after a string of failures with the games above and was low on patience.

As for Fate: Gates of Dawn, I sank 8 hours into it last week and didn't get any further than mapping a few partial levels of catacombs. The game is indecently large, and I'll probably need double that time to encounter enough plot points to have anything to write about.

So barring any movement on the above, the next post you see might be on Legend of Lothain or Heavy on the Magick, neither of which I've looked at yet, so heaven knows whether I'll have any problems with them.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pools of Darkness: The Final Battle

The problem with the final battles in one animated GIF.
The famous final series of battles in Pools of Darkness begins when Gothmenes returns from his expedition to Limbo, a tied and subdued Elminster in tow. The party has had about an hour to run around Gothmenes' palace, scavenging what weapons they can and getting hold of the Crystal of Bane, which I guess is the source of his power. Once Gothmenes starts the clock, there's no escaping the palace--even if you could get very far before the countdown ends, you end up fighting endless battles against Minions of Bane (or so I'm told--I didn''t try).
The extra "g" really bothers me.
One or two steps before Gothmenes returns, the game gives you some kind of warning--I forgot exactly what it says--that basically alerts you that it's time to cast your buffing spells. Because the moment he gets back, you go directly to combat.
That just seems so undignified for Elminster.
Buffing at this level takes a while, and a few spells must be cast in a precise order. For instance, if you cast "Globe of Invulnerability" on your spellcasters too soon, they won't get the effects of "Haste" and other beneficial spells. Some of the low-level buffing spells make only extremely minor adjustments at this level, but for the final battle, you need every advantage you can get. So you scatter a few "Protection from Evil, 10' Radius" around the party to improve AC by 2. The mages all cast "Mirror Image" and the ranger can toss a couple of "Barkskins" on the highest AC characters. A cleric casts "Bless" and "Prayer." Everyone gets "Enlarge," "Resist Fire," and "Resist Cold." One "Haste." Mages give themselves "Fire Shield" and "Iron Skin" and cast a few "Fire Touches" on the melee characters (the spell makes melee fighters do extra fire damage). Then you try to cover as many characters as possible with "Mind Blank" to protect against psychic attacks.
This wasn't a hard choice. I don't even really like Elminster.
Once the mages have all the early level spells active, they can cast "Globe of Invulnerability." I used to finish off with a "Mass Invisibility" (you have to cast this last, or the very act of casting dispels it, I think), but I haven't had a lot of luck with invisibility working in this game.

If you're not an idiot like me, buffing also includes the use of potions (Potion of Speed and Potion of Giant Strength, maybe, though "Enlarge" and "Haste" duplicate their effects and don't really stack) and scrolls. In particular, you want to give someone the Scroll of Protection from Dragon's Breath, which also protects against the breath of Minions of Bane and maybe some other creatures. Because I didn't bring any of this stuff through the pool, I didn't have any of these items. As we'll talk about later, I'm not sure it wouldn't be cheating even if I did have them.
That's fine. "Resist Fire" is a thing. Just don't tell me I'll run out into a lightning storm to escape your wrath.
When Gothmenes gets back, there's a series of cut scenes. He notes that you have the Crystal and then shows the party Elminster, bound in Gothmenes' whip. He offers to trade the wizard for his Crystal. I don't think what you do here matters, because if you say yes, Elminster just shouts "no," frees himself, and instigates the final battle. If you say no, Elminster gets tortured a little and the final battles begin anyway.
Is it a flail or a whip? Get it together, Pools of Darkness.
Gothmenes summons allies from a Pool of Darkness. The party gets one choice: whether to try to use the Crystal to "countermand the summons." If you do, whoever has the crystal suffers a near-total loss of hit points, but I guess you face fewer monsters in the final combats. I unfortunately didn't see what happened when I didn't use the crystal.
That's not nice. I haven't even met them.
I love how "Bane minions" is an afterthought here, like they're not about to be the biggest pains in the neck in RPG history.
It is a word; that's just not what it means.
Elminster escapes his bonds and keeps Gothmenes occupied while his beholder ally, Xoham, spurs the summoned minions to attack. It all begins. You have to fight a sequence of three battles with no opportunity to save or rest in between. You cannot lose a single character within the first two battles and have much hope of defeating the third one, so no one can die, get stoned, or get disintegrated. There's no recovering if that happens.
Guys, note that he did not say, "Breathe lightning at them."
The first battle consists of a large group of Blue Minions of Bane, dracoliches, Pets of Kalistes, and Bits o Moander. The first time I played, I swear they weren't too hard. Blue Minions and dracoliches both breathe lightning, against which you have no defense (save the ring, which I didn't bring through, or scroll, which I didn't bring through), so you have to kill them quickly. Blue Minions fall easily to "Delayed Blast Fireball" but dracoliches don't. My mages went early in the round and destroyed most of the Blue Minions and Pets of Kalistes with fireballs. My hastened fighters pounded away at the dracoliches. I didn't kill them all in one round, but I reduced them enough that by the second round, the few stray lightning breaths that got through didn't really matter.
Preparing to take out the first batch of enemies.
Suspecting I was about to go into a second battle, I didn't end the combat when the enemies were dead, but kept playing long enough to restore everyone to full health. Easy peasy. 

