Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Gateway to the Savage Frontier: More Detailed but Less Interesting

One down.
   
Since the last post, I've completed at least one-quarter of the main quest by finding one of the four statuettes in the Host Tower of the Arcane in Luskan. (I keep wanting to spell that "Luksan," but that was Dargo's race in Farscape.) I'm finding Gateway to the Savage Frontier pleasant enough, but although it adds some more detail to the game world (as we'll discuss), it feels a lot more trite than the previous Gold Box games, and I fear it isn't destined to rank comparative well in the final tally.

Before I returned to finish up Luskan, I had some unfinished business in Yartar. I returned to the city after being reminded (in the process of composing my last post) that Amanitas had suggested I go there. Nothing happened at first, but when I tried to leave the city, I was attacked and captured by the Zhent General Vaalgamon. He taunted me and then said he would "leave the trivial task of killing [us] to [our] Kraken hosts!"
  
I suspect you're going to wish you killed me yourself.
  
In due order, with the help of my NPC friend, Krevish, I escaped my cell, fought through a host of lizard men and Kraken cultists, and escaped back to Yartar. On the way, I recovered a long sword +2 that had supposedly been stolen from my party before the game began. I also had to fight a couple of giant squids in chest-deep water. I think this is the first time in a Gold Box game that this has happened.
   
They look ferocious, but they weren't so hard.
   
At some point, I had found a dagger +1, too, so at this point 4 of my 7 characters had magic weapons. I figured this was enough to try taking on the margoyles in Luskan again. The basic setup of Luskan was that the city is ruled by five retired pirates, and I arrived in town just as they were receiving tributes from other ships' captains. I invaded all five of their estates, killed the pirates and their margoyle allies, and retrieved the proffered tributes. The final battle netted me a +1 sword that does cold damage, called the Sword of Icewind Dale. Neat to see an Icewind Dale reference 9 years before its titular game.
    
   
The rest of the city had a few random combats with scrags, or sea trolls, which I think I'm facing for the first time here.
  
   
I guess raiding the high captains' houses and fighting scrags was all optional. The core part of the Luskan was the Host Tower of the Arcane, shown here in a nice image:
     
    
I figured I was in for a long, multi-leveled fortress, but it turns out that all of the action in the host tower is on the ground level. There were some stairs that spiraled upwards, with increasingly difficult combats with owlbears along the way, but that just led to a dead end.
   
I'm not sure I like the game putting stupid jokes in the mouths of my characters.
   
In one room, I found some owlbears--this game is really heavy on owlbears; margoyles, too--torturing a chained mage named Brinshaar. I freed him and he joined my party as an NPC. He was occasionally useful, but he had terrible AI and more often than not wasted spells like "Hold Person" and "Charm Person" on owlbears and displacer beasts.
  
I'm not sure I like the look of this guy...
   
On the far side of a combat with some mages and displacer beasts, I found the first of the statuettes. Brinshaar took off at that point, only to show up again at the exit. He revealed himself as a Zhent agent--which I had suspected almost immediately--and attacked me with some displacer beasts.
  
This didn't work out very well for him.
   
I headed back to Neverwinter to level up, where my mage reached the most important milestone in the life of a mage:
     
     
Before I move on to the next map, I want to note that the developers of Gateway did six things to liven up the bland 3D world offered in between combats, journal entries, and cut scenes. All had been done to some degree by previous Gold Box titles, but I think these strategies reach their apex here.

First, they did a good job creating more detailed wall, ceiling, and floor textures throughout the maps. The engine still doesn't allow for monsters, encounters, or even furniture to appear in the environment, but at least we get arches, foliage, water, and the like.
  
   
Second, they stepped up the number of "atmospheric messages" that appear as you explore the game. I commented on the value of these messages in Disciples of Steel, which featured similarly bland and repetitive graphics. They really enhance the sense of playing a computer-based D&D module.
    
   
These atmospheric messages extend to combats. Just about every fixed combat is preceded by at least a paragraph of text explaining what's happening and adding some additional flavor to exploration.
   
This is a lot more fun than just getting "attacked by scrags."
     
