2018-Dec-05: Might & Magic: Worlds of Xeen - Darkside

Darkside of Xeen is designed to be doable with a level 1 party at the start, but it's very obvious it was built from the ground up to be tackled by a party of Cloudside winners. Even with my party of level 20s, I ran into trouble. The first town, Castleview, is simple enough. It's clearly level 1 content and quite a snooze if you're coming from the prior game. Once you finish up there, though, things kind of go off the rails. You climb Ellinger's Tower to meet its namesake and he sends you to find Energy Discs to power a spell to uncurse the castle of Queen Kalindra so that she can tell you what to do with an orb your party found on Cloudside. It makes more sense in context, I assure you. In any case, Energy Discs are the Mega Credits of Darkside, for almost the exact same purpose: constructing (or rather restoring) a castle. However in this case, you're kind of left to your own devices to find them, rather than being shepherded on a fairly linear path.

I would consider the open-endedness of Darkside a good thing, except the level scaling is utterly out of control. Having level capped on Cloudside, I expected a pretty easy intro. Imagine my shock when I journeyed a short distance east from Castleview only to get murdered by Armadillos near the central desert. Thinking that a fluke, I set off to explore the Western Tower right next to Castleview, and got pounded again by clerics inside. Backing up a bit led me to the "Troll Holes", Gemstone Mines, and a few small quests around the starting area that boosted me up. While Cloudside capped at level 20 and a level was a major advancement, Darkside gives you millions of experience and stat boosts hand over fist. Even coming in with a party of victors from Cloudside, you need some brushing up before you're able to really just go anywhere and do anything. I suppose that's alright; it keeps it from being boring. But wow the economy of scale here is off the beaten path.

Energy Discs are smattered all over the place. Every dungeon has a few, as opposed to Cloudside's Credits being mostly lumped into three main dungeons. So it won't take long before you're restoring chunks of Castle Kalindra no matter where you start. Eventually you restore the chamber of the captain of the queen's guard, who is too depressed to help restore the world. You're sent off to the Dungeon of Lost Souls, where the game pulls off the kid gloves, puts on the steel gauntlets, and proceeds to pummel you mercilessly. Lost Souls has exactly two enemy types: Minotaurs and Gorgons. Minotaurs will likely one-shot you unless you've been carefully doing all the side content and leveling your party. They have a massive amount of HP, are resistant to melee damage, and yeah, hit like the a truck. Gorgons are exactly the same (with even the same sprite) but hit twice as hard and can stone you. This dungeon is supposed to be your clue that you should explore the world and gain power. I consider this an incredibly hamfisted approach to something prior M&M games did very elegantly: encouraging free exploration rather than a laser focus on the plot and goal.

In prior games, free exploration was the game, and the plot just "showed up" eventually. I suppose not everyone likes this, and JVC tried to make a more guided experience in both games of the Xeen set. The problem with that is a laser focus on the plot can lead to missing a lot of the game and, arguably, missing the point. I don't know if Lost Souls was built to be a wall to make you explore and level up, or if JVC just assumed the player would and it's balanced on a bad assumption. Either way, it's brutal. However it's also the first dungeon that just begins giving you massive stat boosts and levels willy-nilly. My entire experience in Lost Souls was dotted with +6 to a given stat to all party member events, and free level-ups to the point that I exited this dungeon in the 40s, having started at around 30.

Lost Souls level 5 has two notable features: a songbird that'll pull the guard captain's head from his arse and have him help you, and a repeat of the "Soul Maze" from Might & Magic Book One. It seems Sheltem is so full of himself he can't help but writing his name in the walls of dungeons, even if it means exposing a weakness to the player characters. Go figure. Again, finding "My Name Is Sheltem" in the walls of the dungeon becomes critical later, though in this case much later rather than "a few minutes after". In any case, bringing the songbird back to Castle Kalindra opens the way into Castle Blackfang, where you are able to rescue Kalindra and be presented with the key to the Great Pyramid where you meet the Dragon Pharaoh: a character you see in the opening cut-scene, and the only person on Darkside who both knows what's going on, and can guide you on how do anything about it.

If you didn't take the hint from the Dungeon of Lost Souls (as I did not), the Great Pyramid is a brick wall. Minotaurs and Gorgons were bad, but ultimately melee-only. The Great Pyramid introduces Cloud Dragons. These little beauties hit as hard as Gorgons, but the whole party at once, and can do it at range. I got utterly destroyed here, but was stubborn, so I fought my way through using a combination of fountain and Lloyd's Beacon cheese, and sheer determination to win fights no matter what the cost. I imagine if I'd backed out and explored the world to completion at this point, it would have gone better. I did have half of Cloudside unexplored yet, as well as several dungeons in Darkside. However, I'm also skeptical of that because my main barrier in growth here wasn't experience but money-- Xeen has one of the meanest monetary cost curves for leveling of the series thus far, to the point that as early as 25, I was struggling to find the cash to level up.

Fortunately after floor 1, the Pyramid turns into a series of puzzles rather than combat-focused. Floor two does the old "My name is Sheltem" trick again, but instead with numbers required in a math puzzle. The answer turns out to be 1701, which seemed uncanny until I tried to enter the door guarded by the puzzle and was greeted with "What is the Federation ship number". Well then. Floor 3 was ye olde spiral with hidden teleporters puzzle. I've seen this one a dozen times; twice in Might & Magic, so no problem there. Floor four granted me an audience with the Dragon Pharaoh himself, who sent me west into the lava fields of Darkside to find a crashed ship.

In the lava fields you actually find two: one from Sheltem and one from Corak, fresh from their launch into space in Isles of Terra. Within each you find a very verbose log of their journeys, written in a way that neatly summarizes and fleshes out the entire story so far, right from the VARN of Book One all the way through to present day. Within Corak's pod, you find him in stasis and are able to revive him. From there he clues you in on Sheltem and enlists your aid in finding a way to sneak him into Sheltem's castle so he can finish him off for good. This begins a short series of fetches that sends you back to the Dragon Pharaoh, to the previously inaccessible city of Olympus, and into its sewer to find the "Soul Box" that Corak can hide his essence inside of. Once you do this and pick up Corak, you're ready for the final confrontation.

I wish I could say the final dungeon had anything of note about it but it was really just another dungeon. It had a semi-neat puzzle involving walking through a grid of elemental damage tiles, with a key deep in the castle's dungeon to explain the order of tiles to walk on, but that's it. Once you reach the end of the castle, you're pulled into a cut-scene where the Soul Box bursts open and Corak and Sheltem fight while you stand idly by and watch, I guess. Eventually Corak self-destructs, taking Sheltem with him, and that's the end. I finished at level 70, which is closer to what I expect from a Might & Magic game, as opposed to the 20 of Clouds.

The checklist for this one is actually kind of messy, let me try to sort it out here...

I like this a lot better than Clouds. The "Energy Discs" portion is super open ended, even if it is somewhat limited by the insane level scaling. I entered maybe 8 or 9 dungeons to get this done, which is as many as I entered for the entirety of Clouds. I think, maybe, if you know where the Dragon Pharaoh is going to send you ahead of time, you can defer everything between Dimitri and the Pyramid, but you eventually need access to Olympus for the Soul Box, which requires Pyramid access, which requires Kalindra, which requires Dimitri.

Anyway that would be the end if you were playing Darkside stand-alone. In "Worlds", after the final cut-scene, you get yet another forced save and one more clue that everything is not yet over. Upon reporting back to the Dragon Pharaoh, you're told that with the major antagonists of the world gone, it's time to re-unite Cloudside and Darkside into one world. He gives you a laundry list for doing this. To summarize...

Sphinx, Dragon Tower, and Darkstone tower are three of the four previously inaccessible dungeons Cloudside. Access to them is gained by finding a key in Sheltem's dungeon and starting this final event with the Dragon Pharaoh. Additionally, an exit in Sheltem's dungeon leads to the town of Shangri-la, which bridges both sides of the world. Exiting the Cloudside of Shangri-la takes you to Volcano Cave, which is accessible in Clouds of Xeen but is way too hard. These four locations (and the additional optional "Dungeon of Death") fill in most of the rest of the Cloudside map: Dragon Tower, Volcano Cave, and the Sphinx all reside in the north half that you have almost no reason to enter on a pure Cloudside playthrough. It's apparently possible to finish Darkside without ever rescuing Kalindra, or so I've been told. So that too could end up added to the list of things you must do for re-unification.

Honestly this little addition to the plot for the "Worlds" version of the game is butts. Darkstone Tower has events you have to do to progress that can deal thousands of damage to your entire party. I had to cheese a +2500 HP fountain near Sheltem's castle to survive. Dragon Tower has Cloud Dragons and even more dangerous Energy Dragons that can just annihilate even a level 100 party with ease. The Sphinx has a gimmick that requires you to choose between paying up two million gold, and trying to survive a gauntlet of traps that deal hundreds of damage a step, for at least a dozen steps. Then finally Dragon Mummies: enemies that hard-target Clerics and Paladins and are capable of one-shotting (to death) even a fully buffed, level 90 Cleric. "Excessive" doesn't even begin to describe the jump in difficulty here versus the mooks of Sheltem's castle.

