Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Game 210: Crush, Crumble, & Chomp!

Read the manual here:
Full disclosure - apart from the original Godzilla, which is often noted for its grim tone uncharacteristic of the genre to come, I've never seen a kaiju picture. Pop cultural osmosis has lent me the impression, accurately or not, of endless series of giant monsters breathing fire, knocking down buildings, fighting each other, and not much else. I've seen a few of the inspiring Hollywood monster movies - Them!, The Blob, Tarantula, and of course King Kong, and while all of those elements are there, the scenes of destruction serve more as money shots than as the substance of the films, and the intended tone is more horrific than cathartic.

Crush, Crumble, and Chomp! is, of course, all about wrecking buildings, vaporizing armies, and eating people as your favorite movie monster surrogate. No plot, no characters, no subtlety. It's akin to jumping straight into the climactic scene where the monster is finally loose in the big city, and just like in the movies, the deck is stacked enormously against you. The national guard will gradually punch you full of holes until you expire, and all you can do about it is cause untold miles of devastation as you thrash around.

Being based on the Starquest: Star Warrior engine, itself derived from Dunjonquest, you've got to read the 46-page manual to understand how to play. This is no Rampage-like arcade game, but a turn-based tactical strategy game. The manual could, frankly, stand some improvement. Explanations on how to move, eat, and destroy don't happen until over 30 pages in, well after listing details that are meaningless without the context of gameplay. The manual does not even acknowledge the existence of action points, which is a crucial concept to understand or else you'll just get frustrated wondering why sometimes the humans get to move before you do, leaving your slowpoke beast grasping the air where a delicious meal used to be. It's also laced throughout with a slightly apathetic/misanthropic sense of humor, meant to be lighthearted but that I just found overwritten and tedious, something I also observed in the manual of Invasion Orion but not in any of the Dunjonquest titles.

Like all of the games with the BASIC Dunjonquest engine, CC&C was built for the TRS-80 and ported to other platforms from there. This time (as in Star Warrior) there are actual graphics and sounds, but it just looks like chaos on the screen. This screenshot shows a city block of Tokyo where the Arakawa River flows into the bay. "Goshilla," depicted near the middle of the screen and looking more like a kangaroo than a dinosaur, has been let loose for the better part of an hour and left most of the west side of the screen covered in radioactive rubble. The white blocks represent water, which Goshilla can swim through unimpeded, and the checkerboard patterned blocks represent bridges. Within the rubble there's a police car which is trapped, and a helicopter flying over it. To the east across the bridge is a tank, and in the northeast are two skyscrapers and a mess of pixels representing a panicked crowd, which differ in appearance ever so slightly from the mess of pixels representing the rubble.

The action points are a nearly invisible mechanic, but understanding this is critical. In Dunjonquest, turning is a free action, but most actions including moving, attacking, drinking potions, and firing arrows uses your turn, after which your enemies on screen have a chance to attack. In CC&C, most monsters have six action points, and with scarce exceptions everything you can do costs one or more point. Even rotating as Goshilla spends two points per 90 degree turn. After all points are exhausted, anything alive on the screen gets to move. Should you attempt an action that requires more points than you have remaining, the humans will move before your action completes. You will then perform immediately on the next turn, and the point deficit is thusly resolved. E.g. - you had one point remaining and tried to grab, a two point action, so the humans moved out of the way, then you grabbed the space where they were, and begin the next turn with five points instead of six.

The manual suggests four scenarios, and I gave all of them a try.

