Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Game 209: The Keys of Acheron

Read the manual here:
Well, I'm back, after a three-week break from Data Driven Gamer. And to be honest, a break from Dunjonquest. Two months of these samey-looking and unbearably slow games from the most primitive era of CRPG history took a toll. Another four dungeons in Upper Reaches of Apshai just proved to be too much of a mediocre thing.
The Keys of Acheron came out around the same time as Upper Reaches, as an expansion pack to Hellfire Warrior, the sequel to Temple of Apshai which I found improved significantly on Temple of Apshai's several deficiencies as a CRPG. As Keys of Acheron is only a set of dungeons and contains no new coding or gameplay mechanics, I'm not holding much hope that it will benefit from this; the expansion can't offer me new treasures, weapons, or magic. The best I can hope for is a few interesting dungeons to explore, and perhaps enough gold to max out my weapon and armor levels.
Normally I wouldn't have bothered playing this, except for one thing - this is the first video game credit by Paul Reiche III, best known for co-creating Star Control 1 & 2. He, along with Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall, will be relevant to the whaling log much sooner than that. At only 20 years old and Freeman's junior by nearly as much, Reiche had already accrued years of experience as a dungeon master and campaign author, and had even co-written a TSR-published roleplaying adventure with Gary Gygax.

Kronus here looks like Beavis finally joined GWAR.

There's not much plot here. To defeat the evil demon lord Kronus, you must travel to four worlds across time and space and recover a magic key from each. Only when all four are collected can the wizard Abosandrus seal the rifts between worlds, yada yada yada. Being a Dunjonquest game, the game doesn't keep any sort of track of this quest; the keys are just generic treasures, and remembering which ones you've found is your responsibility. The only bit of pertinent information here is that Kronus himself is completely immortal and impervious to your sword.

To play, I first loaded my Hellfire Warrior disk containing my Ahab character and loaded him, and then swapped to the Keys of Acheron disk so that he could explore these new worlds.

Ahab as he was

In the first world, Abode of the Dragon, a powerful dragon guards the key in a cavern near an abandoned wizard's tower, and it can be reached either by discovering a secret passage, or by finding an enchanted necklace in a mandrake grove to the north. Unlike in previous games, you can't leave the way you came; the world's exit is hidden.

To the north, the grove. To the south, the ivory tower.

I first went into the grove, which presented as a black void of ten featureless rooms, interconnected in a totally senseless fashion to convey the notion of stumbling through a dark and foggy marsh. It's quite a bit like the Plains of Hell from before, except smaller and with room numbers (and corresponding descriptive paragraphs in the manual) to aid navigation. I mapped it out, but even with the help from room numbers, I found I had to draw my map in warped space to get everything to fit together.

The grove had a few treasures - some intelligence-boosting mandrake roots, some magic arrows, healing flowers, and a worthless wooden idol. Eventually I found the necklace, guarded by a friendly unicorn.

Heading into the tower, I found a winding stairway leading up to the wizard's lab, where I found a vial of fluid, a scroll with a coded message hinting at the path to the unicorn, and a magic portal back home.

The rest of the abode, apart from an alternate passage into the lair further east from the tower's entrance, was straightforward to map out.
The monsters themselves posed no threat to me at all, not even the dragon, who I suspect would have been a pushover at my level even without the fire necklace. Nor did the various traps - pit traps, exploding runes, and predatory sand squids prove much of a nuisance. At one point during my exploration Kronus himself attacked, but failed to even land a hit on me. The dragon guarded a massive hoard of gold and silver, but the key lay one room past, which would have also been accessible through a secret door in the wizard's tower - a secret door concealed in a sneaky fashion by having two rooms occupying a space that appears to be only one.

Level 5 map:

Some topography notes:
  • Rooms 38, 39, and 40 had to be distorted in order to fit on the map, hence the trapezoidal shape.
  • The mandrake grove is mostly non-orthographic passageways, and is probably not intended to be mapped out. The wizard's coded scroll does detail a safe passage through to the unicorn's glen, and following it in reverse takes you back.
  • Room 5, the eastmost part of the grove, connects to room 6, a bridge to a sandy shoreline. Placing them adjacent in 2D space without making this region collide with the cavern is impossible.
  • Rooms 24 and 25 are the wizard's laboratory, and are supposed to exist directly above room 21, which is the tower's main chamber. Rooms 22 and 23 are the staircase connecting them.
  • Room 35 is hidden within the space of room 32, and the secret door on its south wall can't be discovered from the latter.
The first key discovered, I upgraded my sword to +7 and went on to level 6, the Temple in the Jungle.