Second battle: About 8 beholders. No magic helps here. I rushed to engage them in melee combat. This happened my first time through:
In subsequent tries, the beholder battle was trivially simple, because I used the exploit by which my characters would run up to the beholders and then run a step away, causing them to attack their backsides and ensuring they therefore wouldn't use their special eyestalk attacks that round (the same strategy that keeps dragons from breathing). I'm sorry if anyone thinks this is cheating, but once you know it works, you can't not do it, particularly in a battle this hard. It would take more willpower than I possess to stand there and watch characters get stoned and disintegrated because they failed random rolls than to use a quick and simple exploit.

But the first time, I was doing it honestly and paid for it with 3 character deaths. I killed the game to restart, which turned out to be a bad idea, because I could have used my doomed party to explore an option coming up.

Reloading, I started the first battle again, and you know what? It was harder than the first time. I had to review the videos to see what was different, but it appears that my first attempt had lots of Blue Minions (which are vulnerable to "Delayed Blast Fireball") but only a few dracoliches. The second and subsequent attempts reversed that ratio, so that I was able to clear fewer enemies with spells and had to resort to individual battles with the dracoliches. (I think there were a couple extra total enemies, too.) Trying the same strategy that had won the combat the first time, my party was wiped out within 2 rounds from the lightning breaths.

So I had to switch up my tactics. North of where the battle starts is a hallway with a 2-square entrance. I figured if I could get all my characters up there, I could lead the enemies to me in smaller groups and try strategies like delaying my spellcasters' actions until the end of the round, popping up to the entrance, firing off fireballs and lightning bolts, and then retreating around the corner at the beginning of the next round.
My party hunkers in the hallway while the enemies come around the corner one-by-one (the Black Minion of Bane is mine).
The first time I tried the tactic, one of my mages got the first initiative. I had her run up through the opening and into the hallway, then cast "Monster Summoning." A couple of Black Minions of Bane appeared around my lead character. I hoped they'd serve as fodder for the enemies' attacks while my other characters all got to safety. It almost worked. 5 of my 6 characters got up around the corner, but last, my paladin, suffered a poor initiative roll, apparently. Since all my other characters were in hiding, he suffered the brunt of every breath attack and soon died.

