Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Knights of Xentar: Won! (with Final Rating)

There's no single "won" screen, so we'll go with this.
Knights of Xentar
Japan, with United States update
Elf (developer); MegaTech (U.S. publisher)
Released in 1991 for PC-98, 1992 for FM Towns, Sharp X68000 as Dragon Knight III; released in 1994 for DOS under this title
Date Started: 22 November 2017
Date Ended: 3 December 2017
Total Hours: 27
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

I ended up disliking Knights of Xentar before the end, but not because of the sex. Rather, it was because of the extremely long periods of time, particularly towards the end, when I wasn't so much "playing" the game as "watching" it. I gather this is a frequent criticism of JRPGs, but I confess that Xentar is the first game in which I personally experienced it.

Desmond had a lot more sex and attempted sex throughout the game. I didn't keep count, but a walkthrough I consulted lists 33 different NPCs depicted nude in a total of over 50 separate nude (or at least suggestive) images. Desmond has or attempts sex with about 25 of them. (Towards the end of the game, there's a recurring joke where he gets interrupted repeatedly by his fellow party members.) I should mention for those not familiar with Japanese erotica that in keeping with custom, the women's genitals are always hidden or covered and there is no depiction of male nudity, not even in sex "scenes." Then again, I'm still not 100% sure whether I have the "censored" or "patched" version of the game.
Desmond never loses his charm.
Although the game started with a pattern in which Desmond saved his partners from sexual assault, this did not continue after the last entry, meaning that the particular trope was only used three times, all towards the beginning of the game. On the whole, then, I'd have to say that the depiction of sex and nudity in the title is mostly harmless. What bothered me more was that the dialogue in some of the scenes just wouldn't end. I'd keep hitting ENTER over and over and over, knowing that the laws of physics prevented insipid new dialogue lines from being generated eternally, but still starting to question it. There were times that I thought maybe the dialogue had looped back on itself, and I was stuck in an endless cycle of banal dirty talk. I cannot imagine making it through this game with the CD-ROM version with voiced dialogue.

There were bawdy episodes aplenty. In one town, a brothel offered a choice of women. No matter which one Desmond chose, he didn't get any satisfaction, either because the prostitute was so terrifying that she scared him away or because she delayed long enough that his time ran out.
I don't like the look of those tools.
In a forest episode, Desmond stumbled upon a woman having sex with a tree. Mortified at being caught, she forced Desmond to also have sex with the tree so that they would have equal blackmail material on each other. His companions showed up while this was happening and hilarity ensued.

Aside from the sexual hijinks, the master plot wasn't bad. There were some interesting twists, including even some explanations for Desmond's "luck" with ladies, and the ending was damned near wholesome.
Desmond's companions never let up.
The overall game world ended up consisting of two separate "lands." The first had 9 towns, 4 dungeons, and 5 other small interior locations. The second land had 4 towns and 2 dungeons. Many plot points required returning to places or NPCs already visited, and since the clues to do this were interspersed with a lot of nonsense dialogue, it was tough to figure them out. Each town has a lot of items and treasures--some plot-significant--hidden in jars, barrels, bushes, wells, and similar locations, and it was tough to search them all since you might have to approach them from multiple sides. Because of both of these issues, I ended up relying on Shay Addams's QuestBusters: Keys to the Kingdoms 2 (1995) for assistance. The book easily shaved a dozen hours off the game.

The game manual explains a lot more about the characters' backstories, though I don't know how much is taken from the Japanese editions and how much was made up by the American publisher. It relates that Desmond was abandoned as a baby and raised in an impoverished village where he was passed from house to house. Eventually, Rolf took him under his wing, taught him to fight, and started to notice Desmond's effect on women. (Which is repeatedly given as mysterious, as Desmond is poorly endowed and has incurable body odor.) Their adventures in the first two Dragon Knight games are recounted. "Xentar" is, I guess, the name of the game world. The Dragon Knights were creation of the "light"--good gods--who went native, turned venal, and sacked Strawberry Fields. After Desmond saved the city, the women re-named it Arcadia, and the sorceress Luna erected an energy field to keep men out. Desmond's Genji Armor and Falcon Sword were crafted by Rolf and Pietro in Phoenix based on some ancient diagrams.

You'll recall that Knights of Xentar started with Desmond being robbed of both sword and armor. His quest to recover them is basically the entire driving force of the game. During the quest, he starts to get hints that the theft may not have been entirely random, but otherwise most of his wandering is aimless and I suppose many of the city encounters and quests are optional.
Desmond starts to question the official narrative.
Rolf had re-joined my party as I wrapped up last time and together we visited the nudist resort called Nero's Retreat, oddly one of the few places where Desmond didn't find anyone to have sex with. From there, we moved on to a city called Carnage Corners, which was having some kind of tournament that involved going into the dungeon in the cemetery and clearing out the undead.
Navigating one of the game's dungeons.
The undead foes were tougher than anything I'd experienced in the game so far, and Rolf started fairly weak. Some of them were capable of swatting away half his hit points in one blow, and I soon exhausted my healing potions. I had to settle in for a long period of grinding to both level-up the characters and purchase them the best equipment available. Generally, I found that equipment upgrades did more than simple leveling.
Grinding against "Fire Birds."
There were several other periods in the game where I had to stop for grinding. I noticed that as the character levels increased, the experience won from enemies decreased--to the point where some early-game enemies only provided 1 experience point. However, there were still some benefits to returning to the early game areas and grinding against slimes, as these areas were highly likely to produce items like healing potions and smoke bombs at the end of combat.