The Cloudside "four corners" affair is just kind of filler. It's easy enough since Cloudside is tuned for a level 20 cap. Absolutely nothing on the surface world is a threat. You just walk or teleport from corner to corner turning on beacons; you could have even done this way back when, though you'd have no idea why you were doing it. The Darkside sleeper is Darkside's version of "four corners", except instead of the surface world, you go to the four corners of the Skyroad. There you find a portal to four elemental planes, just like the planes of Book Two (without the murderous hydras, thank gods). Same story really: a 16x16 plane of element, and a thing in each you need to find. Once all four are found, this part's done.

Finally, while Might & Magic has always danced on this weird uncanny line between fantasy, sci-fi, and real-world references, this final arc dives right into the deep end. Most of the puzzles are Star Trek references, including the NPC you speak to in the Sphinx being named Picard and ending his dialogue with "Make it so!". One of my chatters said if I didn't know what to do on a puzzle, just assume the answer was a Trek reference, and they were not far from the truth. I think around here I uttered the phrase "Someone should have stopped JVC".

Getting through it and getting the pieces together for the ritual: the artifact from completing each game, the reflectors and sleepers dealt with, freeing Prince Roland and Queen Kalindra so they can perform the ritual, getting the Chime of Opening so you can access the ritual site, and climbing Darkstone Tower, gets you an interesting little walk through a cloud path that takes you past a sort of quasi-credits area. Each corner of this zone has a little island of clouds that has signs bearing the names of other New World Computing titles; basically a thank you for playing I guess? At the very end is a pyramid that gives you the final cut-scene of the game: the performance of the ritual and the flat two-sided world warping and re-manifesting as a proper unified globe. It was pretty solid cut-scene material for the time, all told.

Phew, that's a lot. Darkside felt like more of a complete adventure to me but it too was pretty short. In fact, the entire "Worlds" 2.5 game block took almost exactly as long as Isles of Terra did. I can chalk this up somewhat to my zeal to be done with Might & Magic for awhile accelerating some of my gameplay. I skipped a few dungeons, never fully mapped Cloudside, and fought through some areas when I should have left and explored elsewhere. However I didn't miss that much content. Only when put together do they make a complete, coherent game. That's true even with the story. Clouds on its own is this weird isolated microcosm that doesn't really have a sense of closure or completion. However Worlds does neatly tie up the Corak and Sheltem story in a bow. I'm pretty sure going forward, we'll be seeing a completely new story from Might & Magic.

You know, if I ever decide to do 6. Might & Magic 6 starts the new era of non-grid based movement and quasi-real time interactions. I don't know if I'll like it. Regardless, I'm more than done with what has been a year of dungeon crawlers.

EDIT: And here's the Darkside map. Unlike Cloudside, I explored this one 99% before I even finished the game. The only part I had to go back and check was the very very south-east tip of the landmass.

2018-Dec-04: Might & Magic: Worlds of Xeen - Cloudside

I said it before and didn't stick to it, but this time I think I mean it: I'm done with the M&M series for awhile. I knew going into World of Xeen that I was signing up for a double-header, but it was simultaneously more and less than I was expecting. I mean, it was good; I enjoyed Worlds of Xeen, but something about it didn't quite feel right to me, having finished the first three and developed some expectations from the series.

To start, Worlds of Xeen is a combined offering of Might & Magic 4 (Clouds of Xeen) and 5 (Darkside of Xeen). Both games take place on the same world, but on opposite sides and have very little to do with each other; at least in their isolated respective games. Starting Worlds of Xeen places you on "Cloudside", the upper side of the world and the world that is stage of Might & Magic 4. The starting story for this one is more coherent than the last three chapters. You start out with a general idea of your overall goal: your party has been having nightmares about a wizard trapped in a tower and a demon threatening the land and you have to find out more and stop the demon. Yeah, not much to go on at the start, but it's leagues more than you get at the start of Book One!

Clouds of Xeen has a pretty structured start. You clear the town of Vertigo of vermin, then are sent to a nearby dungeon that is ten levels deep. Just doing these two things is sufficient to get you to level 10 which is frankly enough to get you moving through most of the game. See, Clouds of Xeen has the unique component thus far in the series of having a level capped not by integer limits or your available gold, but a hard limit of 20. Considering I finished Book Two at 80, and Isles of Terra at 65, a level cap of 20 is tiny, especially when your first play session is enough to get you half way there. I don't know why they chose to do this. After the initial quests, you're more or less turned loose on the world to do whatever you want but this doesn't mean you're free to go anywhere like you were in the first two installments and, to a lesser degree, the third.

From a mechanics perspective, Worlds of Xeen is identical to Isles of Terra with a few notable exceptions. First, there's voiced over NPC interactions and cut-scenes. You could tell JVC and New World Computing were proud of these because they're everywhere in Cloudside. Every time you enter a dungeon, an NPC standing guard at the gate gives you a 10-15 second lecture thematic to the dungeon. These are charming, even hilarious, at first but they quickly get tiresome in the latter half of the game. Especially since every "tower" type dungeon in the game has the same cut-scene upon entry, as does each "cave" type. Second, on-tile events no longer trigger when you step on the tile. Instead, there's now an "interact" button you must press to trigger these events; with the exception of traps of course. This is largely an improvement as the signaling that something is interact-able on a given tile is very, very good. So it just means no more silly dances of standing on an event-laden square and every time you turn, menu, etc, the game asks again if you want to interact with it. Finally, the addition of the "day" spells: spells that apply every buff in a given school of magic, but a combined cost. It reduces the menu spam required every time you rest significantly.

Clouds of Xeen is rather heavy handed in its sequence of events. Most of the dungeons "Cloudside" are locked, with the key in some prior dungeon or plot point. Yeah, this isn't entirely unlike Terra, where you had a series of locked dungeons that you had to unlock by exploring the prior series of dungeons, but in Clouds it's more linear. World exploration gets you a key to a place that gives you a key to another place that gives you a key to... you get the idea. Most of this gating is done via the main plot point of the game: Newcastle and Mega Credits.

In short, you come across a plot of land and an opportunity to buy it. In reality, this unlocks a major component of the game in the form of building your own castle on the land. It's not as awesome as it seems, sadly: you give "Mega Credits" to a clerk of the king and he improves your castle. First improvement is simply flattening the land, second is giving you a keep, and finally you get a dungeon. These represent explorable areas with loot, shops, and the like. Also each time you improve the castle, the workers find a key you can use to unlock a new dungeon. The only source of Mega Credits is dungeons, so if you ignore side-content, you end up in a loop of improving the castle, getting a key, and exploring that dungeon for the next set of credits.

Completing the construction of Newcastle opens a dungeon under the castle that is home to the legendary "Xeen Slayer Sword" that is the only weapon capable of defeating the evil Lord Xeen. Obviously this is mandatory. Parallel to this, you have to free the wizard Crodo from Darzog's tower. To do this, you explore a short chain of dungeons to get the key to the tower, then free him. This also opens the way to Castle Xeen in the clouds. You can actually go straight to the dungeon chain to free Crodo, without any of the key and Credit shenanigans but the dungeons will likely be way too hard, and you won't be able to hurt Lord Xeen anyway without the Xeen Slayer Sword. Only finishing both threads gives you all the tools you need to finish the game.

Clouds actually ends in a boss fight, which makes it the 2nd game of the series with one. You duel Lord Xeen and his pet at the top of Castle Xeen. Sadly in my case both foes fell in a single blow. My strategy of dumping every martial stat-up on a single Barbarian was just too strong. For the ending I was greeted with a cute cut-scene and an overview of practically every type of enemy I slew. The game force-saves here and drops you back off in Vertigo, with a clue that the other side of the world needs your help. I neglected to mention: the landscape is dotted with pyramids that, if you enter them, warp you to "Darkside", the other side of the world and where Might & Magic 5 takes place. You can freely go to Darkside at any time, but the level scaling is ... very different than Cloudside, so it's probably not a good idea to mix the two. I chose to finish Cloudside first.

Looking over my map, notes, and VODs for the "Clouds" half of the play-through, one thing becomes apparent: Clouds was half a game. I explored about half of the world; in fact there's a very clear line across the world that I never explored north of. I wondered if this was because those parts would be visited as part of Darkside, or if I'd just missed a lot of plot threads sending me up there. I'd only really heard one clue that would even push me north: the location of the "Sixth Mirror" somewhere in the lava lands of the north-east. However while storming Castle Xeen I found the mirror in Lord Xeen's chambers, so even that turned out to be a red herring. Also my completion time of Clouds was about half that of the three prior games: 18 hours, while 1, 2, and 3 took 37, 33, and 32 respectively. If I'd chosen to fill out the world map and at least investigate every entrance I found this would probably be extended to 24 hours or so, but that's still significantly shorter.

Some of this can be explained by the fact that several dungeons in Clouds can only be accessed as part of Darkside of Xeen. I presume if you only had Clouds of Xeen, they just had locked doors and no content behind them. This means large chunks of the world are just pointless in a Clouds-only, or Clouds-first play-through. I guess this goes back to my "Half a game" assessment. Worlds really should have been one game from the on-set, and balanced that way-- but we'll get more into that in the Darkside portion of this write-up.

All in all, Clouds of Xeen just kind of came and went. While every Might & Magic thus far has had this feeling of "I'm exploring the world and then suddenly know what to do and it's half over", Clouds really went deep on this trope. Despite knowing my two major goals all game (free Crodo and build Newcastle), I explored a few dungeons, visited a few towns, did some quests, and suddenly I was looking at the final push before me. In a way I think starting the game with a goal cheapened the experience because I could see the leaps and bounds I was making toward it unfolding before me, rather than it all falling together once I finished the right quests. It wasn't a bad game, but it felt significantly weaker than Terra.