Great, more unmappable expanse, and no room numbers either!

In Hellfire Warrior, levels 6 and 8 completely lack room numbers, and this carries on to Keys of Acheron. But while Hellfire Warrior's level 6 was a standard maze, perfectly mappable and conventional save for the fact that the exit is hidden behind a secret door, Temple in the Jungle just dumps you right into yet another featureless tract.

It's still not as bad as hell, though. Although there is no perimeter to guide you, there is a river in the middle with a bridge, and through wandering in a generally northward direction you are bound to stumble upon the temple, which consists of a mere 15 rooms, some of them hidden behind secret doors. The key and the way home are both found at the back of the temple, and various treasures are found in the side passages and secret rooms within them, guarded by temple guards and shamans.

A guard at the temple's entrance

Despite the jungle's inherent unmappability, I mapped it out using techniques similar to what I used to chart hell, and for my efforts found some interesting treasures, including some perception-enhancing mushrooms, a sloth thighbone, and some glowing rocks. The temple itself only contained monetary rewards, none quite as grand as the dragon's hoard, and another pile of glowing rocks. My dexterity had gone up by one point, but I can't pinpoint the cause of this - glowing rocks would make sense except I found two of them.

Level 6 map:

The only topographical oddity here, apart from the teleporting edges in the jungle, is a room I've labeled "A2½" and placed in between rooms A2 and A3. The room itself is much taller than it appears in the map, and I had to crunch it down vertically to get it to fit.

Level 7, the Crystal Caves, is a straightforward maze, featuring only a little bit of impossible geography that I've visualized as twisty passages connecting non-adjacent rooms. Apart from those, everything fits together. Multiple treasures worth thousands of gold pieces are scattered throughout, but the way back home is through a secret door hidden very close to the starting room.
I took a few hits exploring the caves, but kept my health up by collecting patches of medicinal fungus found growing in several damp rooms. Traps were frequent, but easily walked past with my magic boots from hell. A few rooms had "steam vents" which inflict unavoidable hits if you linger, but my armor protected me well. In the northeast are two grottos, where deep pits filled with endless piranha are easy to fall into, but difficult to escape from, requiring you to "search" each wall repeatedly until a secret door representing hand-holds appears. Hidden in the southernmost of these pits is the way to the key.


Level 7 map:

One oddity you may notice here is that room 30's north exit goes nowhere. I believe this is a bug, and that this room simply has a north wall that fails to render. I wasted quite a bit of time trying to "open" a nonexisting door and trying to wiggle through, to no avail.

With the riches amassed here, I upgraded both sword and armor to +9, and entered the final realm, the Shadowland of Kronus.

This didn't seem to bad, I thought at first. Sure, there aren't any room numbers to keep my bearings, and several of the rooms connect in impossible ways, but at least there are walls, right? And Kronus even left me a gift of magic arrows and wrote me a letter complementing me!


I mapped out the maze without too much difficulty. There were only about 20 rooms, laid out in distinguishable patterns, and some careful positioning let me draw a map without overlap. Stat-draining monsters such as wraiths and shadow bats flew around, but that didn't bother me too much - I was overpowered anyway, and this was the end of the game.

Then I realized that I had mapped every room and found neither the key nor a way home. And I was forced to search every wall repeatedly until I found a very stubborn secret door hidden in an inconspicuous corridor.

From here on, descriptive treasures were used in lieu of room descriptions to narrate the journey toward Kronus's citadel. A pile of seaweed marked the top of a cliff overseeing a black ocean, and at the bottom a rowboat awaited with a note inside saying "see you soon."

The black sea is yet another unnavigable mess of featureless rooms connecting in arbitrary ways. Hazards here include damaging black rain, violent waves, whirlpools, and the occasional kraken, which isn't a difficult foe for the well equipped adventurer. There are only five such rooms, not counting the starting and ending docks where you can actually see land, so I'm certain you are meant to wander until you stumble onto the right path, but the layout, which I mapped with room-measuring techniques, seems engineered to sweep you away from the correct path.

On the other shore, a rickety bridge leads to Kronus' citadel, and a message from Kronus warns us that the guardrail is broken in many places.

