Thursday, July 29, 2021

Arcan: Won! (with Summary and Rating)


Softwave Games/Motelsoft (developer); published as shareware, in Germany by PD Pool
Released in 1993 for Atari ST
Date Started: 13 July 2021
Date Ended: 24 July 2021
Total Hours: 27
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 22
Ranking at Time of Posting: 155/428 (36%)
A shareware Dungeon Master, Arcan lacks the production values of the game that inspired it, but it does a better job than most DM clones with the variety (and fairness) of puzzles and navigation obstacles. Its bargain budget is most keenly felt in sound (there is none) and in combat (there are only two monster types in the entire game). It otherwise does a decent job replicating its predecessor's mechanics, including tiled, first-person exploration, real-time combat, leveling based on skills used by the characters, and of course plenty of buttons, levers, pressure plates, spinners, keys, pits, and hidden doors.
Commenter sucinum gave me the help I needed to move forward. The revelation was simply that some levers have to be operated twice in succession to have their intended effect. I don't know why that didn't occur to me. I've certainly seen it in Dungeon Master-style games before. It's almost like I need to keep some kind of checklist to remind myself what to do when I'm stuck in this type of game. Something like:
  • Walk into walls
  • Fall into any open pits
  • Scan walls carefully for buttons
  • Pull all levers and push all buttons multiple times, looking around for changes after each pull or push
  • Try to insert everything in inventory into wall slots
  • Weigh down any pressure plates
  • Search any fire or water squares for hidden objects
What else would you put on there?
The lever opened a back way into the area previously blocked by the "repulsion" square. There, I got a key that I needed to unlock a door that brought me into the west side of the level. That ultimately brought me to a stairway back up to Main -1, and from there the levels opened into a host of interconnected stairways that tied together the three levels I had already mapped parts of.
All the levels turned out to be the same 40 x 40 size. The game started with three small sections of the main level, Main +1, and Main -1, before a pit dropped me down to Main -2. I had to map that entire level before finding my way back to a section of Main -1. At that point, the game took me up and down the original three levels liberally. For all its size, Arcan is both extremely linear and largely one-way. Every time you think you have multiple directions, they fairly quickly collapse into just one, although occasionally you find a lever that opens the way back to an earlier area. I guess one way to say it is the game is open backwards but linear forwards. This makes it easy to get stuck, and there were many times in which I thought I'd have to give up again, only to try one more thing and find the next way forward. Those moments are relatively satisfying.
My final map of the main level +1. All the annotations show how packed with different puzzles it is.
The final area was in the northwest corner.
In addition to the puzzles and navigational elements I already wrote about (keys, buttons, levers, repulsion squares, one-way pits, spinners), the game introduced a few additional ones later on. The first is movable walls. They look like regular walls, but when you step towards them, they push backwards into any available space. If there is no available space, the game still alerts you that the wall "looks" movable. The game prevents you from getting into a "walking dead" situation by letting you pull the walls as well as push them. There is one area with nine separate movable walls, each blocking at least one alcove or way forward. Fortunately, the automap annotates movable walls in a different color, so if you miss any (by not barging into every wall), you can still identify them later.
The second is invisible walls or force fields, blocking you from walking down what looks like an empty corridor or through an empty chamber. Generally, there is no way to deactivate them, although one chamber is full of them, and you need to find a lever to change their configuration and make your way through.
The game alerts me to a movable wall.
The third new element is pressure plates, and they came in three varieties. The first simply acts like a switch you can't avoid, closing or opening a wall space the moment you step on it. I did not encounter any that needed to be weighed down. The second type activates a magic trap, sending a fireball or other spell whizzing down the corridor. You have to dart into alcoves to avoid the spell.