Eventually, we cleared what we could of the cemetery but there was an area that we couldn't complete. We returned to Carnage Corners with a "sexy drawing" that an old man had lost there, and in return for it he gave us some "transsexual nuts" that temporarily turned us into females. These allowed us to walk through Luna's magic barrier to the city of Arcadia, where Luna joined us.
The game otherwise didn't have as much fun with this scenario as you might expect.
Getting Luna, the third and final member, into the party had several repercussions. First, it marked the beginning of continuous inane dialogue. I really enjoyed the party "banter" of the Infinity Engine games, but the writing has to be good. Here, it just wasn't. And yet every time we entered a building, walked up a staircase, encountered an NPC--and especially when Desmond was about to get jiggy with some townswoman--Rolf and Luna had to commence and endless series of jokes, puns, and insults about Desmond, his body odor, and his small penis.

On the positive side, Luna came with spells, including an extremely useful "Warp" spell that took us to any city we'd previously visited, and an equally useful healing spell that kept us from wasting potions until her spell points were used up. Since it took a while to exhaust her spell points, and they recharge with every stay at an inn, it allowed us to grind for far longer periods before having to stop and rest, and we stopped wasting healing potions during this process.
Having Luna in the party made large battles go much faster.
Luna also came with a fire magic spell. Eventually--and with the help of Mr. Addams--we started finding gems that gave Luna "Blizzard" and "Thunder" powers and then enhanced all three. The first gem let her acquire the power in the first place, the second gem extended the power from one enemy at a time to all enemies, and the third increased the damage (I never found more than three). These spells were extremely effective in most combats, to the point that towards the end of the game a single casting of "Thunder" might eliminate all six enemies at once.
Luna's "Blizzard" spell is going to hit all of these killer dogs.
With Luna in the party, combat became less a series of watching and using the occasional healing potion and more a process of casting the right spells at the right times. (Note: if any character dies, the game immediately ends. There is no resurrection mechanic.) It still wasn't very tactical, but it was a little more interesting.

While I'm on combat, I should mention that the game also offers a variety of interesting magical items that you can purchase or find on enemies' bodies post-combat. In addition to healing items, some of which affect the entire group, they include "skunk oil," which keeps enemies from attacking for a while in the wilderness, "smoke grenades" which enable instant escape from combat, and magic nuts and magic potions to restore spell points. The smoke grenades were particularly useful in dungeons when I wanted to conserve my healing potions for the final combat.
A store with some of the optional equipment items.
There are also a lot of items like "speed drinks" and "vitamin mixes" that provide permanent boosts to attributes. Finally, something called an "eraser pen" allows you to change the characters' names. I only found one, though, and I didn't use it.

Luna's magic allowed us to finish clearing Carnage Corners' cemetery and get the reward. Then we took on the Castle of Kalist, which we had to enter using an iron medal that turned to gold when a virgin held it. Luna completed this transformation, revealing her secret, which of course Desmond handled maturely. Dialogue during this point conveyed that Luna and Desmond were secretly in love, with Luna a bit pained every time Desmond wandered off to a bedroom with some floozy, which of course was near-constantly.

Desmond found his sword and armor in the castle, but they turned out to be fake versions. There was a bit where Luna disappeared from the party and was later found, nude of course, in the custody of a demonness named, in either the best or worst naming in history, Haggis. She hinted something about Desmond's parentage, calling him "lightspawn."
Luna, being a PC, gets a measure of modesty that NPCs do not.
Desmond and Rolf defeated her in a long combat. This was one of two major "boss" combats in the game. Luna is absent for both of them, meaning that all you can do is watch Desmond and Rolf hack away and heal them when necessary with potions. Success or failure comes down entirely to how many potions you brought.
Luna rejoined the party after Haggis's defeat, the castle collapsed, and the trio found themselves transported to a new land, although Luna's "Warp" spell could take them back to the first land quite easily. The new land had a town of cat women who had the trio retrieve their cat food from a dungeon of dog monsters. I'm serious.
Oh, yes, this is exactly what the game needed.
There were several towns, lots of grinding, numerous equipment upgrades, and so forth, but I'm getting bored with this narrative, so let's skip to the end. Everything culminated at the Temple of Xentar, to which some NPCs had seen Desmond's sword and armor taken.
We approach the final area.
As they arrived, they encountered the Black Knight, named Arstein, which sounds like a Jewish pirate. Desmond had been incidentally encountering Arstein the entire game. He brushed past Desmond in one of the early cities, and in a lot of other places we visited, he had just been there or something. He wandered out of the Temple of Xentar, battered and bloody, having been trounced by the monsters there. He expressed admiration for Desmond and the two became friends.

