Realms of Arkania: Basic Training

From The CRPG Addict

The party death screen. I got this a lot this session.
One thing I like about modern games is that they seem to share a philosophy about their initial stages. For the first roughly 4 hours, you don’t expect any particularly difficult combats in a modern RPG. You expect rather that the game is going to ease you into its mechanics and conventions–sometimes with an explicit tutorial covering the first few battles–before throwing you to the wolves. You expect that you’ll gain one level without any fuss before you really have to work for it.
Realms of Arkania is a game clearly developed before this kinder era. I have virtually nothing of substance to cover in this entry because I spent most of the five hours since the first entry trying to win a single battle against some bandits in the starting dungeon. This battle alone took me almost three hours, partly because of its difficulty and partly because combat in this game just takes an insanely long time.
When I closed my first entry, I had explored the town of Thorwal, had received the main quest (to stop an uprising of orcs by finding the subtitular Blade of Destiny), and had received a side quest to explore the “old fortress” and find out who was stealing all the supplies. I explored one level, killed a few bandits, and thought I was done, but I hadn’t taken secret doors into consideration. There are two types of secret doors in the game: illusory ones that you can just walk through, and hidden ones that some character has to “perceive” before you can open them.
If you suspect this type of door is there, you have to wander back and forth until “Perception” kicks in.
In the case of the old fortress, my first secret door led me to a small room stocked with wine, brandy, and rations. I took them all and sold them to the shop on the surface. I spent a lot of this session porting items out of the dungeon and selling them on the surface. The game is so relentless with its encumbrance system–combat movement is restricted if you’re overweight–that you don’t want to carry any extra items for long.
When this happens on Bourbon Street, trust me–keep walking.
The second secret door was the illusory type, and it led to the battle with half a dozen bandits. As I covered in the first entry, Arkania blends the combat mechanics of the SSI games (Wizard’s Crown, Gold Box) with the rotated axonometric perspective of British RPGs of the era. The SSI mechanics are fantastic–I’ve repeatedly heaped praise on their Gold Box iteration–but here they’re coupled with a horrid interface that depends far too much on the mouse and refuses to let you attack, shoot, or cast on anything but straight lines (no diagonals). 
One huge annoyance is that when targeting an enemy, you not only have to click on his square but first hover your cursor over it and wait for the game to acknowledge (by highlighting the square in blue) the targeting. It’s annoying enough when targeting squares to the west and south of the character. To the north and east, where the squares are partly hidden by the perspective, it’s a nightmare. Adding to it is the need to specify a normal, aggressive, or careful attack every time you attack. A good game would accomplish this entire thing by having the player strike “A,” “N,” or “C” on the keyboard and then an arrow direction, not fiddle around with all this clicking.
A very difficult battle with brigands. I had to fight it multiple times.
Aside from the interface, the combat options are solid. There’s even one that mitigates the interface by having the character simply repeat what he did last round. (Although I’m not sure I trust it–it feels like it fails more often than entering the same actions “from scratch.”) I just didn’t expect to have to explore all of them to survive the third battle. Each round, each character has a number of movement points that he can expend on an attack, guarding (a free attack when the enemy walks into an adjacent square), casting, using an item, changing a weapon, or delaying until later in the round. These are the lessons I learned while trying to win the bandit battle:
  • Never walk up to an enemy when you can “guard” and wait for him to come to you.
  • At least with my Level 1 characters, “aggressive” attacks don’t seem to succeed more, or do more damage, than “normal” ones–and they leave characters open for retaliatory strikes.
  • You want to have a backup weapon to a bow and arrows because enemies will rush into melee range.
  • At Level 1, your physical attacks fail about 95% of the time.
  • Missiles are kind of useless anyway because they can only be fired in direct lines with no obstacles (including characters). Maneuvering archers into place is more trouble than it’s worth.
  • Spells almost never work either–at least, not the ones I invested points in.
  • The only spell that works reliably is “Lightning Find Thee,” which doesn’t do any damage but rather blinds the target. Four of my characters can cast this spell, so in my one successful game I had them blind each target before moving on to melee.
The only spell that never lets me down.
  • Enemies (and characters) can only parry once per round, so it’s best to gang up on individual enemies and take them down while still trying to avoid having more than one enemy target a single character.
The game has a “quick combat” option–which would normally be a godsend given the interface–but it’s one of the worst that I’ve ever experienced. In combat with the brigands, it made my spellcasters waste all their points on ineffective spells before rushing the closest enemies in melee combat. Even against single enemies, it tends to put the worst fighters adjacent to them while leaving the best ones in back with nothing to do. I occasionally activate it towards the end of combat, when everyone is in place and there’s nothing left to do but attack round after round, but otherwise I haven’t been able to make much use of it.
Given its difficulty, I rather hoped that the brigand battle would elevate us with enough experience points for Level 2, but it wasn’t even close. Instead, it gave us access to some decent loot (potions), a lot of money from the bandits’ sold weapons, and to the stairway to the next level.
Selling excess stuff after the bandit battles.
