Saturday, April 22, 2017

Alternate Reality: The Dungeon: Fantastic Underworld

An "artistic" take on the dungeon from the game materials.
Alternate Reality: The Dungeon does a good job as a representative of a sub-genre that is rarer than it seems: a large, sprawling dungeon to explore and map, with multiple encounters and treasures, both fixed and random, some in the service of a larger plot, some just for fun. Most dungeon-crawlers--even good ones like Wizardry and Dungeon Master--though they try hard in their advertising to evoke such a setting, end up being too cramped, too linear, too empty except for main-quest-related encounters. There's little enjoyment in exploration for its own sake; all encounters are predestined rather than serendipitous. Here, exploring and mapping are their own rewards, and the game strikes a good balance between empty squares and those with something interesting happening.

I've still only explored the first level (and not yet all of it), which is 64 x 64, roughly the same size as The City. The level is divided into four equal 32 x 32 quadrants that are only accessible to each other via teleportation. Even the "sewer" corridor that rings the entire map has teleporters at the transitions between quadrants.
Frequent optional encounters are a key characteristic of this kind of game.
Within the space is a lot of interesting geography, including enclaves for tribes of goblins and trolls, physical mazes, teleporter mazes, and a couple of large inaccessible areas meant to support the never-created Arena and Palace expansions.
My own map of the first level so far.
An artistic map of the dungeon accompanies the game manual and demonstrates that the developers thought of it not as a bunch of featureless corridors but a more interesting, dynamic under-city, with buildings of different heights and purposes. The buildings and corridors on the map really do correspond with the in-game dungeon. A 3 x 2 room isn't just a featureless block but rather the antechamber to the palace. A 12-square corridor with exits only at the ends is actually a bridge between two buildings. The corridor that rings the entire map really is a round sewer pipe. In-game, the developers only had the technical resources to show some of this with colors and textures, but in concept and intent, The Dungeon is an important stop on the road to Ultima Underworld, probably the first game to give us a true three-dimensional dungeon experience, and everything that followed, where atmosphere and a strong sense of place play an equal role to game mechanics.
The game occasionally changes wall textures for effect, such as in this mausoleum.
The game got quite a bit easier in my second session, not because I got more powerful--leveling slowed to a near-stop after Level 6--but because I found more items capable of defending and healing myself. It turns out that gold horns actually do heal the character; it's just that occasionally one of them is cursed and summons berserkers. Silver horns do mass damage to all enemies, as do several other magic items like fire wands, cold wands, red eyes, and emerald eyes. I also found a number of healing wands. The problem with wands is that they require crystals for each use, which are rarely found, but between all the various options, I rarely found myself in a situation in which I didn't have some healing readily available. Before long, my only deaths occurred when I encountered parties of multiple enemies and they surprised me, decimating my hit points before I could act.
Of the game's many, many items of equipment, "trump cards" are perhaps the most original and oddest. They act somewhat like a Deck of Many Things in Dungeons and Dragons. Each card has a single use and offers a specific boon. There are some that provide resources, such as "The Star" (20 crystals) and "Ace of Pentacles" (100 gold); others provide one-time boosts to attributes; and still others cure conditions, such as "Temperance" (removes drunkenness) and "Ace of Wands" (removes fatigue). "Death" will immediately kill any monster--definitely a useful trump card to hold in reserve. "The Heirophant" summons a healer to your current location. The manual is completely up-front about what each item does, which is rare. I think some of the cards have to be found at specific locations in the dungeon first, but once you find and use them, they have a subsequent chance to show up in the inventory of a slain enemy.
Blasting a group of trolls with a silver horn.
Weapon and armor upgrades have also been relatively steady. As in many games, there are generic items that you can buy or find randomly, as well as unique "artifact" items found in specific dungeon squares, or after fixed combats. My excellent Razor Ice sword eventually broke--only a short time before I found a magical whetstone that repairs weapons and armor--but I found suitable replacements in a Staff of Amber and a Sword of the Adept. A crossbow that I looted from some area is particularly deadly, but I'm constantly running out of ammo.