The first scenario involves the giant war robot Mechismo in Washington D.C, with a gameplay mode that awards points for destroying military units. Mechismo is well suited to beginners, as it alone does not need to eat. Other monsters must constantly put themselves in harm's way to obtain snacks, but Mechismo may simply sit back and blow everything up from far away with its blaster cannons. When things get up close, it may burn them with its flamethrower or stomp on them. However, Mechismo has two huge weaknesses - it does not ever heal damage, and is very slow. You only get four action points, and it takes two just to rotate 90 degrees. Mechismo also lacks any means of engaging targets behind him, and since it takes a full turn just to turn about face, getting swarmed is bad news.
Mechismo's actions and their corresponding action point costs:
  • Rotate: 2
  • Rotate head: 1
  • Move: 2
  • Move on building: All, min 2
  • Crumble: 2
  • Stomp: 2
  • Atomize: 1
  • Zap: 1
  • Burn: 2
Moving onto a building has a special movement cost which may in fact be a bug. It uses all of the remaining points in your turn, but only requires you have at least two movement points remaining. So if you have four points remaining, it uses all of them. If you have two points remaining, it uses both. If you have one point remaining, then a turn elapses before you get to move, then you move, and then another turn elapses because the movement exhausted all of your action points.
Atomize and zap are your long range laser beams, used against ground targets and air targets respectively. Burn is 100% lethal but only works at close range. All of these weapons are fired from the head, which can be aimed independently of the body in 30 degree increments.
My best attempt scored 1987 points and declared me a "major menace," in which I camped out in the corner of a city block as pictured and let military units come to me as I blasted them with my laser cannons. The building positions formed ideal lines of fire for me to shoot at my oncomers head-on. This is no foolproof strategy, as your weapons can miss repeatedly, powerful units such as artillery can spawn in spots where you can't hit them forcing you to come out and expose yourself, and even reaching this position can be dicey depending on how much opposition you encounter on the way.

The second scenario recommends playing the Kraken in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a goal of destruction.


Kraken has six action points, is confined to the water and the following actions:
  • Rotate: 2
  • Rotate head: 2
  • Move on water: 1, min 3
  • Move on bridge: All, min 3
  • Dive: All, begin next turn with 4
  • Grab: 2
  • Eat: 3
  • Crumble: 4
  • Obliterate: 3
  • Tentacle: 1
  • Paralyze: 2
  • Atomize: 2
Moving on water costs 1 action point, but requires that you have 3 remaining points, and this seems like a bug. Supposing you have 2 action points remaining and try to move through water, what will happen is that a turn will elapse, then you will move a space, and then you'll have seven points to use on your next turn.
Moving onto a bridge, like moving onto a building, uses all of your remaining action points and requires at least three, and will waste a turn if you try to do it when you have fewer than three remaining.
Diving uses whatever amount of action points you have remaining, even if it's only one, but the next turn starts you off with four action points instead of six. This is actually a rather broken ability, as diving lets you move five spaces in any direction without having to worry about turning, so you can just use your last action point in a turn to move five spaces at the effective cost of three action points.
Staying fed wasn't as big a problem as I initially thought it might be, as edible military units can be lured to the shore and grabbed. Turning, however, is prohibitively expensive, and it's almost not even worth using head rotation. Diving is incredibly useful, allowing you to move up to five spaces underwater without any action point costs associated with turning, and come out facing whatever direction you last moved. I used this almost constantly; to hone in on prey, get away from dangerous units, squeeze some extra movement spaces out of my turn, and even just as a faster way to re-orient myself sometimes.

The Kraken's greatest weakness is helicopters, as it lacks any aerial weapons. Grabbing them is your only proactive defense, and it hardly ever works. Apart from that you can flee or tough them out. During my first attempt, I got hit by the Mad Scientist's airborne anti-monster weapon, which is more or less a death sentence for any monster.

During my second attempt as the Kraken, I never encountered the Mad Scientist, didn't face too many helicopters, and demolished more than half of the Bay Area by crumbling bridges and shoreside buildings, and blasting the rest with my atomizer from afar, lining multiple up in a row whenever I could. You do have to sometimes know when to keep moving and let some buildings stand; it's not worth taking a severe pounding just to level a few more buildings that aren't easily reached. Regeneration kept me going longer than I could as Mechismo, and when I finally perished, I was scored 3063 points and rated a "major disaster."

The third suggested scenario is the giant spider Arachnis, evidently the same spider who bit Peter Parker, who terrorizes New York and is awarded points for killing people.

Arachnis gets six points and has these actions:
  • Rotate: 1
  • Rotate head: 1
  • Move: 2
  • Jump: All, min 4
  • Dig: All, min 2, begin next turn with 4
  • Grab: 2
  • Eat: 6
  • Crumble: 3
  • Web: 6
  • Paralyze: 2
  • Zap: 2
  • Burn: 3
The web ability creates an impassible barrier. This is something I found kind of useless given how long it takes. Dig is the land equivalent of diving, and is quite handy, as you can even go under buildings this way.
Paralyze makes nearby units lose their next turn, which is your best ability. Haven't quite got enough action points to deal with a target? Paralyze it, and deal with it the next turn. Surrounded? Paralyze them, and pick them off one by one, re-paralyzing as needed. Helicopter keep evading your grasp? Paralyze it instead of making that one last grab attempt, and try again the next turn.
Despite my best efforts, I couldn't achieve a greater ranking than "major nuisance" here. Arachnis hasn't got very many viable killing options. Your crumble power is poor. Eating takes the whole turn, making it a losing game to try to paralyze, grab, and eat multiple prey. Burning is lethal, but there's only enough time in the turn to paralyze enemies, rotate your body or head, and burn one of them. Once tanks start showing up, who can fire outside your paralyzing range, Arachnis is finished.