The overall checklist for Clouds of Xeen is something like this:

I know I keep saying completing a Might & Magic game isn't much once you know how, but this really... isn't much. It's six dungeons, including the final one. There's a few other dungeons that are optional and also serve as an alternative source of Credits, but once you get 15 (conveniently from the first two dungeons here), any more are pointless. In addition you can visit the Witch's Tower, Golem Laboratory, Castle Basenji, the Northern Sphinx, and the Volcano Cave (which is probably too hard for you without Darkside buffs). That's it, compared to the three dozen dungeons in each of the previous chapters. It just feels like Clouds was less of a game over all.

EDIT: As traditional, here's the Cloudside map. I phoned this one in. There's just so much flat, aimless land that I eventually just ran through it quickly and mapped only what I saw with Wizard Eye in the north half. As a result I probably missed a lot of stuff.

Part 2: Darkside

2018-Nov-22: Might & Magic III: Wrap-up

It was only after resorting to a hex editor to rescue my party from the end-game Main Control Sector that I remembered the existence of the "Help" button in the main menu. This transports you back to Fountain Head regardless of party condition, teleportation locks, and obstacles in exchange for-- I think-- one level from each party member. This penalty would be devastating in early game, but it was quite trivial in my end-game state. I clicked it despite having rescued myself with cheats, out of a concept of fairness.

To elaborate on exactly how I got stuck: the final section of the game is accessed with the keycard you get from one of the three alignment lords. Once you have it, stepping up to a specific door in the pyramids warps you in. This door is bash-proof and pick-proof. Once inside the final area, your Town Portal and Beacon spells are locked out. The only way to exit is to use of an Interdimensional Box that is found in the hallways leading up to the final room, but I got "lucky" in that I took the correct path to the finale blindly, so I never found it. So minus cheats or the help of Mr. Wizard's magic Help button, I was indeed softlocked. Anyway, I got out, and decided to flesh out the world map.

I'd left four major areas unmapped:

Starting from Fountain Head, I used Walk on Water and moved east to the northern islands. These turned out to be mostly unimportant. One of the islands revealed itself to be the werewolf island mentioned in a puzzle in Castle Dragontooth, but yielded nothing of value. Another island turned out to be home of Cursed Cold Cavern, which I saw hints of across Terra but never found. Referencing a walkthrough tells me this is where I would have found the Black Terror Key if I hadn't gotten it by recruiting the Robber hireling.

East from there was the big frozen land mass that contains Dragontooth. Here I'd abandoned exploring because an avalanche KOed most of my party with no warning. Turns out it was the only one; I was able to finish mapping this area with no further disasters. I found a few statues here that gave utterly massive temporary stat boosts for non-trivial gold costs, and entrance to Dragon Cavern: a dungeon I hadn't heard a single darn thing about in my travels. Peeking at a few resources reveals to me that it's the most side-content of side-contents, but contains four orbs and a metric butt-ton of cash. So I suppose my slight concerns about eventual money problems had a solution. I also found a pyramid to the Beta Engine Sector of the ship, which is also very side-content as you don't ever have to actually go there to finish the game.

South from there to swamp island: I'd just neglected to map about half of this huge land mass. Not for any particular reason; I just planned to do it later then got railroaded into the finale roll-up. Here I found the closest thing to "Red Messages" Terra has: talking skulls on sticks that give you hand-holding instructions to beating the game. I presume they don't talk to you until you do something, because it seems odd to just reveal this information without gating it somehow. I had wondered how JVC planned to replace messages and interleaves, and this is how. Either way, I found the solution in the natural course of game play so I guess M&M3 is well-designed. If I was stuck, eventual world-scouring would have revealed this.

Finally I drifted west to the sea around the fire island. Here I encountered a small army of Octobeasts and Crabs I had unleashed by looting the Obsidian equipment crates floating in the water. It's not a bad deal really: end-game equipment whenever you want in exchange for making this two region area inaccessible by sea. It's not like you access the fire island via Walk on Water anyway. Even my level 65 party members couldn't land solid blows on the crabs, but my Barbarian, at level 145 with 120 Might and boosted Accuracy from the stat statues one-shot them. Aside from that there's nothing to report: the fire island is completely closed off in impassable mountains; the only way in is by warping to the town inside.

So in total I'd missed three dungeons: Beta Engine, Dragon Cavern, and Cursed Cold. Only one of these was even possibly required, and I skipped it by getting the key from its depths elsewhere. Not bad for a blind play. I didn't really bother to explore these; I was eager to start M&M4 that same stream.

As traditional, here's my completed map.

2018-Nov-20: Might & Magic III: And Now For Something Completely Different

After I finished Might & Magic Book Two, I was pretty determined to take a break from RPGs for a bit. That break lasted about a week. Before October was out I was back at it with Might & Magic III. Sadly this playthrough was dotted with multi-day hiatuses from the game as life repeatedly stole my time. The game experience was basically an eight hour marathon, then five to seven days of not touching it, then coming back confused as to what I was doing and doing another eight hour marathon; rinse, repeat.

Unfortunately this entry won't have any screenshots, or a final map. I managed to softlock myself in the final area; I'll explain further down. As a result the map is unfinished, the world not fully explored. I almost want to either hack my party out of the softlock, or start over with a new party. But I won't, I have many more games on my list to explore.

Might & Magic III is an entirely different beast from the first two games in the series. Having officially reached the era of graphics-heavy DOS games and mouse-driven interfaces, the UI has received a massive face lift. Gone are the textual menus and "press the first letter of this word" hotkeys (though the hotkeys are still there, for fans of prior chapters; just completely undocumented) and these are instead replaced with a GUI that... while serviceable... does not promote fast moment though the game's environment. I stuck with the keyboard which, if you know the hotkeys, can replicate every function of the mouse interface perfectly. I guess it makes sense; your users were not guaranteed to have a pointing device in this age of DOS.

Many QoL improvements followed with the face lift. First, completely gone is the concept of razor walls. As far as I could find, every dungeon of Might & Magic III, and its overworld, uses full-tile barriers. If this is a trend that continues into the Xeen duology, it'll accelerate my mapping immensely. Second, you have an actual spell list in this chapter, as opposed to having to memorize spell numbers (though navigating the list is slow and tedious so sometimes I wished to have the numbers back). Third, practically everything of importance in the world is visible at a distance. This is a first for the series as the prior two chapters would often describe things to you when you stepped on their tile, and give you no clue otherwise of their presence. In M&M3, you can see stairs coming from a distance, as well as treasures, traps, and foes. The graphics have taken a step up from flat walls and floors to textured stone, grass, sky, trees... and the game now has decent (but repetitive) music.

On the note of foes, chapter 3 of the series pulls back from its "up to 250 foes in a fight" stance of Book Two. In fact it changes combat entirely. Foes are now visible on the map, move when you do, and can be shot with your ranged weapons at a distance. When you end up on an adjacent square to a foe, combat begins. From there additional foes can join the fight by walking up to you between combat rounds, but fights are limited to three foes at a time. That, however, does not stop enemies from frying you with shots or spells while waiting for an opening to jump in. Combat also gives rise to probably the biggest anti-pattern in the game's new features: the complete removal of numbers from the main interface. Your heath is represented with a colored gem, damage is represented with a blood splatter of size proportional to the hit, and your spell points are only visible when casting a spell. You can hit "Q" to get a summary of your HP and SP, but your damage numbers are a total mystery.

That last point is the most vexing really. M&M3 also introduced a massive new inventory system with gear coming in multiple materials of differing power, a bunch of new equip-able items like rings and medals, and a ton of items that manipulate stats directly. Being able to see how this translated into raw damage numbers was practically a requirement, and it was left out. I made a major change to one of my party members at the end-game, and still don't know if it raised or lowered his damage. I would however be negligent in failing to mention the goofy faces your party members make to reflect status ailments. It's a treasure to behold and never got old even in the final hours of the game.

That said, insanity and curse are awful ailments with no cure and can randomly kill your party members due to stat lowering below 0. They're a guaranteed trip to a temple and suck and I hope they go away in future chapters.

Starting the game, a few things became clear to me immediately. First was that time was going to be a factor somehow. One of the first NPCs I met offered my characters a week of work for 50 gold, and this could be repeated indefinitely. It didn't seem like a good deal to me even if I could arbitrarily travel through time, reverse aging, etc... but given that this was an offer on hand at all, I immediately began to suspect the game would have an over-arcing time limit. It turns out, to a degree, I was right. A second thing was that there would be a lot more positioning related puzzles in M&M3, especially since traps are visible in the first person view, you were given a strafe ability, and enemies moved in turn with you. Again I was right; a lot of traps and obstacles in the game required careful navigation using all the movement tech available to me including strafing, the Jump spell, and eventually Teleport.

M&M3 definitely has a smoother bootstrap than Book One, and presumably Book Two without an imported party. That's good, because there's no party import here. You start with a fresh band of level 1's, but the first dungeon under Fountain Head is quite tuned for a level 1-2 party and you'll be quite ready for the world at large when you're done. Once outside, the game throws experience at you hand over fist in the form of destroying monster camps. These camps stop the spawning of a specific type of monster in your current map tile, and reward you with many times the experience that you'd get for farming them. It's worth doing as soon as you find them. There is a concern that, once you clear a region, no more foes spawn at all, but the math works out to keep you well-leveled. Trust me.

