Legend of Lothian
Independently developed; published via September 1991 Jumpdisk
Released in 1991 for Amiga
Date Started: 7 December 2016
Date Ended: 9 December 2016
Date Ended: 9 December 2016
Total Hours: 7Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
The defining part of an RPG--the addictive part--is character improvement. The idea that we can quantify the attributes that make us valuable and effective in the world, and then engage in a process of making them better; that we can build our capacity to take on new challenges. From serf to knight, from knight to champion. More than any other genre of games, RPGs impel a palpable--and, if I dare say, a very American--sense of progress.
That's why it's so depressing to meet a game like Legend of Lothian, which screws it all up by punishing you for getting better instead of rewarding you. In a classic dungeon crawler like Wizardry, here's the way it works: on Level 1, you fight the easiest enemies. On Level 2, you fight slightly harder enemies. By the time you hit Level 10, you're fighting the hardest enemies. If the characters need to develop their experience in a safe place, they can regress to an earlier level. Maybe you throw some unpredictability in there--maybe a Level 5 creatures has a small chance of showing up on Level 1--but in general you follow this pattern.
|A typical Lothian screen has me approaching an island town while my ship lingers nearby.|
It can be difficult extrapolating this to a flat world, I agree, but the basic concept should still apply. The area right around where the character starts is the "easy zone." As he explores in various directions he finds harder monsters. The ones behind the Black Gate or in an area that you've explicitly named the Vale of Darkness are the hardest. Sure, throw in some uncertainty by making the player figure out on his own that he shouldn't wander behind the Ghost Fence at Level 1. But leave an "easy area" that he can regress to.
Legend of Lothian's mistake is pinning the difficulty of monsters to the character's level. On Level 1, there's nothing but orcs everywhere. They die from one blow of a club. Once you hit Level 2, giant insects start showing up with the orcs. Level 3 adds mummies to the equation; Level 4, skeletons. Pretty soon, every few steps you face a horror show of at least 10 enemies, and 50% of battles still kill you outright. You're not accomplishing anything.
|A difficult combat early in the game.|
And yet, you still have to keep fighting. Why? Because of food. There's a tight formula at work in this game:
- You deplete 1 ration every 5 steps
- Food costs 1 gold piece per ration in the starting city and 2 gold pieces per ration everywhere else. Hit points regenerate at a rate of 1 per 5 steps
- At any level, I typically lose half the amount of hit points in combat as gold I gain.
So here's how the math works out: I fight a combat against a few foes that nets me 20 gold pieces but costs me 10 hit points. It takes me 50 steps to regain those 10 hit points. In those same 50 steps, I consume 10 food units. Those food units cost me 10 gold to replace in Larkspur and 20 gold everywhere else. None of this accounts for the food consumed just walking between places. There has never been a game that made me feel like I was so literally living hand-to-mouth.
|Constantly satisfying the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy is exactly what every RPG player wants.|
Legend of Lothian is an Ultima clone written by Cal Poly student David W. Meny and published via the September 1991 issue of the Amiga magazine Jumpdisk. A handful of probably non-representative titles (the Dark Designs series and Dungeons of Avalon, chiefly) have led me to look irrationally forward to diskmag games, which often offer short, satisfying quests. In everything but the leveling issue, Lothian is at least competent, rising in moments to Ultima I or II in quality.
It starts with a well-written and illustrated backstory that quickly sets up the main quest: King Lothian of Mercia once ruled a propsperous, peaceful kingdom, but one day he didn't wake up, and no method magical or mechanical could rouse him from his slumber. Without his leadership, the country fell to ruin and orcs roam the land freely. The game's main quest is to help the land develop a better governing system so that the loss of a single leader doesn't cripple it.
|A clear homage to Lord Britiah.|
|And perhaps a reference to Questron.|
No, just kidding! The game's main quest is, of course, to find a way to wake up Lothian. The character is a poor shepherd. One night, a bearded man visits his dreams and tells him that only he can awaken Lothian. The old man leaves a glowing gemstone behind which is still there when the character wakes up. He gathers what money he can and sets out the next day. The player gets to specify only the character's name and sex.
|The quest begins.|
The game starts next to the village of Larkspur (also a city in California next to where Meny currently lives) with the character in possession of 10 gold pieces, 300 food, and 10 hit points. And unless the player really wants to die, it stays there for a while. The only way to get ahead in the game is to upgrade weapons and armor, and that requires saving your razor-thin combat profits until you have a mace and a chainmail (Larkspur doesn't sell any better), a solid supply of food, and enough money to upgrade to a crossbow and platemail when you come across it. After a few hours of grinding here, you can start exploring the rest of the land and its cities, probably starting with Castle Lothian to the east.