Step off the path and you fall to your death.

A few steps later and it gets worse.

No guard-rails, no visual indication of where the bridge is, and if you step off it, you die. A few feet northward, a treasure, a small onyx chip, sits on the precipice and its description warns us that the bridge continues to the east. Through here, powerful automatons roam the path to Kronus's small citadel, and for the first time I am compelled to quaff an elixir or two after each fight.

In his dining hall, a chalice filled with healing red wine is prominently displayed as though Kronus expected me to make it this far. Adjacent are a torture chamber, a library of Lovecraftian grimoires, and a personal chamber, where a secret door leads to a slightly confusing grid of identical rooms where the key appears to be visible from each, yet is out of reach in all.

The real key found past these rooms, in plain view, guarded by Kronus himself, whose attacks simply bounce off my armor as I take it from him.

One last trick remains - to leave, you must find a secret door to the north, but to find it you must realize that this room is invisibly partitioned into two parts, and the secret can only be discovered after setting foot into the north part of the room. This isn't the first time this trick has been used, but there are only so many tricks this engine is capable of.
You know, Kronie, this whole trope where you taunt me with gifts and polite messages to get my guard down doesn't really work if after I reach your citadel you practically give me the thing I'm looking for and then let me go home without a fight.

North past one last automaton was the gateway home, where I declared myself a winner since the game can't do that for you.

Level 8 map:
Epilogue idea - the wizard Abosandrus turns out to be Kronus all along! And now that I've recovered all the keys for him, he uses them to open the rifts between worlds and then he conquers the universe. Oh well.

GAB rating: Average. It's a little difficult to pin down why I enjoyed this more than Upper Reaches of Apshai. It's not because Keys of Acheron has better RPG mechanics - it does, but I had already plumbed the depths of the engine's RPG capabilities in Hellfire Warrior, leaving little to be enjoyed except for the dungeon exploration. But Reiche's talents as a designer come through, and show that even in an engine as primitive as this, level design can still show a degree of authorial character. Reiche's designs, though cruel at times, tap into the Hero's journey trope in ways that Freeman's more sprawling and open designs hadn't.

The greatest weakness here, I think, is difficulty balance. Keys of Acheron is too difficult for a starting character, but too easy for one who conquered Hellfire Warrior. This is more on the limitations of the engine than anything Reiche could be responsible for, but Temple of Apshai remains the only game in the series (not counting the microquests and starquests) where I ever felt like my life was in any kind of danger.

We're done with Dunjonquest - there were two more expansion packs "Curse of Ra" and "Danger in Drindisti," and a standalone quest "Sorcerer of Siva," but I've seen quite enough already. But we're not quite done with the Dunjonquest engine. One more game, Crush, Crumble, & Chomp!, is based on it. It is not an RPG, but a movie monster-themed combat simulator in the vein of Star Warrior.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Game 208: Dunjonquest: Upper Reaches of Apshai

In September 1981, one year after the initial release of Temple of Apshai's sequel Hellfire Warrior, Automated Simulations released two expansion packs, one for each.

Upper Reaches of Apshai is, unsurprisingly, the expansion to Temple of Apshai, and although it came out a year after Hellfire Warrior, it incorporates none of its improvements or advances over the original save for some level design paradigms and shenanigans. There is no new code in this expansion; it is simply a set of four new levels to be played using the Temple of Apshai Innkeeper and Dunjonmaster programs, and carries the limitations of the original game. There's almost no character advancement here, there's nothing worth spending your silver on past some basic provisions available at the start, and no reason to bother with treasures except that they're there.
The manual is pretty brief this time, giving the barest of backstory for a "William Nailfoot" who like many other adventurers traveled by sea to join the Temple of Apshai looting, but found only a rusty nail through his foot. Months of convalescence and therapy later, he can walk again, but the action has come and gone, and now he's stuck doing odd jobs around town to pay for his trip home.

Normally I play the earliest release available, but for the sake of my sanity, I played using a "rev2" edition of Temple of Apshai, for bug fixes and quality of life improvements. Tracing the provenance of TRS-80 games is troublesome, but I'm satisfied that this was available at the time of Upper Reaches' original release. I imported my Ahab character as he was in Temple of Apshai (prior to any cheating), so he could continue his adventures, making it sort of a parallel universe to my playthrough of Hellfire Warrior, in which I had also imported him.

