Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Missed Classic: Spellbreaker - Won! And Final Rating

Written by Joe Pranevich


Spellbreaker started as a chase, then it became a hunt for macguffin cubes, now we are finally closing out through some of the most devious puzzles every created for adventure games. We’ve just about reached the end the last original “Zork” game. This has been a game that I have in turn loved and hated. It’s the longest Infocom game so far. Despite my previous misgivings, I am enjoying it more as it cruises to the finale.

Last week, I continued my quest for cubes. I found one deep in the sea, discovered when I transformed myself into a clone of a particularly annoying fish. I found a second after racing a roc to its nest, and a third after helping a green-eyed boulder play a game of bumper cars with her brown-eyed friend. This game likely makes no sense to anyone not actively playing it, but there have been a few great puzzles recently. With that cube retrieved, I can teleport point to a new cube room: Dark. That has two exits, but as usual only one that I can pass through. I descend into a strange dark cave-- let’s go find some grues!
Molten magic is pretty.

Wherever I end up, magic is starting to go funny. My glowing knife that I have carried around since the beginning isn’t glowing properly anymore, instead dripping glowing magic stuff into a pile on the floor. I pick my way down the hall and into a “Grue Cave”. Last week I found what I thought was the treasure vault from Zork III; could this be the grue lair from the same? Unfortunately, the grues notice a guy with a glowing (and dripping!) knife and kill me. I have to restore.

I try again but extinguish the knife before I head down. In the dim, I notice a glow coming from the center of the room. Before I can explore, the grues find me even without the knife and kill me. Although spells seem to be weird here, I manage to “snavig” a grue and use its darkness-honed senses to see what is going on. I’m in a strange amphitheatre. In the center of the room is a pool of the dripping light, bright enough to hurt my grue-eyes. In the center of the pool is a squat column with something on top of it. I expect that is where I need to go. How do I get there? I climb into the pool, but as a grue the light burns so that I have to go quickly. I scale the pillar to discover another white cube! I pick it up and then wait to turn back into a human. The whole mess takes several attempts since I need to remember to memorize “snavig” and “blorple” before I head down, plus I die when I stay in the light too long. I also found that it is too dim to see the cube if you become a human too early. The whole process is simple enough to figure out and I soon have access to another cube room: Fire.

My favorite was the Curse of the Azure Bonds.

Gold Box Games

The Fire room has three exits: South takes you back to the cliff at the beginning of the game, but I do not see anything new. East is the expected blocked route. North leads to the only new location, a different spot on the volcano from last post. This time, I see an outcropping that I cannot reach to the west with something on it that is not melting. What could that be? My money is on another cube. Riding the carpet there doesn’t work because it just catches fire. You cannot jump. None of my spells seem to do the trick. I am stuck. I re-explore much of the game again looking for things that I missed, but find nothing new. I end up asking for assistance and… I would not have solved this myself.

The trick is the gold box that we found in the ogre’s cave at the beginning of the game. Completely unknown to me, the box responds to cubes. If you put a cube in it, the outside changes to hint at where the cube might go. When the water cube is in, the box has pictures of dancing dolphins; with the air cube, there are eagles; etc. I never noticed because I never needed the box for storage thanks to my zipper. We then had to realize that the box operates as a teleporter: drop it someplace and you can get to it by taking the blocked exit in each of the respective cube areas. I cannot even think of how I would have stumbled on that. Even with all that, we also had to realize that you can throw the box to the outcropping. I can’t help but feel that Mr. Lebling was aiming to create the hardest puzzle in the series and overshot.

The world hangs in the balance.

Super-Charged Magic

I blorple it and end up in a room that it slightly different than the others. It is the “Magic” room, although “magic” appears to be code for mirrors, bird-droppings, and clutter. Instead of just one, there are two exits that I cannot pass through with a third that just leads back to the meadow from the beginning of the game where I picked up the ragweed. As before, there is nothing I need to do there. Although I seem to be in a dead end, I discover that the new cube is doing something to supercharge my magic. Anything I cast is more powerful than usual and I can memorize more spells than ever. There are plenty of places that super-magic could be useful, but my first thought is the treasure vault. Using my now more powerful “rezrov” spell, I am able to unlock and open the complicated vault door to see what is outside.