Foes have included liches, vampires, and various sorts of demons. Perhaps the most annoying enemy--who is definitely going on my list if I ever get around to updating it--is something called a "devourer," who has a chance every round of sucking up a random item from your inventory, or perhaps some of your food, water, or gold. He always surprises and gets a free move, too. The items he devours are not found on his body when you finally defeat him. I've been reloading when they devour something I really want to keep, although a recent comment suggested that lost artifact items have a way of showing up later in random treasure drops.
I didn't encounter this guy until I'd been playing for 8 hours, and now he seems to be around every corner.
I'm running from combat a lot more than I did in the first session, sometimes because I'm authentically scared of dying, but more often because I'm in the middle of trying to map something and I don't want to bother to fight. Fleeing usually works, and leaves you in the same square. 
Combat options with a small dragon. I haven't encountered any large dragons yet.
Most of the conditions that I covered in the first posting have ceased to be much of an issue. Hunger and thirst come along so rarely, and food and water are so cheap, that they're basically a non-issue. There are magic items to help cure poison and disease, and random healers come along frequently anyway. Perhaps the most difficult condition to deal with is simple fatigue, as there is only one place to rest in the game--the inn in the starting area--and that's often far away. But since it's a decent idea to head back there occasionally anyway, it's not so bad. It amuses me how often that I, myself, have been "weary," and should probably go to bed, at the same time that the condition popped up for my character.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of exploration has involved doors. There are plenty of secret and one-way doors, but I'm not talking about those. Every once in a while, you'll find a "locked" door, and it can be locked in three ways: a simple lock, a bar, or an enchantment. These are opened with keys, force, and dispelling, respectively. When you first encounter the door, you don't know why it's locked, so you either have to successfully "examine the door" (it works about 33% of the time) or try one of the options at random.

Keys are one-use items. I started the game with none of them and then got a bunch--maybe 12--over a short period of time. But once those were depleted, I had trouble finding any more, so I had to mark keyed doors as unopenable on my map and return later. Barred doors, meanwhile, open with "force," which only has a small chance of success every round and causes damage to your character. Enchanted doors open by "breaking an enchantment," which you have to try over and over again until it works. Since forcing and breaking fail so often, it was comparably late in the game before I realized that I just had to keep trying. By then, I had marked a bunch of doors as impassable for later return.
Options when facing a locked door.
Your door woes are completely obviated with an "amethyst rod," which causes instant success for any of the door-opening options, but I found it late in the session. I have a lot of doors to return to.

Some interesting encounters and artifacts since the first posting include:

  • The "Taurean Maze"--a roughly 16 x 30 area in the southwest quadrant. A true maze with dead-ends, one-way doors and walls, and a few teleporters, it ultimately funnels the character into a room with "Saurian Brandy," which raises your stamina 1 point for every quaff but leaves you hopelessly drunk, and a fountain of healing. It wasn't quite worth the effort mapping it.
The description of finding the brandy, on the other hand, was pretty cool.
  • 3 different stairways to the next level.
  • A dead Australian clutching a six-pack of beer. (Foster's, I assume, as that's what I've been led to believe that Australians drink.) As far as I can tell, unlike the brandy above, the beer just makes me drunk.
  • An "enchantress." (After seeing Suicide Squad, every time I see that word, I now hear it in a dramatic whisper.) She offers to add enchantments to your weapons and armor, including some unusual ones like reducing its weight or extending its life. The kicker: she requires crystals. So far, these have been too precious to spend; I need them for my wands. Why couldn't she just take money? I have plenty of that now. In any event, she also assesses the type and level of damage done by your weapons, for free.
Assessing my weapons.
  • A "Helm of Light" removes the need for torches--but it doesn't identify secret doors. So I have to use "Wizard's Eye" (plentifully found in scrolls and actual eyes), which also casts light, anyway.
  • A golden apple found on a pillow. Eating it raised my maximum hit points.
I thought this was going to have something to do with charisma.
  • "Gram's Gold Exchange vault." I had the opportunity to loot it, but as I was trying to play a good character (and had plenty of gold by now anyway), I declined.
Stealing is evil. Stealing from a grandmother is especially evil.
I had started this session with the intent to find the Oracle, said to reside roughly in the middle of the dungeon. Note how it appears in the "artistic map" at the top of this post as an eye atop a tower. Owing to the vagaries of the dungeon layout, it's impossible to simply beat a path there; you have to find the right combination of rooms and doors. It was in doing so that I hit most of the encounters in the list above. Finally, a southern door brought me to the right square.
Hmm...a flaming eye wants a ring. I'm not sure this is going to end well.
The Oracle was a floating eye that demanded a tribute. I tossed it a few gold pieces, and it demanded that I bring to it "the ring that the goblins and trolls war over." Apparently, each of the parties had half of the ring, and the Oracle wanted me to take it to a smithy on the second level (which I haven't even explored yet) to reforge the two halves into a solid ring.