The biggest difference of rev2 that I noticed was that it supports saving your character to disk, so that you didn't have to keep re-typing his stats. Rev2 also fixes some bugs, among them that your shield no longer disappears for no reason. Saving the dungeon state to the disk still doesn't work right; loading it still produces corruption. There's also an inconsistent use of a lowercase font. Rev2 still doesn't keep track of your silver or tally the value of your haul - that's something you just have to keep track of yourself (not that it matters).

The first level is the innkeeper's backyard, which according to the manual we are hired to clean up.

It's not clear what he meant by cleaning it up, but there are field mice and dogs crawling around here. A few coppers can be had by scrounging through the trash strewn in the yard, which also unleashes a few flies. To the north, eggs can be taken from a poultry coop, if you can brave the chickens and geese guarding them. To me, they posed no threat whatsoever. To the south are the stables, where a nest of mice gather around some cheese. The adjacent structure has a surprise.

Opportunistic adventurer that I am, I killed the innkeeper's wife and took his dirty laundry. He never said that wasn't part of the cleanup job.

The central area in this level is a large, open field of berry bushes, divided into 24 small rooms. It somewhat reminds me of the plains of hell in Hellfire Warrior, but nowhere near as confusing to navigate. Unlike it, though, it is painfully slow to navigate, as the engine here seems to uselessly draw walls around every visible "room" on the screen before removing walls that shouldn't exist, which is most of them. More field mice infest this area, and on occasion we're attacked by killer tomatoes!
To the east of this field is a secret door leading to a passage to a cavern under a hill, where we find a bandit and his treasure, the best in the level. This bandit is the only creature in the entire level capable of landing a scratch on me.
South of the field is a toolshed storing useless items and occupied by drunken sailors.

To the southwest is a vegetable garden where the killer tomatoes come from. Here, I make some killer chicken cacciatore (no, really), and find a purse full of money, the second best treasure in this level.

The next level is Merlis' cottage, and the manual explains we are here to collect lost wages for painting his fence. We're warned not to hurt the cats, and although I'm certain the engine is not capable of punishing us for this, I took heed anyway. They seem to respond well to negotiation. One exception though was the rare black cat, which drained stats, and therefore I de-clawed it with magic arrows before it could do this.

At only 21 rooms, his cottage is easily the smallest level in the entire Dunjonquest series, discounting the Microquests. However, the rooms past a tapestry in his hall of magic don't all connect orthographically, making for a confusing, warp-filled headache of a map. For what it's worth, Hellfire Warrior's final level was much worse. At least we have room numbers to keep our bearings this time, especially useful here as there are mirrored rooms that look identical to each other, and connect in strange ways.

I did my best to make some coherent sense out of the level. Rooms 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, and 19 have special rules.

The special rules are:
  • Rooms 3 & 4 occupy the same space. Adjacent rooms 2, 5, and 10 are connected to 3, while 6 is connected to 4. Heading east from 3 or 4 will take you to room 10. Heading north from 3 returns you to the inn.
  • Rooms 10 & 11 occupy the same space. Heading north from 10 takes you to 7. Heading north from 11 returns to the inn. The treasure chest in room 10 holds moths, and the treasure chest in room 11 holds copper. Heading west from 10 takes you to 3. Heading west from 11 takes you to 4.
  • Room 6 can only be accessed from room 4. Heading east from 6 is a one-way trip to 10. Heading west from 6 returns you to the inn.
  • Room 7 can only be accessed from room 10. Going south from there takes you to room 11.
  • Room 19 can only be accessed from a secret door found in room 11. Walking back through the west wall returns you to room 11.
Some of the other interesting things found here are:
  • A secret door in the starting area leads to a hall full of Merlis' cats, and a chest full of silver.
  • The winding passage in the southeast is full of bees, and leads to a collectable honeycomb which serves as a healing elixir.
  • Room 9 is a laboratory, and here a guinea pig spontaneously explodes as you enter!
  • Room 19 is a hidden closet with respawning magic serpents, and in the southeast corner there is a nearly invisible magic wand.
  • Room 6 holds the best treasure in the level - a chest of 100 gold pieces.
On my return, my intelligence had gone up by one. I'm not sure why - could have been the wand, but the manual seems to suggest the wand is useless.

Level three, Olias's Cellar, has no quest expressly stated, but it sure would be nice to rob him for a change.