Unlike Book One and Book Two, the world map here is a series of islands. About half the game takes place on a large land mass to the west, and then the rest of the world is dotted with elemental islands: a desert isle for earth, a volcanic island for fire, a snow-covered island for wind, and a swamp island for water. The main breadcrumbs for questing come from the three castles in the world: one for each alignment. The Lords there-in task you with finding both "Ancient Artifacts" of their given alignment, and the "Ultimate Power Orbs". The former turned out to just be experience boost fodder, the latter turned out to be the jump-off to the main quest, much like the Triple Crown in Book Two and the "five towns" quest in Book One.

For a Might & Magic game, you get this quest relatively early and this remains the main thing to do for most of the game. Thing is, you don't find a single orb for quite some time; or at least I didn't. I explored dungeons around Fountain Head, gained power, gained loot, and found multiple locked dungeons that required colored keys. It was these dungeons that stored most of the orbs, as well as a series of "Holographic Cards" that served no immediate purpose, but I recognized them to be important so I kept them. The keys turned out to all be in other, easier dungeons-- and also on hirelings when you recruited them for some reason. I got duplicates of some of the keys in this manner, though I never found the Black Key for the Tomb of Terror in-world. That one was on the Robber hireling I brought in to pad out my ailing Thievery in the face of only having a Ninja in my party.

Between the early dungeons and the locked ones, I explored the world. I found the desert isle which contained buried treasure that also unleashed some of the most horrific foes in the game: Vulture Rocs. These enemies give the term "Out of depth" a whole new meaning in that I was unable to take them at all until the very last moments before end-game. Around the Fire Isle there's a similar situation with sunken treasure and crabs that bodied me instantly. In the north east I discovered the frozen island and Castle Dragontooth: the home of the Evil Lord. Trying to explore this island triggered an avalanche that instantly killed my party; I made a note to come back later and never did. To the far south there's a pair of islands with Castle Blackwind and Greywind: the manors or two wizards locked in undeath following a war over a woman. Solving this puzzle gave me access to a major stat boost every year, a fountain that taught me every spell in the game, and a decent chunk of experience.

After a series of explorations, resurrections, level ups, and what-not I hit level 20 and gained a healthy cache of Obsidian equipment: the best in the game. Equipped as such I was pretty much able to take on anything in the overworld and enter any dungeon I wished to at least feel out its difficulty. At this point I began to notice a problem, as I hinted at earlier: age.

You see, certain spells age your characters, certain traps do too, and fighting ghosts results in a lot of aging as their attacks inflict it on your party. Some of my characters were pushing 60, and their stats were beginning to fall as a result. Thus far I'd found no way to reverse this. Rejuvenation was not a spell I had (and remember I'd learned every spell from the fountain in Blackwind). Reviewing my notes, I'd heard reference to a fountain of youth raised from within a pyramid on the mainland. Until now I hadn't bothered to go there because its key was locked behind a Might check I couldn't pass, but now I had the strength, so I went and grabbed the key and dove in.

The pyramid led to an underground tech area; the first hint of the world's sci-fi nature in the game. After some bumbling around I found not only my first power orbs, but the device to locate the fountain. In activating it it literally raised a new island up out of the ocean and on that island was a fountain that restored my party's age to natural levels. By that I mean it removed all the unnatural aging from undead and spell usage; it did not revert natural passage of time. I do not believe there is a way so, in that manner, there is a time limit on the game. Eventually your party will grow ancient with irreversible aging and die from stat loss. I guess at that point you could bank your cash, pool your gear, and make a new party and power-level them on the few infinitely spawning foes in the game but... why? For what it's worth my game took less than a decade in-game so meh.

From here I finished up the six keyed dungeons, resulting in six Holographic Cards and about 15 power orbs. Delivering these to King Tumult of the neutral faction continued the plot. I presume the magic number was 11 due to a clue in Fountain Head referring to "Ten plus one". In doing this, the Good and Evil castles were destroyed (hope you looted them), and I was given yet another key card. From here the only clue I had left was a pyramid in the Isle of Fire leading to my final challenge. In typical Might & Magic fashion, I went from clueless to end-game in one hop. As a side note: following the equipment issues from Book Two, I made my party an even split of all three alignments this time, but not only was equipment not alignment-locked, but giving Tumult the orbs made my entire party neutral; hah.

In getting all these orbs, finding features in dungeons, exploring the castles as I found artifacts, and other general stuff, my levels ballooned from 20 to 60. I was quite strong enough to take absolutely anything in the world, including Vulture Rocs and the Hydras on Fire Island. Content from here on out was actually a joke; I ran through every dungeon just murdering everything in sight. I'm unsure if I did things in the wrong order or this was intended, but I hit "god tier" pretty hard and fast. I also discovered in the Tomb of Terror a quartet of events that gave 20 levels to any one hero, in exchange for setting all their stats to 3. I used all four of these on my front-line Barbarian, boosting him to a ridiculous level of 145, then used a renewable source of stat-ups in Arachnid Cavern, and some +Might items to get his stats back up from laughable; but he would finish the game with 3 Intelligence. Such is the way of things. He hit like a hurricane and got 36 attacks per turn. I'm happy with this.

All those levels actually raised another problem in the game: gold. With most areas able to be completely cleared and some having no source of renewable enemies at all, you eventually run out of places to get cash. The massive marathon of leveling drained my bankroll, which had been mostly built up by huge rewards from the three Lords and their treasure chests. I imagine if I'd gone on much longer I'd have run out of cash-- but then again I had an average party level of 80 and that was well more than enough to just tromp on utterly everything so maybe cash isn't so much a worry. That said, there's a way to get a massive influx of cash every year, if you want to forego getting stats from that yearly reward instead, so you can't really permanently run out. I do imagine if a player lost a party to old age and had to start over from level 1 half way through clearing the world, they'd have an issue.

Entering the final area turned out to require three things: the priority key card I got from turning in orbs, the six holographic cards from the six keyed dungeons (where I also got most of the orbs), and the Ultimate Adventurer title (which I also got from one of the dungeons I got the other two things from). Once you enter the correct door of said final area, you find Corak and Sheltem locked in battle. If you missed the last two games, Sheltem is the on-going antagonist of the series, and Corak is some kind of developer-insert Mary Sue who's been chasing him across the various worlds to subdue him. At this point you have a good idea of their deal: the Ancients created Sheltem to watch over Terra, but he rebelled and set out to destroy Terra, as well as the experimental arcologies of VARN and CRON. Corak then set out to find and stop him.

I expected to get involved in the battle here as some kind of final boss fight, just like how you beat down Sheltem at the end of Book Two, but alas. Sheltem and Corak dive into escape pods (oh by the way the pyramids all lead to different compartments of a giant undersea space ship) and Corak urges you to follow. A short walk around the corner takes you to a third escape pod that, upon entering it, finishes the game. There is a fiddly detail here of needing a launch code, but there are a couple places to find this code and they're fairly hard to miss.

The final area had two additional tidbits. If you go the wrong direction after encountering Corak, you meet Terminators. These are probably the hardest foe in the game. They're 99% resistant to physical damage, seem to be completely immune to every other element but energy, and can instantly eradicate anyone they hit. Fighting through these required I use my Sorcerer's Energy Blast and Implosion spells, then rest when she ran out of SP, and of course resurrect my eradicated characters. Power Shield reduced the eradication chance but didn't eliminate it. In total I had to kill about ten of them, though my reward was quite interesting. Past them was something I'd describe as a developer room, complete with credits and a password to be sent to New World Computing for some purpose. The Terminators were definitely a super-boss I accidentally blew through.

Second tidbit: I softlocked myself here. I entered this area with about 100 Might each on my two front line heroes. Your chance to bash open doors is determined by combined Might of these two, and I could not bash open any doors in this area, so I was unable to leave once I entered. Due to the Terminators, I also saved in here. Good thing I had all the components I needed to finish the game I guess, or I would have softlocked my save in the final stretch. Unfortunately for this reason I'm unable to return to the main world and finish my explorations. I may some day cheat my party out of this area, but for now I'm stuck, and I'm okay-ish with leaving it this way.

So the completion work flow for Might & Magic III is something like this:

In usual M&M fashion it seems so simple on paper, but brings with it a ton of meandering, exploration, and powering up when playing blind.

Your reward for this is an actual cut-scene that explains the entire legacy of Corak and Sheltem. If you've played the entire trilogy like I have, most of this is old info, but it's a nice refresher and a nice way to wrap up the story. You're left with your party blasting off into space to chase Sheltem. It's implied Might & Magic IV picks this arc up, but it doesn't. You don't get any clue as to what happened to your party until Might & Magic VII, or so I'm told.

M&M3 is certainly different, but I'd call it the best one yet. I went in totally blind and was able to find my way (with some difficulty) through the world. I definitely feel like I missed some things, but I never felt stuck. I was skeptical of the new combat system and the non-renewable foes at the start, but I turned out to really enjoy both. Now I'm excited to dig into the 4 & 5 World of Xeen combo game. Same engine, most of the same mechanics, but I expect it's going to be utterly huge.

Part 2

2018-Nov-19: The Black Onyx, or Knowing Your Roots

The Black Onyx is huge on a historical level; absolutely massive. I may overstate the importance of this title, but it could be argued that it laid the foundation for the very concept of the JRPG, or at least the dungeon crawler in Japan. As the story goes, the author was a fan of Wizardry and Ultima, but couldn't find similar titles during a prolonged stay in Japan, so he wrote his own for the PC-88. From there it took off, and claimed a place in history for being one of the first (or maybe the first) successful RPG in Japan.