Navigation uses the arrow keys and 12 commands drawn from the Ultima mold, such as (B)oard ship, (C)limb, and (T)alk. There is no "search" command, so what you see is what you get in terms of the game world. For those more graphically-oriented players, a series of buttons replicates the keyboard commands, and you can even move around with the mouse.
The cities are fairly small, with weapon, armor, and food shops, inns, healers, and bars. Buying drinks in the bars can be a source of information.
|An important clue.|
At first, the healer and inn seem like wastes of money, since hit points regenerate automatically as you walk, but after you pass a certain threshold, it becomes more economical to spend the money directly on healing rather than waste food by walking around.
Weapon progression goes club > dagger > mace > sword > crossbow. Armor is cloth > leather > ringmail > chainmail > platemail. Eventually, you get the coordinates and chants for the Shrine of Protection and the Shrine of Might, where you find magical armor and weapons, accordingly--akin to the mystic weapons of Ultima.
|Obtaining a magic weapon at a shrine.|
Unlike the early Ultima games, you don't see enemies in the wilderness. You just blunder into their squares. In combat, the only options are to attack or to flee. (The character has an "S" statistic that I'm guessing was supposed to be spell points, but there is in fact no magic system in the game and the statistic never budges.) Fleeing becomes preferable late in the game when combats are just an annoyance, although it often doesn't work. Combat is highly deterministic. Your armor affects the likelihood of a hit but not the damage. Orcs always do 1 damage, lizard men always do 7, red dragons always do 13, and so on. No matter how many enemies you're fighting, only one can hit you per round (I have no idea how the game determines which one takes the shot). Meanwhile, the character's weapon always does a fixed amount of damage to the enemies, from 4 (clubs) all the way up to 100 (magical).
|Crossbows always do 40 damage; red dragons always do 13.|
Once the character is Level 10 and has the best armor and weapons and at least 500 food, you can at least try to start exploring the land. It never gets really easy. There were plenty of times even at high levels that I started out, fought three or four combats, and had to turn around and return before the city had even left my sight. Once you find the mystics, combat becomes less deadly--just in time for it to become really annoying. You're trying to cross-cross the land to find clues and items, and you have to keep stopping to deal with 15 giant worms, 3 red dragons, 2 cyclopes, and an orc. Fleeing stops working once enemy stacks top 12-15. The sheer number of combats soon wears on your patience.
|Come on. I'm just trying to get to my ship.|
The map comprises 149 squares east-west and 73 squares north-south. It does not wrap. There are 6 cities, 3 castles, 2 shrines, 1 cave, and 1 set of ruins to explore. Some of the locations are only accessible by ship, which you obtain in the town of Marlot by flashing your green gem at the shipwright (he had a dream that portended your arrival); it otherwise costs 5,000 gold pieces which would take a long time to save up. Once you have the ship, it's easier to explore by circling the continent and darting inland where necessary, since the serpents that attack you on the high seas never number more than 8 and can usually be fled.
I made the game more difficult for myself until the end by not finding a key artifact, the Orb of Sight, in Forlorn's dungeon. This item creates a small mini-map of the area for you. I misunderstood the hints and though it would be a quest reward rather than something I could just go grab; I also failed to realize that an inauspicious grate in the castle was in fact an entrance to his dungeon.
|The Orb of Sight would have come in handy when I was trying to find the various towns and castles.|
NPCs have more to say than in the early Ultimas. There aren't that many of them, so almost every one is vital in some way.
|Although this guy doesn't seem to be referencing anything in this game.|
|And this woman is just high.|
Winning the game requires finding a variety of clues and items from the NPCs in the various towns. Since you don't know the order at the outset, there's a lot of backtracking involved. The basic sequence of events is:
1. Get a skeleton key from a prisoner in Castle Lothian's "brig."
2. Use the skeleton key to enter Forlorn Castle.
3. Get a quest from the mad King Forlorn to bring back a mirror.
|Forlorn's servant wanrs me about him.|
4. Find a rose in Castle Forlorn. Also get a compass here that helps with navigation. (Although, oddly, the "compass" gives coordinates instead of directions.)