I eventually found the two tribes in their respective places in the dungeon. Both areas offered multiple random combats with groups of 8 trolls and goblins, but I mostly ran from them, heading right to the "boss" encounter in rooms in the middles of the areas. Ultimately, I defeated both the goblin and troll kings and received their halves of the rings.
Facing the goblin king. I wonder what would have happened if I'd given him the ring.
I also made some progress in what I think is another aspect of the main quest. I had previously been transported to a portal maze after freeing Ozob from the palace dungeons, but I escaped without actually solving the maze. This time, I fully mapped and finished it, and I was taken to the tomb of a mage named Acrinimiril, Ozob's master. His ghost spoke to me and said that the "masters of this world" (who, remember, are aliens) destroyed his body because they feared his sorcery. He promised to help me if I would return the pieces of his broken staff. Somehow--I don't remember where I got it--I already had one, and he boosted my intelligence as a reward.
I really picked a stupid character name.
There are two major areas of the game I have yet to explore: guilds and spells. They're interrelated, I think, because I imagine that you get spells from the guilds. For a while, none of the good guilds would let me join them because my alignment wasn't good enough, but this seems to have turned around since I stopped attempting any of the pre-combat "surprise" options (like "waylay"). The chapel tells me I'm on the right path.
That's good to hear.
The manual indicates that there are 8 total guilds in the game, 4 good and 4 evil. I haven't re-attempted to join the good guilds I already found--the Wizards of Law and the Light Wizard--because I've been holding out for the Paladins' Guild. I just can't find it. I assume it's in the bit of the southwest quadrant that I've yet to map. 
Lacking guild membership, I've only encountered a single spell in the game so far: the "Fugue" spell that Ozob gave to me when I rescued him. It's actually quite helpful, when it works (about 45% of the time). It acts like a kind of "time stop" in combat that gives me a few free rounds, and I often use it when an enemy disarms me and I need a couple actions to pick up the weapon and re-equip it.

Thus, as I close this session, I have a couple of options: finish mapping the first level or head right down to the second level and finish the Oracle's quest. Or, perhaps, give up on the Paladins' Guild and join one of the wizards instead.
The next level beckons.
The pseudo-continuous movement remains torturous. I say "pseudo" because you still move in discrete increments; it's just that each tile is divided into about 5 x 5 of them. This means that movement from one tile to the next takes 5 times as long as it should, with no upside except that it looks cool for the first 3 minutes of gameplay. Other than that, I'm really enjoying the game. When I started it, I was hoping it would be a one-shot in the middle of my Magic Candle II postings; now, I'm rather hoping that The Dungeon outlasts The Magic Candle II.

Time so far: 18 hours

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Magic Candle II: In the Dark

The party takes on a weird formation to get at this treasure chest.
Lots of gameplay since the last session, mostly not amounting to much. I've almost entirely lost any thread of clues or connection to the plot, and instead I've just been exploring Gurtex somewhat systematically, looking for villages, dungeons, and clues as I come across them. I return to my home base in Telermain when I need to stock up.

