Sunday, 22 May 2016

Missed Classic 21: Seas of Blood - WON! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich

A mysterious mountain, soon to be filled with pirate booty!

Welcome back! Where we last left our evil pirate adventure, I had just discovered the mythical mountain of Nippur, the location where I am supposed to store twenty treasures to win the game. Unfortunately, I had located only thirteen of the treasures in my voyages around the Inland Sea and not all in one go. It is pretty clear that not only do I need to work out the rest of the puzzles, but I also need to figure out the correct order to approach the various cities and islands to ensure that I get to the end without running out of food, hit points, crewmembers, or all three.

In my retelling, I will skimp on narrating all the running around and experimenting. I played through aspects of the game six times, with many reloads each of those times, to inch my way forward. Sometimes I would bee-line to a specific island to try something new, other times I would try out different routes to see what might make sense. I also started playing through the gamebook to see if that gave me any clues (more on that in a bit), but there were fewer than I expected and a large number of red herrings. With the disclaimer out of the way, let’s go pirating!


The Legacy of Axillon

It would be ironic if a dragon killed him.

The first bit of forward progress was because I simply wasn’t paying enough attention: the flaming barge that I looted earlier for a mysterious key actually had two more exits that appeared when you searched. The barge will sink (with you on it) in only a few turns, so you have to move quickly to explore the two rooms and pick up everything you can. It took a few tries to ensure that I didn’t forget anything, but the biggest discovery was a shrine to “Axillon, Slayer of Dragons”. Included in the shrine was a crossbow, plus I found a magical crossbow bolt and a diamond in another room of the ship. Not a bad haul! I did not find any dragons in my previous playthrough, so I do not immediately have any ideas where I’ll get to use it.

I re-explored every other area as well, but did not find any more “eureka” moments (or dragons). This is when I started to give in and consult the book, but it did not solve any of my problems. While it did feature some of the same areas, the puzzle solutions are different. For example, last time, I found a statue with a ruby tongue that slices your hand every time I try to take it. In the book, the pirates just take the whole statue-- something the game doesn’t let you do and I remain stuck. Similarly, the gray ovoid stone that burns your hands in the crypt can just be avoided in the game, but the book gives you the option of attacking it.


The Pirate Mermaid

And you don’t know why, but you are dying to try… you want to kiss the Krell!

My next discovery was that you can talk to the sprites in the shipwreck. You might remember that they were guarding a magical potion that I suspected that I would need, but I could not find a solution. It turns out that they need help retrieving a “Skull of Salt” from an evil Krell. Would evil pirates help the nice sprites to recover their lost treasure? I have no idea. But since there might be treasure in it, we accept. We drink the potion, enabling the party to breathe underwater, and a moment later we’re in a cave deep below the surface.

The cave is not very large or complicated and I quickly find and defeat the Krell. I grab the skull, but rather than head back immediately, I take the time to explore the rest of the cave. A few screens later and I find a man-eating giant clam and a unicorn horn. How the horn ended up in an underwater cave might be a good question for another day.

Next to me is a cat. Does that count?

As soon as we make it back to the surface, we have a choice: should we rejoin the Banshee, keeping the Skull of Salt, or return it to the sprites? Even though I am an evil pirate, I am an evil pirate with a heart of gold, so I return the skull to them. Our reward: a silver cutlass! That is much better than a salt-skull any day. Holding it doesn’t seem to increase my stats. Is it a weapon? A treasure? Both? I guess we’ll find out.

Examining the cutlass also reveals an inscription containing the answer to Salamander’s riddle! I bee-line back there and try it out, but all it does is let me skip one combat. That is a letdown as I was hoping for another treasure, but there’s still plenty to explore.


No Braaaaaaains Here

And… this is where I get stuck. I explore all of the locations again, but all I succeed in is sailing in circles. I’m pretty sure that I have seventeen treasures, but that’s not twenty. I take a lifeline and get a hint. I know, I know…

The hint was that you can defeat the zombie in Assur using the Silver Cutlass! Even though I had worked out how to get the cutlass, and I went back to the zombie several times, I never went back while I had it. I wish there had been a hint in-game that was what you needed to do, but perhaps I missed it. Even a note that the cutlass was good against undead would have been a big help. With the cutlass in my inventory, I’m able to defeat the zombie in a regular combat and head deeper into the tomb.

Man, I feel like I should know this...

Beyond the zombie is a room with a zombie playing Trivial Pursuit. He wants to know the name of the “slayer of dragons”. Since I’m carrying his crossbow, I know the answer immediately: Axillon. I answer and the ghost disappears. His sarcophagus contains a wooden box that is nailed shut. I try to break open the box, but all that leaves me with is splinters of wood. That’s not exactly progress, but at least I made it a bit further.

