Saturday, January 14, 2017

Savage Empire: Courting Trouble

When last I left our intrepid heroes (ages ago - I suppose this really is a valley stuck in time, isn't it?) I was preparing for a trip to Tichticatl, the grand capital city of the Nahuatla. There, I would find a way to restore a king to his rightful place, clinching the support of the most advanced tribe in the valley, and guaranteeing their aid in the efforts against the Myrmidex.

But first, I stopped to talk to a lizard.


See, I ended my last session in the Sakkhra caves, and on my way out, I bumped into one that I had somehow missed talking to in my previous visits to the lizardfolk. Ksssindra was once a warrior, but having aged past her golden years, she now served as a teacher in the tribe. And outside as well, as she eagerly told me of Sakkhra legends and of a city beneath the ground near the great mesa. According to legend, she said, the Sakkhra once lived there, though the city had been since lost. She seemed glad for a listening ear, and after a pleasant exchange, we said our goodbyes and my little band made their way toward the city of Tichticatl.

One of my first tasks that I set myself upon arrival was to track down a few more obsidian swords. The Yolaru had asked me for ten of them to arm their warriors, after all, and I was only carrying a few. Scrounging around on the outskirts of town turned up another one or two, though the area seemed fairly deserted. Wondering where everyone might be, I strolled into the city proper to see what information I could get from the locals - or whether I could even find any locals. The situation in the city might have been more dire than I had first expected.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the first person I spoke to turned out to be Atlipacta, the town weaponcrafter! She excitedly told me of her work and her craft, and was more than willing to show me her wares and offer them in trade for emeralds. She showed me the armor and shields she crafted, while Triolo examined the bows and arrows in her stock. It was her blades, however, that truly drew my eye, passing straight over her knives and instead negotiating for the purchase of her swords. I walked out of her shop a few emeralds lighter, but with four more obsidian swords weighing down our packs - enough to bring my total to eleven, ten for the Yolaru and one spare left over for Aiela to use.

Naturally, I promptly abandoned the city in order to beeline it straight to the Yolaru and give the swords to their chieftain. Hey, those things were heavy and I was in sore need of space in my inventory!

Well that's not suspicious at all.
Packs now significantly lighter, we made our way back to the city, only to stumble upon an allosaurus blocking the way. We made short work of him, Aiela acquitting herself well with her new weapon, then returned to our exploration of Tichticatl proper. We quickly came to realize that this was a city on edge - most of them men we came across decried us as intruders and made to attack. The women were considerably more open, but even they were uneasy. They were more than willing to point us to the weaver and the weaponmaker, should we have need of any of their services, but when it came to the state of things at court, they were decidedly unsettled. Many of them denied even knowing the name of Moctapotl, their proper king. Some further questioning uncovered the fact that Huitlapacti had claimed the throne for his own and decreed that nobody may utter the name of the previous one. The sense of fear in the city was palpable.

Methinks something's rotten, a lot closer than Denmark.
Of course, the best way to get a sense of the state of court was to visit, so after chatting with Paxaptamac for a bit (who told us of flax, and took some feathers off our hands in exchange for emeralds), it was off to the palace. Right away we could tell something was not right in Tichticatl - from a parrot, of all things. There was one flapping about the throne room, repeating things that didn't quite make sense to us out of context. The names Fritz and Spector came up on occasion, as well as mentions of the Kotl city, and plans to conquer the world! Affairs among the Nahuatla were indeed more dire than first glance suggested.

Remembering how much the townsfolk seemed to fear Huitlipacti, I opted for avoiding the man himself and instead talking to his shaman, a man named Zipactriotl. Or more accurately, Johann Spector - he was known to Professor Rafkin, being an archaeologist himself. At one point, at least, as he had currently declared himself shaman, and, as he himself put it, the "savoir of Earth, the bringer of peace and paradise." He spoke of stones like the moonstone, and energy similar to that which came from them in the Myrmidex caves and the Kotl city, and of his grand plans to harness that energy reactivate the Kotl's automatons, use them to get the stone in the Myrmidex caves, and promptly use both to conquer the world itself! Yes, these were dire circumstances indeed. He openly bragged of deposing Moctapotl and disposing of the previous shaman, Oaxtepac, as both of them were in the way of putting his plans into motion. He seemed intent on doing the same to me, as further questions merely provoked him into calling the guards on us!

Yeah, that's sending up half a dozen warning signals.
We scrambled through the palace halls, eventually finding refuge in a room that turned out to be the Queen's own chambers. Fortunately, she seemed to sympathize with us. Tlapatla was the wife of Huitlipacti and cousin to Moctapotl. She was a bit haughty, but told a bit of the strange blue glow that surrounded both the usurper and his mad shaman - Zipactriotl (or rather, Spector) had given him a belt which surrounded him with a glow that protected him with a glow no weapon could pierce, brought back from the hidden city.