In the Temple, we recovered the real Genji Armor and Falcon Sword, the best items in the game.
At the apex of the Temple, we came face-to-face with the goddess Althea (note that Might and Magic III had used that name for an NPC the same year), who began a series of screens and dialogue lines that took me about half an hour to get through, even speed-reading. She started by revealing herself as Desmond's mother. She had given Desmond a blessing that he would "never have to seek a bed to lie in," which "had some unexpected side effects." Desmond's lack of endowment and body odor are explained as a disguise; if he had been too perfect, everyone would have known his heritage.
As an aside, she mentioned that Rolf is a descendant of the Dragon Knights. She also complimented Luna and acknowledged her inexplicable love for Desmond.

Althea said that the Temple of Xentar was a nexus between the mortal world, the realm of light, and the dark realm of demons, ruled by the demon lord Deimos. She related how the forces of light and darkness had been vying for control of the mortal world, and the hearts of humans, for eons. Eventually, they reached a pact: Althea and Deimos would both sire children, and after 20 years, the children would fight a duel to determine control of the world.
The otherwise-serious narrative is occasionally interrupted by a joke.
When the damned speech was finally done, Althea transported Desmond to the cave that would serve as the arena. There was another interminable conversation between the three characters. Then, Desmond entered the arena to find that his foe--Deimos's son--was none other than Arstein.
Arstein expressed consternation that Desmond was his opponent and said that he didn't want to kill him. The two engaged in a seemingly hours-long discussion of the relative philosophies of good and evil punctuated by idiotic jokes. Finally, Arstein attacked and Desmond counter-attacked, but Arstein turned out to be bluffing. He didn't defend himself and he let Desmond kill him, explaining "I couldn't drive the friendship out of myself no matter how hard I tried." Aww. That's an NPC who deserves to be in a better game.
Of course, the game manages to ruin the solemnity of the moment.
Deimos showed up and has is own protracted, long-winded speech that boiled down to reneging on the agreement. He wounded Althea and then attacked Desmond himself.
What followed was the most absurd, pointless combat in the history of RPG combats. It took about 25 minutes, and it consisted of nothing but Desmond hacking away at Deimos and Deimos healing himself every time his hit points got low. (With Luna and Rolf not participating, there were absolutely no tactics.) Meanwhile, I had to stop and give Desmond a healing potion every 20 seconds or so. At the advice of the walkthrough, I had brought hundreds of them with me. By the time that Deimos finally ran out of spell points and died, I was down to only a couple dozen potions.
This screen didn't change for an entire episode of Cheers.
Deimos died. Some god named Altair appeared (or his voice did) and lifted the wounded Althea back into the heavens. Altair--yes, this was yet another long dialogue--revealed that he was Desmond's father, and he explained his plan for Desmond to come up and take his place in the court of gods. But Desmond doesn't want to leave Rolf and Luna so he elects to stay behind.
Desmond reveals his true motivations.
Demond, Rolf, and Luna had yet another endless conversation about the implications of the plot. Desmond and Luna confessed their love.
I'm not sure Desmond has exactly "earned" this.
At this point, the game let me keep playing from outside the Temple of Xentar. I wasn't sure what to do. As I visited the various towns, I noted that nearly all the NPCs had some line of dialogue acknowledging Desmond's victory, which may be an RPG "first."
I had to look at the walkthrough to realize that to really "end" the game, I needed to return to Arcadia and visit the queen, Diana. Previously in the game, Desmond had sex with her, but I forgot to relate that. Anyway, Diana had another interminable speech praising the three heroes, and then she married Desmond and Luna.
Rolf gets no respect.
Some fourth-wall breaking words from the developers culminated in a series of screens telling how various NPCs fared post-game. Rolf married Alice, the granddaughter of the mayor of "Moronvia," and became a senator.
The game ends with a scene of domestic tranquility in a little house where Luna is making breakfast for Desmond.
It's hard to judge just from the kitchen, but I'm not sure this is the "palace" that Diana promised.
Desmond announces his plans to go adventuring again, and Luna chases him outside and around the house while the credits roll.
Ultimate irony: Desmond and Luna sleep in separate beds.
Between all the dialogues and cut scenes and that long battle with Deimos, the only "playing" I did for the last 90 minutes of the game was to feed Desmond healing potions. 

I guess I was supposed to find a magic mirror at some point that would let me revisit all of the nude scenes in the game. I'll just have to live without that.

I was reminded of Keef the Thief (1990) in that the plot and its resolution were pretty good, which made them all the more unwelcome. No game this goofy deserves to have NPCs who die tragic deaths or a plot that engages you with its twists. Oh, there are good writers who could have balanced them both. Shakespeare could have done it. Whoever wrote Galaxy Quest could have done it. But Xentar was far too overwhelming in its self-parody to pull off any real drama. It makes me wonder if the Japanese version did it better.