Third, they increased the number of optional "side encounters" on each map that aren't technically necessary to the main quest. These aren't as likely to result in special experience rewards or even loot as in previous games, but there are more of them and like the atmospheric messages, they make the maps seem more like real places.
   
Rescuing some women from pirates wasn't necessary, but it was fun.
   
Fourth, they gave every shop its own name and customized signboard hanging outside. No more generic "weapons shops."
    
   
Fifth, we have a lot more illustrated cut scenes in between the maps.
  
   
Finally, the developers made more interesting shapes with the terrain than in previous games. Luskan is supposed to be an archipelago city, with bridges and causeways leading to various items, and this is depicted well on the map. The designers didn't feel like they needed to fill in every box in the 16 x 16 grid. Maps are more compact, but they also have a better ratio of encounters to empty space.

All of these features help compensate a bit for the game's primary weakness: a bland story that doesn't seem to be going anywhere original.

Moving on, I decided to explore the islands next, for no other reason that they were west of my current position and I knew that the final battles would be in the east. I caught a boat to the island of Tuern from Luskan. In a rare example of time mattering in a Gold Box game, I had to enter the terminal at exactly 08:00.
  
   
Tuern was a small town surrounded by ruins and chasms (but contained on the same 16 x 16 map). I'm a little confused about where it is, as I couldn't find it on the online maps of the Realms that I consulted. In any event, the king told me that the island had recently been struck by a meteor, and many adventurers had been coming through hoping to find the ore. I added myself to this quest. 

The "outdoor" area was full of pirates, "northmen," fire giants, and efreets--the Sword of Icewind Dale, wielded by a fighter under the effect of "Enlarge," helped a lot with the latter two. After a lot of fighting and mapping, I had the meteorite ore in my possession.
   
Pirates and a fire giant.
   
I had remembered that a smith back in Neverwinter offered to make weapons out of exotic ore, so I took the ship back to the mainland and visited him. He turned it into a long sword +3 that does double damage against stone-based creatures. This helped with the margoyles later on.
   
More use of time elements.
   
The final map I explored was the isle of Gundarlun, accessible from Tuern. I guess the main quest of the island involved rescuing the king's daughter, Jagaerda, from some pirates. The problem is, owing to the way I mapped, I rescued the girl--a Valkyrie-looking fighter--before getting the request from her father, so I suspect I missed some associated journal entries. She joined my party.
    
My party acts like they've heard of her despite missing the encounter that would have given this quest.
   
In reward, the king told me that I could probably find the statuette at the Purple Rocks, a set of islands ruled by the Kraken Society. I needed to head back to Tuern to find passage. This is where I closed this session.

Now it's time for some hate. What does the Addict despise more than anything else in a CRPG? Hitting level caps too early! In this case, I'm starting to hit them way too early, with everyone at Level 6. I must have at least half the game to go, and my two clerics and mage have not only hit their caps, they probably have enough to immediately go to Level 7 in the sequel. My ranger has one more level to go; my paladin and fighter can get two more. Not providing enough leveling "space" is an unforgivable sin in an RPG, and it's going to hit this game hard in the "character development" category.
    
Miscellaneous notes:

  • The economy loosened up pretty fast. I'm no longer suffering for training gold, and I've begun to amass a stockpile of gems and jewelry to sell later for those Gauntlets of Dexterity (and other magic items). A lot of the battles are delivering thousands of silver pieces, which are weighty to carry.
  
And so it begins.
    
  • As is the norm for Gold Box games, there are a fixed number of "random" combats per map. Defeat a handful of "northmen" in Tuern or pirates in Gundarlun and the map is effectively "clear."
  • It sure would be nice if you could purchase arrows more than 10 at a time and darts more than 4 at a time. My mage goes through about 40 darts per combat. Getting her re-stocked means purchasing them in groups of 4 until my inventory is "overloaded," then going into the inventory and "joining" all the darts into one stack, and then purchasing more, repeating the cycle until I get bored with it.
  • I thought I remembered fighters and paladins getting a second attack at around Level 4 or 5, but I'm level 6 and still swinging only once per round. 
  • Also in combat-related news, I've never seen my characters miss so often in a Gold Box game. Around 60% of my attacks just go "swish." Combats tend to be fairly easy in this game, so I'm not exactly complaining, but I'd rather have had harder monsters that were easier to hit. 
  