5. Go to the city of Wenhea and find the maiden obsessed with her own reflection in the mirror. Give her the rose to remind her that there are more beautiful things; she gives you the mirror.
|A bartender tells me what to do.|
6. Return the mirror to Forlorn; get the next quest to find some magic wood.
7. In one of the towns--I forget which one--find an axe.
8. Visit the old wizard in a set of caves on the western coast and get an amulet that protects against marsh gases.
|This is the guy that appeared in my dream, but no other explanation is given.|
9. Find the magic tree in the marshes to the northeast and cut it down.
|A woman gives me a hint as to the location of the tree.|
10. Return the wood to Lord Forlorn and get his final quest to return with a unicorn.
11. Repeat the whole rose/mirror thing because you need the mirror but Forlorn took it. Also get a rope from a shepherd in Larkspur.
12. Use the mirror at the ruins to Hesron, where a medusa has entrapped a unicorn. The medusa sees her reflection and turns to stone.
|This is what happens if you enter without using the mirror first.|
13. Use the rope to get the unicorn.
14. Bring the unicorn back to the mad king. He gives you a "worthless animal horn" and laughs maniacally. Suspect that the horn is in fact the now-dead unicorn's horn. Feel bad.
15. Go to the evil castle on an western island and blow the animal horn to gain entry. The castle has "bombs" every few steps that you can't avoid and mimics for every door. Fight down to the lower level and explore the maze until you find the evil wizard.
|Fighting an evil castle door after setting off bomb traps.|
16. Defeat the evil wizard in combat and get his book of spells.
|The game never tells you what this guy's story is. Judging by his face, he certainly has one.|
|But he leaves the quest object behind.|
|The bugged ending in my version. I love how they just propped the sleeping king up on his throne.|
Now, my version of the game is bugged. If I read the book in front of the king, I get a message that I've found an "Awaken" spell and that I follow the text's instructions. But then it says "Save Mercia!" and "Your quest begins," suddenly reverting to the opening text. A YouTube video shows what's supposed to happen: Lothian wakes up, there's a big party, the king takes control again, the army comes together and scours the land of monsters, and the hero goes back to tending sheep, but continues studying the spellbook on the side.
|The"real" ending screen from Milan Stezka's YouTube video.|
I won the game in a long 7 hours, and the entire time I just wanted it to be over. The first 2/3 was too deadly; the last 1/3 was just annoying, with combats every few steps and each one taking a couple of minutes. It GIMLETs at a 23, with the highest scores (3s) going to the decent plot, the use of NPCs, and the always-relevant economy. I also liked the completely redundant mouse and keyboard commands. But it suffers (1s) in encounters--there is nothing special about the monsters except how hard they hit--and the no-tactics combat system.
Lothian was Meny's only RPG, and only one of two games I can find credited to him (the other is a solitaire title), but it's the first in a trio of Ultima clones that we'll be seeing over the next few weeks. The others are Journey into Darkness (if I can get it working) and The Rescue of Lorri in Lorrintron. It makes sense that developers clone Ultima--it's a popular platform--but the Ultima clones I've played so far don't seem to clone much more than the iconographic view, the keyboard interface, and perhaps some one-line NPC interaction. Does any Ultima clone copy the really good stuff about Ultima--particularly IV and V? The dialogue options? The tactical combat system? I guess we'll find out.
|Journey into Darkness's starting screen, telling me that I'm a "rouge."|
Note on Journey into Darkness: I have the game working, but I can't quite figure out what the game wants in terms of controls. It has two modes, switchable on my keyboard by the period on the number pad: one in which you move the character around, and one in which you move a cursor around the screen and use it to pick up objects and activate the two menus.
This leaves me confused as to what the game's original controller was. The first mode seems optimized for a joystick; the second for a mouse. You need both modes to play the game. Is it possible that it literally required switching between a joystick and mouse?
In any event, if I emulate the mouse in AppleWin, nothing happens when I click around the screen and on the menus. And I'm finding that moving the cursor around the screen with the keypad is far too imprecise to play the game without going crazy. This is a pretty amateur effort anyway, so I don't know if we'll lose anything by skipping it, but I wanted to see if anyone could offer an opinion on how to better emulate the controls.