Just beyond the door is a new room with two piles of white cubes. Unlike mine, they are labeled “x1” through “x12” with six in one pile and six in another. There’s an iron door to the north that I can open with a spell, but not without alerting the guards. I try to “blorple” one of the cubes and it takes me to the nondescript room, the same place as other non-special items. Putting cubes in the god box doesn’t help to find a special one either. My guess is that only one of these twelve cubes is real… but which one? I need to solve quickly as we only have a few turns before the alarm goes off. Somehow saving the game doesn’t even work here!

I try the “jindak” spell which shows that one of the piles is glowing slightly more than the other. That must be by clue! I try to break it down through processes of elimination. Since the second pile is brighter, I swap cubes 1, 2, and 3 with 7, 8, and 9. I “jindak” again and the second pile is brighter. That means that either 10, 11, or 12 is brighter than the others and the real cube. I swap 10 with 4 and try again, but the guards catch me. I need to find a faster solution.

Instead of using two piles,I use three. I arrange the cubes such that 1-4 are in the first pile, 7-10 are in the second pile, with 5, 6, 11, and 12 in my hands. The piles are still all the same size, but if neither of them glow more brightly then it must be the group in my hand that is special. I use the same process of elimination to narrow it down to one cube… and that doesn’t work. I try it two more times to see if I made a mistake and the third time it worked! What did I miss in this puzzle? I looked up the solution after and the problem is not that the real cube is brighter than the others, it is that it is dimmer than the others. These are the world’s power-cubes and it makes no sense that the real one is less magical, but we can go with it. What was happening is that I would narrow the field down to three cubes: one in each pile and one in my hand. When the two piles were the same, I could use the one in my hand to exit the vault. That “solves” the riddle without realizing that the correct cube was dimmer. It’s a nice puzzle, even if the solution doesn’t quite flow logically from what we know of the cubes.


An Excellent Adventure

The cube from the vault leads me to the “Sand Room”, clearly intended to resemble a giant hourglass. Heading up teleports me back to the ruins room, although it is moderately less ruined than before. On the ground is a sack rather than the zipper. More importantly, the water pipe is overflowing and filling the room. My guess is time travel and I am somehow seeing the room earlier. Why? I have no idea. Inside the sack is the “girgol” scroll, the same one that I found in the zipper before. (Fortunately, I took good notes.) Water fills the room. I try to hide in the zipper, but that is only a temporary respite and I drown as soon as I come out. My guess is that I need to set up the room exactly as I found it, but I am unsure why.

Exploring the other way from the hourglass and I find myself in a prison cell. In fact, it is the cell above the oubliette that I discovered with the mouldy spell book. If I am going to reproduce that, it might mean that I have to leave my own spell book here and memorize whatever I need for the rest of the game. I can easily blow the door off the hinges using my super-charged “rezrov” spell (just like I found it!), but leaving gets me captured by the guards. Instead of forcing the cabinet open like I did the first time, I use the iron key. It fits! Inside is a blank scroll. Maybe I get to keep just one spell for the rest of the game? I try copying “blorple” to the scroll but that doesn't work due to magical copy protection.

Let’s set this up just as before! I unlock the cabinet to get the blank scroll, placing my own spell book in there for me to find in a few years. Before I do that, I memorize a bunch of “blorple” and other spells. I make sure to lock the cabinet before blowing open the door. Since leaving still triggers the guard, I blorple back to the hourglass room and try the ruins. This time, I take the sack and put all of my stuff in it, leaving just the girgol spell in a closed zipper just as I found it in the beginning of the game. Fortunately, the sack is big enough for all of my stuff. I also copy the “girgol” spell onto the blank scroll since I don’t see anything else to do with it. I leave… and absolutely nothing changes. I have no idea why I did that and no feedback that suggests whether or not I did it correctly.

Probably not this ornate, actually.

The Final Confrontation

Sorry, guys. I had to consult a hint. It turns out that I had done everything correctly, but I missed what changed. You might remember that there were two blocked exits in the Magic Room. Well, I was supposed to come back and discover that I could get through one of them now that I set up all that stuff. As best as I can tell, there was no hinting about that. This seems difficult and obscure for its own sake.