In any game that features periodic returns to town, a player develops a comfortable routine. Mine is:
  • Leave my mage to memorize spells in the wizard's lodge
  • Get Perin back into the party long enough to take his cash
Stealing a halfling's hard-earned wages.
  • Sell gems and extra weapons
  • Buy needed mushrooms, food, and lockpicks
  • Rest for a night to repair items and get everyone healed and at full energy
  • Hit the road
When I last wrote, some plot developments had occurred, in particular the ransacking of Rebnard's throne room by the demon lord Zakhad and the kidnapping of Prince Jemil by the Elden Zidoni. I guess Zidoni is the Elden that escaped after all four were captured. Rebnard told me to ask Ziyx or Bhardagast about the prophecy, but neither of them had anything to offer on that keyword. Ziyx did have some comments on the white scroll I'd retrieved from the ghost, and he recommended I research CANDLE OF DESPAIR in the Telermain library.

When I did that, I didn't get any kind of informational article, but the game said I'd scribbled some things on the scroll. I guess that will have to be good enough.
Okay, but what did the research say?
At this point, the only clue I still had was to find the Elden stronghold at Wanasol and research the Orb of Light. Wanasol being about 2/3 of the way across Gurtex, I girded myself for a long expedition. I never actually made it, but I did stop at a lot of places along the way, starting with a return visit to Llendora, where I bought the "Vannex" spellbook.

I found a few Elden strongholds during my expedition. I thought they'd be full dungeons or villages or something, but they're just one-room houses, suitable for camping. I presume the one in Wanasol is going to be different, since it must have a library.
The party finds a safe place to rest.
Wrapping around a mountain range south of Llendora, I discovered an orc town called Glusaga. The game told me that I'd need to be disguised to enter, and fortunately the "Vannex" spellbook came with one called "Disguise." With my party looking like beasts, I entered the town expecting to find some kind of monster-infested hell-hole, and I was surprised to find a regular town with a weapon store, gem seller, gambling hall, and food store, plus lots of polite and friendly NPCs. Maybe this whole war is a misunderstanding.
Preparing to enter the orc town.
The orcs were all talking about the dwarves in Drakhelm, planning an upcoming invasion. They told me the location of the city and the password needed to enter. One of the orcs mentioned having buried a magic stone in a room in Shann, so I'll have to go back there if I want it.
Orcs are fond of using "narfing" as a swear.
The next town was a human port on the north coast, called Port Ussa. It had a selection of shops and a lot of NPC sailors. I had a longstanding note to visit Ahmed in this town and mention his brother Sefil, the beggar in Telermain. Ahmed gave me some clues on various cities and suggested that if I ever get to the mines of Dorak, I can deal with the monster Vankruh by just sheathing my weapons and talking to him politely (did the Fellowship even try that with the balrog?). Dorak is supposed to be in the Demonspine mountains, which I'd already passed. Other NPCs told me about barbarian tribes that roam the northern tundra and move their village with the seasons.
I'm not sure how this human town is surviving on the Gurtex mainland.
A guy in Ussa named Naendix was selling all the game's spellbooks, including "Emenad," which Ziyx told me he wouldn't finish until October. I really needed "Ishban," which has the "Heal" spell, so I bought it. I didn't realize until this session that spellbooks are physical objects that can be traded between characters. I thought they were more like skills, bestowed upon the character.

Eventually, I made my way to Drakhelm, used the password, and entered. It was an interesting combination between dungeon and town, with various NPCs and services on the upper level followed by three large, complex levels full of teleporters. 
Exploring Drakhelm.
On the top level, I found Eflun, the mage who had been my companion in the first game. I started to swap him for Subia, but then I realized without Subia, I'd have no one with a "Charm" ability above 4 and no one with musical skills. Subia's also been coming along with her swordplay, too. Instead, I compared Eflun's stats with Rimfiztrik's and ol' Fiz definitely ended up wanting. I had Fiz transfer his goods to Eflun and sent him back to Oshcrun.