Finally, there's the classic Goshilla in Tokyo scenario. Goshilla has six action points and his moves are:
  • Rotate: 2
  • Rotate head: 1
  • Move on land: 3
  • Move on water: 1, min 3
  • Move on building: All, min 3
  • Jump: All, min 5
  • Dive: All, min 3, begin next turn with 4
  • Grab: 2
  • Eat: 4
  • Crumble: 3
  • Stomp: 2
  • Tail: 2
  • Atomize: 2
  • Zap: 2

Goshilla has a few unique properties, in addition to his wide array of abilities. He is amphibious, and although slow on land, he leaves behind a trail of impassible contaminated waste with each step. But Goshilla gets hungry so fast that you can barely afford to use most of his moves.
I basically spent my entire session pursuing food, each meal barely recovering the energy expended while chasing it. The most infuriating thing is when an enemy repeatedly evades your grab, wasting a whole turn with seemingly nothing you can do about it. Goshilla doesn't regenerate health especially quickly either, so the wounds inflicted by enemies I was too distracted to fight built up quickly. Toward the end, Goshilla spent most of the rest of the session in a berserk state, uncontrollably pursuing enemies with singleminded intent to grab them and eat them, which is about what I'd be doing anyway, but eventually succumbed to the tanks, artillery, and helicopters, leaving me with a mediocre score despite having flattened about four blocks worth of buildings and leaving the Tokyo Bay area uninhabitable for centuries.

Another monster is The Glob, a slow but very strong amorph who can rotate for free and leaves a flaming trail everywhere it goes, and plays a lot like Arachnis but slower and more destructive.

Glob has four action points and its moves are:
  • Rotate:0
  • Move: 2
  • Dig: All, min 4, begin next turn with 2
  • Grab: 2
  • Eat: 2
  • Crumble: 2
  • Paralyze: 1
  • Obliterate: 2
  • Immolate: All, min 4
Limited action points proved a big problem, and Glob gets hungry quickly, making grab & eat the ideal way to dispose of your enemies, which will take at least two turns each. Paralyze, grab, and eat will end your turn, allow enemies outside your paralysis range to move and/or attack, and begin your next turn with only one action point, just enough to re-administer your paralysis so you can resume the cycle, and all this is ruined if you miss a grab, which happens often, or if you need to move. I never achieved a great score as Glob.

The final stock monster is Mantra, who flies and has an extensive set of powers.


Mantra has seven action points and these actions:
  • Rotate: 2
  • Rotate head: 0
  • Move: 3
  • Fly: 3
  • Grab: 2
  • Eat: 4
  • Crumble: 4
  • Stomp: 2
  • Tail: 2
  • Ultrasonic scream: 3
  • Burn: 2
  • Immolate: All, min 7
The fly command toggles between flying and walking modes, and also ends your turn, but curiously, does not exhaust your action points. Use it right away when you have 7 action points, and you'll spend 3, take off, wait for the humans to move, and then gain another 7 action points, letting you begin the next turn with 11 action points.
While in flight mode, you cannot move manually, but will automatically move forward three times per turn, when you have 6, 4, and 2 action points remaining.
I had a fun time with this one. A good strategy for mass destruction is to fly in a straight line parallel to a line of buildings, on whichever side is opposite the bulk of your enemies, and then burning them with your head tilted in their direction. Your physical strength is poor, but the ultrasonic scream attack can destroy multiple targets at once. Staying fed is a bit difficult; on one hand your mobility makes it easier to nab the softest (and tastiest) munchies, but you also can't turn in place while flying, so grabbing a target takes some planning, a bit of luck, and failed grabs are as frustrating as ever. Starving is especially dangerous as the airborne Mantra is especially uncontrollable when going berserk from hunger. My high score in balanced score mode wasn't mindblowing, but got me a "minor menace," and I'm certain it would have been higher in destruction score mode.