Dammit!
   
  • I can't figure out any way to center "Fireball." The "Center" command used by Death Knights of Krynn doesn't appear here, and the old space-bar trick doesn't work.

Gateway has the advantage of the Gold Box engine, which I still love, but it isn't as interesting or challenging as previous titles, and it might be my least favorite so far. Unless you're all really enjoying the detailed discussion of individual game maps, I might push forward to the end this week.

Time so far: 13 hours
Reload count: 4  

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Game 217: Xanadu: Dragon Slayer II (1985)

   
There wasn't much chance that I was going to really love a side-scrolling action RPG in which a weird-looking little guy defeats foes by bashing into them, but I have to admit that Xanadu is a little better than I expected. It significantly improves on Dragon Slayer (1984) and anticipates its own Part V, Sorcerian (1987; which I covered without realizing its Dragon Slayer lineage) as well as Zeliard (1987).

It doesn't feel much like its predecessor (which I covered last year), but I gather that the Dragon Slayer label denotes less a "series" than a "lineage." In the first game, the Goofy Cartoonish Little Man (GCLM) ran around a one-story dungeon, collecting treasures, fighting monsters, and building experience so he could defeat the dragon at the center of the map. I called it a "win!" after 5 hours and one dragon-slaying, although technically there were at least 8 "phases" that I should have played before getting to the true end of the game.
  
Exploring the vertical dungeon of Xanadu.
   
Xanadu (I'm playing the PC-88 version) keeps the action-oriented gameplay and the GCLM but puts you in a side-scrolling dungeon that wraps around on itself horizontally but not vertically. Various chutes and ladders take you to the monsters, shops, and dungeons to be found within. It's not quite a "platformer," as it lacks jumping puzzles; it's more of a vertical maze. I find it hard to find my way to desired locations and equally hard to map.

Several monster types haunt the hallways. On the first level, I encountered skeletons, beetles, goblins, giant bats, and fire elementals. You don't fight them in the side view (like you do in the later Sorcerian and Zeliard); instead, running into them takes you to a top-down combat screen with 6 or 8 of whatever monster icon you encountered. Exploring castles, caves, and towers within the side-scrolling map is also top-down.
  
Entering a room full of skeletons--and a ring.
   
Aside from the interface changes, what Xanadu mostly adds is a wider variety of equipment and statistics. Dragon Slayer had a few items--swords, crowns, crosses, and so forth--but you could only hold one item at a time. Xanadu expands with a bunch of different weapons, suits of armor, shields, and usable items like lamps and keys, and you don't have to go through the idiotic juggling-dropping routine that added a lot of extra time to Dragon Slayer. Some of these items are found in combat or dungeon rooms, but most are available from shops scattered throughout the caves.

You also have a full set of attributes--strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, agility, charisma, and something abbreviated "MGR." There's a regular experience counter, which causes you to level up when visiting temples, as well as individual experience for each item type in the game, something I don't fully understand yet. Finally, there's a "karma" statistic, but it hasn't budged since I started the game and I'm not sure what causes it to do so.
  
The "statistics" screen shows my attributes and other numbers.
   
Let me back up to the beginning. I haven't been able to find a manual for the game, so I'm not sure of its backstory. The opening screens give you no indication of who you are or why you're in the dungeon. You start in an outdoor "castle" level, with the entrance to a king's palace right next to you. Entering the palace starts the character creation process. Before the king, you specify a name, and suddenly the game gives you 1,500 hit points, 3,500 gold, 100 units of food, and a basic suit of equipment: a dagger, cloth armor, gloves (in the "shield" slot), a "Needle" spell, and spectacles in the miscellaneous equipment slot.

"Character creation." Note that the various items are laid out in front of the king.
 
Near the palace are a number of doors marked with the character's attributes.  Visiting each gives you the ability to pay 100 gold pieces for boosts of 5 or 10 in that attribute. This is a slightly more complicated way of simply assigning your attributes from a pool of points. I went with a strength- and dexterity-heavy allocation for my first character.