I bought Methreal armor for my characters who didn't already have it (or better) and collected a variety of notes from NPCs, including the magic words needed to get into Dorak. A number of NPCs recommended that I take a dwarf named Kruga into my party, but for whatever reason I didn't.
Instructions for getting to Dorak.
The three levels below the town took a lot of mapping effort, but in terms of monsters, it was easier than Shann. I didn't have to load up on mushrooms before every room, which is good since there were a lot of rooms--at least 50, I'd guess. They were full of chests with mushrooms, gems, and coins, or fountains with a variety of spells.
A room with only four enemies.
Several of the corridors required me to change party formations to get into tight areas. In one such area, after I'd cast "Repel" on a dozen spiders, I found a magic axe called Orcbane that I gave to Sakar.
After what seemed like forever navigating teleporters and chutes, I found a room with another ghost. After I cast "Soulspeak," he identified himself as Phokos, another of the guardians of the Magic Candle. He was a bit mad, having tortured himself for a decade for running and hiding while his companions were slaughtered (they eventually got him, too, of course). He clarified the makeup of the 44 guardians even further: they consisted of 4 Eldens, the "Wardens Eight," the "Wizards Twelve," and the "Warriors Twenty." With these couple of ghosts, I've mostly solved the mystery of what happened with the four-and-forty: they were attacked by forces from Gurtex, who killed everyone except the four Eldens. I don't suppose that's enough for a "win."
This is getting to be a pattern.
Casting "Restsoul" on the ghost put him at peace and revealed a pink scroll titled "The Candle of Anguish." Although Gia recommended we take it to Ziyx, he had nothing to say about it, and the library in Telermain didn't have it among their topics. Neither did the library at the castle.

When I was done with Drakhelm, I made my way back to Oshcrun via its teleportal chamber and went through my regular routine. (Teleportal chambers are found in every dungeon. NPCs give you the combinations of pyramids, spheres, and cubes that you need to get to various destinations.) The good news is that my financial woes seem to be over. Between the gems, coins, and extra weapons found in Drakhelm, I have well over 10,000 gold pieces.
Gia takes the fast way home.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • I've learned several new songs, but every time I ask Subia to play something, she just plays "The Happy Traveler." I assume this is because her skill isn't very high (25/75). I'm beginning to suspect the whole music system is a waste of time anyway.
A lot of good this did me.
  • Instead of wasting my entire party's stock of energy crossing rivers, I learned to use the "Teleport" spell for that purpose.
The "Teleport" spell allows you to move 2 squares in any direction.
  • I've found a few "fireglobes," so I experimented with them. They act like landmines, doing severe damage to enemies who walk over them. But they're only useful against enemies who attack you with melee weapons, which is a minority of the foes in the game. I'll probably just sell them in the future.
Some trolls and zorlims fall victim to my fireglobes.
  • During my travels, I found a temple where the goddess Balene was sleeping, but I didn't have the magic words to wake her up.
  • Weapons and armor can get damaged in combat, but repairing everything takes only about an hour in camp. It's more of an annoyance than a challenge.
If I have one complaint about the game, it's in the paucity of character development. The series has no "experience" or "levels," so the only reason to fight monsters--particularly wandering or random ones--is the slight increase you occasionally get in weapons skills or magic. Already, most of my characters are at or near the top of their ranges for their weapons. Gia is maxed at 99/99 for "Sword"; Eneri is at 94/99. Sakar is maxed at 99/99 in "Axe," Buzbazgut at 56/75 in "Sword"; Eflun at 40/40 in "Sword." Only Subia has a long way to go at 64/99 with the weapon.
Subia is incrementally improving her weapon skills, but she's probably as good as she's going to get with everything else.
Most skills don't increase with use; you have to pay someone to train them. This happens very slowly. I tried teaching Eneri in magic and Subia in music, and both times they only went up 3 points after paying around 200 gold pieces and taking a couple of days to train. Doing that with all of your skills, to any sort of proficiency, is just impossible.

This means that characters don't really get notably stronger as the game progresses. Even a character with 50/99 in a weapon hits hard and accurately enough to win most combats. Using mushrooms increases your power far more than the game's skill-based leveling. I suspect my characters could take on the endgame right now if they just knew where to go and had the right items.

In any event, it's time to get back into the fray. We'll see if I can make it to Wanasol next time.

Time so far: 22 hours

Monday, April 17, 2017

Game 248: Alternate Reality: The Dungeon (1987)

While there were some precursors--think early Ultima and its obsession with food--Alternate Reality really pioneered "the environment is the enemy" gameplay. In most games, you have to worry about the goblin standing in front of you and that's about it. In Alternate Reality, you have to worry about the goblin plus hunger, thirst, heat, cold, disease, poison, curses, alignment, intoxication, fatigue, and encumbrance. In most games, you buy the best sword and armor you can afford; in Alternate Reality, you might buy a slightly lesser sword and armor so you can still afford a warmer coat, a meal in the tavern, and a better bed in the inn.