Lastly, CC&C has a "grow your own monster" mode, where you may select any combination of abilities and attributes.
There are eight base forms, six based on the stock monsters, plus a brontosaur and serpent. After selecting a base form, which comes with a few innate abilities and traits, you are given an allowance of "crunch credits" to spend on add-ons, which include powers (not all powers are available to all forms), strength, toughness, regeneration rate, swimming, and radioactive or flaming trails.

The serpent crashed the game, but the brontosaur can have any of the abilities available to the rest of the monsters except jump, obliterate, and weave webs. Only stomping, tail-lashing, grabbing, and eating come naturally, and the rest of the abilities cost credits.

The brontosaur has six action points and these possible moves:
  • Rotate: 3
  • Rotate head: 2
  • Move on land:
  • Move on water: 1, min 3
  • Move on bridge: 3
  • Dig/Dive: All, min 6, begin next turn with 4
  • Fly: 5
  • Grab: 3
  • Eat: 5
  • Crumble: 4
  • Stomp: 2
  • Tail: 2
  • Ultrasonic scream: 3
  • Paralyze: 3
  • Atomize: 2
  • Zap: 2
  • Burn: 3
  • Immolate: All, min 6
I made a flying, firebreathing brontosaur, with an atomizer, respectable regeneration, and so-so hide.

Things didn't go as well as they did for Mantra. With the sluggish gait of a flying brontosaur, I could only move two spaces per turn instead of three, and that combined with the increased turning cost made hunting prey all that more difficult. Hunger and damage were unavoidable, and the atomizer wasn't quite as good at demolishing buildings as I expected. Before long, I got fatally helicoptered.

GAB rating: Average. There's a lot of charm to CC&C, even if the difficulty balance is all over the place and the luck factor is way too large for what is essentially a strategy game. Surviving for any decent period depends quite a bit on the RNG working into your favor - that enough units spawn to keep you fed, but not so many that you get mobbed too soon, that your attacks are successful, that food doesn't run into places you can't get away from, that units don't spawn in places where they hit you but you can't hit them, and on top of that there's still that slightly convoluted and possibly buggy action point system whose nature is kept invisible and yet can't be overlooked if you hope to survive under the best of circumstances. Nevertheless, when things go well, the destruction is good, chaotic fun. And when things go badly, the destruction (mostly of you) is nearly as much fun.

The biggest problem, though, is the speed. Reaction to your inputs is far from instantaneous, and when there are many humans on the screen, waiting for all of them to move after exhausting your moves can easily take upwards of 30 seconds.

Around 1981, development at Automated Simulations was starting to shift to Atari focus. Temple of Apshai, Morloc's Tower, and Datestones of Ryn had already been ported to Atari computers, where some of the shortcomings of the TRS-80 originals had been improved on. The StarQuests would receive even more significant visual and audio overhauts on the system. Crush, Crumble, and Chomp, although developed primarily for the TRS-80, was released concurrently with its Atari port, which looks and plays a good sight better with its tile graphics support and accelerated gameplay speed.

Most famous of all, though, is the 1983 Commodore 64 port, one of Epyx's first releases on the platform.

With colorful graphics, sound effects, and a frantic SID-enhanced rendition of Night on Bald Mountain which plays as you near death, it's no surprise that most gamers familiar with CC&C associate it with the C64. Or that Epyx would soon focus their development on it over the Atari, choosing it as the lead platform for their Games series, but I get ahead of myself.

Jon Freeman was uninvolved in this port, and sharply criticized it for the oversized monster sprites, which have a misleading effect on gameplay. Goshilla here appears to be standing on the bottom "row" of tiles, but does in fact occupy the space aligned with the trail of radioactive rubble (which frankly looks to me more like steaming violet shit) behind him. Goshilla's sprite is much bigger than he his, and the space where he stands is not where his feet are, but where his arms are. Misreading this can lead to extreme frustration as you repeatedly fail to grab, burn, or stomp on targets which look like they ought to be within reach but aren't. That said, the TRS-80 version's visual topography was no picnic to parse either, and I'm sure one could get used to the C64 version's sprite issues with practice.

Crush, Crumble, & Chomp was one of the final games that Jon Freeman designed for Epyx before leaving to found Free Fall Associates, leaving co-founder Jim Connelley with the reins. And their next big hit would be the first step in a radical new direction, a polar opposite of the TRS-80 BASIC RPGs and strategy games that Freeman had so desperately wanted to move on from.

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.

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