Realms of Arkania: The Long and Winding Road

From The CRPG Addict


Taking a mountain trail between two cities.

           

I spent most of this session wandering the sea lanes, trails, riverways, and mountain passes between various towns, on what has become a clear quest to collect various map pieces and other bits of intelligence about Hyggelik’s resting place. In its outdoor explorations, the map recalls Curse of the Azure Bonds, where you had fixed travel routes between towns (some of them interesting, some of them boring) which you selected and watched your party move on its own, and upon which various events could divert the party for a while. I gather that Arkania offers a mix of fixed and random encounters whereas Curse‘s were mostly fixed.
Arkania‘s encounters tend towards the type of text-driven interface that I complained about in Tunnels & Trolls (and did not, perhaps paradoxically, complain about in Darklands). There have been a couple of occasions in which my progress along the road was broken by the discovery of a cave or dungeon, but most of the time I’ve been asked to read a few paragraphs and select my options from a list. I won’t know until later in the game whether I think it used text for too many encounters, as Trolls did, or whether it achieves a better balance.
            

The game offers a lot of these textual encounters as you cross the map.

         

One of the things I like about Arkania‘s system is the palpable tension that these encounters engender thanks to the limited saving system. As we’ve covered, the game docks every character 50 experience points when you save outside of a temple, and in between towns there are limited opportunities to even take advantage of that penalty. When you haven’t saved since the last temple an hour ago, you’re a lot more careful in your choices. You start to sweat some of the skill- and attributed-based challenges, as well as (of course) the combats. When I was writing about Camelot, I forgot to discuss the delightful sense of fear the game imparts when you’re exploring a level or two above your head. Arkania evokes some of those same feelings.
Combat has gotten a little easier as I understand the tactics better, as I leveled up, and as I poured spell points into the “Fulminictus” offensive spell. I concede to my readers who argued that the keyboard interface works well once you get used to it, although I still don’t see any excuse for not mapping each distinct action to a unique key, nor for the inability to attack on the diagonal, nor for the way that the arrow keys work differently depending on whether you’re moving or attacking. I’m also having a unique-to-me colorblindness problem where I find it hard to distinguish party members from enemies (especially when they’re standing in a cluster) or even see the thin outlining on the floor tile when it’s selected.
          

Fighting some goblins. The battle wasn’t too hard, but it’s hard for me to distinguish what’s happening in that blob of characters and enemies.

       

But the worse problem is that combats are just too frigging long. Enemies and characters should both hit and damage each other more often. Even in the rare cases in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion and I use “computer controlled combat,” I mostly just sit there and watch for a quarter of an hour as the characters and enemies bang against each other to no avail.

I confess that I have been a bit spell-lazy. The spell system in Arkania is one of the more complicated ones that we’ve seen, with virtually no overlap with, say, Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, the creators of The Dark Eye system seem to have deliberately created as opposite a system as possible. Making things worse, the manual is extremely sparse in this area and doesn’t describe the effects of the spells. (Yes, I know there are external resources.) There are 12 spell categories (e.g., “Combat,” “Demonology,” “Movement,” “Illusion”) and four spell “lore” categories (magician, elf, druid, and witch), and about 80 total spells. It isn’t as simple as druids are good at “Demonology” and magicians are good at “Combat.” Rather, within the “Demonology” category, druids specialize in “Banish Spirits” and “Conjure Spirits,” magicians specialize in “Blood and Furor, Deadly Fate” and “Heptagon and Eye of Toad,” and witches and warlocks specialize in “Summon Crows.”

But theoretically any spellcasting character can cast any spell, if they put the points into it. Every character has an individual rating with each spell that can be increased during level-ups. The manual suggests that if a spell isn’t in your “lore” category, it can’t be used in combat, but I know that’s not true because everyone seems capable of casting “Ignifaxus Lance of Fire” in combat and that’s a magician-specific spell.

A lot of spell names are impenetrable: “Solididrid’s Rainbow Hue,” “Witch’s Knot,” “Odem Arcanum Sensum Such.” The game manual encourages you to “experiment,” but here we run into the final issue: spellcasters are nerfed more in Arkania than any RPG I can remember. Even at Level 3, I can cast maybe three spells per combat before my characters are out of spell points. And spell points regenerate much more slowly than hit points–only 2 or 3 per night’s rest. Spellcasters need to be melee fighters, too, to pull their weight. Because of all of this, I’ve only been slowly experimenting with new spells, spending most of my points on “Ignifaxus Lance of Fire,” which I know does its job.
          

