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.