I reloaded. This time, I got luckier with the initiative rolls and everyone was able to get around the corner. After that, it was trivially simple, if long, to wait for each creature to wander into the hallway and kill him individually.
Keep fighting that single enemy, Elminster.
The second battle began. As I mentioned, I used the exploit and managed to kill the beholders with very minor injuries. I healed up, refreshed "Haste" and a few other spells, and moved on.
I was even able to get the beholders to damage themselves on my "Fire Shield."
Another series of cut screens. Gothmenes manages to throw Elminster into the dark pool. He surveys the damage I've already done and looks doubtful. "Perhaps you have earned the use of my gem," he says. "With it, you can rule the Realms!" He offers to teach me the "word to command it."
I just know this is going to be a bad choice, but I frankly would like to rule the Realms.
I silently curse. Of course I have to explore this option, even though I suspect it will end in ruin and I'll have to fight the first two battles all over again. I say "Yes." Gothmenes gives me a code word, and fortunately I screen-shot it, because it's only up for a second. I type it in when prompted.

Elminster lurches out of the pool, twisted and dying, screaming "no!" Gothmenes says, "Fools! You have opened the crystal! Welcome your new master!" I don't know exactly what that means, but all my party members instantly die and the game is over.
What if we'd been evil?
It takes 2 or 3 more reloads to repeat my success with the first and second battles. This time, I say "no" to Gothmenes' offer. "Minions! To me!" he cries, "but only a few lumber forward." He screams, "Bane! Protect your chosen one," and it first it seems like Bane doesn't answer. And then it happens: a light comes from the Pool of Darkness and wipes my spellcasters' memories. The final battle begins, and my party members don't have access to a single spell. (My buffing spells are still active, though.)
Aw, come on. This is bull#%#&.
The enemies: Gothmenes, 2 Bits o Moander, 2 green dragons, and 7 Blue Minions of Bane.

At this point, the full force of the mistakes I made last time comes crashing down. Gothmenes, for all his status as the "big bad" of the game, is just a balor. SSI's adaptation of AD&D rules doesn't allow for individual, named enemies to be notably more powerful than generic enemies of the same type. So though he has some special attacks and defenses and whatever, he goes down in a single attack from a hastened fighter (who gets 4 blows per round).
What should be the hardest villain dies right away.
Similarly, the green dragons don't last long against melee weapons. The Bits o Moander are tough, but there's only 2 of them, and they can be avoided until later. None of these enemies is trivial, I hasten to add--the green dragons and their poison breath are particularly vexing--but none of them is the real problem.

The real problem is the 7 Blue Minions of Bane. Not only are they blasting everyone with lightning bolts every round, but they've got this electric field that does double damage to anyone making a melee attack against them. If one of my hastened fighters runs up to one and hits him for 16, 18, 20, 14, he gets hit for 32, 36, 40, 28 in return, and probably immediately dies. In previous combats, spells made it easy enough to kill them at a distance, but I don't have any here. I also don't have any healing spells to at least restore hit points to wounded characters.

Nor do I have any wands, nor any scrolls, because I didn't bother to try to bring them through the Pool of Darkness, not even to see if it would have worked.

So my only recourse is missile weapons--which I've been ignoring the entire game.

I check my inventories. One mage has a staff sling, the other a regular sling. My thief has a short bow with 10 arrows. This is not enough, not even with my non-missile-equipped fighters sacrificing themselves to take down a couple of minions.

For a little while, it seems like I'm going to be able to win after a really long fight. My two mages have Rings of Blinking (you get one for fighting with Vala early in the game, but I repeated this area twice). This causes them to "blink out" after they make their attacks every round, and no enemy can target them. Because both mages have 18 dexterity, they almost always act first. (They have 18 dexterity because I kept re-rolling until I got it, not because I edited them to it.) They're horrible shots with their missile weapons, but I assume that given enough time, they can whittle everyone down and kill them.
My mages try to hold the line. (This from attempt #3 when I didn't kill Gothmenes first, for some reason.)
But "almost always act first" doesn't mean always, and they lose the initiative enough times that soon even they're dead.

After I lost this battle the first time, I knew I was in serious trouble. I hadn't even made a dent in the Minions. I looked through my paltry inventories and mentally reviewed all my tactics, and I couldn't come up with a single path to victory.

