According to an article at medium.com, Yoshio Kiya himself tweeted that Dragon Slayer was based on an obscure Apple II RPG, Caverns of Freitag, making this otherwise minor title a rather important ancestor in the history of JRPGs.
Creator David Shapiro would eventually join Origin as a Commodore 64 programmer, and contribute to the design of Ultima VI and Underworld II, having a cameo in the former.
Not quite a Roguelike, but bearing the undeniable influence of Rogue, Freitag uses a quasi-realtime system akin to Telengard or Temple of Apshai where the action plays out in discrete turns, but there's a timer, and if it expires without input, then the action selected defaults to "do nothing."
A single-leveled, but fairly large maze houses swarms of monsters, caches of treasure, and one big "dwagon" whose death, as you might have guessed, is the game's objective.
|Probably the ideal settings (easy and slow)
Even before play begins, Freitag commits a sin endemic of early, hobbyist-developed computer games - giving too much fine-grain customization to the player too soon. Difficulty levels are fine, but having nine doesn't grant much confidence that they've all been playtested for balance or even viability (see Akalabeth where they absolutely weren't). Playtesting for difficulty balance becomes the player's responsibility, and repeatedly replaying the game until you've found the right level for your skill is sure to take the excitement right out of it. Having 50 different speed settings is just silly.
So let me just say that in retrospect, the easiest difficulty level was sufficiently difficult, and nothing is gained by the timed rounds, making the slowest setting as close to ideal as possible. The fastest setting is utterly unplayable.
|...but also kind of funny.
I initially had some trouble getting far out of the first screen even at the easiest settings. You start off weak as a kitten, barely able to injure the snakes and moths that pester you from the start. But I soon realized that the inn at the start offers free and instant healing when you step onto it, and monsters can't block you from it if you're adjacent. Fighting the initial pack within an arm's length of the inn and keeping tabs on your health (more on this in a bit) to retreat and heal when necessary works well, and you may gain a level once the starting screen is clear.
Once you can clear the starting screen, which may first require a bit of maneuvering to funnel the enemies into it so they can be dealt with sooner rather than later (you really don't want your way back to the inn blocked by anything when you're hurting for HP if it can be helped), the caverns can be explored in earnest. The monster and treasure locations are random, but the maze itself is the same every time. You earn new ranks, awarded at the inn, rather quickly, and though the monsters also get tougher quickly and even respawn, most aren't horrible by the time they show up as long as you're cautious about making sure you fight them one-on-one, and also careful to retreat to the inn before your HP gets critical.
|Not great odds of tanking this, but the terrain offers ample tactical retreat options
|Wizards are high damaging ranged attackers that you might need to use arrows on.
|Sometimes something nasty blocks your way to the inn. This is why you retreat before your HP gets critical.
|Almost there. Best to just run for it.
|Made it! All of these monsters are now worm food.
Freitag offers two alternate view modes, none of which tell you everything you want to know.
|Mode 2 is probably the most useful, but boring to look at.
|Mode 3 shows a zoomed-out map view but no monsters except healers. Navigating in this mode is risky.
Freitag's lair is in the southeast corner of the map, and can be reached fairly directly from the start. It might take several trips back and forth to thin out all the monsters, which may include annoying invisoids who could be anywhere in the openness, but you should max out your level easily. This doesn't guarantee you can steamroll everything, but eventually, the monsters will be sparse enough that you can enter it.
|Hey, I must be getting close.
Freitag isn't actually that hard. He breathes fire every other turn, but timing your moves to reach his soft underbelly is no Crypt of the Necrodancer-grade challenge, and then goes down in ten or so hits, doing only a bit more damage to you in return than an average baddy. Then you just have to return to the inn - hopefully not encountering too much trouble on the way back - to win the game.
- Serpent - Basic enemy.
- Electric Moth - Weaker than serpents, but one of the few enemies that can hit diagonally.
- Mad Robot - Average opponents, you can go toe-to-toe with one at level 1, but don't push it.
- Coldcrystal - Very durable foes, but they don't do much damage.
- Invisoid - Annoying invisible enemies, but actually pretty weak.