Some players love this sort of gameplay. They're the kind who install the "Frostfall" mod to Skyrim or play Fallout 4 in "survival" mode. I admit I enjoy these considerations at times, usually when they're introduced in such a way that I can understand how they work and know how to solve them. I don't mind if the solution is difficult, even, as long as it isn't bewildering. A lot of games feature poison, for instance, but the manual tells you that to cure it, you need a "Cure Poison" potion. Cool, you think, I'll purchase a couple at the alchemist's before I head out on my adventure. Alternate Reality is the sort of game that would start you with no idea how to cure poison, no idea where the nearest alchemist is, and no money anyway, and then get you poisoned in your first combat.
A typical The Dungeon screenshot. I'm exploring the sewers, and my square has some items, bodies, or both. My character is Level 2, thirsty, and about to die from hit point loss unless he can get healed.
We saw recently how the author of Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) had adopted these dynamics. While his love for Alternate Reality is clear, he made it too easy to solve the problems. Even if you don't collect a few mages with spells that counter every ill effect, there are inns and chapels on every corner, and the proceeds from a single combat can handle your needs for months. In Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, meanwhile, my Level 6 character, wielding his magical ice sword and Wand of Paralysis, still runs screaming from every encounter with a mold because it might release spores and disease him, at which point his only option is to hope that a wandering healer comes along, and even then he probably won't have enough money to afford the cure.
Curing disease takes the equivalent of 10 gold pieces. I'm not sure I've ever had that many.
I know I'm sounding negative with all of this, yet Alternate Reality: The Dungeon is quite a bit of fun. I'm enjoying it much more than Alternate Reality: The City (1985; link to my coverage), which was a hub with no spokes--the town level of a dungeon crawler with no dungeon. Lacking a plot, a quest, and fixed encounters, it offered no particular reason to explore or press on, and yet its legendary difficult did make it mildly exhilarating the first time I was able to kill a thief and loot a handful of gold pieces. It was the closest an RPG could come to make the player feel like a hobo, grateful whenever he had enough money for his next night of room and board. Still, I didn't see any point in playing it for more than a few hours. I only played long enough to get my character up to Level 5 and amass a little wealth, so he'd be prepared for The Dungeon.

Even that turned out to be a waste of time. When I started the Atari 800 version of The Dungeon, seeking to import my character, it wouldn't recognize him on the character disk. I realize now that the character actually had to be saved at one of the dungeon entrances, but I didn't understand that at the time. Owing to some other problems with the Atari 800 version--among other things, I couldn't find a way to skip the 5-minute opening credits and go directly to the menu--I decided to try the Apple II version instead and create a character from scratch.

This turned out to be beneficial, in a way. After an opening sequence that recaps the character being abducted by an alien spaceship's tractor beams, he walks through a portal of randomly-spinning numbers and gets assigned his stamina, charisma, strength, intelligence, wisdom, and skill attributes. My new Dungeon character started 1-6 points higher than my Level 5 City character in every skill. By the time the new character was Level 5, he was 7-24 points higher than his City counterpart.
Character creation is the same as The City but with the player facing a dungeon corridor instead of a city square.
But it did make the beginning of the game slow going. I died in 3/4 of my combats until I hit Level 2. I had no equipment other than a ratty robe and a few silver pieces, and I had to scrimp and skulk for an hour before I could afford so much as a dagger. I spent far more time reloading than playing, which would have been infuriating in 1987 with the slower speeds and need for physical disk-swapping.