The third type is bizarre. I've never seen them in any other game. When you step on them, they immediately propel you forward. At first, I didn't get the point--they just shoved me into the next corridor space, where I could continue on my way. But I soon realized that if I walked sideways onto one of these plates, it would propel me in the facing direction, even into a wall space. To be clear, these aren't illusory walls or secret doors; they don't show up on the automap, and you can't detect them with "Magic Eye." The pressure plates are actually letting you walk through walls, into places that would otherwise be inaccessible. Sometimes there are items in those wall spaces, which breaks another of the game's usual rules.
For a while I was mapping "repulsor" squares (which knock you back to the previous square) and sliders as the same, but there's a key difference: by pounding the keys enough, you can fight sliders. There is a huge section of Main -1 with sliders everywhere, forming a series of looping conveyor belts. I had to find a couple of key items while constantly fighting the direction the squares wanted to take me.
A final navigation element is something I mentioned last time, but not extensively: the four-way button. I don't remember seeing anything like it in previous Dungeon Master clones. It's a button with an arrow, and the arrow points a different direction every time you push it. The game uses it to cycle various wall openings. For instance, you might enter a dead-end room from the east. There's a button on the center pillar. Pushing it once closes the east exit and opens the north. Pushing it again closes the north and opens the west. And so on. The game offered a couple of places with two or three buttons of this type, each combination of presses creating a slightly different wall configuration, requiring a lot of testing and careful mapping.
Much like Abandoned Places 2, enemies are basically an afterthought. The real point of the game is the puzzles. After five or six hours of fighting blue-robed swordsmen, the game finally introduced a second type of enemy: red-robed, staff-wielding mages. They're capable of devastating fireballs at a range. (I should mention that although the enemies in the game all look the same, they come in a wide variety of difficulty. Some have 10 hit points, some 500. Some do 4 points of damage against you, some 40.) Just like the swordsmen, they're too tough to face in a stand-up fight, even starting at full health. Fortunately, the standard Dungeon Master tactics work, including the combat waltz, missile weapons, and hit-and-run skirmishes in long corridors. Your hit points are basically just a cushion for the occasional time in which you flub the fingering on one of the classic patterns.
A roomful of the second enemy type. Enemies almost always attack in pairs.
Because you're forced to fight this way, the few upgrades in weapons and armor really don't matter. You have to avoid getting hit at all, so whether I'm wearing a horned helm or a greater horned helm doesn't much matter. Nor does it matter whether I'm using a bronze sword, iron sword, or axe. It's just a difference of the combat waltz taking four and a half minutes instead of four and three-quarters. The only things have really excited me are bows and magic wands for my rear characters so they can participate more. Because of the dearth of such weapons, they ended the game with about one-third the experience points as the main characters.
One of the oddities of this game's approach to combat, in which you can only hit the enemy literally in front of you and enemies never change their positions in their groups, is that improvements only help when they're symmetrical. If one of my lead fighters has a much better weapon than the other, he'll kill his enemy faster, but I still need to keep waltzing away while the other one does his job. Since having to click on one "attack" button is hardly a time savings over clicking on two, you really want them to kill their foes at about the same time. This is naturally also true for the rear characters. One bow doesn't do anything for me because it just speeds up the death of one enemy in a pair. Only when the two rear characters have comparable weapons do they really help.
Waltzing the swordsmen to death. They're no danger until they turn and face me,
at which point I'll side-step to the left and pivot.