Needing allies, I sought out the prison, to see if I could find the previous shaman. Spector had implied that he was merely imprisoned, not dead, and after some effort I did manage to find Oaxtepac. He gave us clues to both the history and the location of the hidden city Tlapatla had mentioned - according to him, the ancestors of the tribes of Eodon were brought to the valley by the denizens of that city to be servants. Eventually, though, their ancestors rebelled, slaying their masters and abandoning the city. Who their captors were, legends could not agree. Some called them spirits, some likened them to the Sakkhra. Whatever the case, it was clear the key to bringing down Huitlipacti and Zipactriotl lay in the city. Supposedly the previous residents, when they abandoned the city, left a key in case they ever decided to come back. To find the city, one needed to find a device on the great mesa, and fit a large gem into it. At a certain hour, the light hitting the gem would reveal the location of the city. This gem had apparently been stolen by the Urali - but Aiela reminded me that Darden had given it to her as a present!

Precisely what I was thinking, Jimmy m'boy.
Oaxtepac told us, however, that there was one more obstacle in our way - a man made of solid gold guarded the entrance to the city, and was currently missing its head. Oaxtepac had found it on a Barrab man, and after telling Spector's assistant Fritz, was now in the possession of the crazed shaman. Fritz himself was driven off by the madness of his former master, but I remembered hearing his name among the Pindiro. Thanking Oaxtepac, we went on our way, only to have another prisoner, bragging of the crimes he had committed, demand we break him out. When we refused, he called for the guards, and once again we were fighting and fleeing for our lives.

A quick sneak back to the palace revealed the golden head in the palace treasury, but we still felt it best to track down Fritz for his side of the story before proceeding further. The Pindiro told us Fritz was currently residing in a cave west of the great lake, so after fending off a few deinonychuses (deinonychi?), we found the man in question. He told us it was his fault that Spector had gone mad, but had tried to make up for it by stealing the crystal brain Spector had taken from the Kotl city. Whatever he may have ended up doing while working for the madman, it was more than evident that that Fritz was doing his best to make amends. So when he offered us the crystal brain to aid us in our effort, we readily accepted.

From there it was off to the Great Mesa, where we placed the gem into its setting (after thanking my lucky stars that I'd thought to save just before I did - I tried to (M)ove it rather than (U)se it at first, which shattered the gem. Reload ahoy!!) At noon, the light refracting off the gem converged on the plain to the north, and heading over there revealed a hidden entrance, right near the teleporter plaza! Descending into the depths, we came across the headless golden statue we were told would likely be there. Reattaching the head, the statue sprang to life, welcoming us to the city of the Kotl, though apologizing for not remembering much. He did remember his name, Yunapotli, and said he would remember more with his brain. We handed over the crystal brain, and in return he told us of devices the Kotl developed to combat the Myrmidex - black staves, canisters full of a gas harmful to the Myrmidex, shields. We would have to keep an eye out for them as we explored the city. He also told us that Katalkotl would know many things about the Kotl and their city. We could find him in the center of the city, he was unable to move from his spot there. After some further discussion, Yunapotli agreed to join with us and opened the door to the city proper.