Level 2 of the tower had a few treasure chests, locked doors, and yet another brigand battle nearly as difficult as the first one. I suppose it was as difficult, although I’d learned quite a bit more about combat tactics. This one only took me about an hour to win and left me in the same position as the first one. There was one door that I couldn’t open–not with picks, not with bashing, and not with the one key that I found. Nonetheless, the nature of the encounters made it clear that the brigands had been stealing the supplies. There was a ladder down to a shore cave, which answered the question of how the brigands were getting in without Master Dramosch seeing them.
When I returned to the surface, Dramosch awarded me for solving his quest. His congratulations came with some experience points, and I thought surely this would bring me to Level 2 . . . but no, I was only about 2/3 of the way there. I have definitely stopped saving outside of temples, which costs everyone 50 experience points per save.
Solving the first side quest.
Meanwhile, Bart got tetanus. I’m not sure how it happened–I guess maybe brigands don’t regularly scrub their weapons. Nothing I tried allowed me to cure it. Trying my characters’ own “Cure Disease” abilities not only failed to help–it made it worse. So did visiting the healers in town. No amount of rest seemed to work, and praying at temples got me nothing. I don’t know what I’m missing. Normally, I’d like to roll with the punches on something like this, but the game had already been needling me so much with combat and encumbrance issues that I just reloaded before the combat where he presumably got it and ran through the final stages of the dungeon again.
Back on the surface, I sold my loot. The good news is that I have a lot–or what seems like a lot–of money. The bad news is that there’s no Sword +2 waiting at the shop for me. I could buy some improved armor, but that would just exacerbate my encumbrance issues.
How, pray tell, does the two-handed “war axe” belong to the “Swords” category?!
With nothing else to do (barring finding a way through that locked door in the fortress), I decided to hit the road. I could travel to a number of destinations from Thorwal depending on the exit. The Hetman had suggested that I go to Felsteyn to find the last surviving descendant of Hygellik, whose name is Isleif Olgardsson. The game map showed Felsteyn directly north, along a branch of the river that runs through Thorwal.
You can click anywhere on the map to get a description of places, but you can only travel along fixed routes.
You can’t just walk around on the overland map. You have to right-click on it and choose from pre-set destinations depending on where you are. I could travel to several places from Thorwal depending on the exit that I took. A northern exit led by foot to the city of Vaermhag, north along the coast, and a southern one led to the coastal city of Serske. By ship, I could travel to the next two cities north on the coast (Vaermhag and Varnhome) or the next two to the south (Merske and Etherdun). I decided to go east to Tjoila Ferry Station along the river, trusting that I could keep hopping river ports all the way up to Felsteyn.
We spent one night on the road but otherwise made it to Tjoila without incident. The ferry station was tiny and had only a few houses and an inn, so I didn’t bother to map it. Sure enough, one of its exits led me to the next port, Rukian. It wasn’t any more exciting.
The dusty streets of a small river town.
On the second night to the next port, Angbodirtal, the game gave me the option to track a group of wild pigs that had wandered by the camp. We lost them, but the experience reminded me that I probably wanted to shift my druid, Bart der Wald, to the front of the party while we were on the road. Almost all the game’s skill checks are made against the party leader, so it’s useful to have someone who specializes in wilderness navigation (“Track,” “Animal Lore,” “Survival”) for the road, someone who specializes in towns (“Streetwise,” “Lie,” “Human Nature”) for towns, and someone who specializes in dungeons (“Danger Sense,” “Perception,” “Locks”) for the underground. I had arranged for my dwarf to be my dungeoneer, my magician to be my townswoman, and my druid to be my forester, but I haven’t been good about moving them around.
What were we even chasing them for? Food?
There wasn’t much to do at the Angbodirtal Ferry Station, but when I explored the nearby town of Angbodirtal, I randomly stumbled upon the house of an NPC named Beorn Hjallasson. The game gave me the option to tel him about our quest for Hyggelik’s Sword, and it turned out that he is also somehow a descendant of Hyggelik. He told us we might find luck asking Hjore Ahrensson in Ottarje or Ragna Firunjasdotter in Vidsand. Both were a bit west of my current location, so I decided to continue on to Felsteyn. 
You’re making those names up, right?
And thus through Auplog, Vilnhome, and Upper Orcam I traveled, staying in the inn at each town and paying for a square meal, but otherwise finding nothing interesting except the occasional smith, temple, or tavern. These towns could of perhaps been better handled as menu towns if travel was going to be menu-based anyway. It would be nice at least if the different types of shops were discernible from the outside, so you don’t have to bash into every one of them. As it is, you can only tell taverns from the facade. 
We finally made to Felsteyn, a moderate-sized town, and found Isleif Olgardsson living on its outskirts. When we told him our quest for Hyggelik’s blade, he suggested that we consult . . . Beorn Hjallasson in Angbodirtal. But he also gave us the name of Umbrik Sevenstones in Orvil and he gave us a piece of a map that looks like it might ultimately have 9 pieces.
The first of probably 9 map pieces.
I hope that the bulk of the game isn’t going to involve the party going from one nondescript town to another so that we can talk to interchangeable NPCs hoping to find map pieces. If this game does it right, it will be like Ultima VI, where there’s a lot of variance in the length and type of quest needed for each piece. Perhaps by next entry, we’ll know.
Time so far: 10 hours

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