Fighting a druid, harpies, and direwolves. Bramele is nominally an elf, but her magic has almost run out, so now she needs to be a fighter.

        
Most of my characters have leveled up twice now, which is an interesting and long process. First, you get to increase one of your “good” attributes by 1. Then you get to try to decrease one of your “bad” attributes (avarice, acrophobia, etc.) by one. None of the bad attributes have been much of a bother yet, so I’ve just been decreasing the highest ones. It fails about 50% of the time. The game then randomly rolls for boosts to your magic resistance, health, and magic points.
           

My dwarf tries to take the edge off his natural greed.

          
Then you get to assign about 20 skill points to your various skills, but there are a lot of restrictions. It seems that each weapon skill can only be advanced once per level-up (very annoying) and most other skills can only be advanced twice. I’ve been using the process to make each character stronger at his strengths rather than trying to improve his weaknesses, but even under that philosophy you end up sinking extra points into questionable skills like “Carouse” and “Train Animals.” Attempting to increase a skill fails about 33% of the time and it’s always annoying when it does.

Magic-users also go through a phase where they get 20 or 30 points to advance their various spells, but again the same rules are in effect by which you can only increase each spell by 2 points per level-up, no matter how low it is to start. Some spellcasters–or maybe just one; I don’t feel like checking the manual–have the ability to swap skill boosts for spell boosts or vice versa.
          

My elf gets better at a combat spell. Notice how poorly she takes to the warlock’s “Terror Boom.”

             
Failing your increases is so frustrating, and the random rolls for health and mana increases are so variable, that there would normally be a huge incentive to save-scum the process. In practice, that would be really hard. You’re prompted to level-up as soon as you cross the experience point threshold, so you’d have to save before the battle that gave you the experience in the first place, then fight it again with no guarantee that you’d do better the second time. Thus, I’ve just been accepting what happens. I do generally like the process and feel that the characters are getting notably stronger.
            

A nice reward for the druid battle.

          
I have been disappointed in my progress when it comes to weapons and armor. This seems to be one of those “realistic” RPGs where once you’ve purchased your base items, they don’t change much unless something breaks. In 10 hours of play, I’ve only had a few item “upgrades.” I wasted time chasing a tavern lead that “this Tulamidian in Overhtorn, Kherim Al Sherammi, only stocks the finest quality [weapons and armor],” but I didn’t find anything spectacular when I visited his shop.

There’s a “survivalist” element to exploration that I have mixed feelings about. Very often, I’m faced with an encounter that requires some kind of skill or attribute check and/or some kind of inventory check. For instance, we reach a cliff face that’s climbable if every party member has a rope or sufficient skill in “Climbing.” Or we’re sneaking up on a party of enemies and can either trust our “Sneak” skill or the “Silentium” spell. Or we’re crossing a high rope bridge and someone misses an acrophobia check and begins to freak out; we can either blindfold him or cast “Bambaladam” to make him trust us long enough to lead him across.
         

Climbing a cliff face. Either my skill or my rope is responsible for my success.

         
These occasional inventory checks have made me paranoid about what I’m not carrying. I have some ropes, a couple of pry bars, a hammer, and blankets and extra shoes for each character. But the general store sells fishing hooks, climbing hooks, drinking horns, recorders, cutlery, flasks, shovels, nets, throwing hooks, oil, mirrors, rope ladders, quills, scrolls, hoes, and dishes among other things. Do I really need to load up with all of these possibilities? Even worse, I suspect every character needs some of these things for action to be viable.
              

Which of these many items do I need to buy?

            
There are a couple infuriating parts of this skill/spell/inventory check system during encounters. First, the game often asks me who will do something without giving me any ability to check and remind myself who has the highest skill or spell level in a particular area. I can barely remember who’s what class, let alone who has the highest skill in “Camouflage.” Second, the game often requires the lead character to have the necessary skill or item. That’s not a huge problem (although it’s still annoying) when you’re in town or a dungeon and you can easily re-arrange the characters. But you can’t change the order of characters on the road. This led to a ridiculous situation in which the slain Gorah left a locked treasure chest behind, but I wasn’t able to open it because the character who had lockpicks (and lockpicking skill) wasn’t in the lead. I had to abandon the chest and go all the way back to the nearest town to swap the party order and then go back to Gorah’s lair, spending about 5 days in the process. At least the chest was still there.
       