I did try. In two subsequent attempts (it took me 6 total reloads to get there because I had to win the first two combats first), I tried moving my characters around corners, keeping them at a distance, and so forth, but the enemies all have movement totals in the 20s and 30s, so they were able to close the gap and swarm me within a couple of rounds. And the Minions don't seem to have any distance restrictions on their breath attacks anyway. I tried giving the staff sling, sling, and Rings of Blinking to my fighters, and I managed to kill about half of the final enemies but it still wasn't enough.

As we reviewed last time, I had at this point exactly 2 saves. One was about 2 steps before Gothemenes started the final battles--just enough time to buff. The other was 40 hours ago, just after I defeated Thorne. As I write this, my previous post hasn't been published yet, but I'm going to assume you've already beaten me up pretty bad for that dumb mistake, so let's try not to do it again.

I honestly couldn't see any recourse, barring cheating, except to export all my party members, re-import them into a new party, and start the game over, not making the same mistakes. I'd also earn a few more levels, I reasoned.

But then I reflected how long it would take me to do that, even skipping the optional areas, and I decided to adopt a compromise--one that remedied one of my many mistakes and only left me with an advantage comparable to what I'd have had if I hadn't been stupid in the first place.

It really is an odd fact of the Gold Box games that when you load up a saved game, until you actually hit the "begin" option, you have a full menu of party options. This allows you to create, delete, and swap out party members even in an active party. An unscrupulous player could use this advantage to smuggle over all their equipment from the other side of Limbo by stuffing it into the hands of a throw-away character, removing him from the party, and then adding him back to the party while in Gothmenes' realm.

I couldn't even do that, since I didn't have a save state from prior to entering Dark Phlan. All my stuff was in storage in Limbo and wouldn't be available again until the end of the game. I suppose I could have done it with whatever equipment my party was carrying after the battle with Thorne, but I didn't want to cheat that badly.

What I did instead was to load my game in Gothmenes' realm, remove one character, and create a new fighter. New fighters start with, among other things, a Composite Long Bow +2 and 50 Arrows +2. I gave those items to one of my fighters, removed the new character, and repeated with my other two fighters. I finished by adding my original character back to the party. Yes, it's technically a cheat, but it's a cheat that gave me roughly the same equipment that I would have had if I'd been picking up missile weapons from the moment I entered New Phlan.

It still didn't make things easy. I had to reload 3 more times to get through the first battle again, then my party was wiped out in the final. But I came close enough that it was encouraging. I slowly developed a strategy by which my best fighters would first take out Gothemenes and the dragons in melee combat, then switch to missile weapons and pick away at the Minions of Bane. They were capable of firing enough missile shots to kill the Minions in two rounds; they just had to survive that long.

I didn't stop making mistakes. I totally forgot the option to switch the Rings of Blinking from my mages to my fighters--who with their bows, were much more important. If I'd remembered that, I might have won in a single try instead of 4. (That's 4 for the last battle; it took me 7 total reloads to get to the final battle 4 times, owing to problems in the first battle.)

On my 16th time entering the final battles, with adequate ammunition and missile weapons in the hands of my paladin and ranger, I was victorious. This time, I only had my paladin and ranger kill Gothmenes in the first round before switching to missile weapons and shooting at the Minions of Bane. I had everyone else attack the green dragons and Bits o Moander with melee weapons. Taking out the Minions so much faster made a big difference, and I finished the battle with only two characters dead.
My status at the end of the victorious battle. I have no idea why everyone left Dromio alone.

The third of the three battles strikes me as just fundamentally, obnoxiously unfair. Spellcasting is such a huge part of the game that to remove it for the final battle betrays a lot of what you've built your characters to do. On the other hand, no matter how much you all warned me about the final battles, I couldn't imagine ahead of time what the game could possible do to pull the rug out from under me--and this was definitely it.