I pass through that door and find myself in the throne room of a castle. The shadowy figure that I have been chasing all this time coalesces in front of me. He tells me that he was surprised to find me in Borphee because he knew (thanks to the time cube?) that I would be arriving here to meet him today. He also thanks me gathering all the cubes because he couldn’t have done it himself. He had captured four of the cubes through intensive research, but by just manipulating me to go on a quest he was sure that I could gather them all. He then reveals the big truth: he is my Shadow, a copy of me created because of my immense magical abilities. He wants to use the cubes to come to life and rewrite the world in his image. He freezes me in place and brings the cubes together into a bigger cube, and then builds a second cube before merging them in some way creating a 4-dimensional hypercube. Finally, he takes the “magic” cube from me and plunges it inside just as his freeze spell wears off of me. There is no time to do anything because he leaps inside the cube (which the game calls a “tesseract”) and becomes God incarnate and the game ends with -99 points. I guess I need to figure out a way to stop him.

On my next attempt, I try to throw the knife at him before he freezes me. That causes him to freeze me earlier which would seem to not be good, but then I also unthaw earlier. I try to cast the “girgol” spell to freeze him but he catches me before I can do it. It takes a few attempts, but there is one moment when he is near his final victory where he stops paying attention to me long enough that I catch him off guard. He is frozen and I have the tesseract, but what am I supposed to do with it. I put the “magic” cube in just as he did, but it doesn’t seem to do anything. He wakes up soon and completes the ritual, taking over the world. I restore and try to jump into the cube myself because becoming a God seems like fun, but apparently I have a conscience that does not let me. I try putting other stuff in, but that doesn’t work either.

Next time, I let him get further in the ritual and do not stop time until the absolute last moment before he jumps in. This time, since the “magic” cube is already in there, I find that I can remove it. What to do? I still can’t jump in. I eventually put my sack in the spot because why not. That causes (somehow) the world to be remade (somehow) without magic as one of the elemental forces. I win! If you can call a life without magic, “winning”. The shadow and magic cube disappear and I find myself back in Belwit Square with all of the now out-of-work guildmasters no longer frogs. I scored 600 of 600 points, earning the rank of “Scientist”. But in a different way, I was a complete failure. How will the bakers make their pastries now with no magic?

Time played: 4 hr 45 min
Total time: 23 hr 05 min
Score: 600 of 600 (100%)

                                                                                                            

I blinded them with science.


Final Rating


I could harp on about how difficult this will be to rate, but let’s just get on with it...

Puzzles and Solvability - This game ranks up there with Zork III as one of the greatest sets of puzzles I have ever played. There are good inventory puzzles at the beginning of the game, interesting uses of our spells, and stand-alone puzzles that have me still thinking about them days later. Several of the puzzles require good timing, but with a turn-based system this becomes just another avenue to explore rather than a frustration. By the end of the game, the puzzles had become too hard with the gold box puzzle a near-legendary example of a puzzle that is solvable if you know the rules but which you are very unlikely to trip over by accident. I also found the time travel puzzle at the end to be unsatisfying, in large part because I didn’t really understand why I was doing any of that. Still, a near-perfect example of how to make good puzzles. My score: 7.

Interface and Inventory - What is left to say about Infocom’s best-of-breed text adventure interface? Not much. This one gets special recognition for disabling the “save” function during the cube puzzle as well as the whole mechanic around writing on the cubes. So much of the game text was responsive to those cube descriptions and the game put real effort into making everything flow together. My score: 5.

Story and Setting - The game began as a chase, a hunt for an attacker that crippled the magical community of the world, but quickly became something else. We didn’t really get to see the big picture of the story until around 60% in, but there were plenty of breadcrumbs to follow that suggested the ultimate plot. The setting remains the Great Underground Empire although we spend very little of this game underground. Things mostly (but not completely) fit together. My score: 5.

Sound and Graphics - No attempt was made to add ASCII art or any graphics of any kind. Alas, there is only one score I can give. My score: 0.

Environment and Atmosphere - I wish I could say that I felt that the environments came together, but even at the end there were too many disconnected areas. While some areas had fantastic atmosphere (the grue cave will remain one of my favorites), too much of the game felt disjointed. They could have done better. My score: 4.

Dialog and Acting - The prose was fantastic throughout, although the limited interaction we had with NPCs wasn’t anything to write home about. Towards the end, the descriptions became even more evocative. I read through the Shadow’s final speech three or four times because I loved it so much. My score: 5.

I am going to subtract one point for the impossibility of the gold box puzzle. That leaves us to tally it all up: (7+5+5+04+5)/.6 -1 = 42 points!