My front characters ended the game at Level 9, my rear at Level 6. I didn't try to spread out their class advancement by having the front characters cast spells or having the rear characters occasionally fight in melee; thus, my front characters have nothing but "warrior" levels, and my rear characters are a combination of "gladiator" (from throwing things) and the magic classes. I believe the levels went from grünschnabel ("rookie") to anfänger ("beginner"), abenteurer ("adventurer"), draufgänger ("go-getter"), profi ("professional"), fortgeschrittener ("advanced"), meisteranwärter ("master contender"), meister ("master") and meister & lehrer ("master and teacher"). 
Ratakresch's character sheet towards the end of the game. Is it just my color blindness,
or are the spells in that list nearly impossible to read?
Spells were underwhelming. Some of them are mysteries. Here's what I found:
  • Magisches Auge ("Magic Eye"): Reveals secret doors. Useful, but I prefer to explore with it off, so I can tell what's a secret door and what's a regular passageway. With the spell active, they look the same.
  • Körperschutz ("Body Protection"): Increases armor class by 8 for the group. Useful in the rare occasions I have to fight face-to-face.
  • Kraftspruch (???): This translates literally as something like "Power Speech," although it vernacularly means "slogan." When cast, it puts a little "K" in the spell grid, but I have no idea what it does.
  • Donnerkugel ("Thunderball"): Casts a magic missile. Very useful once I had two copies. Most of my spell points go into this. They run out quick, but at least I don't have to spend several minutes after each combat picking up my donnerkugeln the way I do arrows and knives.
  • Lichtschild ("Light Shield"): I'm not sure. It puts a "L" in the spell grid but doesn't affect armor class. I suspect it helps against magic attacks.
  • Tuer Oeffnen ("Open Door"): This has been useful exactly once, in the puzzle I related in the first entry. I suppose I should use it every time I have to open a door so someone gets skill for it.
  • Magiewand ("Magic Wall"): Creates a temporary wall square. I can only imagine it's to block enemies from chasing you while you rest and heal, but I find it easy enough just to run far away or close a door (enemies can't open them). You can't use it to weigh down pressure plates.
  • Federleicht ("Light as a Feather"): Another mystery. It doesn't stop you from triggering pressure plates or falling down pits. Maybe it helps with over-encumbrance? That hasn't been an issue.
  • Vitalität ("Vitality"): And yet another mystery. It doesn't seem to affect statistics, heal, or do anything its name would suggest.
  • Eiskugel ("Iceball"): The second of only two offensive spells, I found it in the game's final chamber, so I didn't have much of a chance to check it out. It does about twice the damage as "Thunderball" but for about twice the spell point cost.
I only found 5 spells that put letters in the spell grid, and there are 24 cells in the grid. Either the developers left lots of room for expansion, or there are more spells in the post-game (see below).
What I'd really hoped to find is something like lebensmittelkreation. Food was my constant problem until nearly the end. You simply don't find enough to keep the party nourished if you explore carefully, do everything, and have to backtrack a bit. I had to settle into a pattern of saving, exploring for a while to map and figure out how to solve the puzzles, then reload and rush through the areas previously explored. It was the only way to keep from starving to death. There's a fountain in the starting area where you can fill up canteens and bottles, but it's no longer accessible once you drop down to Main-2. Finally, towards the end of the game, I found another one and filled up every item I had. That lasted me for the rest of the game. It occurred right before I found a lever that returned me to the starting area, so having two fountains was a bit redundant.
Filling a bottle at the fountain.