Yet, in many ways, I find The Dungeon easier than The City. You begin the game in a "well-lit" area (meaning you don't need to use torches) with a shop, bar, and inn all nearby. The inn will let you rest for whatever you can afford. The random encounters in this area are generally with the easier monsters in the game. Any of them can curse, poison, or disease you, I hasten to add; the "ease" is relative to the rest of the series. But it's something.
The shop is thankfully only a few steps from the entrance.
As we discussed in my entry on The City, the creator of Alternate Reality, Philip Price, had big plans. The City was supposed to be the hub of a huge game world that would have seen expansions in The Wilderness, The Arena, and The Palace, along with plot resolution in games titled Revelation and Destiny. The Dungeon wasn't even supposed to be a separate game; it was just supposed to be the first game's sewers. By 1987, Price had gone to work for the military-industrial complex, leaving his notes with Datasoft. A team led by Dan Pinal and Ken Jordan took them and wrote this sequel. They never completely abandoned the idea that the character would be able to transition between expansions, and even here the game will occasionally call for a disk from a title that never existed.
I'd like to enter the scenario; you just never built it.
Here, the ostensible quest is to get out of the dungeon and either return to Earth, somehow, or "seek revenge on your captors."  But the manual also promises--and, my, is it accurate on this--that you'll almost always have some kind of short-term issue to solve before you can really focus on your long-term goals. It's rare that my character isn't hungry, thirsty, weary, poisoned, diseased, cursed, or on the verge of death. He is often lost and chronically poor.

All of the potential conditions that you can experience are there for the difficulty, sure, but are also part of the game's dedication to details. In most games of the era, you can figure out the combat rules in a few minutes and while some combats might be more difficult than others, generally nothing occurs that's completely out of the ordinary. Alternate Reality, on the other hand, is always throwing new things at you. "Enemies" can be friendly, hostile, or indifferent. They can holler to their allies and summon help in the middle of battle. They have their own equipment and potions and might (for example) chug a healing potion in the middle of combat. An attack might send your weapon flying from your hands, never to be seen again, or it might break the umpteenth time you use it. A character might curse you with his dying breath and you literally end up in "cursed" status. The store might run out of food and water when you need it most. A thief might pilfer your compass or your last torch. You can use those torches, by the way, as makeshift weapons, along with the sticks they leave behind when they run out. Enemy corpses and their unwanted stuff litter the dungeon floors. There are a dizzying array of magic items with their own rules. Even 6 hours into the game, every 10 minutes or so, I find myself exclaiming "I didn't know that could happen!"
Thieves often try to rob you before attacking.
Beyond that, The Dungeon has all the trappings of the typical RPG dungeon: secret doors (more, in fact, than regular doors), locked doors, one-way doors and walls, teleporters, and squares with fixed treasures, encounters, and combats.

Time passes as you stand around, so unless you hit "pause," enemies will frequently attack standing characters, and if you're not quick enough in your combat action selection, you'll lose your move. Stopping to take a screenshot in combat often leads to death and a reload.
Death is frequent in this game.
It took me a while to get a character going. My first few had poor statistics and unlucky adventures, falling victim to poison or disease in their first few combats. One character survived for a while but ran out of money and couldn't seem to earn any more. The one who went the distance did so amidst so many reloads that it would horrify you, but that's really the only way to successfully play the game: save when something good happens and reload when you die or otherwise find yourself in an untenable situation.

The manual kindly provides a starting map, showing that the first level is 64 x 64 squares. Apparently, there are 4 levels in the game, with each subsequent level 1/4 the size of the one above it. The last level is supposedly only 8 x 8.
The manual starts you with this map. The sewers ring the entire map, so if you can find your way to them, you can get almost anywhere.
My map so far of the first level. Teleporters moved me to and from that western area.
I've been making my own map, of course, but the game's dedication to pseudo-continuous movement instead of 10-feet-at-a-time makes mapping difficult. I was constantly over- or under-estimating the number of tiles I'd traveled in long corridors. It wasn't until I found a "map stone," which identifies your precise coordinates, that this problem finally went away.
The compass and map stone are vital to accurate mapping.
Enemy difficulty seems to be associated with the zone you're in, as well as perhaps your own level, though I'm not sure about that. There's so much variability it's hard to tell. Basically, once you leave the starting area, all bets are off. You might encounter a rat or a demon lord. In combat, you have options to make a regular attack, a charge, or an "aimed attack" which sometimes delays until next round. I've found that the odds of success and failure of the three options seem almost equal, and the "aimed attack" does the most damage by far. Aside from attacking, you can use items and cast spells, but I don't have very many of either yet.

