From The CRPG Addict
|The party teleports to a new location as the darkness slowly creeps northward.|
In the city of Greenberry, Challenge started to hint at a greater depth of role-playing than it had delivered (or, at least, that I had perceived) so far. In contrast to the squalid conditions of the other cities in Alonia, Greenberry was clearly the New Rochelle of the kingdom. As we arrived and started at the mansions, Cynna Bane commented that, “these self-satisfied, well-fed nobles are the very type I mean to fight. They eat and drink well every night while I and my people must scratch for every meal.” The damned place had a candy shop, even.
|I’m not sure about Chesotor’s taste.|
|The battle against the mercenaries guarding the decree.|
|Later, you can refuse to help the wizards and slaughter them instead. But for what?|
|I hope the Eskimos got away.|
The Mines of Signor were a small, indoor area. The title card noted that the mines had been closed for several decades. The corridors were full of traps, but fortunately my orb absorbed them. There were a lot of spell components to pick up, some of which allowed me to learn new spells.
|There are at least a few of these on every map.|
Eventually, we ran into Stellerex, the leader of the outlawed mages hiding in the caves. He was skeptical of the prince’s sincerity, requiring first that I tear up the decree in front of him and then that I submit to a “Truth” spell. Once he was convinced, he joined the party, bringing a lot of spells and ingredients and the skills to learn and cast them. One of them is “Teleportation,” which allows me to go anywhere on the map. Given the time limit, I’d use it exclusively except that the necessary reagents (a grasshopper, a fly, a homing pigeon, and a black rose) are somewhat rare. If I ever find a shop selling them, I’ll spend most of my gold on them.
|I don’t know what’s worse: that I made such a scene out of tearing up a simple piece of paper, or that I spelled it with a “w.”|
Other mages teleported out of the caves, and back to their homes, once they learned about the revocation of the ban. (How in the world did my father enforce this ban?) One of them, Vandar, told about my mother’s spirit roaming the Cliffs of Mahor before he left.
|One by one, the wizards went home.|
The Cliffs of Mahor were on the other side of the game map, but they seemed to be the place to go next. The map was tiny–a small path and a small bridge. A female NPC wandered alone. “Mother, is that you? I’ve missed you,” Chesotor said. “My son,” the apparition said, and then my mother faded, to be replaced by Grimnoth. “Don’t betray me,” he said. “Deliver the crowns or you will suffer a slow death!” I want to point out that Grimnoth is changing the agreement; now, apparently, I have to deliver all of the crowns to him, and not just my own.
Anyway, there was nothing else to do at the Cliffs, which makes me wonder what the purpose of the whole episode was. Moreover, at this point I was out of clear directions for where to go next.
Consulting the map, I saw that the darkness had already started to devour the town of Fremont and would soon hit Greenberry. I decided to line up my next visits in east-west strips, hitting the southernmost locations first. This meant first renting ships in Pendar and hitting the island of Monteplai off the western coast.
I screwed up the visit. Apparently, Monteplai is the site of a “supermax” prison that my father ran, complete with a warden and quarrymaster. I spoke to them but couldn’t find a way into the prison, so I assumed the visit was just a waste of time. Then, as I was preparing this entry, I happened to notice in a screenshot a door I’d missed. I need to re-visit the location once I finish my current area.
|The prison is right in front of me, but somehow I couldn’t find it at the time.|
At the time, I shrugged and moved on to the town of Buntonderry, the location of several large farms and ranches. It seems like everyone wanted to sell me meat.
|Okay, your pitch is just creeping me out.|
Three of the ranchers were involved in some kind of land dispute. A recent storm had blown over a fence, and the rancher Elturo claimed that his two neighbors, Pengar and Felrid, ran out after the storm and rebuilt the fence but in doing so stole a bit of land for themselves. “It’s a small amount of land, but I won’t be made a fool of.” However, Pengar and Felrid told essentially the same story, with themselves as the victims.