I'd been wanting to give it a play ever since I read about it on The CRPG Addict's blog but I could never find a good time to do it. It seemed like it'd be a boring watch on stream, and I always had other gaming projects going on in my free time; not to mention work and life stuff. I decided to do it between Might & Magic III and Xeen (the former of which I have a write-up on coming soon). It only took me about a day to finish it, but wow are there some... concepts... here.

Let's start with this: The Black Onyx is probably the most simplistic and austere RPG I've ever played. You make a party of five generic mooks that has no concept of class and barely even stats. They can only attack, not use magic, not use items in battle... So they're effectively all Fighters. Battles come down to bopping each other until one group dies, or flees, as enemies tend to do more often than just being wiped out. There's no inventory; when you buy equipment, the prior item is simply discarded. Healing is done with "drugs" that each fighter can carry five of at a time. When you run out of drugs, it's time to start walking back to the surface. Yup walking, no quick travel here-- though there is a shortcut you can unlock about two thirds of the way through the game.

There's no dialogue, no hints written on walls. All you have in the dungeon to find your way around is graph paper (or a mapping program) and your wits. Given this, some of the mapping is pretty brutal. For one: in this era of dungeon crawlers, memory space was at a premium. Most developers crammed 16x16, 24x24, or 32x32 grids 100% full of traversible space. Based on this you could make certain assumptions about the shape of levels, which in turn could let you detect things like warps, loops, and such. Not so with The Black Onyx. I would describe most of these levels as "Out of control" with massive sprawling hallways, bounds-violating diversions, and some pretty cruel teleporter loops that took me 3 or 4 laps before I finally realized I was in a loop. All the while, increasingly out of band enemies are chewing on your limited resources.

It starts out innocent enough; the "newbie dungeon" in the graveyard is a pretty straightforward affair with a hall leading to an open area you can roam to fight easy foes:

But quickly takes it to 11 with the non-standard structures:

One of The Black Onyx's favorite tricks are one-way invisible walls, which I've never seen used in the way this game does. The north-west corner of the map above is a good example: all of those walls are invisible and passable from one way but not the other. As you approach the stairs, you're wandering in what looks like a huge empty room, but if you step off the one-tile path, you're suddenly locked into the relief space and have to go around and try again. This is one of the tamer uses of this gimmick.

Start-up was a little rough, as is normal for most dungeon crawlers. Once you get a piece of gear or two and a level, though, you're pretty safe in the early dungeon rooms. From there, gear upgrades and levels keep you pretty much dead on par with the dungeon content (presuming you have to explore to find your way) until the 4th floor. Here, the upgrades dry up, and levels start taking longer to get. After a few initial deaths getting started, I basically blitzed to B4F where I immediately encountered my first party wipe since I reached level 2. Around the 4th or 5th floor, you'll get the best gear in the game, and it still won't be enough, so it's grind time.

The fifth floor showcases a pretty mean trick with bi-directional teleporter loops and some one-way walls. Once it's mapped though the path to the stairs is pretty simple. There's no real point in exploring every corner though because The Black Onyx has no special encounters, no treasure. Your only loot is gold and a very rare chance to drop a "magic" item from a battle. These magic items seem to be simple +1s; not as good as the next item in the chain, but still worth getting. Floor six though, that's where The Black Onyx takes off the kid gloves:

These colored sections are colored similarly in-game (to an eye-searing six-color degree). Once you map the floor out, which is easier said than done thanks to the looping edges. you're supposed to move through this maze in a specific pattern. Touching the right sections in order unlocks the purple doors in the south-east, giving you access to the staircase that takes you to the final leg of the game. One problem though: there's no clue what the right order is. The closest thing to a hint is a random note shoved off in the far corner of town: "...how the colors change...". It's the only "note" in the game, and hence raises itself as extremely important, but what are the chances you'll remember it here; let alone know what it's talking about?

What it's referring to is the title screen. Once the intro music begins, the logo begins rotating through six colors; the same six colors seen in the maze. That's the solution. With that in hand, you then have to route a path that takes you through those six colored regions on B6F without touching any color out of order. Once that's done, the game beeps (even if you have the sound off; that scared the heck out of me), and the doors to the room in the south east open. Inside is a staircase that takes you inside a 2x2 black walled spire that stabs through the entire dungeon, and this takes you all the way back up to the surface, and yet one more floor to a floor "minus one".

This is also where The Black Onyx throws out one of the meanest tricks I've seen in a dungeon crawler since the Wizardry softlock room: the spire is one-way walls. From inside, you cannot see the bounds of the spire, and by design you cannot see the next set of stairs to take you up toward the surface. Since stairs also don't align between floors, this turns into a guessing game: do you walk left from the stairs, or right, to reach the next floor? If you guess wrong, you're kicked out of the spire and must return to B6F, re-do the color puzzle, and try again. I abused save states; thank you.

So upon getting through the spire and reaching floor "minus one", things somehow get meaner. The final floor is a 16x16 grid of blank space, dotted very seldomly with one-way invisible walls and packed with encounters that can one-shot your party members; or at least mine. If you get lost, orienting yourself is almost impossible as most of the walls simply don't appear unless you look at them from a specific direction. Somewhere in this grid the Onyx is just sitting, and when you walk onto the tile, the game beeps and informs you that you've won. Where it is or how you get there? I have no god-forsaken clue. I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off until I found it, following a failed attempt to map this grid that came to the conclusion that the blank open space also contains silent teleporters and/or spinners. Augh!

Two mechanics to note to hammer home how evil this is:

  1. Your chance to flee is determined by how many walls are adjacent to you. It seems like when you flee, the game picks a direction and if it's blocked, you fail. Fortunately in this empty space your chance to flee is 100% most of the time but...
  2. When you flee, you move 1 to 3 spaces in that random direction. There's no smooth turning to tell you which way you turned, and the steps are instantaneous. So if you flee, you've now gotten lost, with almost no way to re-sync yourself.

Your reward for finding the Onyx is a password, presumably for some contest the developers or publishers had going on? Also two levels for everyone in your party. Whoop de do. You're left in the final area to navigate back to the stairs and emerge from the black spire in town, where... absolutely no one realizes you found the Onyx. NPCs still wish you good luck on your quest, nothing has changed. From here I guess you can just finish your maps and grind, but the game is over.

In the end The Black Onyx is groundbreaking, not just because of its timing, but also because of the creativity the developers showed in the dungeon design and working with the limitations of the system. It's mean; really mean... but it's mean in a unique and interesting way that at least kept me interested until the point of no return at the end, where I finished it mostly out of spite.

2018-Nov-07: Rambling on being a good speed marathon citizen

Last weekend I staffed Best of NES 2018. In fact, I was on hand doing some kind of work for approximately half of the total event; I was hosting and re-streaming for a third of it. It was the first time I was doing the actual technical work of re-streaming an event, though for BBG I basically did the same but we used a bot to handle all the heavy lifting. Having to juggle all the nitty-gritty of streaming the event, coupled with how I've done marathons in the past... let's just say I've come to hold opinions on how a runner can help the event run smoothly.

You can consider this a set of tips to make sure your run goes off well, the marathon staff like you, and nothing untoward happens to make you or the event look bad. As always, this is my opinion and if a given marathon's staff tell you to do something different, listen to them. Just like my last write-up on marathon internals, this mainly applies to online marathons, not live ones.

Arrival and setup

Before marathon day, even, ponder if you have bonus contributions in your game, or even bonus runs entirely. You don't have to do anything formal with these things, but keep them in mind. If you finish way under estimate, you may put the marathon so far ahead they ask if you have anything else you can offer to pad time. Be prepared for this and you'll look like a rock star.

Most marathons ask the runner to be present 30 minutes ahead of schedule for setup. This requires keeping a loose eye on the schedule in the day running up to the run. At one point, BoNES was 2.5 hours ahead of schedule and while at that point no runner would ever be expected to be present that far ahead of schedule, it would have saved the staff a ton of worry if a few runners peeked in and said "Hey I notice you're way ahead, should I be getting ready now?". In short, keep an eye on the schedule; if it starts running ahead, try to show up in time for wherever your run falls. If you can't make it, let the marathon staff know so they can prepare filler content. Most marathons also have bonus runs queued up in these circumstances, but they need to know ahead of time they're going to need it.

When you show up for your run, you should have already read any docs the staff sent you; check pinned messages in Discord chats especially. However they want you to configure your streaming software and game, you should have done prior to your scheduled arrival. "Setup" in a marathon sense isn't time for you to configure OBS to the marathon's specifications; it's time to make sure you already have, catch any errors, and do a spot check of how your stream looks. Don't be that person to stress out the setup staff by showing up with your stream misconfigured when you had weeks to read the docs and do it right.

Quick interjection here for something most runners and staff forget about: if you're running a multi-game block, work out with the staff how to handle it. As a host I prefer to let the runner own the entire block, and quickly change the overlay data as they change games. Some marathons want to interject with the host between each game. It depends on the event and you should find out before your runs start.

Also turn off all audio notifications. Sub notifications, Discord notifications, Windows notifications, make sure your phone can't be heard through your mic, everything. Nothing that isn't the game or commentary should be audible on your stream at any time during the run. Every online marathon will ask you to do this, so make sure you do. Some notification suites that act as embedded browser sources in OBS can still emit sound even when disabled, so make sure they're completely muted.