Buying wisdom.
    
Little NPCs or monsters--a princess, a knight, a dog, a gull, some kind of whirlybird--roam around the outdoor area, but there doesn't seem to be any way to interact with them.
  
Walking around the castle level.
  
At the far right of the castle level is the entrance to a small dungeon with no monsters, introducing you to the game's approach to chutes, ladders, and tunnels. There's some kind of copy protection thing going on here, because you have to know exactly what to do--walk to a precise point and then turn around and go the other direction--to progress in the game. Otherwise, you end up in a never-ending repeating loop. Fortunately, my version came with a text file explaining what to do. Find the right path, and you are amidst the monsters and shops of the first level.

Enemies float about fixed areas, and running into them takes you to the top-down combat screen. Combat seems as dull and unsophisticated as Dragon Slayer or Hydlide at first, but there are hints of greater complexity to come. You fight creatures here by bashing into them. Unlike some of the previous games, you can't avoid getting attacked yourself by bashing them from the side or rear, or by attacking them with your position a little off-set. But what does seem to make a huge difference is who attacks first. If you can be the one who initiates the attack, you seem to take less damage than if you let the creature attack you first.
  
Fighting "Ares." The bubble around my character indicates he's hitting me.
   
There are probably more tactics later on with spells. You start with the "Needle" spell; it shoots a little rod at enemies that does less damage than a regular attack. I didn't really start experimenting with it until late in this session.

Slain creatures drop treasure chests with gold, food, or special items. As I played, I learned how I could delay opening these chests and picking up the items to create a kind of "terrain" by which enemies couldn't reach me, or could only reach me from one angle.
   
Opening chests after killing a few snakes. Snakes drop food.
   
At first, I thought the enemies respawned endlessly, as a new icon would appear immediately at the end of each combat. It turns out, however, that they only respawn 2 or 3 times before you've effectively "cleared" that monster. Unless I'm missing something, this means that there is a fixed amount of experience and money in each level.

The first level had two towers and two castles to enter, each with a selection of top-down rooms full of monsters and treasures. With my first character, I couldn't fully explore these edifices because I ran out of keys before I was able to explore all the rooms. Maddeningly, locked doors have to be unlocked from both sides, and it's possible to spend your last key unlocking a door only to find yourself in a dead-end room on the other side, with suicide as the only way out.

I like the variety of special items that you can find in the game even though I don't understand them all. Spectacles give you the specific strength and defense statistics of the nearest enemy. Lamps are  necessary to light up interior areas. Red potions heal you. Mantles allow you to "pass wall" for a limited amount of time. Candles transform you to a skeleton for a limited time, which makes you immune to monsters (but you can't attack them either). There are a few others I haven't experimented with yet.
   
The experience screen shows my accumulated experience with the dagger and short sword (first two weapon slots), "Needle" spell (first scroll slot), cloth and leather armor (first two "armor" slots), and first and third shields (I skipped small shields).
    
A key dynamic in the game seems to be managing the way your experience develops, particularly since each weapon, suit of armor, and shield has its own associated experience level. I spent most of the first level killing enemies with a dagger before realizing that I was probably wasting a lot of potential skill development time with more advanced weapons. (I presume a skill of 100 with a long sword is better than a skill of 100 with a dagger.) I found daggers and short swords on Level 1, but more advanced weapons and armor have to be purchased, adding an economic consideration to the whole thing. Should I buy a suit of leather armor now and start developing experience with it, or should I save money for a suit of chain instead?
  
I'm not sure I ever would have been able to afford a long sword on the first level.
  
Shops in the dungeon include weapons, armor, shields, guilds (sell keys), magic scrolls, inns (restore hit points 10 at a time), healers (restore all hit points for a fixed fee), and temples where you level up. I'm not really sure how the leveling system works. After I accumulated about 2,000 experience points, I visited the temple and got elevated from a "novice fighter" to an "aspirant." But despite earning around 6,000 more experience points, I never got elevated again after that. Does it simply take more, or is there something else I need to do? The game also tracks fighter and wizard experience and levels separately, and I'm not sure if I should focus on one or create a more balanced character.
  