A final score of 42 places Spellbreaker at exactly the same level as Zork III which somehow seems right. While the former game had weaker puzzles, its atmosphere was moody and fantastic. This has the highest puzzles score of an Infocom game so far, but it had neither the writing of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, the atmosphere of Wishbringer, nor was it as well-rounded as Planetfall. It’s in the upper echelons of the Infocom catalog, but not quite at the top.

Up next will be the final game of Infocom as an independent company, Ballyhoo. It seems a strange game to end on, but I am looking forward to playing it for the very first time. Depending on timing, this may be before or after I pick up Batman Returns for the main cycle of games. See you soon.

27 comments:

  1. I love that time travel puzzle. And yes, "tesseract" is another word for a four-dimensional hypercube.

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    1. The time travel puzzle was great except I must have missed some explanation or hinting. I just landed in the rooms, did stuff, and then... nothing. I never triggered a paradox or got an indication why I was doing any of it. I even had to look up that it unlocked the path to the castle because I didn't see or realize how those were connected.

      I think the final couple of puzzles were just a bit TOO obscure. (Unless I missed something.)

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    2. If you mess up the time travel puzzle and don't set things exactly right, you die when you try to return to other areas because of the paradox created. So there's no positive feedback... but there sure is negative feedback.

      I don't actually recall that the path to the final castle required this puzzle to be solved first (though of course, if you don't you won't have GIRGOL and so can't win the final confrontation). Per the hint book, what's supposed to unlock the path to the final castle is simply having all the cubes. I never tested that myself though.

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    3. I suppose I am not sure what let me open that final exit because the game doesn't tell you and barely even lets you know that there might be an exit there. The only hint is that cube has more than one blocked exit, unless I missed something. Since I already "learned" about the gold box exit, that struck me as odd but not "I have to do X to pass here" odd.

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  2. As you say, there isn't much NPC interaction. Still, I really enjoyed haggling with the carpet salesman. I like to imagine him as a distant ancestor of Monkey Island's Stan.

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    1. I agree! He was my favorite character in the game, with the second being the poor ogre-with-an-allergy. Unfortunately there are not that many others.

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  3. Batman Returns .. oh god, you are in for the ride. Have fun with that one

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    1. I hope you mean "awesome ride in the Batmobile" because I know nothing about it.

      I plan to rewatch the first two Batman movies prior to playing. I hope to make time this upcoming weekend for some Bat-viewing.

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  4. Excellently done! A few final points I think worth noting:

    - For the vault puzzle, the game randomly determines whether the cube you want is dimmer or brighter than the others. Sometimes it's dimmer, sometimes it's brighter. The "intended" solution is to identify the cube that's *different* - whether that means dimmer or brighter, you have to determine (or, more probably, keep trying a solution that works only one way and finally get it to match your coinflip).

    - The reason putting your sack in the tesseract foils the Shadow's plan is because it causes the world to be created around a non-magical item. Doing so strips all magic out of the world. Anything else non-magical will also work if you still have it around (like the bread or the smoked fish). I forget if there's anything in-game that explains this; I remember it from the Invisiclues hint book.

    - Remember when you answered a copy-protection question from Belboz and he gave you a key? And you later on used that key and it worked perfectly? Well, if you answer that copy-protection question *wrong*, then Belboz... still gives you the key. Ah, but when you go to use it, it explodes in your face and you die! Yep - failing the copy protection question invisibly puts you in a walking dead state.

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    1. My strategy would have found a brighter one but not a dimmer one, unless I caught it 1/3 with it in my hand. That explains at least while my failing strategy eventually worked.

      The "putting in the sack" was just silly (although at that point in the game, I do not believe it is possible to have the fish or bread since we used both with the grouper...) and I was mainly clued in by the title and the game's reputation. If I had been playing "Mage" straight out of the box, I might not have thought to try that. (For the record, I put in the sack while it had all my stuff in it so it COULD have been responding to something else I was carrying.)

      The copy protection does appear to be moderately evil.

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  5. (dangit, blogspot, why is "sign out" at the bottom right of the box where my muscle memory usually expects a "post" or "confirm" kind of button to be?)

    I'm at work, so I can't fire up the game to check these out for myself, but:

    1. You keep mentioning not having discovered the properties of the box because you "never needed it for storage", but can it even hold more than one cube to begin with? (How does it behave with other objects than cubes? it's never occurred to me to try that.)