And so that was where I called it a day - in the same place where I began it, in a sense. I'd started by talking to a Sakkhra about the lost city, and now I was standing in it. All that was left was to explore it - and find a way to deal with the glow about the Nahuatla usurper in the process.

~~~

I just can't resist wordplay.
I have some thoughts about the plot of the game as a result of this update, but I think I'll reserve those for the game's culmination proper. For now I'll just say that an open world can lead to some pacing issues when it comes to game story, and I think that came into play a bit during this session. It's nice to finally get some backstory and a sense of the larger scheme of things, but the fact I waited this long to get to the Nahuatla city meant that I didn't get that particular piece of the plot until much later, and I think it would have helped having it earlier.

That's not to say that I think it's necessarily bad, but-- well. Again, I think that's something to be saved for my eventual wrap-up post.

I did have one other thought while putting this together, though, and that's an inexplicable aversion to calling my merry band of adventurers a "party." I've consciously avoided using the word while composing the narrative of my travels through Britannia and beyond, and I still can't figure out exactly why. At first I thought it was simply a term that sounded too "game-ish" to my ear, and I've made an effort to make these posts, at least the bits describing my gameplay, to feel a bit more story-like. But then I remembered that I've had no hesitation about including things like leveling up, which is very much a game mechanic aspect that I haven't had any compunction about throwing about willy-nilly.

So why this aversion to calling them my party a "party?"

Maybe it's because I feel there's a bit of a disconnect in the term. When used in a game context, it feels somewhat... well, "impersonal" is the word I'm looking for, I think. To me, it describes a group chosen solely for function and capability rather than a proper gang of characters that's developing together. And as I've tried to do the latter more than the former in this series, "party" doesn't feel much like an appropriate word to use. I mean, bare bones as it is at times, I like to think of these guys as proper characters, rather than just what use I can get out of them in a combat situation. And the connotations my brain gives "party" just doesn't fit the image I have of them.

Of course, there's another explanation, and that's simply, "language be weird, yo."

...and I think the fact I just typed that sentence is an indication that it's time to draw this post to a close. If you'll excuse me, I've got an ancient city to explore!

Right under my nose, this whole time!

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Brief Update

Hoo boy, it's been a while. As those of you who listen to Spam Spam Spam Humbug may be aware, a few months ago I landed a new job. While it's been great in a lot of respects, it often takes me a long time to adjust to big changes in my life (even good ones!) and as a result some other things tend to slide in the shuffle.

Like this blog, for instance.

Rest assured, however, that I'm still kickin' and I'm still plugging away at Ultima. I've got another session of Savage Empire all played out, just need to find the time to write the update - which hopefully will be soon. Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Savage Empire: Forging Alliances

As if to prove my newfound zeal for the game like I mentioned last post, I spent most of a Saturday evening tearing through the Valley of Eodon - buckle up, don the pith helmets and break out the machetes, we've got a lot of ground to cover this time!

I began the day's adventures just outside the cave Aiela had been held captive in. Though I had fulfilled both her father's request and the demands of my own sense of honor (it is a virtue, after all), I still had business in this part of the valley. Darden had not just disrupted the Kurak way of life, but his own tribe's as well, and the brute's demise brought the Urali no closer to having their idol Fabozz back. I would need all the help I could get to push back against the Myrmidex - I would get a proper sense of that before too much longer - and misfits that the Urali were, antagonistic as they had been under Darden, theirs was still aid I was certain I could use.

At least Fabozz has some nice crystal gardens to tend here.
Wamap had told me Darden had hidden Fabozz away in a cave to the north, so I turned my sights in that direction, Aiela in tow, more than willing to lend a hand in our further exploits. The Urali tribesmen continued to attack us on sight as we pushed back through the village and onward to find Fabozz - I suspect they were either unaware of Darden's demise or else just upset that he perished before he could be convinced (or forced) to bring Fabozz back. Whatever it was they blamed me for, I yet had a duty to do, and while discretion may have been the better part of valor, I did what had to be done, hoping all the while that I wasn't slashing the tribe's numbers down too horrifically. Eventually I made my way to the cavern in the north, which was small but well guarded by Darden's lackeys, who had lost none of their zeal for having lost their leader (if they were even aware of that fact). We fought hard - or rather, Triolo, Jimmy and I did, the other three got stuck around a corner - and found Fabozz stowed away in the rear of the cavern. There was, of course, the question of how to move the statue, but Fabozz provided a clue, uttering only a single word - "Light." Jimmy's camera provided a quick burst of such, and however it happened, it did the trick. Fabozz vanished, and his voice declared us friends of the Urali, allowing us safe passage through their lands. We confirmed his presence back in the village, exchanged a few words with Wamap to solidify the alliance, and went on our way.

We shuffled some weaponry around to account for our new party member, then decided to make a pit stop at the Kurak village, both to take some much needed rest at Intanya's hut and to give Aiela a chance to assure the tribe of her safety. Along the way, she had a chance to reunite with her friend Sahree, and to pass the time, she told us of the gem she carried with her. Apparently Darden had stolen it from the Nahuatla and presented it to her as some sort of token of his love, thinking he could get in her good graces that way. It hadn't worked, of course, but she had kept the gem anyway.

Oh, now you've just piqued my curiosity.
Rested, renewed, and ready for further travels, we navigated the teleportation pads once more to arrive in the southeast of the valley, where the Jukari and Haakur tribes lived. They were the only two tribes I had yet to meet, and so I figured it was high time I did so. The Jukari were closest to the teleporter, so I began with them. It seemed we had come in the middle of something of a shift in leadership - the tribesmen told us their chieftain had recently died as the result of a lava flow. His son Jumu was now acting chief, and speaking with him revealed that the lava flow had caused more trouble than just the death of his father. It had also killed their shaman, and blocked off access to their sacred cave to the east. Inside the cave was a hide that detailed their tribe's history, and retrieving said hide was Jumu's request from us before he would agree to joining an alliance of tribes. To sweeten the deal, he told us of the diamonds and emeralds within the cave, and told us we were welcome to help ourselves to them as reward, if only we would bring the hide back to him. A difficult position for a young man to be in, but Jumu seemed to be handling it as best he could. After assuring Jumu we would do our best to make sure the record of his tribe's history made it back to them - Rafkin seemed to have an idea how to find our way over the lava flow - we departed.

Easy there, Dokray...