Leveling up in the temple.
     
Eventually, I found a cave to Level 2. At first, it wouldn't let me through the door, but later it did, and I'm not sure what caused it to open--an experience threshold? Some item?
   
Moving on.
   
In any event, something interesting happened before I found the transition: In one of the towers or castles, I encountered what seemed to be a "boss-level" creature: a "kraken" that I had to fight in side-view. I came here way too early and was killed almost immediately. I reloaded and explored more of the dungeon, but I was never able to find the kraken again. I don't remember how I got to him in the first place.
  
What seems like a "boss-level" combat proves impossible for me.
   
While I'm asking questions, here are a few other mysteries I wouldn't mind getting a solution to from someone who understands the game better:

  • What is with the "karma" statistic? It never seems to budge, and I can't think of any gameplay elements that would cause it to budge.
  • There's a "strength" statistic that seems to be independent of my strength attribute. What goes into this score?
  • There are some fire elementals that have attack and defense scores way above the norm, and I'm unable to beat them. One of them is blocking the entrance to a castle and won't move. What the hell?
  • I keep finding "rods" within dungeons, but after I pick them up, they don't show in my inventory list. What are they for?
  • Does the character ever return to the "outside" where he can buy attributes for gold, or does all that have to be accomplished at the beginning of the game?
  • There were several other portals that I was never able to enter, including one behind a series of locked doors. This, plus the fact I was able to get to Level 2 without defeating Level 1's "boss" suggests to me that the levels aren't necessarily linear but more interconnected. Is this the case?
    
What is down this tantalizing tunnel?
   
A more complex and interesting game, with more RPG elements than Dragon Slayer. With a lack of NPCs, meaningful role-playing encounters, a sensible backstory, and deep combat tactics, it's not destined for a high rating, but I'm happy to give it another couple of levels at least. I'll probably start over with a new character now that I understand the experience system better, make better maps, and see if I can find that kraken again.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Gateway to the Savage Frontier: In the Groove

This is perhaps the most complex screen image in a Gold Box game so far, and I have no idea what's going on in it. I've already freed Amanitas from the chains at this point in the narrative, so I have no idea why he's still wearing them, who the guy behind him is, what he's doing to him, or who the sinister looking dude in the background is.
   
I'm having trouble finding the source, but maybe 10 years ago, I remember reading a study about brain activity and computer games. The study showed that in the initial stages of a game, when the player is learning both the setting and the controls, the brain is in over-drive. Multiple areas light up with frenetic spikes in neuron usage or whatever. Then, as the player becomes comfortable with the game and settles into its mechanics, activity falls off drastically, more closely mirroring someone who is asleep than someone who is awake and engaged. That makes sense to me. There are times playing a long game like Fallout 4 where I'm essentially on autopilot. I have a hypothesis that consoles enhance this torpor, but I need to find the original study to even remember on what platforms it was conducted.

Anyway, I'd like to be able to say that the moments I prize in a CRPG are those beginning stages, where my brain is active and trying to fit everything I'm learning into its previous knowledge and experiences. I'd like to be able to say it but I can't. I hate the opening stages of a new game. I hate learning a new set of lore, a new magic system, and new controls. I love having learned those things, but I hate the process. This is why you so-often can't trust my first couple of entries on an original game. I'm having to force myself to play it rather than go play Baldur's Gate for the 15th time.
   
Here, I break up the text with a screenshot of an owlbear looking like a Looney Tunes character.
    
What I like is when I settle into the mid-game groove. With a PC RPG, I never quite reach the levels of drooling stupor that I do with my Xbox, but I still manage to sink into an enjoyable immersion with a constant cycle of action and reward. In these times, it annoys me to have to stop for blogging, and when I finally write something, I inevitably cover far too much material at once, losing a lot of the nuance in the process.

The Gold Box series poses a unique challenge in these moments. This is my seventh Gold Box game, and while we've seen a few interface and graphics improvements in the series during this period, they're very minor in comparison to the overall interface and game engine. Hardly anything has significantly changed since Pool of Radiance; hardly anything new must be learned with a new title. I can even use the same map templates. This means that I start each new Gold Box title already in the mid-game groove. Hours and hours go by before it occurs to me that I should probably stop and write about some of the things I experienced. Thus, this fairly long posting.