This hint actually told me more than you might think. This was the first time that I needed an item from another location to solve a puzzle, rather than having each area be a mini-puzzle all on its own. I also had to backtrack to do it: the sprites with the sword were further south than the zombie’s tomb. Armed with that info, I think I know what I need to do next.


The Final Treasures

Even though I have only found seventeen (or so) treasures, I’m going to replay the whole game again from scratch with an aim to get as many treasures to Nippur as possible.

I know that I only have seventeen or so treasures, but my next step will be to play through the whole game again. This is where the game’s meta-puzzle comes into play: you have to get to the end in one go, without dying. This means that I have to skip (or save scum) as many combats as possible and travel to as few locations as possible. Even with that, I had to use up my “staff of healing” to recover my health. The end result is this route plan:

Not exactly “X marks the spot”, but it will do.

  1. Sail down the east coast and destroy the barge at Lagash first, followed by the Rivers of the Dead, then explore the shipwreck.
  2. From there, head west and north, skipping Kirkuk, to visit Assur and Calah.
  3. Backtrack south all the way to Kish.
  4. Southeast to the roc’s nest.
  5. South to the ice mountain.
  6. East and south to the Three Sisters
  7. And finally southwest to Nippur.

This route hits only the locations where I found treasures, skipping adventure or combat segments elsewhere. That means that I miss out on the war galley blockade in the Shallows of Goth, the strange empty forest in Kirkuk, and the adventure with the witch in Kazallu, but pretty much every other area had at least one treasure.

I fight my way through Nippur again (picking up two more treasures that I already knew about) and drop everything at the summit. Unfortunately, “everything” was not enough: I didn’t win.

More battles! More treasure!

At this point, I give up and get another hint to clue me into the treasure that I missed. And, actually, it was so easy I should have been able to figure it out: you can kill multiple merchant ships! I had just assumed that you needed to defeat one to get their treasure, but you actually need three. I had come across more as I was playing, and even picked up their gold, but never considered that multiple bits of gold would count.

So I leave Nippur and chase down merchant ships. And, unfortunately, I run out of food. I restore and try again, same deal. Even though I picked up “plenty” of provisions and charted the most efficient possible route to Nippur, I find that at the end I need to “save scum” to trigger random battles before I run out of food. I need three to get three more gold coins, but no matter how hard I try I can’t get the third one to appear.

So… I give up. I title this one “Lost!” and start writing a scathing story about how the Commodore 64 version of the game was broken. Except… it wasn’t. A few hours later, I remember that I have a little box in my possession that I never worked out what to do with. I go back to the game and destroy the box, revealing a treasure inside. Did I not see it before? No, I did not. It’s the same “gold coins” that I find in the merchant ships and I didn’t notice that I had more of then after I broke the box. That final treasure is enough to reach twenty and I win!

Not a particularly nice ending screen though...

Time played: 4 hr 25 min
Total time: 9 hr 05 min


Final Rating

And now we have arrived at the moment we all have been waiting for: the final rating. How will Seas of Blood fare? Let’s find out!


Puzzles and Solvability

-1 points for a puzzle that makes you attack a cat.

The most notable thing about this game’s puzzles is that they work on two levels: you have individual areas, each with their own issues to deal with, as well as the larger puzzle of optimizing your health and provisions to make it to the end in one piece. I enjoyed this aspect very much and it lent a depth to the game that was unexpected.

The individual puzzles however were highly variable, ranging from easy to incomprehensible without reading the book. Can’t defeat the zombie? Make sure you’re carrying a treasure object you found in another location. Can’t get the potion off the sprites? Try talking to them, first. There were also many red-herrings (like the statue’s ruby tongue, the ring on the skeleton, etc.) that seem like treasure you are supposed to collect and puzzles you are supposed to solve, but are in reality just one-off ways to die. There’s also, at least in my case, the necessity to save-scum in order to trigger three merchant ship battles without running out of food. Chet from the CRPGAddict discovered that you could get around that by typing “wait” to pass time without using provisions, but that seems almost a bug rather than a feature.

Score: 3. I love the multi-layered approach to the game, but the individual puzzles were hit or miss.


Interface and Inventory

I am so tired of typing “sail”.

The final two of Scott Adams’s Questprobe games were based on his SAGA+ engine, a more advanced version of the two-word parser that had served as the basis of his games for so long. Similarly, Adventure International UK also invested in a more advanced parser, but this one just isn’t as well done. The game is inconsistent with the way you refer to items (“get gold” instead of “get coins” when retrieving gold coins, for example), plus you have to type out “sail north” or “sail west” each and every time. I poked fun at Questprobe for putting a little asterisk next to the names of key items, but I really wish they had done so here. I’m still not sure which treasures were part of the “twenty” and which were not.

Score: 2. It’s not a terrible game engine, but there’s a lack of polish in evidence here.