With 34 rooms, this is still on the small side for a Dunjonquest map. It's bigger than the previous one, but doesn't have the confusing multi-dimensional rooms. There's a little bit of funny stuff going on with the map here - lots of traps, cave-ins, and one-way doors, but the kicker is that rooms 20 and 15 occupy the same spot on the map, as if 15 is a crawlspace built above 20. They're not exactly the same shape, though, and the doors aren't doing anything too complicated like Merlis' hall of Magic - 12 connects to 20, 19 connects to 15, and both 15 and 20 exit northward to 21. I tweaked the map a bit - you may notice that room 19 is squashed somewhat - to make them fit into a 2D space well enough to make the spiraling path from 20-22 to rooms 17-19 and 15 clearer.

Room 20, south of room 21

Room 15, also south of room 21

Olias' cellar is also home to many cave-dwelling animals, most of them posing no threat to me at all such as bats and moles, but a few are more dangerous, such as bears, vipers, black widows, and creeping cruds, the latter of which did a number on me when I encountered several in a tiny alcove affording no chance to kite around the slow-moving amorphous blobs. A few of Olias' hidden rooms are guarded by other dwarves, who are about on par with bears. Nothing here was much of a threat individually, but battle after battle, not to mention the weight of the dwarf's treasures, wore me down. It took me four trips to clear out the cellar.

One of his treasures - I don't know which, but am guessing a glowing belt found in a huge cache of gems and platinum, raised my strength a point, and with this boost I was able to buy a bastard sword. This was a temporary downgrade from the +2 broadsword I started with, but room 15 contains a magic sword upgrade, which I collected, giving me a +4 enchantment. There is also a quiver of magic arrows on this level, which can't be purchased in this game.

The final level - Benedic's Monastery - is cursed by a vampire, and we are offered fame and glory should we drive it out. We are warned not to bother the monks or steal their possessions. The game does in fact mete out retribution for failing to heed this - monks are generally not hostile, but a few rooms are trapped in a manner which summons an instantly fatal "Spirit of Geb" monster, and only trigger if you've killed the monk in the room. Treasures found in unoccupied bedrooms are trapped and summon hostile Angry Monks, but there's no consequence for killing them. Angry monks may also spawn randomly, and on occasion you may even find a vampire monk - again, both types can be killed with impunity.

The first quadrant is a large courtyard, where a useless-seeming "empty hand" treasure permanently increases your intuition. To the west are the dormitories, where you can steal treasure from sleeping monks without incident, the most valuable of them healing lilies. To the east is a walled garden where low-value food and more lilies can be taken, and to the north of that a foul-smelling kitchen where eating a bit of stale bread increases your constitution, if you survive a mold trap.

Fighting a rat over moldy, stale bread

In the northeast of the monastery is the cemetery, where moderately strong zombies shamble around. Here, a secret passage leads to a spiral staircase downward.

It's linear but can be confusing to navigate.

The vampire lies not at the bottom, but in a secret room halfway down. He isn't that much harder than the zombies, and some fabulous treasure waits in his lair.

At the bottom of the staircase is a room with that old scent of vanilla, and endlessly respawning antmen.

Satisfied that I did everything there is to do, I returned to the inn, reviewed my list of pointless treasures, and closed the game.

Final stats

GAB rating: Below Average. The "rev2" release helped make this a somewhat more pleasant experience with its bug fixes and character saving, and some of the levels have interesting ideas, but Temple of Apshai was always very limited in what it could do as an RPG, and these limits had been hit pretty early on in the original game. I had more fun than I thought I would, but by the last level I was getting burnt out. An expansion pack can only expand on the concept so much by abusing the engine. "Upper Reaches" indeed.

It's curious that Upper Reaches of Apshai not only provides more opportunities for character growth than the first game by means of items that permanently affect stats, but it's also an easier adventure, where I didn't need to use a healing item even once. Maybe the idea was to train starting characters here before moving on to Temple of Apshai and Hellfire Warrior, but if so, that idea came two years too late, by which time I imagine anyone who bought these games new and found them too hard would have either given up or cheated their way through.

There was a second expansion in 1982, Curse of Ra, but I won't be playing it. I wasn't planning to originally, and after this much Dunjonquest, I'm ready to move on. We're not totally through with the series, though - I intend to give The Keys of Acheron, the first expansion to the meatier Hellfire Warrior a try, but I am taking a break from Data Driven Gamer for a little while first.

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