In the opening stages of the game, the plot had led me from Yartar to Nesme and seemed to want me to go from there to Silverymoon, the next stop along the river. As we discussed last time, the wilderness combats are a bit hard for a new party and the game seems to want you to stick to the river. The river plays a big role in each of the cities, with about 25% of their potential squares given over to inaccessible water.
   
     
As I left Nesme, I was experiencing something that I'd never encountered in a Gold Box game before: poverty. My characters were all ready to level up and I couldn't assemble the 1000-gold-piece cost. In every game prior to this one, the party's initial insolvency is almost immediately cured with the acquisition of the first gem or jewel. By the third or fourth map, a never-ending inflow of unneeded +1 magic items and bracers keeps the characters rich beyond the dream of avarice. This is all in addition to the enormous hauls of gold and platinum that the party gets from combats. My readers have repeatedly assured me that, as unfortunate as it was, finding 9,000 gold pieces after a battle with three ettins was somehow necessary under D&D rules and SSI's requirement to adhere to them.
   
Well, Beyond Software somehow found a way around those rules because the typical post-combat cache is in silver rather than gold or platinum and so far the game has been stingy with its magic items. That isn't a complaint. I rather like the refreshing experience of gold actually meaning something--of collecting leather armor and short swords to sell after a battle; of considering selling even valuable magic items to pay for basic sundries.

In Nesme, trolls are a source of potential wealth, but I calculated it would have taken me around 40 successful troll battles to get everyone (including my NPC) the money needed to level up once. By then, of course, I would have received enough experience to be able to level up again, dooming my party to a never-ending cycle and premature achievement of level caps. I wasn't interested in that so I decided to head for Silverymoon overland and see if I could make any money in wilderness encounters.

That didn't work--the combats were still too hard--but the decision had the effect of putting my party in Everlund before Silverymoon, since in this game, a party traveling overland can't cross a river. You have to cross inside cities that span the river. As it later turned out, I was clearly supposed to visit Silverymoon first, but I doubt it had any lasting consequences.
  
My map of Everlund.
   
Everlund didn't have any services--all the shops seemed to indicate that robbers and poverty had cleaned them out. Goods were piled in warehouses waiting for river and caravan trade to resume, and some parties of gnolls were going through the goods. There was a bridge across the river, and large, inaccessible areas to the southwest. Some of these may be intended as water, but I couldn't see far enough to tell. In one of the buildings, a council member warned me about undead in the ruins to the north, livestock disappearing from the pens near the river, and stirges wandering the streets. 
   
Some fierce-looking gnolls. Where previous monster portraits were taken directly from D&D materials, I wonder if these were created original for this game.
   
These notices set up the game's general approach so far. Every city has some problems with monsters, all self-contained within the map. Where in previous Gold Box games, the ruins teeming with undead might have been an entire separate map, here it's a dozen or so squares on the edges of the main map--and as we've seen, those main maps contain a lot of inaccessible squares. It feels like Gateway has a much more compact approach to its game world--less space for space's sake--than its predecessors, and that's really saying something since I never felt like the previous Gold Box games were artificially large, with perhaps the exception of Secret of the Silver Blades and some of the optional ruins in Curse of the Azure Bonds.
   
Anyway, the mentioned undead, gnolls, and stirges might attack three or four times randomly, and once you've dealt with them, the map is clear. But unlike previous games, you never seem to get any acknowledgement or reward for doing so. I kept returning to the buildings housing the leaders of the cities, expecting them to acknowledge that I'd largely solved their problems--expecting the familiar, unpunctuated "Congratulations the party has gained experience" notice--but nothing ever happened.
    
You have to love a member of the Council of Elders who wears overalls. And is also the identical twin of Lord Nasher (see below).
   