Story and Setting

Kill things, collect treasure, repeat.

You are a dread pirate, off to find as much treasure as you can before visiting a magical mountain. There are no deep character motivations or NPCs to interact with. Even the book suffers in this regard, but it does a much better job of bringing the various places to life with vivid descriptions and lots of little side events. This adopts the skeleton of those events and transforms them into thin adventure game puzzles. The variety is fantastic, but the overall cohesiveness is not.

And yet… I like the setting. It’s clear that some thought was made (when writing the book) into shaping different cultures on the east and west of the sea and providing for different types of interactions with the different cities and villages along the way. I wish there was more cohesion, but it’s a world I wish we learned more about.

Score: 3. A good but not overly ambitious adoption of the story from the book, but I wish they had taken the time to integrate the backstory more.


Sound and Graphics

Featureless ocean… with two warships and a river estuary.

For a game of the era, the graphics were pretty much what we expect. There were too many identical-looking rooms and pallet swaps, but that is what happens when you have memory constraints. The 200+ identical sea screens just help to make the game feel utilitarian, like they did as much art as they needed to do and no more. Would it have been that hard to vary it a bit when you are near an island or about to be stomped by war galleys? We also had no sound to speak of.

Score: 3. Pretty standard for the illustrated text adventures of the era, but not good by modern standards.


Environment and Atmosphere

Buddy on the beach where the fun is free!

I’m not sure exactly why, but being a pirate and pillaging your way down the coast turns out to be a lot of fun. The game (perhaps wisely) dispenses with some of the worst excesses of the book, while still giving you some nice pirate adventures. The treasure hunting aspect is a lot of fun, but laced with a tension as you race against your provisions to get to the end of the line. For all that some of the individual puzzles didn’t work out or maybe the graphics aren’t quite what you wish they would be, the designers did a really fine job building the atmosphere, giving the game a sense of fun. This is a game that is unexpectedly better than its constituent parts so we’ll go with a bit higher-than-you-might-expect score.

Score: 4. The game’s elements come together better than you might expect.


Dialog and Acting

Not a ton of conversationalists in this game.

The game text always seems like a bit of an afterthought in this style of game and that’s no exception here. Very few objects had descriptions and there was no one to talk to except some sea sprites. It’s all very minimalist and I wish more of the prose from the book had snuck in, at least to add some flavor to the items and encounters. The text we were left with was done fairly well.

Score: 3.


Final Score

Let’s tally up the score: 3+2+3+3+4+3/.6 = 30!

But I’m not quite satisfied with that. It’s a fun game, but I have to dock one more point for its key design flaw: you are a pirate. You should be going around being rewarded for pillaging as much as possible and generally making a nuisance of yourself. It’s in the job description. But the game ultimately forces you to avoid combat as much as possible so that you can make it to the end in one piece. It’s a great driver of tension, but not exactly the pirate way. At least we don’t fight like a dairy farmer!

Final score: 29!


That means that Aperama wins our prize! He guessed 30 and would have nailed it except for my adjustment at the end. You all did an excellent job predicting this one with an average score of 28. The wisdom of the crowds!

Up next for me will be more Cruise for a Corpse, but I have no idea what my next Missed Classic will be. I had hoped to play Sherlock (1984) before getting into 1991’s Consulting Detective, but I am no longer sure I will have time. We’ll just have to see what the future holds!

4 comments:

  1. Hey guys,

    I had planned to do a deeper dive into the book, but did not get a chance to with this post. I had played through about half of the book before it was misplaced into "Toddler Space". After it emerged, scorched and bent like it had been through the flames of hell itself, I did not get the chance to get back into it.

    If anyone really wants a review of the book, I can do it separately sometime and append it as a comment here. But, I think I've had enough of Fighting Fantasy for a while.

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    1. Okay, let's do this really quick.. *cracks knuckles*

      The prose of this particular novella is undeniably appealing, but the author appears to have foregone convention in his attempt to create an 'immersive' experience through constant usage of words like 'you' and 'your crew'. In truth, this could well be the defining pirate adventure of the 1980s with the notable flaw of his convention-breaking - the book doesn't follow a traditional chronology. On one page, I am soaring majestically through the seas, only to discover an ancient treasure, and on the next I am fighting pirate hordes using dice (which seem a very poor manner of combating the dread folk of the sea!) with mentions of my imminent demise dozens of times all to culminate in a happy ending with 'me' becoming ruler of Nippur.. which appears near the middle of the book. Madness. 2/10 stars.

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  2. I'm curious: what is the syntax for solving the Salamander's riddle? Do you use the cutlass somehow, or do you have to type END or somesuch?

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    1. I don't recall exactly what I typed, but I remember it was inconsistent. One riddle you just typed the answer as the command and the other you had to put "say" first or some such thing.

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