This is already one of my longest postings in history--I'm guilty of the very vice I levy against the game--but I'm still going to wrap it up with a GIMLET:

  • 5 points for the game world. It had an interesting plot, told a consistent set of lore, and actually responded to the player's actions and plot developments.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. There's no creation process, but development is relatively fast and rewarding and makes a notable difference in combat. I just wish it offered some choices.
Character stats at game's end.
  • 6 points for NPC interaction, perhaps the strongest element in the game. There are dozens of NPCs and boy does Desmond "interact" with them. He finds out key elements of lore and plot from the NPCs, develops friendships, and even gets married in the end. But the game offers no choices or role-playing; all the interactions are scripted.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. Xentar offers an original set of monsters, I'll give it that, but although some of them have special attacks, there's no real way to defend against them. Aside from the copious NPC dialogues (already rewarded), there are no encounters that offer any role-playing opportunities. There aren't even any decent puzzles.
The "Mad Hand" is unique in that it jumps over the warriors to choke the mage.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The "knowledge" system is interesting, and the various presets are worth exploring, but ultimately the combat process is too devoid of any real tactics, strategy, or even action on the part of the player.
  • 4 points for equipment. There are several equipment slots, regular upgrades, and a nice selection of magic items to use.
Statistics make it easy to see which items are best.
  • 6 points for the economy. Another strength. You always need money for equipment upgrades and healing potions. There were some high-value items that I never got a chance to buy because I didn't want to grind that long.
  • 3 points for quests. There is a main quest with no options. I think there may have been one or two side quests, but because progression in the game depends on hitting the right set of plot points and finding certain items, I'm not 100% sure.
  • 5 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I don't care for the Japanese cartoon style, but I can't say the graphics were bad. Some of the backgrounds were particularly well done. Sound effects were minimal but realistic. The redundant mouse/keyboard controls were welcome, but lacking in a few areas where I never found an easy keyboard approach, like administering healing potions in combat. There were a lot of times in combat, particularly when casting spells, that the game simply didn't acknowledge the input.
Luna casting a fire spell on some skeletons is accompanied by appropriate graphics and sound. I just wish I could hit the "F" key instead of clicking on "Fire."
  • 3 points for gameplay. It's almost nonlinear, almost the right length, and almost the right difficulty, but it falls a little short on all of these areas. The pacing completely goes off the rails at the end, but this category alone isn't big enough to account for that.

This gives us a subtotal of 42, a reasonably high score, from which I am going to subtract another 2 points for the horrendous pacing at the end. Forcing the player to sit through that much dialogue, one line at a time, plus such a meaningless final combat, is essentially unforgivable. But even the final score of 40 puts it in the top 25% of ranked games so far. If it had offered any serious role-playing, it could have cracked the top 10%.
I didn't think the game's humor was great, but this one made me laugh.
Add or subtract whatever points to that total you want depending on how you feel about the erotic content. It occurred to me while playing that while most RPGs reward the character for development, few of them have any mechanism for rewarding the player. Those of us who love RPGs play them for the characters' rewards and that's enough because we identify with the character, but it's inescapable that having your character's strength increase to 18 is a far cry from getting stronger yourself. Games that offer nude content, on the other hand--as long as the player likes that content--have a mechanism for directly rewarding the player. Solve a puzzle, see a pair of breasts (if unrealistic ones). In the pre-Internet era, I guess I can understand some of the appeal.

Because of the content, most mainstream reviewers didn't touch it. I haven't been able to find any contemporary reviews (although I know from experience that having said that, commenters will somehow produce ten). It's surprising to find it in QuestBusters, even, where it's discussed in a completely straightforward manner.
Elf would go on to make Dragon Knight 4 in 1994, which involves Desmond and Luna's son, Kakeru, and then to remake the original Dragon Knight in 1995. They offered a number of other adult titles throughout the 1990s, none of them enjoying an English release.

As for MegaTech, their brief experiment bringing eroge to the west was over quickly; they went out of business a year after Xentar was published. But we'll have one more of their titles--Cobra Mission (1992), another Japanese adaptation--next year. Finishing Xentar in a single entry brings us incrementally closer to reaching that year; only two more titles are waiting to appear on my "upcoming" list. Let's start the countdown with Quick Majik Adventure.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Game 272: Quarterstaff (1987)

The original Quarterstaff title screen.
United States
Simulated Environmental Systems (1987 developer and publisher)
Infocom (1988 re-developer and publisher; with subtitle Tomb of Setmoth)
Released in 1987, 1988 for Macintosh
Date Started: 29 November 2017
The interesting thing about many Mac games is that they make use of, rather than override, the conventions of the operating system. When you play a PC game, even today, you're used to the game taking over completely, remapping your keys, seizing your mouse, changing your graphic resolution, filling the screen, and monopolizing your sound, to the extent that you can't even use your usual keyboard shortcuts to do things like increase or decrease the volume. In the era before GUIs, of course, this was absolutely necessary; none of the major personal computers available pre-Windows had much of an "interface" with which to integrate.

The Mac was different. It pioneered the graphical user interface. It made popular the conventions of menus and overlapping windows. And games went ahead and used these conventions. You open an RPG on a Mac, and it looks like you've never left the operating system. In fact, you haven't. Quarterstaff opens with a few default windows, and if you want, you can close them all and see the regular Mac desktop and yet the game is still running. You can arrange the windows--and at points in the game, you may have up to eight of them--in any way that you want, essentially creating your own "interface." If you're a Mac user, of course, this is great--the game is using your operating system for its strengths. If you're emulating the Mac 20 years after you last used it on a routine basis, it's not as fun.