Amidst my explorations, I found a hidden area with a man chained to the wall, menaced by owlbears. After I killed the owlbears and freed him, he delivered what is perhaps the longest journal entry in a gold Box game so far--nearly two full pages. It began by saying, "We told [him] how some Banites believed that only he could stop the forces of Zhentil Keep from conquering the lands of the Savage Frontier," something that I, in fact, had never heard from any Banites because I didn't go to Silverymoon first.

In any event, he introduced himself as the wizard Amanitas, and he said that he'd learned about the Zhentarim plans from an escaped slave to General Vaalgamon. The Zhentarim have taken over an ancient city called Ascore in the far northeast of the game map. In ancient times, Ascore was protected by four statuettes--named after the four cardinal points of the compass--that protected them from enemies in those directions. Eventually, the statuettes were lost and scattered about the Savage Frontier. The Zhentarim have been searching for them because "they believe by returning the statuettes to Ascore, they can open a safe path through the Great Desert" through which "they intend to send armies to conquer the entire Savage Frontier." 

I had to pop out of the game and into the Forgotten Realms wiki to understand how this even made sense geographically. Zhentil Keep is some distance from the Savage Frontier, but there is indeed a great desert, called Anauroch, in between. A map made it clearer. I'm not entirely sure how the statuettes are going to have anything to do with the desert, which contains all the perils of the lost ancient Netheril empire, but whatever. 

Ascore is in the northwest, Zhentil Keep and the Moonsea in the far east, and the Great Desert in between.
   
Anyway, Amanitas's "magical investigations" had revealed some clues to the locations of the four statuettes.
   
  • The Statuette of the East is in a great tower with many spires
  • The Statuette of the West is in a small chest carved from the pearl of a great oyster, on an island somewhere
  • The Statuette of the North is in a place "to which people do not wish to go." It is far away but in a place that many travelers must pass
  • The Statuette of the South "lies both high above and far below the surface of the land"
   
Amanitas then gave me a magic ring and said that if I brought along with the statues to the ancient plaza in Ascore, somehow it would "turn the Zhentarim's planned triumph into total and irreversible defeat." He finished by giving me some kind of magic card that would enable the vaults in Yartar, Neverwinter, and Silverymoon to "save and exchange your valuables as if they were really just one place" and told me he'd be in Secomber if we'd like to seek him out again.
   
I forgot that he said this about Yartar until I just uploaded this screenshot. I was already there! Maybe I have to search more carefully.
   
Not a lot to go on for the four statuettes, but I remember a big tower in Luskan in Neverwinter Nights, so I suspect that's where the first statuette is. The only island is likely to be out in the ocean to the west, perhaps accessible from Port Llast, Neverwinter, or Luskan. Before I headed out, however, I went north to Silverymoon to see what I was supposed to have learned there.

Unlike Everlund, Silverymoon had a full set of services. By the time I reached it, I had been playing the game for nearly 7 hours without leveling up because I couldn't afford it. I had found a few gems and one jewel in the final Everlund battles, but even they weren't enough to take care of all my characters. Thus, I finally caved and sold my Ring of Protection +2, which brought in 15,000 gold pieces. That may seem like a lot, but it costs 8,000 to fully level-up my party, including my multi-classed fighter/thief and my NPC fighter. I suspected that I'd find some huge treasure haul moments after selling the ring, but that never happened on this or any subsequent maps.
   
This hurt a little.
   
Meanwhile, a magic shop in Silverymoon teased me with things I might actually want to buy, including Gauntlets of Dexterity.
  
And of course we have the usual +1 arrow "money sink."
    
The river in Silverymoon is crossed by a magic bridge that you can't see. There was talk about lizardmen hanging around the docks in town, and indeed I found some there. Notices proclaimed a weekly Festival of Mielikki (a goddess of the forest) coming up in 6 days, and I recalled that the note I had found on the slain Cleric of Bane had asked the cleric to meet the writer at some shop during the festival.
   
I always imagined the Moonbridge to be a little more majestic.
  
A blacksmith's shop announced it was closed until the festival. I waited until the festival and entered the shop, where the blacksmith turned out to be an agent of Bane. Believing I was his ally, he expressed horror at the Zhentarim's plan to "send armies across the Great Desert" claiming that this would destroy "the historic balance between the Zhentarim and the Banites." He finished by telling me of the great wizard, Amelior Amanitas, currently visiting the Vault of the Sages in Silverymoon. He though that Amanitas had some information that might stop the Zhentarim.
  