Once the runner prior to you is underway, a member of staff will ping you for setup. This means you should join their setup chat and follow their instructions. This will usually involve going live and letting them check your stream settings and audio balance. When doing an audio test, you typically want to make sure the setup person has three points of reference: your voice, normal game play, and any examples of excessively loud stuff in the game. They're looking to make sure you're audible, the game is audible, and neither of the two will ever blow out the eardrums of the viewers. You can help by talking while playing, and jumping (to the best of your ability) to any loud parts once they say your audio is balanced, so they can hear that too.

The wait and the run

From here, you play the waiting game. You're ready to go, but you don't know how long the runner before you will take. Unless you're absolutely sure you have ten or more minutes before your run, don't go anywhere. If you can watch the marathon live without broadcasting the audio on your stream, do so, so you know when you're coming up. At some point one of the following will happen:

  1. The prior runner will finish
  2. You will be pinged that you are going live soon
  3. You will be asked if you're ready (and you will answer yes of course)

Once any of those happen reset to the title screen and stop talking until you are told you are live. When the staff cut to you, there should be a title screen (or attract/demo/cutscene) and no speech or noise on your mic. It's just one of those things: if you go live in the middle of a sentence, it looks bad. Doubly so if you were in the middle of something inappropriate or embarrassing. For example: one of the runs we cut to in BoNES, the runner was in the middle of telling his commentators to shut up because he was going live soon. They should have shut up minutes before that!

Once told you're live, there's no need to wait to confirm via the stream or such. You've already been live for 5 seconds. Go ahead and start your intro and your run. Do however keep an eye on the setup chat, where any issues will be brought up to you. Don't bother asking the staff if they're ready; they chose to make you live, so they should be ready. If they're managing the timer, give them a countdown from 3 or 5 so they have warning.

From the moment you're live, don't change anything unless the marathon staff explicitly tell you to. They have the ability to re-crop your stream, adjust volume (to a degree), etc. If you see people in chat complaining about something being amiss, let the staff handle it. If they can't, they'll tell you to do something about it. Otherwise don't sweat it. Don't disrupt your run, and don't make their adjustments harder by constantly changing stuff on your side too.

If you want to make the marathon staff very happy, note when you're getting close to the end of your run. I typically say something like "This is the last level" or "We've got about five minutes left in the run". The re-streamer will hear this and know if they'll be ready for the next run on time from it. What you want to avoid is surprising the staff by suddenly finishing the run with no warning, when they're not ready. Also, if the staff are managing the timer, this lets them get ready. You should also warn them that time to stop the timer is coming about 30 seconds before, so the person managing the timer can get their hand on the button.

If you care about your time, run splits yourself. Don't rely on the re-streamer to stop the marathon timer properly. That's just a side-note for you.

The wrap-up and sign-off

So you finished your run. A few quick things here to make the transition smooth:

First, check the setup/live chat with the staff to make sure they haven't asked you to provide filler content. If they have, let them know what you can offer. If you thought about it ahead of time and can pad out some time for them to set up the next runner, you'll be a life saver.

Next, if you have bonus content you really want to show off, you should ask about this before the run. Never spring on the staff "So hey I got this thing I wanna show off" when the run is over. It hooks the viewers into something they may not have time to show, and puts pressure on them to allow it even if they are running behind. Talk to them before the run, or just let it go. Especially in an online marathon, it's super awkward to have a runner ask if they can show off something, then there's a 10 second pause for stream delay, then a 10 second pause for typing a reply, then a short pause while the runner reads the reply. Just don't do it.

Actually for that matter: work out with the marathon staff if they want you to stream closing cutscenes or credits or not, if they're long. If they're short and you finished ahead of estimate, just do it while wrapping up your commentary. If you forget, don't ask the staff over the stream and just wait for their reply. Say something to cue them to let you know like "And we're going to go ahead and watch the credits until the staff are ready to move on", it sounds better.

Unless told not to by marathon staff, feel free to drop a very soft plug for your channel: talk about what you stream and whatnot, but don't go on hard on "follow me please". The line for this is muddy and changes from event to event, so feel the room for how appropriate this kind of plug is.

Also don't take the host's job. It may be cool to hype the next run up, but unless you know the runner personally and want to contribute something only you can, don't. That just leaves the host with nothing to say unless they repeat you. This one isn't a big deal, really, but a few times while hosting I had to laugh at how the prior runner left me with nothing to say because they announced the next three runs for me. It's another "feel the room" thing. Some events may actually ask you to do this; obvious then it's fine. What you can do is plug your next run. If you have a run hours later in the event, feel free to encourage people to turn out for that too.

Finally, and possibly most importantly, give a clean sign-off. Make it very clear you're done, segue back to the host with something like "I'll throw it back over to the host now, thanks for watching" and then shut the heck up. The scariest thing for a re-streamer is to either stream a bunch of dead air or side-conversation not intended to go out over the air, or cut the runner off mid-sentence. The only way to prevent both of these at once is to have a very obvious and clean sign-off. Once you sign off, you're done. Mute your mic so nothing makes it into the stream and gets cut off by the cut-away. Make sure they've cut away from you before you stop streaming, so any credit music and content keeps going til they choose to end it.

Summary

That's all there is to it. Most of these rules boil down to one thing: don't surprise the staff. Anything outside the normal run routine you want to do, make sure they know about before you're live. Tell them what you're going to do, then do it. Finally, trust them to handle things, or to let you know if they need you to do something.

Staffing a marathon is stressful, especially if it has a ton of viewers. Twitch monsters are cruel and will mock the smallest mistake on the part of the staff. Most marathon organizers sweat small quality of stream details, even if you don't think they're a big deal. You don't have to be a straight-laced professional, but don't be that one runner a host remembers as having made them look like an idiot while hosting the event.

Infographic

EDIT: I threw together a crappy infographic (if you can even call it that) of this info. It's pretty tall, so I'm not gonna emebed it here, but you can find it here

2018-Nov-01: Phantasy Star After IV

After Phantasy Star IV, we wouldn't hear a whole lot about the Phantasy Star franchise for about six years. In 2000, Phantasy Star Online would break the silence and begin a new era of PS game that'd see fairly regular releases right up to present day. These games would leave the universe of the Phantasy Star core series behind, as really PS4 neatly wrapped up the series and its plot by ending the 1,000 year cycle that'd been seeing the rise of Dark Force since the start of PS1. Phantasy Star Online, instead, could be considered a reboot or alternate universe. After a period of success, PSO would be followed up by a series of other games of a similar play style, across a series of different plot lines and universes; some related and some not.

PSO marked the beginning of a new style in Phantasy Star games. Instead of being menu driven, PSO was a third person action RPG. Instead of taking place in a roughly medieval fantasy world with hints of technology, the game takes place on a generational star ship mired in magic-technology. PSO introduced (or maybe more accurately canonized and named) the concept of Photon power and the hard-light toy-looking equipment that came to be the norm for all future Phantasy Star titles. Everything we'd know about the series for two decades (and going) started with PSO.

Almost 20 years after the release of PSO, it's not a lot to look at today. The graphics were pretty solid for the Dreamcast era, and the thought of an MMO on consoles was groundbreaking at the time. However the game itself is slow, clumsy, and frankly lacks content. The first release of PSO came with four areas roughly the size of a single WoW dungeon each. Each area ended with a boss, and each area was home to about half a dozen quests that consisted of traversing one linear zone from specially selected point A to specially selected point B, at which either an object or NPC would be found, or a special fight would occur. Most of the 200 experience levels would be gained by grinding the areas in free exploration mode, running them from beginning to boss over and over again across the multiple difficulty levels. Sure it's not a ton on paper, but it was huge at the time, and despite being 95% grind, there was something endearing about seeing every level-up, every rare drop.

PSO would eventually expand to include four more areas on most releases, and yet another four exclusive to the PC port. So at least at the end there was a decent amount of variety, though most people on the grind for level cap spammed the same repeatable quest over and over. Having revisited both Blue Burst (Online through... means), and the Dreamcast version after my core-series exploits, I can say for sure that I have no interest in really getting deep into it in 2018; it just has not aged well.

PSO later received a spiritual sequel for the Nintendo DS called Phantasy Star Zero (which I'll call PSZ instead of PS0 for people with fonts that make that ambiguous). Released in 2008, PSZ would take a lot of the shortcomings evident in PSO and soften them somewhat, without eliminating them entirely. The lack of bindable buttons present in PSO would be dampened by a reduction in the number of total abilities you had, and the crunching of some abilities together into "press" versus "press and hold" configurations for the same button. The game would come with eight areas instead of four, and the quests involve more plot and interaction than PSO's "Walk through a chunk of an area" fare. However PSZ is still a case of taking a quest and doing the same area for the fifth time to complete it. It's interesting enough to hold my attention though, having randomly generated areas and a compelling story line with the vantage point changing depending on the race of your hero.

Backing up a bit though, in 2006, yet another alternate universe and series would hit in the form of Phantasy Star Universe. This title, released for the PC and Playstation 2, would introduce a continuing series and change things up a bit by having the main plot follow a single protagonist that the player did not generate and build on their own. The protagonist, Ethan, would eventually reprise in the two titles that make up the Phantasy Star Portable series on the PSP. PSU, anyway, solidified the concepts of attaching techniques to weapons instead of having access to every technique you know at all times, as well as quick-switching weapons for the situation at hand. It would also introduce the concept of Line Shields in place of armor, allowing you to customize the clothing of your character in any way you saw fit.