We found the Haakur a little further on, and they had little to tell us, on account of most of them barely even being capable of proper speech. They were the most primitive of the tribes we had met in the valley, "Neanderthal" being a rather unflattering but apparently accurate descriptor for them. A few of the tribe were able to hold a decent enough conversation with us, however, most notably their chief Grugorr. In contrast to Jumu, Grugorr was a father who had recently lost his son Krukk, who had gone spider-slaying in a nearby cavern to the south and never came back. If we could do what he could not, kill the spiders and burn their webs, and return with Krukk's shield, Haakur agreed to join the alliance against the Myrmidex. On our way out, Dokray bumped into an old rival of his named Ugyuk, and neither of the two had any love for each other. It nearly broke out into a fight right then and there, but Dokray refrained after I told him this was not the time for it. The two glared daggers at each other as we departed, though.

Having spoken to all of the tribes now, Jimmy and I bent our heads over his notebook and refreshed our memories as to what they all required of us, so we could best form our plan of action. Four of the tribes had already thrown their lot in with the forming alliance - the Kurak for rescuing Aiela, the Urali for defeating Darden and retrieving Fabozz, the Disquiqui for belling the cat-I-mean-T-Rex, and the Pindiro simply because it was the wise thing to do. That left seven still to sway, and two of them could be convinced via feats in the caves in this part of the valley. So after gathering some branches, dunking some cloth strips in tar, and making some makeshift torches, we ventured into the spider caves to find the shield of Grugorr's son Krukk.

Well that looked like it was messy...
The cave was expansive and difficult to traverse due to the webs spun over nearly everything. Both spiders and Myrmidex assaulted us from nearly every turn, and I left most of the fighting to my companions as I occupied myself with burning the webs in the cave, both to make exploration easier and to do a bit of damage to the spiders that way. Beneath them were all sorts of things - we found many, many corpses of villagers, several dead Myrmidex, and even what seemed to be a more modern man, judging from the camera and rifle we found on his body. We found Krukk's shield in a corner, but even more interesting was a hole that we found in another part of the cave, surrounded by dead Myrmidex and dead tribesmen. It seemed a rather good-sized battle had been fought here, which suggested it would be wise to avoid the hole itself. The warriors had all been wielding obsidian swords, so we collected them for later delivery to the Yolaru and returned to the Haakur to give him his son's shield. Satisfied, he thanked us and agreed to the alliance.

Our next task was to find a way over the lava to get to the sacred cave of the Jukari, and at Rafkin's suggestion I made use of the fire extinguisher from the remains of his lab to do so. For some reason or another it worked, and from there it was a fairly simple matter to navigate our way to the cave and find the hide. It was a much smaller cavern and considerably less... occupied... so it wasn't long before we were presenting Jumu with the recorded history of his people, and received in exchange his promise to join the alliance of tribes. (As an aside, yes, it's incredibly silly that the fire extinguisher works to cool lava, but at least despite its nonsensicality the game provides ways of pointing you toward it, whether it's the letter to the editor in the manual or Rafkin in the game itself. Considerably less adventure-game-logic that way, which is always a good thing.)

Obligatory "I can't believe that actually worked" goes here.
With the tribes in the southeast of the valley firmly on the side of a valley-wide alliance, I turned my attentions in the complete opposite direction and turned my sights to the northwest and the Barako. The trek there introduced us to a few new enemies, including a serpent woman and a tiger, but we defended ourselves with alacrity, and before long we'd returned to the ledge where we'd seen the silver backed gorilla that we suspected kidnapped the chieftain's daughter. The question was how to get up there. Some exploration revealed a cave behind a waterfall, but the falls itself was too forceful to allow us to get by it easily. The solution - a makeshift grenade, made by stuffing a few handfuls of gunpowder in a clay pot and sealing it with a tar-soaked strip of cloth. Lighting the fuse and lobbing it at a large boulder atop the cliff shifted the boulder and blocked off the waterfall, making passage easy. A quick jaunt through the cavern brought us to the very ledge the gorilla called home, and a brief fight later, we stepped past the beast and found a girl who introduced herself as Halisa. Grateful for rescue and relieved that the gorilla had been taken care of, she thanked us heartily and gave us a head start for a race back to the village - which she still managed to win, somehow. We had a victory nonetheless, though, as her safe return ensured her mother's support in the forming alliance.

My kingdom for some pruning shears!
After a quick pit stop to heal up once more - and another skirmish with Myrmidex on the teleport hub, which brought about both more complaints about public transit security and a level for Aric (his first since the beginning of the game!) - we directed our attentions toward the plights of the tribes in the southwest. Atop the Great Mesa was supposed to be the plant that the Barrab chieftain wanted in order to heal his son, but here too there was a navigational problem. There was a gap atop the mesa that we had no way of crossing. No way, at least, until we took note of a large tree, and a solid smack with a fire axe soon gave us a way over. Some more wandering later (and even more Myrmidex!), we came across the plant in question. What we hadn't realized was that the gigantic orchid was, in fact, carnivorous. A fierce battle ensued, in which many vines were chopped and many wishes for some weed killer were made, but we eventually came out victorious, and after scooping up the now motionless remains of the Little Shop of Horrors reject, we took it back to Balakai and his son Nakai, who perked up immediately. We rested for a while (Jimmy had gained enough experience for another level), chatting with the pair, and discovered that Topuru wasn't the first Balakai had pulled the mind-in-a-stone trick with. Apparently the Disquiqui Tuomaxx on Drum Hill had been a victim of the stunt as well - although in stark contrast, he'd actually thanked Balakai for doing so! It seemed the whole family had ways of getting the better of others - Nakai told me his sister had done so with Nawl, who'd I'd bumped into just outside the village, and when I asked him about it, he just got scared and scurried off.

"Now begone, before someone drops a house - I mean boulder -
on you, too!"
Then it was back into the area surrounding the Great Mesa to find Thunderer and the fruit trees he was stalking about, and taking care of him was a rather simple matter. We found him prowling about a cliffside with another boulder tilting precariously just on the edge of it. Another makeshift grenade, and *blam* - down it came right on Thunderer's head, and that was another problem solved. Truth be told, the Myrmidex swarm that assaulted us on the way back to the Sakkhra was more of a problem than Thunderer had proved to be. (I ran into a LOT of Myrmidex during this particular session - my notes mark my encounters with increasingly numerous intesifiers, culminating in all caps by about this point - although this last one got Aiela a level, too!) After informing the lizardfolk of the liberation of their little grove from its reptilian tyrant, I called it a good day's work. A full nine of the tribes had pledged their allegiance to an alliance of tribes, leaving just the Yolaru and the Nahuatla. The former wanted swords, the latter wanted their city back, and the one would lead to the other. But it could wait until next time.