I found the bandits hiding in Pengar’s silo, holding hostage the sheriff of the town, Glenwin Ironbelt. After we killed the bandits, Glenwin joined the group. The cowed Pengar confessed that he and Elturo were in the wrong and Felrid was innocent. Felrid, in gratitude, also joined my party, bringing us up to the maximum. As he did so, Cagliostra appeared in her mirror and told me that, “Felrid is very important to our mission. He must accompany us when we face Grimnoth.”
|Looting the spoils after the destruction of the bandits.|
The town was grateful for my destruction of the bandits, and here I have to note that the game does a good job adapting NPC dialogue to the actions of the party. A lot of games even in the 1990s had immutable dialogue, with NPCs often talking about problems that you’ve already solved. Not here. It’s very gratifying.
|In a lot of games, this NPC would still be telling me about the bandit problem.|
The next stop was Al-Bahdri, an oasis in the middle of a small desert. Most of the “buildings” were tents. Residents complained about two problems: some kind of thief who keeps stealing food and ale, and drought conditions. I’m not sure if the conditions were supposed to be worse than normal for a desert, or if the village isn’t even normally in a desert. The thief was variously described as a dwarf and a hideous monster.
|There’s quite a variance in terrain in this kingdom.|
I figured out what to do about the second problem right away: I had Stellerex cast “Create Rainstorm.” It produced a few minutes of rainfall, and from then on the villagers thanked me for helping with the drought. A number of them called me “Rainmaker.” Oddly, the game didn’t have me teach anyone in the village the “Create Rainstorm” spell, which you think would have helped.
|It was such a simple spell, too.|
I also solved another quick puzzle when a man named Stilis Fletcher reported that he had recently just escaped 50 years of captivity in a crystal, only to find that his girlfriend, Ilse, was now an old woman. “She is as beautiful as ever, but her years are numbered.” Without even asking for my input, the game had Chesotor respond by teaching the man the “Youth” spell that we had recently learned. I had wondered what that could possibly be for. He rewarded me with a magic axe.
To deal with the thief, an NPC suggested that I leave meat and ale as bait. I had plenty of meat from Buntonderry but no ale. Someone suggested that I could get it in Skyhold, which was going to be my next stop anyway.
|I got this on a random transition between areas.|
Skyhold was a wealthier town but also reported several problems. The ineffectual mayor, Gorvas, is being challenged by Baron Wintermore. Both of them have thugs roaming the streets. Neither is dealing with a group of Dark Acolytes who keep raiding the town from the mountains. Some NPCs supported Gorvas, some Wintermore. At least one was disdainful of both, saying that “they’re both sons of Ragmar, come here to seek their success. Now their struggle for power threatens the very town they claim to love.”
|I get what I came for.|
Both Gorvas and Wintermore wanted me to assassinate the other. An NPC suggested a third solution where they could be convinced to work together, but I couldn’t find any paths that led me there. I decided that for all his weaknesses, Gorvas was the actual mayor of the town while Wintermore was attempting a coup d’état, so I killed Wintermore. But it didn’t sit well with me and I ended up reloading a few minutes later. Still thinking about the problem, I swiped a bottle of ale from a brewery and returned to Al-Bahdri without solving the issue.
|I’m not sure I like either of them.|
Back in Al-Bahdri, I laid out the meat and ale and soon caught a gnome apparating in to steal them. He claimed to be from Alveola, one of the other kingdoms of Nhagardia–finally–and he told me where to find the portal to his realm in some nearby caves.
|“I had as a child,” Chesotor says, leaving out that he was reading one of those “picture books” just a few days ago in the castle.|
Entering the caves, I was beset by lions, snakes, and ogres, and I couldn’t defeat them without losing at least one party member. I reluctantly let Beggar go and moved on.
|I wish we’d known your actual name.|
He was nearly immediately replaced when I found Sir Valakor–my mother’s old beau–living in the same caves. He wouldn’t believe I was Feya’s son until I showed her my mother’s diamond ring, which he insisted on taking. I’m glad I didn’t sell that to the pawn shop.
|My maybe-father joins the party.|
A casting of “Revisibility” made the portal appear, and we entered it to find ourselves in the underground gnome kingdom, a large map with numerous entrances to various gnome burrows. As we entered, Cagliostra appeared to offer: “[Gnomes] are known for their pessimism, grumpiness, and greed. To strengthen our spell against Grimnoth, we must change the heart of the Alveolan leader. We need to teach the Alveolans the power of charity, of giving, and we need a symbol of that change of heart.”