PSU fixed a lot of the problems of PSO with full on mechanic changes instead of tweaks to existing mechanics from PSO, which makes it a little baffling that they chose to return to the old systems for PSZ two years later. PSU though still suffers from slow movement and combat and especially suffers now in that a ton of its content is simply not accessible now that the MMO servers for it have been shut down. The offline mode is still available but mostly guides you through a hand-full of plot missions dotted around a ton of repeatable missions needed to grind up to stay on pace. Also being unable to create your own hero damages the experience quite a bit, though you can even in offline mode once you finish the main plot-- kind of late. Unfortunately due to a save corruption issue I did not finish PSU, so I can't talk too much about its plot or final experience.

Phantasy Star Portable however is where they got it right. Expanding from PSU in both plot and system mechanics, PSP tightened up the gameplay and gave the player more agency in character design and build even in its main story mode. The only complaints I really had in my complete playthrough of it were that the ally AI was abysmally stupid, often refusing to attack at all unless you were in the thick of things, despite the game giving you many options for ranged and magic combat, and that the final mission is a severe difficulty spike that took me from easily slaying everything to needing to grind fifteen levels to finally win. The story was pretty samey too, I guess, but the new Phantasy Star games are all about that online content and the story mode is mostly a bootstrap to get you there, so I guess it's to be expected.

Since PSP is a portable installment, its content gating for online play isn't nearly so severe. Once you finish the plot, you gain access to most everything you'd get in online play too, though access to certain gear seems to be gated to number of players in a mission (at least if I'm reading the wiki right). You tour a good chunk of things just finishing the plot (largely because of the grind wall before the finale, but meh, what can you do).

PSP would receive a sequel in the form of Phantasy Star Portable 2. PSP2 is the most "More of the same" game in the collection, though that's fine because PSP mainly got the formula right. I haven't really started this one, so I can't speak too much on it, but it's definitely on my list... once I finish PSZ...

The sad thing about this entire collection of games is they leave behind the somewhat gritty and grim motif of the core series where a dying medieval fantasy galaxy struggles against an overbearing recurring foe and replace it with a space-faring aesthetic where hard light is your weapon and your armor, so it's entirely feasible to be rocking a maid uniform and hitting enemies with frying pans with "photon emitters" on them. Don't get me wrong, that level of style and choice is neat, but sometimes I wanna just have armor and steel and overbearing powerful foes and grim situations and things like that. Plus, the classic menu based RPG hasn't been a thing in the Phantasy Star series in almost 25 years now.

I'd really like to see a Phantasy Star 5.

2018-Oct-19: Phantasy Star IV: By Alis, they got it right!

I've been trying to compose this post for a bit. The write-ups for PS2 and PS3 were long meandering rants on bad mechanics and design decisions, but I want to make my breakdown of Phantasy Star IV to make the point as succinctly and directly as possible, because I feel so strongly about this game that I want to condense those feelings into a tight simple package. So here goes:

Phantasy Star IV is the perfect era 16-bit RPG.

No really, they hammered it. Everything. The whole package. The vibrant graphics, the gross biological enemy sprites, the cold faceless robots, the dungeon tilesets, the manga style "cutscenes". The catchy dungeon and battle themes, the horrifying antagonist theme, the pulse pounding final battle theme. The amazing writing, the emotional plot twist, pulling off "Zeromusing" the player twice and making it work, somehow tying together the entire Phantasy Star core-series into one plot thread and denouement. Quality of life improvements like being able to save from the menu instead of only in inns, system improvements, refinements galore.

There's two major components of the game, from a gameplay perspective, that are the most stand-out for me:

The music: I'm not a Genesis audio fan but PS4 managed to take the limitations and features of the Genesis SPU and just went to town with them in a way even I could appreciate, creating this pseudo-metal, industrial sci-fi soundtrack that punctuates every moment of the game perfectly. Dungeon themes are driving bassy thrums guiding you through caves or technological blippy jams in sync with blinking lights in lost high tech fortresses. Of particular note are the battle themes of the first main antagonist and the final form of the final boss. The former may be a tie with "World Revolution" for my favorite boss theme from ... practically any game. After the questionable track selection of PS2 and the ear-grating of PS3, PS4's OST was a joy to listen to.

The battle system: They finally got it right. Even PS1's system was pretty clumsy and painful, but PS4 finally streamlined for formula. Gone is the "the default is auto-battle and everything else is pain" system of PS2 and PS3. In its place is an amazingly well thought out macro system that allows you to define about a dozen pre-defined actions for your party and execute them in one menu. If you want to auto-battle, you select which macro you want your team to use that turn. Yeah, it's one additional input per round of auto-battle, but it gives you so much control! If you choose not to use this system, the battle system is basically identical to that of Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire now. So not only did PS4 fix the system woes of prior games, but did something completely unheard of in the genre, and did it well.

Then of course the plot itself is just a roller coaster. Probably the best I've seen in quite some time.

Criticisms? Not many. I guess the biggest one is there's an unused button on the gamepad in battle. B cancels and C confirms, but A gets no use. It'd have been pretty stellar if A just automatically used macro A. One press, done. Having to make two inputs to auto-battle was a little vexing, but not overly so; this would have fixed it. The second criticism is actually a bug: under certain conditions, quickly inputting down and C would cause a second down press to be registered. This would turn quickly selecting "Macro" into selecting "Run", which was obviously quite bad. It also showed up in menu healing more than a few times. Very annoying. I mostly got around it by slowing down how fast I input down and C. A minor third is the translation is great, but not perfect. In particular I feel something was lost in translation for all of Raja's dialogue; I imagine in the original release he was a pun-master, but his wordplay just didn't translate well.

That is really it. Everything else was just dreamy. The UI is fluid and fast, the difficulty curve is mostly perfect, the writing is very clear and keeps you on track quite easily without bouts of "Talk to everyone to figure out what's next" (in fact if you forget, there's a very robust system for having your party talk to each other, and they will give you very explicit detail on the story so far), characters are memorable and charming (except maybe Chaz). I could go on and on about all the amazing good points.

I think the biggest takeaway from it all is a sense of surprise that they tied the entire core series up in a neat bow. You actually kill Dark Force at about the three-quarter mark, and the game lets you think it's over... for about a minute. The final quarter of the game then reveals the single thread that joins together all four Phantasy Star games, explains the 1,000 year cycle, and involves Alis and Nei (albeit very indirectly) in putting a stop to the cycle for good (or at least until PSO?). It's all a very perfect ending to a series that I've binged on hard enough to remember explicit detail of the prior chapters at the point that I experienced all of this.

Just an amazing end to a series that was otherwise groundbreaking, but didn't hold up so well against the passage of time. A must-play. Nothing more I can say really.

Oh and tongue-in-cheek micro complaint number 4: what the heck was with the graphics in the final area? My eyes... At least it was only five screens.

2018-Oct-18: Phantasy Star III: Better, somewhat

I've really been putting the games away eh? Three major RPGs down in five days. Well okay, one of those was running two weeks prior. But I've basically chomped through PS2 and 3 in half a week. PS3 is quite short, mainly because of its generation system; more on that later though. I can say for sure it's a head and shoulders better title than PS2, but it's still not great.

So Phantasy Star III starts 1,000 years after the end of PS2, in a seemingly completely unrelated world. Starting out, it seems like a complete medieval fantasy though cracks in that facade begin to show when you find cyborgs and technology-laden tunnels between continents. Further talking to NPCs reveals stories of being the descendants of a lost civilization, but this is all you get for 90% of the game. What you do get, instead, is a lot of meandering and unrelated plot points.

To jump on some of my complaints from the prior chapter though: battle is somewhat fixed. You still need to navigate three menus to use techs in battle, and PS3 still uses the "Auto-battle is the default, everything else takes effort" system, but they've streamlined the "everything else" to the point that I actually felt like using offensive techs from time to time. The few times you want to order everyone in your team to do something (frankly I only did this in the final battle), it's hell though. The dungeons are no longer teleporter mazes; in fact the dungeons have been over simplified to near irrelevance. The UI has graduated from terrible to borderline usable. Finally the horrible difficulty scaling and grind wall are completely gone. By just following the plot and exploring dungeons, I was able to stay right on the level curve in such a way that I felt completely overpowered the whole game, and had a little trouble with the finale without grinding.

I'd say the biggest problem with PS3 is it's so wide, it had to be made very shallow to compensate. PS3 is actually 3 stories back to back to back. After a few hours of gameplay, you reach a point where you choose a wife, time rolls forward, and you continue as your son whose abilities, name, and appearance are determined by the wife you chose. Then this happens a second time closer to the end. Thing is, these generational stories are also completely different based on who you play: you go to different dungeons, you engage in different plots, and the endings are different, but they all occur in the same game world. As a result, PS3 has to keep track of and balance for seven chapters that all run within the same physical space. This means no real location has any particular depth, care, or uniqueness applied to it. While you may only visit a dungeon once, for reason X, your would-be other self may visit it for a completely different reason, at a completely different level. As a result no one location ever feels stand-out or purpose-built. It's all so generic. It also results in the frustration of scouring a dungeon only to find it's full of crap from three gear tiers ago, because in another hero's story, he goes there much sooner than you did.