It's not hard to see why so few games received a Mac port. You could basically only import the rules, text, and some graphical assets--and you probably wouldn't want to import the graphics, since the Mac featured far more advanced graphical capabilities than any other platform (except color, until 1987). The core programming had to be designed from scratch. As a result, Mac ports of popular games look and feel almost nothing like their counterparts on other platforms. The shot of Wizardry below, for instance, is almost unrecognizable.
These issues also explain why games designed primarily for the Mac almost never got ported to other systems, which of course reduced the profitability of those games, which of course reduced the number of developers willing to work on the Mac as a primary platform. Thus, the few original RPGs designed specifically for the Mac have a certain cult status today, Quarterstaff perhaps most notably of these.

Quarterstaff was originally written and published by California-based Simulated Environmental Systems--perhaps the worst name for a gaming company in history--in 1987. It appears to be their only game. Early reviews were complimentary of the approach but noted numerous bugs that prevented completion of the game.
The title screen for the Tomb of Setmoth update.
The following year, the rights to the title were purchased by Infocom, of Zork fame, which itself had just been acquired by Activision. Infocom upgraded the graphics, altered the interface, punched up the writing, an re-released it with The Tomb of Setmoth as its subtitle. In the Fall 1988 The Status Line, Infocom's quarterly newsletter, they advertise the game as "our first entry into the fantasy role-playing genre." This wasn't strictly true, as Beyond Zork had featured RPG elements a year earlier. Nor was it the cornerstone of a new RPG series that the article suggests, as Infocom only published a couple more games with RPG elements, and none are RPG enough for my list.

Infocom's purchase of the game wasn't completely random. Even as designed by SES, Quarterstaff plays like an Infocom game, including Infocom conventions like OOPS to undo mistakes and switching between BRIEF and VERBOSE room descriptions. The developers, though not originally affiliated with Infocom, were clearly Infocom text adventure veterans.
A key encounter from the original version . . .

. . . punched up with a graphic in the Infocom version.
The SES version gives only the briefest backstory: that a party of adventurers is looking for the missing druids of the Tree Druid Colony. It starts with three players, Titus, Brutus, and Eolene, at the entrance of a cave. One window offers an automap; the other waits for text inputs. Menus offer the most common verbs plus the most obvious contextual commands for the present moment, including inventory commands.

LOOKing at each of the characters gives a little more information about their backstories. Titus is a muscular, intelligent blacksmith who went on the adventure because he lost a bar bet. He starts the game with a broadsword, torch, match, sleep potion, and four pretzels. Eolene is an elven archer with a bow, quiver, rapier, black potion, and elven gourd. With her ancestral forest leveled by human development, she now works as a mercenary. Bruno is a big, slow, fearless barbarian with leather armor and a gnarled tree branch as a club. He's here because Titus told him to be here.
The three leads.
The Tomb of Setmoth update has more information in the manual's backstory: The country is called Rhea. Its security, and that of four neighboring kingdoms, is maintained by a network of druid sects, organized in a Druid Council. Lately, the members of one of the sects, the Tree Druids, have been acting erratically, withdrawing from their lands and service. Envoys who have traveled to the Tree Druid colony, hidden beneath a great oak tree, have not returned. The Druid Council has sent the warrior Titus to find out what happened to the druids as well as three adventurers who preceded him, Bruno, Jaroo, and Eolene. In this version, Titus starts alone at the cave entrance but encounters and recruits Bruno and Eolene in short order.

Both versions use a series of windows that the player can size and position according to his preference. The most important of these are the map window and the text window. A graphic window occasionally appears to complement the textual description of people, monsters, objects, or places. The Infocom version introduces a "Help" window. Other windows pop up when necessary to help refine commands. For instance, if the player types LIGHT TORCH and he has two torches in inventory, a pop-up window will ask which one he wants to light.
Most games would say "which torch do you want to light?" and you'd have to type the whole thing again.
Commands are all text-based, and would be familiar to anyone who grew up with Zork, Enchanter, or the other Infocom text adventures. LOOK, GET, ATTACK, READ, OPEN, THROW, DROP, DRINK, and GREET are all commands that it understands, in conjunction with the appropriate nouns and adjectives. The game supports complex sentences, multiple commands separated by periods, and the use of IT with a clear antecedent: TAKE THE SMALL LEATHER POUCH. OPEN IT. TAKE THE BRONZE KEY. GO SOUTH. UNLOCK THE DOOR.

Although typing is easiest, menus give you the ability to structure your sentences based on what verbs will work in the area and what objects exist in the area. The room descriptions are long and often require scrolling, so the menus help ensure that you don't miss objects and people in the areas you visit. Also, both versions allow you to use the arrow keys to move without having to type GO NORTH and such.
Some of the many commands recognized by the parser.
Infocom did a great job upgrading the interface for the Setmoth version. The original version, like most previous text adventures, often "plays dumb," requiring you to step out every single action. For instance, early in the game there's a door that's unlocked with a bronze key. To go through it and continue south, you have to type a sequence of commands: UNLOCK DOOR WITH BRONZE KEY. OPEN DOOR. GO SOUTH. In the Infocom version, as long as you have the bronze key in your possession, typing GO SOUTH is enough: the game automatically unlocks and opens the door. The update also removes some micro-managing about what hand each character is holding various inventory items in.