- Burbleblort - Scary enemies at low levels, fodder after level 5 or so.
- Flamebat - Weaker than they look.
- Griffin - Stronger than they look, better kite these.
- Thunderbug - Glass cannons that move fast and hit quite hard but go down in one hit.
- Phoenix - The strongest normal enemy in the game. Half as tough as the dwagon and hits even harder. Kite them whenever possible.
- Mimic - Chests that kill. Their attack hurts bad and traps you until you kill them.
- Wizard - The only enemy with a ranged attack apart from the dragon. If you can hit them at an angle, great. Otherwise, this is the best use for arrows, and you might want to go back to the inn after fighting even one.
I wondered after this, can the game be beaten on the hardest skill setting without resorting to savescumming? So I tried. And after several false starts, I found it turns out you can.
|But not if you start off like this.
There's a few differences on the harder levels.
- On the easiest setting, the initial monster population is limited to moths and serpents, and tougher ones start spawning later. On the hardest, anything goes right from the start.
- XP requirements are way higher on the hardest setting, but so are the XP gains.
- The direct path to Freitag is blocked off, requiring a much more roundabout one.
With some patient monster farming near the inn, with pathfinding manipulation to lure them out one at a time whenever possible, and some luck in avoiding spawns that can one-shot you, you'll eventually reach levels high enough that the first point no longer matters at all, and the second one is already partly offset by the fact that the more powerful monsters give more XP.
The much longer path to Freitag, though, means you have to be extra careful keeping tabs on your HP. Kiting monsters gets you a lot of mileage, as most can't hit you at diagonals, making it sometimes possible to avoid damage completely, depending on the terrain and the monster types.
|Can't touch this.
|An efficient kill-tunnel.
But every monster you kill causes another to spawn in a random space, and statistically, some of them are going to spawn on the path behind you. You do not want to be backpedaling from a dangerous phoenix only to to bump into a deadlier wizard and get sandwiched between them, but the more you kill without re-clearing the path behind you, the more likely this is to happen. Constantly going back and forth is quite tedious, but can save your life.
You want to be cautious about treasure chests too, as while you need some gold for buying arrows, you don't need that many, and while chests may contain precious sword or shield upgrades, they are just as likely to have teleporter traps, which amount to near certain death on any difficulty setting. Make it far enough and you might as well just avoid them completely. And if you see a treasure chest where you don't remember there being one before, that is a mimic.
Exploring is a bad idea too. Even though monsters respawn randomly, some of them will respawn in parts of the map where they can't reach the critical path. Those monsters are effectively out of the game and out of your way forever as long as you don't go looking for them. Find the path to Freitag (hint, go south at Dr. Cat's signature), stick to that path, and the total number of monsters on that path will gradually go down as they start being redistributed elsewhere.
|All of these monsters are effectively out of the game, if you don't go looking for them.
It took me almost two hours of tedious back-and-forthing, but I eventually made it to Freitag and killed him like I had on the easiest setting. I hadn't even maxed out my level or gained any weapon upgrades.
And then I replayed on the easiest setting and had a lot more fun, using the lessons learned to utterly dominate Freitag and his minions.
Some miscellaneous notes:
- You can turn into a bird at any time, which doubles your movement speed and in theory lets you escape from a bad situation, but I found that in practice, you more often than not just retreat into a corridor blocked by another bad monster, and you can't attack it for multiple turns. So I didn't use this.
- "Healers," which look like computer chips, can be consumed for a partial heal, but I rarely did this unless desperate, as they spawn like monsters and no doubt count toward the spawn limit. Each healer that you don't use therefore represents a monster that won't spawn.
- Wizards are very dangerous foes that retreat while throwing lighting bolts at you from a distance, but are kind of stupid and tend to get caught on complex terrain. I could sometimes kill them by standing on their diagonal and just hitting them, unable to retreat or attack.
- There's no pausing, which sucks.
GAB rating: Average. The Caverns of Freitag isn't very substantial, or polished, or all that well designed, but it grew on me after coming to grips with it. It's just a shame that, thanks to the endlessly respawning enemies and low level cap, exploring isn't viable.