    2. Does the description of the box change when you take out the first cube you find already inside it?

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    1. I believe the box can only hold one cube.

      Don't know if it can hold anything other than cubes but doubt it.

      Doesn't make sense why you would take the "water" cube out of the box but then put another one in it. Why put all of your accumulated cubes in the zipper except for one that you put in a box?

      And then why drop the box somewhere if there is no inventory limit?

      Very unfair puzzle.

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    2. As I recall, yes, the game explicitly tells you that the box changes as you take out the cube. That should encourage you to experiment with it.

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    3. So if it does something when you remove the cube, and since it only had the one in it, I do think it's fair to expect the player to try inserting other cubes to see what it does. I'm still not sure how you're supposed to get from there to 1. doing so not only identifies the cube, but opens the blocked exit (maybe they should have said, when you remove the cube, "one of the sides of the cube feels a bit warm" or something like that?) and 2. that that exit then leads to the location of the box, wherever it is.

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    4. I just played and re-confirmed:

      When you put a cube in it, it flashes and the outside decorations change.

      There is only enough room inside for a single cube.

      There is NO message or change when you remove a cube... and that makes sense because it is keyed to the last cube that was in it before. You cannot "blorple" a cube still in the box. So the outside shows the last cube that was in previously.

      That makes this extremely difficult to stumble on by accident.

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    5. Hmm. The fact that it holds only a single cube is still a decent hint about what you should do with it (i.e.: clearly this is not useful to store objects in, so it likely has some other purpose), but not changing on removal of a cube is really not helpful.

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    6. Agreed - would have been easy and a slight nudge would have been if when you remove a cube from the box, the game would tell you that you notice the picture on the outside of it vanishing.

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    7. Absolutely. There needed to be SOME clue to signal that the gold box was more than just that. Keep in mind that we already had to "solve" that puzzle because the box is what kept you from taking the cube when time was frozen. So even absent this later puzzle, the box had a purpose in the game so I didn't think much of it.

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  6. Apart from the gold box puzzle you can really see how they got better at thinking up more logical yet interesting and imaginative solutions to the puzzles.

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    1. It's pretty disappointing they decided to stick in a coin-weighing puzzle, of all things.

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  7. Curse of the Azure Binds was fantastic! I played on C64 and later on PC. I must have finished it forty times, ryoicslty with the same party or 1-2 swapped out or changed class. Great series! And if you used duplication tricks, you could dust of disappearance to finish the most obsurd challenges- the black dragon horde in Hap or the hidden meeting of drow, beholders and high priestsm

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    1. I enjoyed Pool and Curse quite a bit, but did not enjoy Blades as much. I have played but did not like "Champions of Krynn" but I do not recall why. I planned to play the rest at some point but I don't have much extra time.

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  8. I’ve been away, but saw a link I needed to make sure was posted here already: questionably legal but making the major news outlets

    https://arstechnica.com/gaming/2019/04/you-can-now-download-the-source-code-for-all-infocom-text-adventure-classics/

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    1. I saw this and it will be interesting to take a look at the source at some point. Infocom will be one of the best documented companies of all time, unless Activision steps in to stop it. Considering their reluctance to make the "Lost Treasures" app work on current generation phones, I'm not sure either that they care enough to allow it or care enough to disallow it.

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  9. One of the things that I neglected to comment on is just how efficient this game is. Especially as I compare it to other Zork titles, there are nearly no "extra" rooms or objects. There are no flavor rooms really, like the passages you had to travel through between puzzles in the other games.

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  10. Congrats on finishing what is widely considered to be one of the hardest Infocom games. And bonus points for the sly reference to the Gold Box RPGs. I have nearly as many happy memories of playing those on my C64 as I do the Infocom games.

    Question: at the end, you mentioned you achieved a score of 600 out of 600, then go on to say a few lines later that your final score was 415 out of 600. Is this an error, or did something happen that caused you to lose points? I'm guessing the former.

    Enjoy Ballyhoo, which is much more whimsical. Think "Wishbringer Goes to the Circus," but without magic.

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    1. Yeah. That was just a cut and paste error from the previous post. I'll fix it...

      I'm a big fan of the gold box games. If I wasn't spending all my free time playing text adventure, I'd love to play through a few more of them. The old D&D games are quite fun. I missed more than a few deadlines the last time I so much as opened Baldur's Gate...

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