~~~

Details are what make or break immersion. I can write a scene about a man's last moments, but it's a lot more difficult to connect with it if I don't take the time to show you his feeble, fumbling attempts to get the picture of his family out of his wallet so he can ensure it's the last thing he sees despite through increasingly unfocused eyes. I can write a proposal, but if you don't see the bride-to-be's quivering lip as she makes several attempts to speak before all the breath rushes out of her in one exultant affirmation, something's going to be lost. It's the old show-don't-tell adage - the tiny, concrete details are what make the illusion of story that much more tangible, more real.

How'd you get here?
That's as true for any form of storytelling, games included, and it was a subject I found on my mind a good deal during this particular foray into Savage Empire, because the game's full of examples of both how effective details can be and how a lack of them can make things fall flat. The bodies strewn about the spider caves added a lot to my perception of the caves themselves - they weren't solely of tribesmen, there were several Myrmidex and even a modern man among them, suggesting that these spiders were, indeed, a serious threat if even the better equipped and stronger foes found themselves entangled within the webs. The sacred cave of the Jukari felt all the more important when I found the totems used in shamanic magic on a table near the hide I'd been sent to retrieve, a reminder that this was a place the shaman came to often, a place that meant something. I even noticed for the first time that the background in the conversation portraits change depending on where (and in some cases when!) the conversation occurs, be it cave or village, day or night or sunset.

Perhaps most stark were the details when it came to the tribes themselves, though. All of them have their own unique aesthetic, and while granted, some of the portraits do feel a bit caricatured at times, the tribes all feel like distinct entities. The Sakkhra caves are full of crystal gardens in contrast to the sparse Haakur caves, which again stand distinct from the stepped mesa the Barrab call home, which feels different from the Jukari by the lava, and so on and so forth. The way the villages are laid out, the fact that each tribe seems to have their preferred weaponry based on what can be found in their huts, even the manner of speech of some tribes (I particularly enjoyed seeing the importance placed on names when it came to the Haakur and Urali, the former only being bestowed upon those who've earned recognition and the latter guarding theirs to avoid another having power over them, which is why it's a big deal when Wamap gives the player his) - there's some real steps taken through the detail work to make each tribe feel like they stand out just a little from the rest, and serves to emphasize the running theme of bringing together a bunch of different tribes together to form a single alliance.

Those totems in the corner there were a nice touch.
Which, on the flip side, only makes the moments where the game falls short in terms of details all the more glaring. While each tribe has a distinct aesthetic, the unique-ness of each falls a bit flat once you realize that most of the tribesmen all have the same dialogue tree. There's a very small handful that actually have anything unique to tell you, and beyond that there isn't much. There's a lot spoken of the inter-tribe rivalries among the valley, but there's little evidence of them beyond words. I've seen complaints of that when it comes to Ultima VI and the threat of the Gargoyles, but at least there, you saw (and potentially fought) them at the shrines and could see the aftermath of one such skirmish via the recovering soldiers in Cove. Here in Savage Empire, there's... not really anything, besides Dokray and Ugyuk's spat, and even that's more of a personal thing than any representation of tension between entire tribes. Consequently, it feels a bit closer to checking things off a list than the game's overarching goal of attempting to unite eleven very disparate tribes who can't stand each other at first.

Not to mention Aiela's father, as far as I could tell, didn't have much to say about the rescue of his daughter, despite the fact Sahree did have some different dialogue with Aiela in the party.

Which hasn't made the game any less enjoyable to play, when it comes down to it, it's just something my sense of narrative has picked up on. And to be fair, I'd probably be paying less attention to the lack of detail in some places if it didn't stand in such contrast to the parts of the game where it is rather effective. That's the give and take you deal with, I suppose.

In any case, time to head into Tichticatl proper, finally! Been looking forward to this.

There are some days where I might feel the same.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Savage Empire: All Over the Map

Y'know, it's been an interesting venture attempting to balance actual play sessions with finding the time to scribble my musings about them. I've had a lot of days lately where I've found myself wanting to have myself a good long session of Savage Empire while simultaneously feeling hesitant to do so because I haven't written up the last one. In fact, this particular post technically covers two sessions, partly because I didn't get much done in the first one and partly because of the aforementioned "but I want to plaaaaay" urge winning out over self-imposed blogging obligations.

Which probably says something about how much I'm enjoying myself when it comes to Savage Empire, but I'll get to that later.

I'll just take a bit of that...
When last I left off, I'd come one step closer to finding out where the Urali tribe made their home, so I could finally rescue Aiela. And by "one step closer," I mean "getting the whole story about how Topuru lost his mind but not really and how I could potentially convince him he got it back so he'll tell me what I need to know." It amuses me how particularly convoluted getting one simple task done can be in RPGs sometimes.