Infocom also improved the text, making it both briefer and more vigorous. The original text wasn't horrible, but it featured a fair number of misspellings, run-on sentences, and unnecessary capitalization. It also tended to be longer than necessary. For contrast, here is a description of some skeletal remains at the cave entrance.        
SES version
On the broken, burned and dead creature SKELETAL REMAINS (in the CAVE ENTRANCE) are a glowing OLD RING, a SMALL LEATHER POUCH and a SMALL POTION. The remains of your predecessor, Jaroo. You recognize his blue Druid robe even in its tattered condition. Either Jaroo didn't get very far or he was on his way out but before he was able to exit his life was taken. Another possibility crosses your mind, one even more chilling. Perhaps the body of Jaroo was placed here as a warning to future possible interlopers!

Infocom version
On the SKELETAL REMAINS are a COIN, a lowing OLD RING, a PARCHMENT, a SMALL LEATHER POUCH and a SMALL POTION. TITUS recognizes the blue Druid robe, even in its tattered condition--these are the remains of Jaroo, who adventured here before. Whether he fell in honest battle or was placed here, his body is a warning to all who enter!

Another comparison:
SES version
Travelling along this passage you wonder again what happened to this once great and prosperous people. The Dark Druids, world renowned for their acumen in the healing arts, disappearing without a trace. Men would travel from the far parts of the globe to be healed by the Dark Druid Lore. Now the place is only an empty shell of that greatness. But most importantly, where could the two score inhabitants have gone? This thought keeps haunting you as you travel down the damp cool passage.

Infocom version
The Tree Druids, world-renowned for their acumen in the healing arts, disappeared without a trace, leaving this empty complex. Where could the two score inhabitants have gone, so suddenly? The thought haunts you as you travel down the damp, cool passage.
In both cases, the edited text cuts unnecessary words, fixes errors, and saves ALL CAPS for items and people you can actually interact with.

I'm continuing forward with the Infocom version since it simply seems to enhance, rather than completely overhaul, the story and interface. But when I'm done and I have a sense of the entire plot and how to win, I may try to buzz through the original version and see if any major substantive changes were made.

The game opens at the cave entrance, where you find the body of Jaroo, one of the adventurers who preceded you. His corpse holds a coin and a parchment that duplicate some items that came with the game package, an old ring that seems to cause levitation, a small pouch with a bronze key, and a small yellow potion.

Moving south, you come to a door with an inscription. A bit of verse tells of the druids that live beyond it "within the roots of the Great Oak Yassadril," a clear play on Yggdrasil from Norse mythology. On the other side of the door, in a large cavern that the game oddly calls a "quandary," you run into Bruno.
My first companion.
The game doesn't seem to give a lot of options for NPC interaction. You can generically GREET them, and I guess both TALK and ASK are programmed in, but I couldn't get any responses with them. While I was fiddling with the various options, Bruno joined my group.

Once a group has more than one character, inputs become slightly more complicated. Every round, each character has a separate input line, although only the lead character must take some kind of action. Each character maintains his own inventory. Once you control a character, you can split him off the main party and form his own group with NPCs that he meets. It sounds like it could ultimately be very confusing.

So far, the game sounds less like an RPG than a straight text adventure, but there are some RPG elements. Each character has a set of "proficiencies" and "resistances" which will apparently change throughout the adventure. Titus starts with proficiencies at 32% in sharp, cold, acid, and blunt; Bruno has 50% in blunt, 35% in acid and cold, and 30% in heat. Titus starts with some heat resistance; Bruno has resistances in heat, cold, and sharp. Apparently, I'll need thieving proficiency at some point, but as each character can only specialize in four things, it will have to be another NPC.
Statistics for Titus.
A few other notes about the game:

  • The Infocom manual promises that the game avoids "walking dead" scenarios or those in which reloading is the only way to proceed. I guess we'll see.
  • The original manual promises some fairly advanced enemy AI, with NPCs and monsters who roam around, pick up and use items, and act in logical ways depending on hunger, thirst, fatigue, mood, and attitude towards the characters.
  • The original manual also contains a warning, and I don't know if it's real or a joke. It cautions that "the degree of realism may be too graphic for some players" which could cause them to "lose the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality." 
  • The original game has a "Boss is coming" command which opens a fake "Excel Folder." Its utility is somewhat limited in that a) it doesn't maximize when it opens, so your boss could still see the game windows behind it; and b) one of the files in the folder is titled "resume."
I'm not playing a game, boss! I'm just looking for a new job.
I haven't gotten very far, but I'll wrap up here because the entry is getting long. Before I go, I want to mention that my ability to cover this game is due to reader Arthegall, who did things I don't even understand with the disk images for the SES version so I could actually play them. Most Macintosh download and emulation sites assume that you'll be doing the emulation on a Mac, but with Arthegall's help, I learned how to transfer files to a Mac disk image, unzip them, and mount multiple images in the emulator. He kept me from giving up on this endeavor as well as previously with The Dungeon Revealed, and I forgot to thank him there.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Knights of Xentar: Vanilla Casanova