Actually come to think of it, there's no real reason to scour dungeons at all. Everything you can find in dungeons can be bought in shops, and can usually be bought before you find it in chests. I can't recall any cases of finding gear that I actually wanted to use. Well, plot-related items are an exception I guess.

The level of shallowness is pretty painful: every dungeon but one is a single floor. Rather than resort to teleporter mazes, PS3 resorts to mazes consisting of lattices of catwalks with breaks in the mesh that force you to route around. Starting out, it's pretty kind and you can just walk straight to the end. Near the end of the game, there's exactly one circuitous, meandering path through the maze, and it's pretty difficult to find. Every dungeon uses one of two tilesets: Cave or "Techy", though the former has a few color choices I guess.

As for the layout of the world, there's seven small overworlds joined by techy tunnels, and you'll get to know these tunnels well. I probably had to traverse them about three dozen times through the game. Then each overworld is a giant sparse field with one to three towns, one to three miscellaneous points of interest, and a few nodes for a quick travel system that you don't access until the final two hours of the game: deep in the third generation. So in short: prepare to wander the overworld(s) and the tunnels a ton for no real reason except for "it adds play time". The quick travel system consists of warp points and the ability to fly, however it's close to useless. The warp points are 1 to 1 between various worlds, basically allowing you to skip the tunnels and nothing more. The flight system requires an airstrip at both your departure and destination locations, however each world has maybe two airstrips and you can't fly between worlds. One world has one, so flight is useless there. Need to go somewhere not near a warp or airstrip? Another walk across the world.

On the plus side, the game is pretty kind in letting you learn one world before forcing you to the next. In generation 1 you access three worlds, 5 in generation 2, and all 7 finally in generation 3. By the time you're sent to new worlds, you've seen the old ones enough to know them by heart, and frankly be sick of them.

In the third generation you finally get your link to the prior Phantasy Star games: this cluster of seven completely different biomes only conjoined by tunnels is actually an arcology flying in space. It's the last surviving ship launched from the evaculation of Palm, which was destroyed in Phantasy Star II. Aside from that, and the existence of the iconic Dark Force, PS3 has no real links to PS2 or 1. I suppose there's the Nei gear, though it's not the Nei gear from PS2. It's gear powered up by cryogenically frozen survivors of the Palm indicent, who presumably never intereacted with the party of PS2 so how would they know about Nei to begin with? I don't know; kind of a dangling thread.

One odd quibble though about PS3: the techs are... jacked up. Shifta and Deband exist, but they're enemy debuffs, not ally buffs. Anti and Reverser can fail and have no effect. You offset this by speccing into them at the Tech Distribution NPC, which lets you increase some tech powers at the expense of others. As a result of this, the Gi- and Na-/Ra- techs don't exist really. What would be Gifoie and Rafoie are instead Foie with a lot of points in them. Gires exists, but it's just a full party Res. Though honestly, whoever makes sure every area of the game has at least one monster who can poison, and then makes Anti able to fail is a sadistic arse.

To get the whole PS3 experience, I suppose you're supposed to play through every generation combination: that's seven playthroughs. I... feel no urge to do that. I looked up a walkthrough to see how the stories differ and they are practically entirely different games. After generation 1, who you pick completely changes the story up until the very end. I'm definitely aware I missed some important plot points in my playthrough that would be filled in via other playthroughs (like more about Lune: Sean's arc does almost nothing with him). Still, PS3 is too much of a slog to really justify seven plays.

In short I guess I'd say about PS3: "So broad it had to be painfully shallow" and "All the drudgery of PS2's grind replaced with a lot of drudgery walking through barren fields". Better but still not great. I've been told PS4 is actually solid, so I guess I'll try that next.

Maybe not in one 24hr marathon though.

2018-Oct-17: Phantasy Star II: The holy trinity of bad RPGs

I've been pretty sick this week. I was coming under the weather at the end of Might & Magic II, but it hit fully during the final stream. Unable to work or stream, I looked for something to play that I had no desire to stream, or I felt wouldn't work well as a stream. Phantasy Star II filled both niches. I'd played the original some time ago and remember it fondly, though it was guilty of some pretty ridiculous grind; I found this perfect for my illness and medication addled state, to be perfectly honest. The second installment though seems to be a deliberate attempt to check all the bad check boxes in RPG design.

Let's rewind a bit though: PS2 came out in 1989. At this point there wasn't a ton of prior art in the realm of console RPGs: You had Final Fantasy I, two Dragon Quests, and a couple of proto-RPGs. During PS2's development FF2 and DQ3 probably came out. PS2 had the honor of being one of the first console RPGs with actual character development and plot impacting your specific heroes. I guess what I'm getting at here is all the prior titles in the genre also specialized in some anti-patterns that took awhile to overcome, so PS2 isn't really at fault for engaging in things like forced grind and frustrating UI layout and bad dungeon design, but it definitely goes in on those far harder than any title I've ever seen!

PS2 is frustratingly slow. Menuing takes forever, especially menu healing. Every time you wish to use a tech on the map, you have to navigate five menus, and they all close after every tech usage. In battle you have to select "Strategy", then "Order", then select a hero, pick what you want them to do, if using a tech pick which tech, and a target. So six menus there. While you can navigate these menus as fast as you can input, a drawing delay prevents you from seeing what you're doing in each one. Only through memorizing where things are can you move through them quickly. Additionally, healing techs restore a specific amount of HP. While it'd be more economical to use the weakest tech 10 times instead of the best one once, the menuing is so frustrating, I rarely considered the economy to be worth it.

In addition, your map movement is glacial. This combined with the fact that you can only see about 4 tiles in the direction you are moving makes dungeon exploration a long, arduous affair. That's a real shame too because PS2 only has one trick in its dungeon design arsenal: teleporter mazes. Every single dungeon is a teleporter maze. Well more properly every single dungeon is a stair maze and once you learn that the "teleporters" are actually stairs that align with their twins on other floors things get slightly easier. Still though, the first dungeons are mild teleporter mazes with 6 to 10 pads, by the end you can expect every dungeon to have 50-70 teleporters and winding corridors between them. It's literally the only form of dungeon design this game knows.

It's obvious that the developers intended for you to take hours slogging through each dungeon, because the difficulty increases in leaps and bounds, in very arbitrary manners. The first real dungeon for example straddles a line between two monster spawn zones. Leading up to the dungeon you fight one color of insect that is quite manageable. Take a few steps past the dungeon and don't go in, you fight a recolor of the same insect, except it's capable of cutting off half your max health in one shot. So if you know the dungeons already and just blow through them, you're stuck grinding after every major plot point anyway. I will admit when I hit the dungeon with 50 teleporters, I resorted to maps, and very quickly began to feel the level curve run away from me. At worst, I think I was level 20 at a section various guides recommended I be 28-30 for. I made it a point to grind until I could buy gear at each town, and even that was an hour or two, about six times in the playthrough, and that still wasn't sufficient. I'd wager 75% of an "informed" playthrough would be grind.

The grind is simultaneously eased and made more frustrating by PS2's strange battle design choices. By default, auto-battle is how PS2 works. When you begin a battle you only have two choices: start the fight or give orders. By default your characters will target random monsters with physical attacks (you can't choose a target even if you give orders) but you can override individual characters and have them use items, use tech, and the like. Offensive techs will be used every turn until you rescind the order, healing and buffing techs will be used once and the character reverted to physical attacks. In short, most battles you can hit the button to start the fight, and put the controller down (or in my case, utilize emulator turbo). This let me blow through a ton of fights in short order, but also took away even the illusion of agency in my battles. If I was holding a confirmation button to keep sending my party at the enemy, at least I'd be doing something. By the end of the game I was just turboing through every fight, interrupting battle to give healing orders if I noticed HP values starting to dip. That's it. I never used offensive techs; they took too long to set up.

For all the strange and bad decisions, PS2 has some good points. The art is cute and the enemies (the few there are) are well drawn. The real shame of it is the number of palette swaps present in the game; you can start seeing your first ones 30 minutes in. They at least did a good job keeping the flow of new sprites up through the entire game, but at the end I was still fighting the same insects I saw in the first dungeon. PS2 is also one of the first games with any appreciable plot revealed in-game. Yeah Final Fantasy 2 beat it by a few months, but PS2 makes a strong showing-- even if some of the plot points are hamfisted and overdone (spoiler: Like the death of your female protagonist that the game tries too hard to make endearing with its limited storytelling power). In particular I feel the ending tries too hard to drive home a moral (also spoiler: your entire party ends up implied dead in cutscene, which makes for a great ending after 30+ hours of grind-and-slog...).

As a minor quibble, I also feel like the music choices the game makes are just senseless. The entire soundtrack is happy and upbeat. Battle music sounds like the kind of beats you'd hear upon introducing a hero. The boss music (which is heard I think exactly four times in the entire game-- not many boss fights) sounds almost lovey and romantic, not at all what you expect to hear while fighting for your life against a superior foe. It's not game-ruining, but it does ding some of the emotional investment in certain game events.

All in all I think I spent about 35-40 hours with the game, and that's using maps through the more mazey dungeons. That does include one big forced grind at the end so I could take Dark Force. I needed approximately ten levels before I really stood a chance, though I mostly blame that on the fact that my visits into the final dungeons were straight shots to the objectives, with no meandering. If I didn't have maps I probably would have been right on par when I was ready to go to Dark Force.

Still, not a good title; maybe the weakest in the initial series. I have to play PS3 to know for sure.