At least this particular step in the venture didn't necessitate gallivanting all over the valley, as the Barrab chieftain had told me I just needed any old blue stone, which I could procure by chipping off a piece of the stones near the Sakkhra caves. Said caves were just a quick jaunt away (relatively speaking), and it wasn't long before I caught sight of one of the big blue rocks atop a cliff. Of course, finding my way up the cliff was another matter entirely, but after some walking about to find a decent ascent, I pulled out a hammer that I'd brought with me from Rafkin's lab and chipped off a piece. I'd bring it to Topuru the next time I was in the neighborhood, but I figured since I was already here, I might as well chat up the tribe and see what they had to say, and what their particular thoughts on an alliance of tribes might be.

Succinctly put.
The Sakkhra turned out to be a tribe of lizardfolk (wasn't that the name of the lizard race in Master of Orion, too? I never actually played it, more of a Civilization guy, so I'm not 100% sure on that), and I managed to get some interesting information about the valley's history from their chief Sysskarr. According to him, the Sakkhra were descendants of the Kotl, the original occupants of the valley who lived in an underground city. They ruled over humans and kept them as pets, and protected themselves with a powerful glow - the same that now protected Zipactriotl, I was told. I imagined I'd find out more about them later. The tribesfolk had made mention of Thunderer, a large lizard that prowled about near a grove of trees that bore medicinal fruit, and Sysskarr confirmed what I suspected - that I would have to do something about him before the Sakkhra would agree to an alliance. Sysskarr also informed me I would need to construct a drum to call the tribes together. That's something I'll have to investigate further the next time I'm in the vicinity of Drum Hill, near the Nahuatla city.

A warrior named Kysstaa (good grief, the names in this game are a bear to keep straight) offered his services to our little group, but we politely turned him down and went on our way. I was in a bit of a hurry to investigate the oddly colored platform near the entrance to the caves, and wound up spending a fair amount of time figuring out the teleportation system I'd stumbled across.

It was, quite frankly, the most fun I'd had in the game yet.

Transit Central needs better exterminators.
I found a certain thrill from plunging into the unknown via a teleporter, having Triolo use a view spell to get an idea of my surroundings, and then comparing that tiny glimpse of nearby geographical features to the official map to pinpoint where I was likely to be. I'm considerably less familiar with Eodon than I am Britannia, which means that I've been consulting the map fairly regularly, but being able to use it in a manner like this was a real treat for a map nerd like me (seriously, I've got a pretty sizable collection of globes, both old and new). And it also had the side-effect of highlighting just how excellently done the Savage Empire map is. The cliffs, rivers, forests and such are all mirrored on the map just as I'd expect them to be, and the location of each teleporter is surrounded by a distinct enough set of features that careful scrutiny of the map is all you need to figure out where you are - stumbling into a patch of lava near a teleporter was enough to tell me I was in the southeast of the valley, near the Jukari, even though I'd never visited them before, because it's the only place on the map where lava shows up. A bend in the river here, a particular series of cliffs there - it's a fabulous "puzzle" of sorts that isn't strictly necessary, but immensely enjoyable all the same, and brought up fond memories of sitting in the backseat with the map during family road trips, serving as my dad's navigator. I felt like an honest-to-goodness adventurer, armed with little more than my wits and a map, trying to get my bearings based on nothing more than what I could see. It was gloriously exhilarating, and I wish it was a moment I was better able to replicate in more modern games.

Jimmy also managed to gain another level during these particular explorations, thanks to another ambush from the Myrmidex (right on the main teleporter hub, no less, Eodon really needs to increase its transit security), and I of course gave him another point in strength. I need all the carrying capacity I can get in this game.

Yeah, that's about what I thought.
One of the teleporters led to a spot near the Barako tribe, which meant an immensely useful shortcut when it came to getting back to Topuru. I hurried back to the island where the mindless man wandered, and upon telling him we'd brought his mind back to him, he practically mauled poor Professor Rafkin to extract the blue stone from the good doctor's pack (which Topuru then proceeded to swallow whole). Convinced that his mind had returned - we were considerably less convinced, but that didn't particularly matter much - Topuru offered some turtle food in gratitude. This was not quite what I was hoping for, though after some prompting Topuru also offered the directions we were looking for. He told us to go northeast of the Nahuatla city where there were caves in the cliffs, and we could find the Urali through the second cave from the north.

That's a lot of dead dinosaurs.
So it was off for some more exploration, meandering along the eastern side of the valley to count the caves and discern which one was the cave we were looking for. We stumbled across a number of dead dinosaurs in a large field of tar pits in the process, which I made a mental note of in case the tar that Jimmy was still carrying proved not to be enough. Boldly we strode into the depths of the caverns that lined the cliffs of Eodon, and promptly blundered into several bears. They proved to be formidable foes as we battled our way through the cavern, and I was rather relieved to step out again on the other side, blinking in the sunlight again. I followed the path laid out, hoping that it would take me to where the Urali called home, only to discover the road blocked by a Tyrannosaurus. Not especially wanting to take one of those head-on, I sought an alternate route.

In doing so, I stumbled across a wisp, which, in its odd manner, explained a bit more about the situation in the valley, or more accurately, the reason why it remained hidden - a strong power source distorting space-time around the valley, a modified moonstone, if I managed to understand the wisp correctly (which is always a task). Further, I was warned that if left unchecked this source could cause permanent distortion and even destruction in the valley. Something for me to be mindful of moving forward.

