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.


  1. Dunjonquest's use of the modular concept and the fact they actually produced several modules for it really stands out in those early days of great concepts and stubs in terms of actual production!

    I remember playing an old shareware program based on Apshai... but very little experience with Apshai itself.

  2. I dare you to try Danger in Drindisti. There are nightmare mazes of unnumbered rooms, invisible walls, walls you can walk through, and rooms that twist back on each other. Great fun. :-)


Most popular posts