I'll cover what happened after the victory next time, but lets talk a little more about that final series of battles. It strikes me that a  player who's willing to cheat and bring all his equipment "around" the pool would have a trivially easy time with it. No, I couldn't verify this myself, but I'm 90% sure that if my characters had their best armor and weapons, their Girdles of Giant Strength, their rings of protection and Scrolls of Protection Against Dragon's Breath, maybe cleric scrolls with "Heal" and mage scrolls with "Delayed Blast Fireball," I would have won on the first try, maybe with a couple of character deaths. Heck, even a single dragon's breath scroll (which has more than 6 castings) would have rendered moot the difficulty posed by the Blue Minions and dracoliches. (Though it turned out to be good that I saved it--see the next entry.)

So it's cute that someone online, playing the game with a single magic-user/paladin at "champion" level, managed to win the final battles taking hardly any damage, but he did so by editing his character to max statistics and bringing over equipment that he wasn't meant to have. At least my cheat only gave me stuff that I would have found in the final area anyway.

On the other hand, I wonder if even having my Vorpal Blade and two Rings of Blinking wasn't a bit of a cheat. Elminster warns you that all magic items will be destroyed when you go through the pools. I think that's what was supposed to happen. The fact that some items aren't destroyed seems like a bug rather than a deliberate feature to give the party a slight advantage.

Winning the game took me literally all day. When I went to sleep that night, I had dreams about the final battle--dreams in which I found all kinds of loopholes that don't exist in the game, such as my party leading the enemies to favorable terrain (like a long narrow hallway with multiple 90-degree bends) before the battles begin. I kept waking up and whispering angrily to myself, "The game brings you to the final battle, not the other way around. There's no way to control the terrain!" Then I'd fall asleep and dream that there was some secret way to rest and save before the third battle.

Having spent so much time defeating the battle, I was curious what different spoiler sites had to say. Here's GameBanshee's summary:

The final trio of battles required for defeating Gothmenes is stupidly difficult. There are just way too many one-shot things that can go wrong, including stoning, poison, death, and disintegration--none of which can be corrected while you're in battle--that your odds of finishing the battles successfully is exceedingly low. After failing dozens of times to complete the battles, we finally got frustrated enough to switch the game difficulty to "novice," where we were finally able to succeed (but even that took a few tries).

It sounds like they were most afflicted by the second battle against the beholders, not knowing about the "run up, run away" trick. I don't know why I didn't consider lowering the difficulty level. I don't consider that a "cheat," exactly; it just feels a little lame.

The "Spoiler Centre" walkthrough encourages players to set the difficulty to "novice," too, and it recommends my strategy of having everyone run up into the northern hallway for the first battle. It also suggests that the mages' "Globe of Invulnerability" should have protected against the breath lightning of dracoliches and Blue Minions. Is it wrong, or did it not work for me simply because the spell ran out before the third battle? Maybe I should have memorized a few of those. Come to think of it, it didn't really occur to me to re-cast any buffing spells (except "Haste," which I lost because one of the Pets of Kalistes cast "Slow") between the combats. I assumed once was enough. I should have checked the time-outs on them.

I tried to watch some YouTube videos to see what tactics others have used, and the answer seems to be "cheating." I haven't found one in which the party members didn't have equipment they weren't supposed to have (including obvious item-duplication exploits), weren't cheated to at least 18 (sometimes 25!) in all their stats, and didn't have more hit points than should be plausible for party members of their level. 

So now I'm tempted to re-play the final battle at the intended game difficulty, using only the equipment I think I'm supposed to have, and record it for posterity. I'm not going to do it right away because I know it will take a full day or more, but perhaps sometime before I finish 1991. The only problem is, I don't have a saved game from before the final battle anymore (except the one that's way back at Thorne's). If someone sent me a saved game from, say, Arcam's fortress, would I be able to load it and then swap in my own characters? If not, or if no one has one, I suppose I can just replay the necessary areas after Thorne. It's not like I need to do a lot of leveling. I just hate the thought of going through the Moander dimension again.

Next up: the denouement.

Time so far: 60 hours
Reload count: 70