The game's basic attitude.
One of my favorite holiday tunes is the old Frank Loesser standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside." I have about 15 covers including the sublime Dean Martin version. Because I like it so much, I get a little irked at the customary annual reminder that it's basically about an attempted date rape (or perhaps even a completed one; the song ends before a definitive decision). This article is particularly noxious. Talk about overanalyzing! I mean, yeah, the woman clearly wants to leave and there's an implication that the guy slipped her a roofie, but come on! It's just a light holiday song with clever lyrics! Bing Crosby sang it! Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt did it with a clever role-reversal! Do you politically-correct m#%@##$ers have to take everything?

I think the comparison to Knights of Xentar is apt. The game affects a tone similar to the song. Yes, women are depicted in the throes of sexual assault, but it's not serious sexual assault. They're saying, "no, no, stop," but they're doing it with a wink and a smile. I mean, if they were really traumatized, they probably wouldn't be so eager to offer sex to Desmond as a reward for "rescuing" them, right?

This is all to say that I get the negative backlash. If you like the Japanese eroge genre, and you've managed to play games like this for years without displaying any sociopathic tendencies yourself, you don't appreciate some guy coming along who nobody forced to play this game--a game that is 100% clear about its content and purpose on the box--and find him criticizing it for doing exactly what it says its going to do. I recognize that I'm the interloper here. Knights of Xentar was intended for a certain audience, and that audience probably appreciated what it got. It satisfies the same market as cheap 1980s sex comedies like Zapped! or Hardbodies: lots of nudity, and enough jokes and plot in between the nudity that you can plausibly claim that you're watching it for the comedy and the plot.

I also want to make it clear that I'm not coming down on the side of people who say that video games directly influence behavior. Plenty of studies have shown that playing violent video games doesn't make someone more violent, so why would I believe that playing video games that are at least a little insensitive about rape would affect the plight of any real women? I wonder sometimes if there are more subtle effects that the standard studies don't measure, but I don't have a strong opinion either way. It seems likely that video games, like all art and entertainment, affects attitudes, but it seems equally likely that video games, like all art and entertainment, could serve as an outlet for desires that might otherwise claim a real victim. I don't know.

In any event, this blog is about the mechanic and content of role-playing games, so that's what I write about. If a game is about dragons, I write about how it handles dragons. If it's combat heavy, I write about the combat mechanics. If it's primarily about sexual content, I write about my reactions to the sexual content. It would be absurd to cover a game like Knights of Xentar and not focus to some degree on the way it handles sex and nudity. I'm not interested in any more comments that suggest I'm "overanalyzing" or that I'm somehow worthy of ridicule for even discussing the primary content of the game.

If you don't agree with my analysis, fine. You might not agree with how I analyze dragons, either. All I can do is report on what I experienced and what I thought of it. I don't mind disagreement. What I mind is the amount of negativity, the amount of anger, the amount of ridicule, in that disagreement whenever I write about nudity or sex. If I say that a full-frontal shot at the end of the game is unnecessary and a poor substitute for real plot, and you disagree, you ought to feel about as angry as if I said I prefer red dragons to blue dragons. If not, consider that perhaps it's you, rather than me, who is over-invested in the issue. Maybe delay commenting until you can figure out why it bothers you so much in the first place.
In that spirit, here's what I can say about the sexual content in Knights of Xentar: Regardless of the intended humor or tone, I find many of the images creepy. The girls, to the extent that they look like people at all with their enormous eyes and bouffants, look child-like. They are often depicted in the throes of molestation by groups of men. The protagonist kills the molesters, which makes the game's ethics mildly superior to Rance's, but he then usually enjoys sex as a reward. I have never rescued a woman from sexual assault in real life, but I suspect that few of them are eager to immediately turn to sex to display their gratitude to their rescuers. Humor or not, as a player, I don't like the role-playing implications of that scenario.
I don't care how old the game says she is, this does not look like a sexually mature female.
As for the humor, I find that the jokes, never thigh-slappers in the first place, get old relatively fast. Desmond is universally presented as sexually insufficient, unspectacularly endowed, far more "vanilla" in his preferences than the women he encounters. But they still want to sleep with him, about one in every town, village, or hut. The occasional "small penis" joke can be funny. Eight "small penis" jokes in an hour--and I say this realizing that I'm a little "vanilla" myself here--just might be crossing the line into too many "small penis" jokes.
Ah, every man's fantasy.
Xentar is never content to simply let the joke be the joke. The dialogue has to go on forever and make its point with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I'm going to make up this example because I didn't write it all down, but at one point Desmond rescues a woman who has been tied up by her attacker. A clever game would have Desmond defeat the enemy and then say, "Let me untie you!" to which the woman might reply, "Now, why would you do that?" Wink wink, fade to black, and we'd all get the idea. But Xentar handles it like this:
Desmond: "Let me untie you!"
Girl: "Now, why would you do that?"
Desmond: "Because you're tied up! Don't you want to be untied?"
Girl: "That depends what you're going to do with me."
Desmond: "I don't understand."
Girl: "Are you always this dense?"
Desmond: "Are you saying you want me to leave you in knots?"
Girl: "Only if you know how to tighten them."
Desmond: "What do you mean?"
On and on for a dozen more lines. The jokes never really end on a punchline; instead, they just kind of play out. I might chalk it up to cultural differences, but I had the impression that the western release was completely re-written by English-speakers.

