Realms of Arkania: Road Trip

From The CRPG Addict

Map of my journey this session, including an aborted trip south from Phexcaer (ended at the “X”).
My last entry on Realms of Arkania ended negatively, so I’ll start positively here. I like what I now see as the game’s overall approach:
1. Create a large game world.
2. Seed it with interesting encounters, dungeons, NPCs, and side-quests.
3. Include a main quest that requires the player to plot travel routes through this space.
4. Randomize the order in which clues are received so that no two players take the same route, even if they simply follow the main quest.
This approach makes the most of an open game world, gives a lot of flexibility to the player, and maximizes replayability. And by creating a main quest that is threatening but not critical, the creators provide a logical excuse for detours and side quests rather than making the player invent rationalizations for them.
We’ve seen this approach done well (e.g., Might and Magic, Ultima VI) and poorly (e.g., MegaTraveller II), and we’ll see it again with some of my favorite titles, like Baldur’s Gate and Morrowind. The problem is that there are a lot of ways to screw it up. Story for its own sake rarely supplies enough incentive to explore a lot of side areas (particularly in this era of such limited story-telling), so you have to incentivize exploration with rewards such as character development, wealth, and equipment. But you don’t want to go overboard, lest you create a situation where all the party’s early explorations are extremely hard and all its latter ones are extremely easy.
(Later games would address that concern with level scaling, but I think the concern is a bit overblown in the first place. I’d rather the developers offer a lot of locations of varying difficulty and let the player encounter them organically, choosing whether to tough out difficult locations or save them for later, and choosing whether to massacre Level 1 goblins or let them live in peace. This would maximize replay, too.)
Such incentives are where I think Realms of Arkania does things poorly, though better than either MegaTraveller II or Challenge of the Five Realms. Those games offered essentially no character development, whereas in Arkania it’s just extremely limited, particularly in the area of equipment. With half a dozen inventory slots per character and six characters, I don’t see any reason why every dungeon shouldn’t produce some kind of artifact item except that I guess Das Schwarze Auge‘s rules discourage it. That isn’t to say there haven’t been any equipment rewards. The spider dungeon left me with about a dozen vials of poison that really came in handy later, and some other dungeon produced some Molotov cocktails. I’ve received a few weapon and armor upgrades, mostly of the type that do 3-7 damage instead of 2-6 damage or some other modest increase.
It’s hard to get excited about a box full of the same old stuff we already have.
As for other incentives, you naturally get experience points for the battles fought in the side-dungeons and mountain trails and such, but leveling up is slow and rare in this game (3 times in 30 hours), and perhaps worse, it doesn’t seem to palpably affect my characters’ success. Part of the problem is the restriction that you can only try to level-up each combat skill once per level, and other skills can only be leveled up twice.
Nerfing the increase in combat skills is really galling since combat–and I’m sorry to repeat myself but it bears repeating because it’s so bad–takes so goddamned long, mostly because nobody ever hits anyone. Improving everybody’s chance of hitting by 100% (enemies, too) would have kept the same level of difficulty but would have made combats go much faster. In other games, spells would reduce combat time, but in Arkania while you have dozens of spells, you can only cast about three before your spell meter is depleted. Restoring it takes multiple nights of rest. There are potions, but they are rare and expensive. Hence, magic doesn’t play as much of a role in the game as it should. I’m particularly discouraged from casting buffing spells as I explore dungeons.
Thus, we have a game that’s quite enticing in broad strokes but falls apart when you get to some of the details. It deserves a lot of praise for bringing an authentic tabletop experience to the computer, but it deserves a lot of criticism for being perhaps too literal in its adaptation.
As I began this session, I was in far-flung Phexcaer, facing a trip back down river to Vildhome and from there to Thorwal and then to southern cities, where I had a couple more clues. I happened to notice that there was a long route from Phexcaer through forest and mountain to the city of Skelellen, which would allow me to explore the south more systematically, from a region that I probably wouldn’t otherwise visit. I decided to take it.
But the way was more treacherous than I imagined. The party got hopelessly mired in a swamp where we lost items of equipment round after round. I finally pulled the plug, reloaded in Phexcaer, and took the original route.
Well, that’s a dealbreaker.
I’m not going to narrate stop-by-stop, but the most important thing to know is that I ran out of clues about halfway through the session. After that, I started exploring somewhat systematically, starting with the southern cities, and making careful note of which cities I’d fully explored and which routes I’d taken from city to city. Even though this promised to be a long process, I started to enjoy myself more during it, partly because of the enormous variety of encounters between cities. Some just involved a night on the road, some had a simple encounter with an NPC, and some took me for a two-hour exploration of a two-level dungeon. 
Remember that you’re not actually moving your party across the landscape in this game. You just pick where you want to go, and the game shows its progress along the route as the sun moves across the sky. Every night, you’re forced to camp. Rather than carry a bunch of food and water, I’ve typically relied on Bart de Wald’s survival, hunting, and tracking skills. As long as he can find both food and water at least once every two nights, which he almost always does, then the party is fine.
Nariell finds dinner.
Similarly, I’ve stopped carrying a lot of extra equipment like shovels, picks, rope, and blankets for the road. If I run across an encounter that requires them, I’ll reload and buy them before setting out. Until then, they just keep pestering me with over-encumbrance messages. I had been living so lavishly at inns (always buying meals, always paying for suites) that I noticed my funds were taking a precipitous dip. I needed those inventory spaces for looted equipment.
Highlights from the road:
  • Outside of Thorwal, I ran into a bard named Olvir who offered to sing us the song of Hyggelik when we camped for the night. We said yes, but he proceeded to sign an extremely long version of the saga, followed by another epic tale of the Hetman of Thorwal. After every hour, the game gave me a chance to tell him to knock it off for the night, but I persisted, and he finally wrapped up at about 4:00 in the morning. His tale would have given us a few new clues, but we’d already visited the NPCs that he mentioned.
  • Upon returning to Thorwal, I finished exploring the Old Fortress. There were three more interconnected levels and some battles with some undead. A lot of chests just served up regular weapons and shields, but one final chest provided us with six bottles of “Hylailic Fire,” which seem to hit one creature for 20 damage with 100% accuracy in combat. The last level exited up to a store in the main city, saving us a long trip back. That was nice.
Maybe the game would be better if there were something “even remotely interesting to find” in those old bones?
  • South of Thorwal, in Breida, we met another one of the descendants of Hyggelik’s party, Asgrimm Thurboldsson. I tried the conversation several times, but he didn’t seem to have a map piece. He just recounted the story of Hyggelik’s defeat and his great-grandfather’s involvement.
Asgrimm would rather you ask about his great-grandfather than Hyggelik.
  • The NPC Nariell left me when I traveled to Varnhome. I don’t know if her departure was random, scripted by location, or scripted by time.
  • In Varnhome, I found my last “clued” NPC whose location I knew for sure, Eliane Windenbek. She agreed to help me if I would destroy an attempt to resurrect worship in an evil god on the island of Hjalland. After I did that, I returned and got my fifth map piece.
An NPC sends me on a small side quest.
  • The only city on Hjalland is Ljasdahl, and its buildings didn’t have any hint of the evil god. I was wondering how I could possibly explore the rest of the island with no other city to travel to, but it turns out that Ljasdahl has eastern and western exits, and if you take one, you loop around the island to arrive at the other.
  • In between, I found the “vault,” as the game had it. It was two levels, both quite hard because of the combats and the traps. I had to return to Ljasdahl a couple of times for rest, healing, and selling items. I don’t know about traps in this game. Some I seem to avoid with high “Danger Sense” or “Perception,” but others seem to be pre-programmed to damage the party no matter what. The temple had the first puzzle that required me to split the party (one character had to hold down a lever). I went through the temple smashing all of the god’s statues, killed his high priest, overturned his profane altar, and kept a figurine to prove my success to Eliane. A monetary reward in one of the chests for 250 ducats covered my expenses for a long while.
Hitting a priest with a spell.
  • While I was out in the islands, I sailed around a bit looking for the pirate queen, Swafnild Egilsdotter. I finally found her when I stepped on the port square in Prem, but I had the wrong character in the lead position and wasn’t able to get a favorable outcome from my questioning. After a reload and a shuffling of the party, she agreed to give me her map piece, but it must have duplicated one I already had because I still just had four.
  • Between Ottarje and Daspota, we elected to stay at an inn for the night. Hearing noises beneath the floorboards in the middle of the night, se soon found ourselves exploring a two-level cellar with zombies and skeletons. The dungeon’s final battle was with an alchemist (who had been raising the undead, presumably) and his chest contained an alchemy set, several elixirs, and several recipes–a better “final chest” than most dungeons so far.
There was a cool statue in the dungeon that I couldn’t interact with.
  • Daspota is an interesting city. It looks like every other city, but instead of shops, all of the buildings are full of pirates in foul moods. Most visits lead to combats.
Daspota hospitality.
  • Between Daspota and Rybon, we found a dying adventurer who told us that “the Daspota treasure” could be found “ten miles beyond Rybon.”
Text is better than nothing, but I’m looking forward to the era in which this just happens, without a textbox describing it to us.
  • Unfortunately, we couldn’t progress past Rybon (on the way to Thoss) because it’s winter, and that’s a narrow mountain pass. I’m not sure if we can’t progress period or if we need more cold-weather gear in our inventories before the game will let us try.
What if I’m willing to risk suicide?
I’m debating what to do next. There might be a map piece in Thoss. If not, I’m probably stuck, having screwed up too many opportunities to get the map pieces from the early NPC visits–something for which I would definitely blame the game for not making clear. Even if I get it, and it doesn’t duplicate one that I have, I’ll only have six, and there are slots for nine. I don’t know how many is enough. I also don’t know if I need to assemble a certain percentage as a “trigger” or if I can simply visually interpret what I see and use that to find Hyggelik’s tomb. If the latter, I would guess it’s somewhere near Phexcaer, but a commenter suggested that it’s more complicated than that.
Where I am with the map.
Other notes:
  • Broken weapons are seriously annoying. Despite what sounds (from the manual) like low probablity of a weapon breaking in combat, it seems to happen to one of my characters about every two battles. The worst part is, I don’t think there’s any way to tell that a weapon is broken (if you miss when it happens) aside from returning to a town and seeing if the smith wants to charge you to fix it.
  • I’m playing with sound completely off. There’s a grating three-note cacophony that plays every time you open a menu, and I can no longer stand it.
  • Somehow, it escaped me until late in the game that opening the “Information” tool in each town gives you a quick description of the town. This adds some life to the game.
A nice one-paragraph description of an island town.
  • I got my wand fully enchanted this session. Wands can be enchanted in four stages, each one taking almost all your magic points. You have to do it in camp at night. The second stage turns it into a permanent source of light, so you no longer have to cast spells or keep torches. The third stage allows it to conjure 10 paces of rope when you need it; the last reduces the amount of mana needed to cast spells by 2.
  • I tried messing with alchemy, but I didn’t have enough recipes to make it useful. This seems like one of those games where it’s easier just to sell alchemical ingredients and buy potions.
I think I’m going to linger around Daspota for a while, using the pirates as an excuse to grind some experience points (maybe I’ll gain a level) and wait for winter to be over so I can continue to Thoss. If you think I’m in danger of a “walking dead” situation because of those map pieces, I won’t turn down a hint.
Time so far: 30 hours

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