Flashbacks to my physics classes...
The turtle bait Topuru had given me was bringing a bunch of giant turtles onto the riverbanks, and it occurred to me that perhaps I could use them to get around the dangerous dino blocking my path. Sure enough, the waterways proved fruitful, and we soon found ourselves at the entrance to the Urali village. Their shaman Wamap was there to greet us, telling us of Darden and how he had taken over the tribe by holding Fabozz, the tribe's deity of sorts, captive. He told me that if I killed Darden and rescued Fabozz, he would see to it that the Urali joined the alliance of tribes when the time came.

Fabozz was being held in a cave to the north, but I was here for another purpose as well, and wanted to see that through first. According to the tribesmen (or more accurately, tribeswomen, as they were the only ones to actually talk to me and not attack on sight), she was being held in Darden's stronghold to the south, and apparently disliked him enough to direct me toward a less guarded path to his cave by following the waterfront. The poisoned darts the Urali I fought led me to believe this alternate route might be the wiser choice, so I took the women's advice and soon found myself at Darden's cave.

I love how much the game wants to emphasize how much of
a galoot Darden is. Even the GAME calls him a neanderthal.
There I found a makeshift cage, and Aiela herself within - but it was not left unguarded. With a shout, we pressed forward into the fray, and found her guard... well... wanting. The most difficult part about the fight, frankly, was not accidentally hitting Dokray instead, as his sprite was the same used for the guards! With them taken care of, we broke Aiela out of her prison (and boy did she take that well, considering how long it took me to get here - come to think of it, she's presented as quite the capable warrior in her own right, I'm frankly surprised she didn't just break herself out by this point), only to come face-to-face once more with Darden himself. We were prepared this time, though, and after trading both words and blows, he realized just how unwise it was to face the Avatar head-on. (Okay, so maybe I'm letting humility slide a bit there. Quest of the Avatar is forever and all that.)