The endgame takes place mere steps from the beginning, behind a door for which you've had to explore the entire dungeon to find a key. The antechamber has about six pairs of enemies. I led them out carefully one-by-one, closing the door behind each pair, so I could waltz them to death. Once they were dead, I searched the chamber and found a third wall message:
So you've actually managed to get to my treasure chamber. But you are not in possession of my treasures yet - you still have to conquer them. . . hahaha. My guards will know how to prevent this! So think carefully about whether you dare to enter the treasury or whether you prefer to turn back.
I thought carefully, then entered the treasury. A floor plate closed the door behind me. The inner area had another half dozen pairs of tough enemies. They were dispersed in a square corridor surrounding some central pillars, and there was only one area with enough space to waltz. It took me a few reloads to safely clear out enough pairs with hit-and-run tactics (without getting trapped in the hallway) so that I could lead the rest to the ballroom floor.
The door opens to the final area.

Once everyone was dead, there was no actual treasure to find, just a textual suggestion that we'd met our goal:
Arcan's Treasury. Congratulations, you did it! Your unsurpassed heroism has brought you to the goal of your search. Since you have proven yourself to be worthy opponents, I have decided to impose further tests and puzzles on you. Just for fun. Haha!

The "further tests and puzzles" are found on one or more optional post-game floors. I already knew there was a Main +2 because one set of stairs had brought me up there before immediately dropping me back down. I had assumed the endgame would be there, and I was surprised to find it where it was. The rest of it is accessed from a stairway in the treasure chamber. It brought me into a large room ringed by alcoves, every one of which had a pair of wizards flinging fireballs.
The party stumbles into the area before it's ready.

I wasn't much interested in continuing, but I took the time to clear the wizards. They refused to leave their alcoves, so there was no waltzing. I had to start with a pair that were positioned in such a way that no other wizards could hit me, then dart in front of their alcove, hit them a few times, and sidle away. After 30 minutes of this and a lot of reloads, I had the room clear. At that point, the only way forward appeared to be a door with a keyhole for which I hadn't found a key. Holes on the ceiling suggest another level above this one, so I decided to take my win and call it a day.
The challenge area started full of tough enemies (!!) with few safe places since they can shoot down their adjacent rows and columns.

In a GIMLET, I give the game:
  • 1 point for the game world. The only story is that you're there to find treasure.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. There's no creation, which hurts some of the potential replayability of the game, but I do like Dungeon Master-style development. I'd have rated it higher if combat had been more meaningful.
Menthor levels up.

  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. When a game has puzzles, I use this category to rate the puzzles, and I found Arcan's reasonably satisfying. They're not quite as creative as Dungeon Master, but they do a lot better than many clones. More on that in a bit. The foes are otherwise nothing to praise, especially where they're fixed in number. I wouldn't have minded at least one grinding opportunity in case I didn't want to fight all my battles with keyboard tricks.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Like some other DM clones, Arcan errs too much on the side of requiring combat waltzing and other maneuvers, thus damaging what would otherwise be a fair system of melee and missile weapons and spells. A game would need a better variety of foes, and thus a more interesting variety of spells to affect them, to get a higher score.
  • 3 points for equipment. As covered above, modest upgrades with limited utility.
A few treasures await in a late-game treasure room.

  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 1 point for its nebulous main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are only functional, the sound non-existent. The interface needed more keyboard shortcuts but otherwise works well. I particularly like the automap, which cleverly uses colors and shading to depict buttons, plates, pits, moving walls, secret doors, and the like. When I was stuck, reviewing the automap almost always helped.
  • 4 points for gameplay. The length and the challenge were about right for its ilk.
That gives us a final score of 22. As usual, DM fans will argue that no NPCs and no economy are not necessarily weaknesses, so in that case, remove and rescale for a score of around 28-30, depending on whether you think a story should be important to the sub-genre. Either way, it falls short of what I would consider "recommended," even for the sub-genre, but not too far short.
Since the game is so heavily about its puzzles, as I played I took careful note of my reactions to them. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I hate solving Dungeon Master-style puzzles, but I love having solved them. I love it so much that I carefully annotate my maps with the solutions even though I'll never be coming through this area again. Then I move to the next room and find some contraption or configuration I haven't encountered before and swiftly go through the five stages of grief: "Screw this!"; "Weren't levers and pressure plates enough for you!?"; "All right, I'll try to figure it out for five minutes, and then I quit"; "I'll never get it; someone like sucinum will have to bail me out again"; and "Wait a minute. What if I try this?" But even though I ultimately get some satisfaction solving them, I'll always prefer logic puzzles, riddles, wordplay, treasure hunts, and inventory puzzles to the mechanical variety exemplified by Arcan
Thus, rather than spend any more time on the "bonus" levels, I'll save my stamina for Arcan's sequel, Walls of Illusion, coming later this year. Say what you want about Motelsoft, but they sure did produce.
[Ed. To clear up any confusion as to whether the "bonus" levels were in fact the "real" end of the game, I played for another 12 hours and posted another entry.]

Link: to the original report of The CRPG Addict

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