In contrast, it has not been a big issue (so far) to manage hunger and thirst. A good meal at an inn or tavern refills both meters and lasts for a couple of days. Only a few trips have taken longer than that, and a few backpack rations easily manage the remainder. The game keeps giving me opportunities to hunt for dinner, but I haven’t really had to explore that option yet. Perhaps later there will be more extended wilderness trips.
           

Camp options at night. I’ve never needed to “replenish stocks.”

          

I had ended the last session in Felsteyn, which was at the head of its river. My furthest-north lead was in Vidsand, so I thought I’d go there and then make my way back south. The path out of Felsteyn led through the mountains to Orkanger. On the way, I ran into problems. A fixed encounter has the party find the corpse of a traveler slain by brigands. On his body, they find a document.
          

A fixed encounter between two cities.

          
While they search, a group of brigands attacks. There are options to flee and bargain, but they didn’t work well for me. I found myself in an inevitable and difficult combat. When it was over, it was followed immediately by another combat. Then (before you’ve had a chance to save or even read the document), the game has you stumble upon the brigand camp. Yes, you have an option to sneak away, but it just doesn’t feel right.
          

The resulting brigand battle in the narrow mountain pass.

         
I know that my obstinacy isn’t the game’s fault, but the end result is that I beat myself against it until I finally won those three combats in a row, which took more than half of this session’s length. The final victory led to my first round of level-ups.

As for the document, it said:
             

The unicorn knows many ways to help you. He can even recover lost items, if he himself believes them to be of importance. In doing so, he is faster than the wind.

             
(This led me to a mental digression about unicorns, because they seem prominent in German games specifically. I didn’t actually research the matter, but I thought of the various ways that unicorns have been portrayed in media, and it made me think that in Anglo culture, we’ve basically infantilized them, making them delicate, fey creatures voiced in lilting, worried tones by Mia Farrow, whose horns are a combination between hood ornaments and magic wands–whereas portrayals in continental culture seem to retain unicorns as, first and foremost, horses, with horse strength and horse appetites–carnal beasts whose horns are metaphorically penises and practically lances. Am I on to anything or is it just selective memory?)

The game grew a bit insidious at this point, having me next encounter a cave. I know now that I could have continued on to Orkanger, saved at a temple, and then turned around to go back and explore the cave. But at the time, I thought it might be a non-repeatable encounter, so I checked it out. It led me to a small dungeon map with several random and fixed battles with goblins, who thankfully aren’t that hard. Still, I started to get nervous about how long it had been since the last temple, so I sucked up the 50-experience point loss and I saved. Thank the gods. Moments later, the party was torn apart by some “giant stagga” (they look like giant ants) and I had to reload. I avoided that combat–I hate not being able to fully clear an area–looted the goblin’s treasure, and returned to the road.
          

This is not the sort of option you want to see when you’ve won three battles in a row and haven’t saved in an hour.

          
Backpacks bursting, we arrived in Orkanger to find that the small town had no weapons shop. But the inn was welcome, and there was a temple to save. We continued on the trail to Clanegh, which also had the same paucity of retail. We finally found a weapons shop and unloaded ourselves in Tyldon. From there, we followed the road to the coastal town of Vidsand.

In Vidsand, we met Ragna Firunjasdotter, who after some conversation showed us her piece of the map to Hyggelik’s tomb. She wouldn’t give us the piece, just show it to us. So later, when we got a third piece, Ragna’s piece did not appear on the resulting map image. I don’t know if that means it was a waste of time or not. In real life, I’ll be able to make a composite of the map from the various images, but I’m not sure if the game will require me to have the whole thing.
         

With another piece of the map.

         
Ragna gave me some more names, one of which I’d already visited (Isleif in Felsteyn). This made me wonder if all these NPCs aren’t supposed to have maps, and perhaps whether they show or give them to you is a result of skill checks for various social skills. It thus made me think I should perhaps have been saving before each encounter and better ensuring that I had the right party member in the lead. On the other hand, perhaps the game is generous in the number of NPCs who possibly have maps, thus giving you a chance to screw up one or two of the encounters. I wouldn’t mind an explicit hint in this area, because if I’ve put myself in a “walking dead” situation, I’d like to know.
         