Basic combat options. You can also hit "C" to cast and "U" to use.

An "aimed attack" routinely does double the damage of other attacks.
By far, the biggest difficulty in the game is getting healed. You can only sleep in the inn, from which it's easy to get pretty far afield. Although wands and potions of healing supposedly exist, I've yet to find any. The only way I've been able to restore hit points is to find a wandering healer and pay him--which poses its own problems because money is so tight. Having to shell out for healing, food, water, and torches, it's only been towards the end of my first session that I was able to afford even some basic armor. Most enemies don't drop any wealth at all, and the store doesn't purchase used weapons and armor. It's a big deal when an enemy leaves even a few gold pieces.

I've been a little luckier on equipment. When I was Level 4, I killed a master thief and got a "Kriss Knife," which served me well for a while. Then, while exploring, I stumbled upon an enchanted katana called "Razor Ice." A lot of creatures can only be damaged with magic, so this has been a real boon.
Treasures in fixed locations are a feature of this game.
Various battles have left me with several "Wizards' Eyes," which cast a light spell and detect secret doors; other eyes that damage enemies in combat; a variety of one-time-use "trump cards" that do things like kill one monster or summon a healer. Mystifying are several horns. According to the manual, they're supposed to do things like heal me or replenish my food, but all they ever seem to do is summon parties of berserkers that I have to fight.
I prepare to use an "emerald eye" in a fixed battle against 6 homunculii.
I've been trying to keep my alignment good, refusing to attack humanoid creatures until they attack first, giving precious coppers to paupers, and so forth, but apparently I'm messing something up because the only two guilds I've found so far--the Guild of Order and the Wizards of Law Guild--say that my soul is too dark to join.
The game rewards you with experience not only for kills but successful actions of several types. Just striking an enemy provides some experience. Leveling up confers increases to both maximum hit points and some random selection of statistics. My "skill" score has been a bit mystifying. It started at 17 and got up to 22 after a few level-ups. Then one moment I looked at it, and it was suddenly 56. I have no idea how it got that high. Later, I looked again and it was down to 40.

Some miscellaneous notes:

  • In addition to the things that they drop, you can pick up the corpses of most slain enemies. I can't imagine why you'd want to do that.
  • Each room or corridor has its own name, although no detailed descriptions. I'll have more on the dungeon layout next time.
  • A lot of doors require (interchangeable) keys to open. The game didn't really open up until I'd found a few of those. You can't buy them from the store.
And sometimes keys don't work because the door is barred or magically-locked.
  • Knights occasionally show up and demand that you yield to their passage. I've been saying "yes," but I'm not sure what to make of the encounters.
In another RPG, I wouldn't yield to bullying, but in this series, you don't fight when you don't have to.
I did make what might be progress on the main plot or quest. In the eastern side of the map is a large inaccessible area that seems to require the never-produced Palace disk, but there's a small room adjacent to this area, behind a secret door, where I found a guy named Ozob. He said he was the former apprentice of a slain mage named Acrinimiril. When I unlocked his chains, he rewarded me with a "Fugue" spell (the only spell I've acquired so far) and teleported me to the "puzzle of three doors."
A fixed encounter that perhaps has something to do with the main quest.
I don't think I quite solved the puzzle, which involved a lot of teleporters, but I was far away from the starting area and a little freaked, so I slowly made my way back. On the way, I found a chapel, where I had options to pray, listen to a sermon, consult with a priest, and make a donation. In consultation, the priest confirmed what the guilds had been telling me by saying that my soul could go either way. How many paupers do I have to throw coins at?!
Listening to a sermon in the chapel.
The manual hints that the player should really try to find the Oracle of Wisdom, which occupies the same coordinates as the Floating Gate in The City--roughly the middle of the map. I also need to see if there was anything else to solve in the "puzzle of the three doors area." It's nice to have goals, which I never did in The City.
I forgot where I got this, but it was a good sign.
I feel like my character is finally getting strong, but in general you never want to fall into the trap of thinking you're doing well in an Alternate Reality game. The next random combat might cut you down to size fast.