That isn't to say that I haven't been laughing at all. Desmond's clueless comments are occasionally amusing. "Do you want it hard or soft?" he says during one sexual encounter, perhaps qualifying for the most inept dirty talk in history. Here's a guy responding to a request for directions:
But the good jokes are few and far between.
At the end of the last session, Desmond had been defeated by a wolf attacking a girl in a cabin. I leveled him up a few more times, tried again, and defeated the wolf. The girl naturally slept with Desmond as a reward, and offered her cabin should he find himself in the need of lodging again.

Continuing counter-clockwise around the game map, I next ran into the city of Dreadsden, where I got some minor item upgrades but not much else. Nearby, in yet another cabin, I found a woman being assaulted by seven dwarves (perversion of fairy tale classics is something of a theme with this game). The graphic that accompanied this, in which all seven of the dwarves managed to occupy themselves in one way or another, left me wanting to take a shower. 
Sorry about this, little guys.
I killed them. The woman introduced herself as Priscilla. She said that she lived in the cabin with the dwarves and normally they were friends, but an evil mage named Visel had cast a spell on them, making them lecherous. That made me feel bad about killing them, although Priscilla didn't seem to care. After sex (of course), she asked me to kill Visel, noting that I would have to get a magic marble from a hermit in Dreadsden to bypass the entrance to Visel's cave.
See, I feel like this crosses a line somehow.
I did as instructed, killed Visel in a long battle that took most of my healing potions, and got a "magic nut" from him. When I returned to Priscilla, she gave me a magic mirror.
The epic battle with Visel.
As I headed down to the next town, called Coventry, the random wilderness combats started to get a bit harder, both in quantity and quality. It gave me a chance to experiment a bit with the different settings. The game is somewhat unique in that it offers a "knowledge" setting for each enemy. Every time you face an enemy of that type, the percentage increases a bit. "Knowledge of the enemy's strengths and weaknesses" is one of the combat modes, and I've found that once your knowledge of an enemy passes 50%, the mode is extremely effective.

Otherwise, I've had the most luck with offense-heavy settings. It seems to burn my healing potions at the same rate as more defensive settings, but combats are over much more quickly. A lot of enemies have the ability to restore their own health a few times in the middle of combat, and a strong offense often prevents this.

In Coventry, I heard of a nearby demon named Tymm, who guards a passage east, and a knight named Arstein told me I could kill him with Priscilla's magic mirror. In the far southwest, by some cliffs, a well-meaning NPC assumed I was there to kill myself and suggested I visit some place called "Nero's Retreat" instead.
Buying weapon upgrades in town.
Moving east, I ran into Tymm but killed him immediately with the magic mirror. He'd been holding a woman named Marie captive; she seemed to know Desmond from a previous game. She rewarded him with sex.
The authors named him "Tymm" after presumably rejecting "Stievve" and "Fraynk."
Through Tymm's pass, I came to the city of Phoenix, where Dragon Knight II had been set. Desmond is apparently something of a celebrity there, with many of the buildings and other things named in his honor.
I get the idea.
I ran into a woman named Kate, who also appeared to know Desmond from the prior game. She immediately slept with him despite being married to someone named Pietro. Understand that all these encounters are scripted and do not give the player any options. You move near an NPC and you're committing adultery, role-playing be damned.
Pietro, I've got some bad news, buddy.
Most important, I ran into a brawny, horned man named Rolf who had apparently been a companion in a previous game. After some persuasion, he joined the party. I outfitted him with some extra items that I had. He frankly doesn't seem to make combat any easier; on the contrary, he's using far more healing potions than Desmond.
The game seems oddly fixated on pig gristle.
The second character's attack options are tracked separately from Desmond's, but I think the "knowledge" variable applies to both of us. There seems to be room for one more NPC. So far, neither Desmond nor Rolf have any items or options that would fit with the grayed-out magic menus at the bottom of the combat screen. I have managed to get Desmond to Level 26, where he was before he lost his levels in the scripted event early in the game.
The two friends take on some "evil sprites."
I don't find any of the RPG elements in Xentar particularly outstanding, but neither are they bad. The rapid leveling provides a constant sense of character improvement. I wish there was more to do in combat, but at least it has the virtue of brevity.

After I had written most of this material, a reader sent a manual, which I'd been unable to find, so I look forward to seeing if it explains some of these NPCs. I wouldn't mind if I could wrap this up in one more entry, but I'll give it at least two.

Time so far: 8 hours