I wonder if I’ve made the wrong decision in places like this.

        
From Vidsand, I hopped on a ship that circled a little bay: Vidsand to Liskor to Tjanset. After a wasted visit to the armorer in Tjanset, we took a mountain path to the town of Orvil, where we had a lead on an NPC named Unbrik Sevenstones. Outside Orvil, we saved a shepherd from some direwolves (easiest combat in the game so far), and the shepherd told us of a “foul druid” named Gorah who has been charming wild beasts and sending them against the people of the various towns.
          

I think Baldur’s Gate II re-uses this plot.

        
In Orvil, Unbrik would only help us if we agreed to kill Gorah and return with his rune bone. Unbrik told us that he was about a day outside of town but didn’t specify which direction. We tried south, on the way to Skjal, as we had to go to Skjal anyway, and we got lucky along the way and found Gorah. (Or perhaps Gorah lies along whatever road you choose.) We approached his lair with the “Silentium” spell and attacked him with his group of direwolves.
         

What I wouldn’t give for a “Fireball” right now.

       
We defeated him without too much trouble even though he summoned a couple of harpies to join the battle. Most of the party leveled up a second time. We had to return to Orvil and come back again because the only character with lockpicks wasn’t in the front of the party. From the druid’s chest, we looted the rune bone as well as some other herbs and potions.
              

One day, I’ll have to learn what all those herbs do.

        
Unbrik had another piece of the map and a couple more names. From Orvil, we turned around and went to Skjal, where Jurge Torfinsson gave us yet another map piece. Unfortunately, we were unable to find Swafnild Egilsdotter, a pirate who I heard hangs around the Skjal port.

On an overland path from Skjal to Ottarje, we found a faint trail heading off into the forest. Something appeared to have been dragged along the path. We followed it to a cave blocked by a giant spider’s web, which we cut to gain entry. I had to stop playing at this point, so I sacrificed the 50 experience points to save at the mouth of the cave. I’ll explore it next time.

As I reached the end of this session, the list of places and people to visit has grown to:
       
  • Ottarje: Hjore. I realized while I was composing this entry that this is the name of the shepherd I rescued outside Orvil, not far from Ottarje.
  • Some port or another: Swafnild Egilsdotter, a pirate
  • Brendhil: Tiomar Swafnildsson (are they related?)
  • Phexcaer: Gerbald
  • Hjasingor: Algrid Trondesdotter
         
Miscellaneous notes:
         

  • I didn’t record what the game was asking me to confirm at this moment, but it’s fun to speculate on the possibilities.

         

         

  • I don’t know why the developers made travel routes dependent on specific exits from the town. It doesn’t add anything to the game except time.
  • Because favored weapons have a decent chance of breaking in combat, it’s a good idea to carry more than one weapon and to have each character specialize in more than one weapon type–that way, you’re more likely to be able to press a looted weapon into service.
  • In any given city, about 80% of the houses are just regular citizens’ houses. About half of these have an angry citizen who throws you out. The other half are unoccupied, and the game gives you a chance to burgle them. For role-playing reasons, I haven’t been doing that, but after a recent save, I decided to try to see what happens. The answer is nothing. In about 8 attempts, I simply found empty rooms. I wonder if this option ever becomes necessary or lucrative.

        

A completely uninteresting game option.

       

  • One area of the game that I’ve left completely unexplored is herbology. I occasionally run into an herb-seller in town, I have a character high in the “Herb Lore” skill, and the game gives an option to search for herbs when you camp at night. Despite this, I’ve only just now bothered to scan the manual for what these herbs can do. 
  • A couple of wilderness encounters have led to the party sneaking up on enemies and observing them from afar. These encounters have offered the option to “rain a hail of arrows on the enemies”–which I think has been effective despite the fact that I haven’t been keeping bows and arrows in the party.

           

I’m pretty sure I don’t have a bow, so unless I’m arranging the arrows on the ground to spell out “HELLO,” I’m not sure what this option is doing here.

           

My takeaway from this session is that I haven’t really been enjoying Realms of Arkania but it’s mostly because I haven’t been fully engaging it. I’ve been playing it like it’s a different RPG. I need to take time to learn the spell system and the herb system, find a more effective way to manage my inventory, and re-read the manual in general.



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