This is the first time so far that there's been anything like an "encounter option" in the game.
  
I kept getting kicked out of the Vault of Sages when I tried to enter, but I suspect if I'd visited here before Everlund, I would have found some information indicating that Amanitas had been captured and taken there. I was thus content that I was back on the main path again.
   
The "town leader of Neverwinter?" Isn't that selling him a little short?
   
Neverwinter next. It was disappointing. Unlike the sprawling metropolis I remembered from later games, it was just another 16 x 16 collection of shops and water. I spoke to Lord Nasher in his palace--I guess anyone can just wander in--and I want to offer his speech in total:
   
I'm afraid you've come to Neverwinter in a time of great troubles. Many people were moving to the outskirts of the city to escape the troubles. The older, inner areas were becoming havens for criminals and all forms of monsters.

We converted several blocks of the old city to indoor gardens to help bring people back to Neverwinter. But now monsters have invaded the indoor gardens. Instead of bringing people in and helping the city, the gardens are scaring them away!
   
"Gang graffiti."
   
This seems like an obvious metaphor for "white flight" in many U.S. cities in the mid-20th century, leading to clumsy revitalization efforts that, often as not, made the problem worse. I don't really know what point the writers were trying to make by tying a similar scenario to Neverwinter, but in any event, although I was able to clear the indoor gardens of monsters--displacer beasts and manticores, primarily--nothing else plot-related happened in the city, and Nasher never acknowledged my help.
   
The manticore here stands for the heroin epidemic.
   
Port Llast was a tiny map, only 5 x 15, most of it taken up by an abandoned ship called the Gallant Prince that had been found adrift off the coast. The ship was full of undead, but by now my Level 4 clerics were capable of turning skeletons, zombies, and ghouls instantly, so the battles were no trouble. A couple of "Hosttower mages" seemed to be responsible for the fate of the ship, but they succumbed quickly to a couple of castings of "Hold Person." There wasn't a lot that was plot related, except a note (which confirmed what I otherwise suspected) that one of the statues was at the Hosttower in Luskan.
   
Believe it or not, that's supposed to be a ghoul.
   
I leave you on the streets of Luskan. I keep getting into battles with margoyles, but they only respond to magic weapons and I only have one of these in my party, making me think I perhaps should have gone in a different direction first. I just had to reload after two of my characters were killed by said margoyles--I don't have enough money for resurrection. Maybe I just need to head back to Silverymoon and spend some money on +1 daggers.
  
The pirates die quickly enough, but only one of my characters has a weapon capable of defeating the margoyles.
  
Some random notes:

  • Every tavern so far has only offered "fight" and "leave" options, making them rather pointless. It feels like the team just didn't finish programming them.
  • Unlike previous Gold Box games, characters in this one get full experience for turning undead and for foes who surrender. 
  • I tried just wandering around the wilderness maps to explore, but I haven't found any hidden locations so far. There seem to be a lot more outdoor squares here than in Pool of Radiance or Death Knights of Krynn, and I wonder if it makes sense to try to systematically explore them all, or if this game is more like Champions of Krynn where the outdoor map is kind of pointless and all the useful locations are clearly annotated.
    
I explored that whole area between the rivers and there was nothing there.
   
  • I like the variety of monsters so far. I don't think any are appearing here for the first time, but ankhegs, trolls, ettins, giant snakes, owlbears, and manticores aren't exactly common in the earlier games. Giant snakes, incidentally, leave a bunch of leather armor behind when you kill them. Is the idea supposed to be that you're turning their skin into leather?

So far, a pleasant enough experience, and the game might be the first Gold Box title to get the economy right. The plot isn't very compelling just yet, and the combats (excepting some of the outdoor ones) have perhaps been a little too easy. But the game has me in its groove, and it's certainly easy to fire it up at the end of the day. Taking a break from it to explore Dragon Slayer II isn't going to be easy.

Time so far: 9 hours
Reload count: