May 30, 2015

Swords and Serpents - Ranking

Story & World

The plot is about as bare bones as one can get and the world consists of rock walls of various colours.  Seriously, my subplot with Magnu was deeper than what S&S has to offer.  The old man and his many palette-swapped clones don't really add a whole lot of depth to the NPC department either.  2/20

Character Development

Each character levels up with random increases of small amounts.  This makes the initial stat rolls very important for determining how powerful characters will be.  All my characters had outstanding beginning stats and accounted for the crazy amount of attacks I was getting in.  Certain weapons can add more attacks on top of that and, unfortunately, this means that those weapons get the highest priority, since the slower weapons don't compensate near enough with higher damage/hit chance.  The equipment list is very sparse and a party will find themselves throwing away the same pieces over and over.  A good chunk of the spells are fairly useless, notably any of the offensive ones; they don't do enough damage to warrant wasting MPs on.  I didn't find all the spells, but I'm assuming the few I missed wouldn't have impressed me either.  By far, the worst part was reaching the XP cap two-thirds of the way through the game.  It's not like I was grinding or anything and I barely got lost.  2/20

Combat & Monsters

The battles are, at first, pretty enjoyable and it was fun experimenting with the hit locations, searching for each creature's weakness.  Once learnt, though, the fights become tiresome and turn into button-mashing mediocrity (targets are determined randomly).  The small amount of creature variety also ensures that there won't be a whole lot to remember in the first place.  All monsters can do is dish out damage, whether it's via standard melee attacks or group-damaging spells.  4/20

Graphics & Sound

While the wall textures don't change in any way other than their colour, the monster sprites, conversely, are bursting alive with action.  Each one has multiple frames of animation in different locations on their bodies, leading to a diverse amount of imagery.  Whenever I'd encounter a new monster, I'd spend the first ten seconds or so just appreciating all the different combinations (which fueled the one running gag I had).

The music is low on variety but fares better in quality, though I must admit that a sizeable portion of that quality is nostalgia driven.  There is also a sweet sustained organ note that gets played at the temple while the monks heal the party.  The more HP/MP there needs to be restored, the longer that note keeps on rockin'.  13/20


S&S misunderstands that the entire purpose of gold is to have wealth in order to be able to purchase goods and services.  It apparently believes that accumulating vast quantities of the shiny stuff is purely to get a high score in a hall of fame that could only ever have one entry on it.  Pretty dumb.  There isn't enough variation in the classes to warrant a replay; most of the fun gleaned from the game is from the mapping, exploration, and puzzles.  About the only thing the game got really right was the short duration in which the whole crawl takes place, and for that, I am thankful.

I really want to give Swords & Serpents more points, really I do, but I can't let my nostalgia goggles alter my perception too much.  It's just far too light of a RPG for adult Shen and has some major issues, but I am glad to finally be able to complete this game, as I'm fairly certain that I never finished it as a young whelp.  4/20

Final Ranking:  25/100

May 25, 2015

Swords and Serpents - End Game

Swords and Serpents?  More like Snores and Serpents!  Everything was going swimmingly until dungeon level 11 when I hit the dreaded bane of all RPGs — the experience level cap.  Now at level 16, I still had five more dungeon levels to contend with and absolutely no reason to engage in combat.  Even before reaching level 16, most characters had maxed out their HP/MP and were only receiving the one point attribute increase, but at least that's something.  But what about gold?  Gold was even worse and had become pointless after the shop on the first level.  By the time I reached the shop on level five, I already had better equipment that the shop offered, and level ten was no different (all the shops sold similar items).  With no reason to horde gold, there was also no reason to hold on to equipment loot to be sold later.  This led to the annoyance of having to navigate the somewhat slow menus to discard every piece of equipment that was inferior to what the party already had.  Each party member only had one free slot due to their own equipment plus the ruby artifacts (only some of the artifacts are equippable).  This made me so mad that I just had to unleash my wrath in some way.

Ahhh, the classic nut shot eases my pain.

At least the mapping got a little more involved so I had something to mentally chew on while I tried to avoid combat.  There were a few sections that required copious usage of the Passwall spell, slowly dwindling away the magic reserves while also having a battle after each jump, resulting in even more MP draining away due to healing.  At one point, I got stuck in a room with no MP left and had to employ the Last Resort option which allows me to kill everyone in the party, then off myself, only to be resurrected at the last temple but sans gold and any experience we might have had.

Yeah, I think I'm a gonna start with Magnu.

Since gold and XP were meaningless to me at this point, the Last Resort is essentially a free warp spell, though I never did exploit it as such.  The last few levels had a few tricks up its sleeve, such as many up and down stairways between two levels combined with secret doors and educated guessing where a Passwall might work.  There were also lots of warps back to level ten, which was a real pain in the ass, and got me so riled up that I needed to release some tension again.

"Ummm, I do not have that which you seek."

The final level had the biggest puzzle of all.  Scrawled throughout the entire dungeon were phrases with the keyword victory that gave the correct sequence of moves to reach the titular serpent.  I had been pretty complete in my mapping and had all the phrases needed and soon enough the final battle was at hand.  Unfortunately, neither Mangu nor I had any MP left for healing or even a shield spell and I expected a quick defeat.  I had a few buff spells, such as Strength and Deadeye, that I hadn't used at all due to their only lasting one combat, and wanted to deploy here against the final boss.  The battle started off as expected, with Serpent getting a free attack on every character in the first round.  When our turn came around, we attacked in earnest though we predicted nothing other than utter defeat.  We got in our fair share of hits, though at these higher levels, monster's HP bars don't start decreasing right away so one actually can't tell how much is left until they're almost dead.  Hits and misses have sounds associated with them, so at least I could tell how well I was doing in that regard.  I wasn't even bothering doing the groin shot, just mashing away at the default attack, waiting for Serpent to do us all in.  Suddenly, within the span of half a second, its bar dropped to half, then zero.

Aw shucks, you ain't so tough.

An incredulous me looked at my companions, then shrugged and made our journey to the final screen, which consisted of a trippy light show and shaking all over of the screen before settling down to show our high score in the pointless hall of fame.  In regards to my competition with Magnu, I had 18's in all my stats (just like in real life) and was stronger than her, but she was still smarter than me by two points.  Anyone being two points smarter than yours truly is pretty unrealistic and completely broke the total immersion I had up until that point.  Okay, so I'm lying and just being bitter, but I don't have any more screenshots of me sacking monsters in the sack to calm my inner turmoil.

May 15, 2015

[Game 050] Swords and Serpents (NES - 1990)

Here's a blast from the past from a game that I never owned but rented extensively.  The password system it utilizes was perfect for multiple weekend adventures, as I wouldn't have to worry about losing any progress (there was always the fear that someone would rent during the week and erase my savefile on those dang battery carts).  I'm not sure if I ever finished it, but I do recall many things about the first few levels, especially the music.  It's light on story — enter the dungeon of the dreaded Serpent, find a bunch of ruby items, and kill said Serpent.  It's light on everything else as well; three character classes (warrior, thief, magician) and three attributes (strength, intelligence, agility) are as deep as the chars are going to get.  There are four party slots available and no restrictions on the config; I'm going with two magicians, a warrior, and a thief.  I was going to ditch the thief due to remembering that there aren't any traps (at least none that require a thief to disarm) in S&S and also because I'm still pissed about how crappy the thief in Might & Magic was.  A cooler CPU prevailed, however, and rightfully so; the thief is pretty much a slightly weaker version of the warrior except that he gets the occasional instakill.  After getting my posse together, we soon ran into the first of many old men who dwell within the labyrinth.

Oh, I bet you say that to all the adventurers.

All the geezers are completely senile and rarely give out any advice that isn't self-evident.  The only useful bits of advice are found scrawled on the walls in various places — I wonder if these were written by the same men before the unrelenting march of time ravaged their poor minds.

Whoa, whoa, slow down egghead.

Although S&S is nice enough to allocate a portion of its real estate to an automapper, one will still want to make their own maps as well.  The automapper has a fading memory and if the party should wander more than two levels away, the slate will be wiped clean.  I can understand not encoding explored areas into the password (that would be a nightmare), but it still does it during a single session.  Whether it's due to memory issues or just a design choice, it doesn't matter as I was going to make my own maps anyway.  The manual actually gives blank maps for all sixteen levels which is nice but I always used (and still use) graph paper because what else am I going to do with all this graph paper?  So far, mapping has been pretty easy but I'm sure that'll change once I hit the lower levels.

A dungeon crawler with teleporters?  The hell you say!

Combat in Swords & Serpents is fairly unique and it really stuck out in my acne-riddled mind back in tha day.  Instead of button-mashing attacks, the player can actually aim at the head, torso, or legs by pressing the appropriate direction on the D-pad.  Creatures have location vulnerabilities that can be exploited by experimentation and observation during battles.  It's a simple little system and it works wonderfully; I'm always glad to have a reason to pay more attention in fights.  It's great that they tried to make the combat more realistic, but in doing so, they left open a huge weak point that was immediately figured out, and then abused, by teenaged Shen.

Groin shot!  Groin shot!  Groin shot!  Groin shot!

Okay, so maybe that's just in my imagination (but just maybe).  Anyway, while combat is turn-based, it doesn't really come off as such.  If the party members have a string of successive attacks, they can be executed quite swiftly.  The turn system itself is atypical; it's not a case of one side going, then the other.  It seems to be based more off stats and/or levels to determine if you get an opportunity to attack.  For example, when first starting off, each combatant got their fair share of attacks, but after the party gained a couple levels, we were getting many hits in on that same set of monsters before they could even react.  Not just a few either; at one point, we were getting over twelve strikes in before the enemies could even cover their gonads.  It's not a case of them just missing us either, as the game shows whether they hit or miss.  It's an odd system, not only in its execution but in that it heavily favours the player (unlike most dungeon crawlers).  As one who generally enjoys things more on the challenging side, it's still strangely thrilling to watch the enemy life bars get whittled down before they even manage to bust off three frames of animation.  Due to this, we gained levels and equipment easily and soon were wallowing in our own narcissism.  We all had excellent stats to start with (reroll king over here), which was good as gaining a level only gives a single point boost (usually to the class's prime attribute).  As one of the two magicians in the party, I started off smarter than Magnu but she soon was not only more intelligent, but had more MP and HP to boot.  It became apparent that she was the darling of the group, as Draco and Mouser went to her for the vast majority of their healing needs.  I was delegated to the casting of utility spells such as Shield and Flight.  I'm not going to say my feelings were hurt, but I totally gave myself all the best magely items, resulting in me having more than double the AC of stupid Magnu.

I'm still leader, dammit!  WINNING!

We're at the halfway point and just under 10 hours in, so it looks like this one won't be near as long as Might & Magic.  Undoubtedly the mapping will get a little more tricksy from here on in, but given the "lightness" of the game, I'm sure that it will be comfortably manageable.

May 06, 2015

Might and Magic - Ranking

Story & World

The vast world of Barn gets points just for the sheer audacity of being so massive.  Fans of dungeon crawlers will delight in M&M's seemingly endless and varied terrains, packed with hidden caves, ruins, and castles.  The open nature of the quests really gives the feeling of the party driving their own destiny.  The main set of quests needed to finish the game is around five or so; the rest of the quests are completely optional.  A side quest could be started early on in the game only to be completed much later.  There is no hand-holding when quests are being dished out; in fact, certain quests can be downright vague.  For example, some of Lord Inspectron's quests require the party to find a particular named location even though the name is never mentioned anywhere else.

The story itself is similarly vague which has some merit in that, again, the party feels in charge of their destiny.  In the end, however, it's really too ambiguous to garner any amount of pleasure or satisfaction.  I mean, there's something with aliens going on but it's never explained or expanded on, which is too bad because I love me some sci-fi being tossed in with my high fantasy.  I did like the twist at the end of the Inner Sanctum being all in my dream-mind.  14/20

Character Development

Levelling up only adds more hit points, additional attacks, and access to higher forms of magic, none of which is influenced by the player.  Each character class will be built the same, as race selection has little impact on the character (minor stat changes and resistances).  The strength lies within the party's configuration itself and is not set in stone at the beginning, so the player is free to try out different combinations.  However, since all new characters start at level 1, it may be too difficult to introduce someone else later in the game.  All the classes are distinct enough from each other to keep party management interesting, although I found the thief/robber class to be lacking too much in combat skillz (come on, give 'em a backstab or something, combat is 90% of the game here).  My main problem with the thief is the same problem I have with them in a lot of similar games — they're only useful to deal with the obstacles put in the game specifically to make them useful.  The result is that a party pretty much has to have a thief or deal with the extreme annoyance of setting off every single trap.  This limits the party variance and I don't like being constricted in such a way.  I'd much rather have thieves be more like assassins, with more emphasis on combat abilities and sneaking.  Traps should either be used very sparingly or be puzzle-based, in my opinion.  *end rant*

All the decent equipment has to be found and is entirely based at the whim of the RNG engine.  It's more than generous with standard "plus" weapons and armour but a lot more stingy with "named" versions.  I FAQed an equipment list afterwards and was surprised to see that I never got to play with 90% of the stuff available.  I never even found a single bow or crossbow past the +1's I bought for my archer and thief early on.  Lame.  The sheer awesomeness of multiple THE FLAMBERGEs does mitigate some of the lameness, however.  9/20

Combat & Monsters

This is what the player will be doing most of the time and thankfully it's done well, barring that absolutely devastating bug that causes the round to reset if a character goes down.  Tactics and planning are required for most fights, if only to minimize damage.  Low-end magic (available to four of the six classes) is cheap enough to use constantly and can drastically change the outcome of any combat if the force is with thee (e.g. a lucky Sleep spell can cause quick monsters to at least lose their first attack, allowing the bulky fighters to follow up and finish them off before they can inflict any damage).  The variance in who constitutes the front line in battles keeps one on one's toes and the all-out melee brawl when the party is surprised raises the tension as the backrowers are forced to man or woman up.  It's truly unfortunately that the previously mentioned bug totally wrecked all the major encounters and made it so the party had to be fairly overwhelmingly powerful in order to win.  That alone is going to cost M&M big time.

The bestiary is quite deep and a single encounter can be comprised of many different creatures, even ones that normally wouldn't hang out together.  Most don't have any spell-duplicating abilities, but a good chunk have missile attacks and it becomes important to know which monsters have such an attack so that they can be targeted by spellcasters.  Random encounters are strongly based off of the character's levels, ensuring the majority of battles are somewhat challenging.  Areas that don't have "access" to stronger monsters instead jack up the numbers, much to the delight of the party's group-damaging spells, but much to the exasperation of the player.  12/20

Graphics & Sound

Good range of wall textures which is always a huge plus in a crawler and even the various caves are distinguished through the use of colour.  The only failing is that towns look too much like caves but at least are still colourful.  Monster sprites are above average and rely heavily on recycling the portraits, which is understandable given how thick the monster roster is.

With a game as long as this one, having good music is must, but M&M doesn't quite cut the mustard.  The tunes themselves are just okay; it's the lack of variety that kills it.  For most of the long, long journey, it'll be just a small handful of tunes assaulting your earhole.  Those without meditative powers may want to consider an alternate playlist.  One piece of note is the opening and ending theme which is a nicely done rendition of Pachelbel's Canon in D.  An epic composition for an equally epic game to be sure, and normally I would applaud such a choice.  However, since this is Might & Magic, I'm sure they just delved into the public domain in order to save time/effort scoring something original.  So, in this case, it's actually going to count against M&M.  Haw haw.  11/20


Before M&M, I hadn't played a game where I came even close to hitting such a major gold crunch as I did.  Normally economies are done broke after the midgame and I thought the same would happen here as the town shops don't have any high-end equipment for sale.  I was pleasantly surprised when the contrary happened, though I will admit to uttering a few expletives when Lord Dicksmack robbed me of all those thousands of golds.

If the game wasn't such a buggy mess, I'd say a replay would be doable.  Pushing the party configuration to any of its extremes would be interesting, and one would be likely to find lots of new magical equipment (there's gotta be a magic bow somewhere).  The second or third time around would also be much quicker due to not having to map everything again (you do keep your maps, don't you? (cause I don't)).  In reality though, if one was desiring a replay of Book 1, it'd be more prudent to do it on one of its other platforms.  An even bigger reason to jump ship would be because of...

Bugs, bugs, and mo bugs!  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that other releases of M&M aren't nearly as buggy.  The sheer number of them boggles the mind but at least most of them are minor and the game is still finishable.  It just makes the whole game feel sloppy and rushed, and prevents M&M from reaching classic status.  Ah, what can you expect from a dang port?  As a bonus, here's a cool page showing unused content, more bugs and other oddities that you might find interesting (looks like there was suppose to be a final boss).  8/20

Final Ranking:  54/100