|Alveola and its various gnome holes. Note the gnome “artifacts” on the screen that I discuss below.|
I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I pressed forward. The big drama in Alveola is that the owner of the brewery, Kito Pona, was recently murdered after abruptly changing his will to leave everything to his son Danzo. He was killed by a poison called Nevi Root which takes a lot of time to work and makes the victim susceptible to suggestion towards the end. Danzo’s siblings, Caldo, Harpo, and Neena, suspect foul play, although most of the gnomes think that it’s too obvious to be Danzo’s doing. Caldo has taken control of the brewery and refuses to turn it over. I’ve been running around talking to everyone, searching everywhere, casting “Truth” spells on everyone, but I can’t seem to get anywhere with the mystery.
|One of Kito Pona’s children.|
Meanwhile, I met with King Armacan, and he’s not interested in turning over his crown even though–and this was quite a twist–his own father was also murdered by Grimnoth. Is this going to be true of every holder of a crown? “You have no proof you’re a king,” Armacan said after a long diatribe. “No proof this Alonia even exists. You ask for money in charity . . . I reject charity and, further, the need for charity.” I wonder if I need to retrieve my own crown as “proof” before Armacan will help me.
|Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits . . .|
- While in the various areas, you can switch between a micro-level map (the screen that usually appears in my shots) and a smaller-scale map that shows the basic outline of the region. If you travel on this smaller-scale map, small, inconsequential obstacles like most fences and trees are ignored, and it’s easier to get from one place to another.
|Traveling on the mid-scale map.|
- You have only 100 days to solve the quest before the plague of darkness reaches Castle Thiris, but as we’ve seen, certain locations become inaccessible a lot sooner. I’m on Day 24. I assumed the bar on the left side of the screen would get shorter as Doomsday grew nearer. Instead, it just gets darker.
- There’s some graphic glitch in Alveola where every time a gnome appears on the screen, random gnome images appear all over the place, even off the exploration screen. It often makes it hard to tell who’s “real” and who’s a glitch. Fortunately, entering inventory and exiting refreshes the screen.
- Every time Cagliostra appears in the mirror, a classic “witch cackling” effect precedes her even though she’s not really that kind of witch.
|This is preceded by the cacophonous cackling of an old hag.|
- The game uses a variant of the “PAL” system at work in the previous Paragon titles, where NPCs with particular skills are supposed to pipe up when they see an opportunity to use them. So far, however, this has only occurred every time I enter a shop, when the NPC with the highest “Bargaining” skill suggests that he do the negotiating. No one with “Tinkering” skill has ever spoken up near a locked door, on the other hand, nor has anyone with spell skills said anything when a spell was the obvious solution to a problem.
|A rare use of the PAL system.|
I leave you trying to solve these various quests in Alveola. While there is much I like about Challenge, including the game world and evolving plot, it is shaping up to be much more an adventure game than an RPG. In this, it shows the weaknesses of most of the developers’ previous Paragon titles. Combat is a rare punctuation rather than a regular part of life, and its outcomes are heavily based on luck rather than skill or character attributes. Spells are so limited by available reagents that you don’t want to cast any if you can avoid it.
|The party versus lions.|
Most important, character development is extremely flimsy and inconsistent. Since the beginning of the game, Chesotor has not increased at all in any of his attributes or physical skills. His “Sword” skill is the only combat skill to have increased (by 4 points) despite the fact that he’s been armed with a shield the entire game and an axe for most of it. Only his personality skills, “Leadership” has gone up 10 points but none of the others. “Bargaining” has seen a 16-point boost and “Reading” a one-point bump, and “Learn Spell” seems to go up every time I learn a new one, for 32 total points since the game began.
|These numbers have hardly budged since the beginning of the game.|
With so many NPCs in the party, everyone specializes in enough stuff that it doesn’t really matter if anybody gets better, but this does go against the core mechanics of the traditional RPG, which the old Paragon crew never seems to have understood.