With Darden defeated and Aiela now a part of our little band, we stepped out once more, feeling much accomplished in finally achieving a long anticipated task.

~~~

Nyah nyah, can't catch meeeeee!!
I made the assertion way back in Ultima II that every Ultima, and indeed every RPG, has a moment where the game truly opens up and engages, a turning point where what was once a struggle now becomes less of the hassle it once was. I declared the turning point of Ultima II to be the moment where one obtains a ship, but the more complex a game gets, the more difficult it becomes to point to a single, definitive moment where this particular shift happens.

I'm still not entirely sure what caused it, but I felt that shift during this particular session of Savage Empire. Something about the game finally clicked for me, and I'm not certain why. My best guess is that I'm making it past the more talky portions of the game, which is less engaging than other Ultimas out of the fact that most of the tribe NPCs are just cookie-cutter versions of each other without much to add past a general brief 'state of the tribe' speech. Or maybe it was the aforementioned teleporter exploration that did it. Whatever it was, though, I was bound and determined to see Aiela's rescue through to the end before I called this particular session, and not just out of a sense of narrative. I truly enjoyed this bit, and spent far longer on it than I expected to simply because I was having too much fun. The wisp, the turtles, trying to skirt the T-Rex that guarded the village... my inner explorer was on cloud nine. Had a rip-roaring good time and I'm eager to get back into the game to see what more Eodon holds for me.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Savage Empire: Shufflin' Around

I don't feel like I really accomplished much in this particular session (corroborated by the fact there's fewer screenshots from this session than normal), but hey, it's been a while since I last posted anything and I'm still finding myself with Things to Say, so hey, why not. Further up and further in!

My first order of business was, once again, to remind myself what the heck I was doing in the game - I really need to stop going so long between sessions. Thankfully, the notes I keep are sufficiently detailed enough to make for a decent refresher course, so between them and Jimmy's records in his notebook, I was able to make something of a coherent plan for my next few steps. I'd been meaning to find what remained of Rafkin's lab for what felt like forever, so that would be my first step. The good doctor had been waiting so patiently for me to meander my way over there, and I figured that he deserved some satisfaction. Not to mention that I was fairly sure there would be some useful equipment waiting for me there as well, best to get my hands on it as soon as possible. I'd need to be well prepared if I was to rescue Aiela, after all. That was my first priority, and making sure I had everything I might need for the attempt was just a stepping stone toward that goal.

Done in by a professor's boomerang.
Of course, it took me some wandering about to get my bearings properly. I don't know Eodon anywhere near as well as I do Britannia, so it was very easy to get myself lost while trying to figure out what part of the valley I was in, and more to the point, how to get where I needed to go. I did, however, stumble across some interesting sights in the process, including a fight with a gorilla (surprisingly easier than I expected it to be), a rather elaborate fountain tucked away in a secluded part of the jungles, a placid triceratops plodding by, and yet another Myrmidex ambush. After dealing with that last, in which Jimmy proved his mettle rather well, I finally stumbled my way back to the Kurak village and familiar territory. Intanya did his shamanistic healer thing, and the five of us geared up to do some bushwhacking in search of Rafkin's lab - it was supposed to be somewhere to the southeast of the village.

I was a little nervous as to my prospects for getting lost yet again, but then I remembered that I had plenty of "reagents" for Savage Empire's equivalent of a View spell. I - or rather, Triolo - made use of it every now and again to help get my bearings, and though it wasn't quite as much of a help as I'd hoped it would be, it did at least serve to make sure I at least had a more solid idea of where on the map I was. I was somewhat surprised that it took me this long to remember that I had that option, when I used magic so profusely in Ultima VI, but then again, it's less prevalent to begin with here in Savage Empire. I had a whole spellbook's worth of possibilities in Ultima VI, and the fact I kept making use of certain spells meant that I was constantly reminded of the presence and possible use of the others as well. Here in Savage Empire, there's only nine, and their use is limited to one character and one character only - which isn't even the main character. Consequently, I find myself not even remembering its presence, more often than not. I suppose that's not really a problem, as it's not meant to be as large a part of the setting as it is in Ultima VI, but still, I think I'd like to see it used just a little bit more.

Seems logical to me.
Anyway, we blundered around in the wilderness for a while, leaving the placid wildlife alone and fighting for our survival against the less placid sorts - the strangest encounter being a particularly vicious allosaurus that RAFKIN of all people managed to fell, which I found both shocking and utterly hilarious all at the same time - until I caught sight of something unusual via Triolo's View spells and headed toward it. Said something was the floor of the lab contrasting starkly with the grass around it, and I proceeded to rummage around the place, while Rafkin and I chatted about some of his ideas and what might prove useful. He talked about making makeshift grenades and rifles out of clay pots and bamboo, and the components of gunpowder and where I might be able to find them. All three components were right there in the lab, so I took advantage of what was close at hand and mixed myself up some gunpowder, sure to be useful later. Modern conveniences in general were sure to be a boon in the valley, so I took everything that might possibly prove handy - an axe, a fire extinguisher, a pair of scissors, a rifle and ammunition. I also picked up a screen that Rafkin said would be useful when it came to finding more sulfur for gunpowder, and a bucket to collect the tar I would need to make a 'fuse' for my makeshift grenades from the tar pits I remembered passing on the way to the lab.

The bear, of course. Kinda NEED strength.
And it was here that I did most of the 'shuffling' of the session - shuffling things around in my inventory. Weight issues were rearing their heads something awful this time around, and I think they're contributing to why I don't find myself enjoying the game quite as much as Ultima VI. While certainly a factor I had to keep in mind in the latter, it felt balanced enough that it wasn't an annoyance. Sure, I had to shuffle things around every now and again, but between my entire party I had a decent enough carrying capacity, and the cumulative weight of everything I figured I might need (not necessarily DID need, mind) felt manageable as a result. Here in Savage Empire, my party size is considerably more limited, not many party members have the sizeable strength to serve as decent 'pack mules,' and it's nowhere near as simple a matter to boost strength - Jimmy was the first of my party to gain a level, and it took until this session for it to happen. And even then, I was only able to boost his strength by one point, which didn't increase his carrying capacity very much. All those factors combine to mean that I have considerably less wiggle room when it comes to carting things around, and things in Savage Empire can get very heavy very quickly (although that may just be a perception thing). The atl-atl doesn't feel like a very viable weapon for my ranged characters, because spears, their necessary ammunition, get very bulky very quickly, and that's weight I need for other things. I remember the immense relief I felt when I found a boomerang for Rafkin to use, because I could barely keep two or three throwing axes on him and I certainly wasn't going to send him onto the FRONT lines to fight. It's crossing the line a bit from annoyance to frustration, and I suspect my next session is going to involve a re-evaluation of what all in my inventory that I strictly need. (I'm going to have to get over inventory problems eventually, after all. They're present in some form or another from here on out in the series.)

Suuuure you don't...
That minor ordeal settled, I headed back to the Kurak village, stopping by the tar pits on the way, to get back to the main roads and from there head toward the Barrab tribe, so I could take steps toward reuniting Topuru's mind with Topuru himself and hopefully convince him to tell me where I could find the Urali that had taken Aiela captive. It was a rather uneventful trip to the southwest portion of the valley, where the Barrab called home, and upon arrival I started chatting with the locals to see what I could find out. I learned that this tribe, too, had a long-standing rivalry with one of the other tribes in the valley, this time with the Sakkhra, a lizardlike race that lived in the caves to the west of the Barrab village. I met a man named Nawl, who was not allowed within the village himself, likely due to his full-of-himself attitude getting him into trouble. (I was not particularly sorry to say goodbye to him.) It was Chief Balakai who gave me the most relevant information, though, telling me that his trick with Topuru was just that - a trick. The long and short of it was that with some help, he had simply convinced Topuru that his mind was in a blue stone, and that giving him any old blue stone he would likewise be convinced his mind had been returned. He suggested taking a hammer to a large blue stone within the Sakkhra caves, and I made a note of it. The chief also talked of his sick son, Nakai, and that he would join the forming alliance of tribes if a cure could be found. He suspected a giant flower with pale petals would cure Nakai, last seen on a great mesa to the northwest of the village. The only problem would be getting there - there used to be a natural span to the south of the mesa, but it had crumbled. I made a note of this, too.

And there was where I called it for the day, with yet another task for the tribes of Eodon and one step closer to finding out where Aiela might be. I think it's time to make nice with the lizard people and see what they have to say, now.