Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Game 265: The Kingdom of Krell (1987)

Developer Steven Screech might want to re-think his little personal logo.
    
The Kingdom of Krell
United Kingdom
Anco (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for ZX Spectrum
Date Started: 8 October 2017
Date Ended: 14 October 2017
Total Hours: 26
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

British ZX Spectrum games occupy a weird little sub-genre that I'll have to fully analyze after I reach the last one in 1989. This is my eighth, after The Ring of Darkness (1982), Lone Wolf: Flight from the Dark (1984), Out of the Shadows (1984), City of Death (1985), Heavy on the Magick (1986), and The Wizard of Tallyron (1986). Five others--The Valley (1982), The Citadel of Chaos (1984), The Forest of Doom (1984), The Master of Magic (1985), and Seas of Blood (1985)--I played on Commodore 64 ports but were originally written for the Spectrum.

The Ring of Darkness is the odd-one-out, being mostly plagiarized from Ultima. The rest are highly original, lacking no clear progenitors in their styles and conventions, not only avoiding American RPG tropes but almost consciously shunning them. More unexpected, however, is how oddly foreign they feel, coming from an English-speaking nation that manages to churn out perfectly comprehensible (from an American perspective) books, films, and television shows. In some ways, they're as bizarre as French RPGs.

As the popularity of the ZX Spectrum wanes in the late 1980s and the Amiga begins to dominate British RPG development, we see the same stark originality (with both good and bad consequences) in games like Galdregon's Domain (1989), Lords of Chaos (1990), Heimdall (1991), and Moonstone: A Hard Days Knight (1991), but the sense of the bizarre fades, which makes me wonder how much of it is due to the platform. With its extremely limited keyboard, stunted default memory, and cassettes as the primary distribution media, the platform was never going to support games with the same speed, complexity, and ease of play as U.S. players were getting on, say, the Commodore 64.

The Kingdom of Krell is the first ZX Spectrum RPG to require the 128 model (issued in 1985). With all this extra memory, the developer could have offered a more complex engine, more tactical combat, or better graphics, but instead what he did was to make the physical game world ridiculously large. The box boasts "more than 2,500 locations." I only mapped a little over 1,900, but either figure is far too large when the number of those locations with an item, NPC, or other plot-driven need to be there is around 60.

The backstory is amusing in its lack of epic ambition. The game is set in a "remote part of Britain" in the "misty past." The custom of these people is that when a young man reaches his 18th birthday, he has to spend a month in the wilderness alone before he's welcomed back to the tribe as a man. The tribe throws a party for the protagonist; he gets drunk; and he awakens the next day "alone in the vast wilderness."
    
Part of the vast wilderness.
     
Character creation is nothing more than a name, from which the game procedurally generates your six attributes: strength, wisdom, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. This is the first game that I know of in which attributes are derived from the chosen name; Captive (1990) would later use the same method. Anyway, I lost patience trying different names and ended up adventuring with a sub-par character; I would recommend anyone else playing the game hold out for at least 15s in strength, dexterity, and intelligence and 10s in everything else, lest their reload counts hit the astronomically high levels that mine did.

As the game begins, you're on a "barren grassy plain" with a sling at your feet. The image shows a bridge, which is one of the game's oddities. As you turn different directions, the screen changes to show the terrain in the next square, not the one you're currently in.
         
Sure looks like notable features to me.
      
That bridge is probably the most complex graphic that you get in the game. Among the c. 2,000 "locations" in the game are about 12 different terrain types, including "barren, grassy plains," "dense, dark forests," and "long, dark tunnels." The author wastes precious descriptive text space saying things like "well, here you are" and "I don't know what else to tell you," with at least one misspelling on every screen. I didn't find a single "unique" location in the game.
      
A decent percentage of the game's many vaunted locations.
     
You interface with the game not with a keyboard, which would make sense given that the game was developed for a PC, but with a joystick. You cycle through the various icons and use the button to execute an action or move to a sub-menu. This is true even of movement. Main actions include move, sleep, fight, cast a spell, take or drop an object, speak, handle various disk operations, and "other," the latter including eat and check the time. To move, you have to activate the "shoe" icon then the appropriate directional arrow. If you're not already facing a particular direction, your first move turns you in that direction and then your second and subsequent moves actually walk you in that direction.
  
A typical Krell location. A zombie is waiting as I arrive. The scene shows more icy wastes to my north. "Crevasses" is misspelled.
      
Krell is such a deadly place, I can't believe how irresponsible I was to get drunk and pass out here. You can't even sleep in a hut without getting interrupted by a monster 50% of the time. Foes are D&D standard--giant rats, hobgoblins, ogres, skeletons, trolls, orcs, and the like--and there's around a one-in-four chance that one will be waiting for you in every new square. If you managed to kill it, there's a decent chance another monster will be waiting just behind, sometimes two or three more.
     
I only encountered one dragon in the game. He wasn't significantly harder than the other monsters.
      
The game doesn't throw easy monsters at you early and harder ones late. You're just as likely to face a "cyclopse" in the opening area as a giant rat. There are some contextual encounters; the graveyard area produces almost exclusively undead, for instance, and the only dragon I encountered was deep in a cavern. For the most part, they don't have any special strengths or weaknesses except that some have more hit points than others.
  
For combat, you select your sword icon and then decide whether to aim it at the enemy's head, torso, or legs. I managed to hit the enemy's head maybe twice in my 15-hour game. Torso is almost always the best bet. After your attack, the enemy gets a swing at you. There is a variety of messages indicating damage--"sliced through your flesh," "took a chunk out of you," mercilessly rips into you"--but basically you just take either 1 or 2 hit points damage for each attack (if the enemy doesn't miss).
           
Exchanging blows with a dwarf.
     
A character might start with 10 hit points at maximum constitution, so as you can imagine, he doesn't last long in long battles. Fortunately, most enemies die within a couple of hits. Moreover, you can eat the corpse (or "carcus," as the game has it) of any slain enemy to regain one hit point. Unfortunately, you don't get any intrinsic attributes for doing so.
      
A skeleton appears right after I killed something else.
     
Your character gets experience from kills but doesn't gain anything from that experience. Despite promises made on the box, neither attributes nor hit points change as he levels up. Only his "rating" changes, which starts at "dung dweller" and progresses through at least 12 levels, including "scavenger," "dog-wrestler," "useful," and "dangerous." I spent so long at Level 10--"Schwarzenegger"--that I thought it was the highest level, but after a while the rating changed to "Psycho," as if it's my fault that monsters spawn practically every square, and finally to, nonsensically "Well Ard." Does that mean something in British?
       
My character at the 20th hour.
     
What does improve with leveling is access to spells. You start with only one: "Detect Magic," which as far as I can tell has no use anywhere in the game. But you soon acquire "Burning Hands," "Detect Evil" (also no use), and "Magic Missile," and both of the offensive spells in that list outperformed combat attacks for my character for the rest of the game. The last spell you acquire, "Disintegrate," reliably one-shots every single enemy, so there's no more reloading once you have it. I spent the entire second half of my playing time with that spell and didn't even bother to carry a weapon from the moment I acquired it.
       
Blasting an enemy with a "Magic Missile."
      
The list of spells includes "Cure Illness" and "Remove Curse," neither of which I experienced in the game. "Teleport" returns you to the starting area, which is handy because there's a one-way path that locks you out of the area. "Magic Mouth" warns you if an enemy approaches while you're sleeping.
      
The full list of spells at the end of the game.
   
There is absolutely no meter for spells. You can cast as many as you want as frequently as you want.

You don't have to fight every enemy that appears. You can try to just brush past them, which I did a lot of after I was already "well ard." Success seems to depend heavily on the enemy type. Sentient NPCs like dwarves and halflings almost always let you go; monsters like cyclopes and ogres catch you about half the time. Giant rats absolutely never let you pass. When it doesn't work, the enemy gets a free attack at you, so it's a bit of a risk.
      
Trust me, this absolutely is not going to work out for you.
      
As for equipment, there's some. Among the game's 1,500+ squares, I found around 40 items: a sling, two swords, two bolas, two spears, two axes, a dagger, two suits of armor, four scrolls, six potions, a shield, a crown, four bags of gold, two precious gems, a torch, and about eight quest items. They seem to be in the same places for every game.
       
My inventory early in the game.
      
There are a lot of mysteries among the inventory items, some of which I'll cover below. Five of the six potions improved attributes--the only other source of character development in the game. None of the weapons markedly outperformed the others. I'm not sure what the torch does, since you can enter caves and tunnels without it. The bags of gold are treated like inventory items, not an actual pool of gold pieces, and as far as I can tell there's no place to spend them. There is no command to equip the shield. As I'll cover below, none of the quest items did anything for me at all.
      
This potion increased my constitution.
     
NPCs are a big part of the game, but I didn't understand their importance until late. At first, I tried to talk with generic sentient creatures like dwarves and halflings but just got rude replies. The "Tongues" spell lets you get rude replies from even non-sentient creatures like cobras and skeletons. When you choose to speak, you can be friendly, neutral, or rude, but I never noticed a difference in the replies I got except once when a friendly overture elicited "GO AWAY" and a rude overture prompted "GO AWAY AND DON'T COME BACK." My comparatively low charisma might have had something to do with it.
      
Krell must have borrowed Sword & Sorcery's random insult generator.
     
Later, I realized that there are a few named NPCs in the world. Almost all of them say the same thing: "DAMIENNE STOLE THE SCROLLS." That's it. No other explanation or assistance. Because of that, I didn't bother noting their locations as I mapped. This would later come back to haunt me.
      
An NPC waits in a temple.
      
So what of any kind of quest? At first, I hoped that the main quest was just to wait out your 30 days and see what kind of score you'd achieved. The clock ticks forward even if you're just standing still, so I tried jacking the CPU speed to maximum and standing in one place for 30 days. Unfortunately, nothing happened, not even when I returned to the starting square.
       
At least the game uses a 24-hour clock.
      
For no reason that I can possibly justify except that I've recorded a loss on two consecutive games, I spent over 20 hours mapping the entire thing, one lethargic square at a time. The sections of the game basically correspond with a map in the manual, from forests to the southwest to ice wastes in the northeast.
    
The map of the land in the game manual.
And my Excel map.
     
I ran into several problems while mapping. As you can see from the map above, the terrain is blocked off into several sections with single-square passages or bridges between them. It's very easy, when you've hit 20 consecutive "barren grassy plains" in a row offering exits only to the north, west, and east, to miss the one that suddenly had a southern exit. This means that there were entire areas, including most of the tunnels at the bottom-right, that I didn't discover until late in the game.

Second, a few NPCs become important later in the game even if all they say is "DAMIENNE STOLE THE SCROLLS" when you first encounter them. I should have been noting their locations. Most of them are in huts or other buildings, and I did go back and re-investigate those, but a few are just standing in the wilderness, and who knows how many of them I overlooked.

Missing NPCs is compounded by another problem: if there are enemies in the same square, the enemy portraits appear on top of the NPCs. You have to kill them before the NPC shows up. I could have just brushed past any number of NPC squares while trying to avoid enemies.

A few NPCs do offer quests. For instance, a man named Graxx stands at the mouth of the cave to the northwest. He says he has a "magical shape" and wants me to collect the four sacred scrolls, presumably the ones that Damienne stole. In the southeast, "Davilla" wants me to kill "Habgoog," who she says is evil. "Megog" asks me to kill "Questilla," who has cursed him with stone skin. Some of these NPCs drop rings after you talk to them; picking them up makes them disappear but adds permanently to one of our attributes.

Some of the NPCs are clearly lying. Once I killed Questilla and returned to Megog, he called me a "foolish man" and said that I'd managed to kill the "chief do-gooder of Krell" and attacked me. I also have suspicions about Davilla, who seems to be using sex to get what she wants and asked me to kill another NPC named "Caldrix" after I was done with Habgoog.
    
Betrayal!
    
The bigger problem is that the NPCs don't always acknowledge what you've done. After I collected the four scrolls, Graxx had nothing to say, not even when I dumped them in his square. NPCs never seem to acknowledge items, not when I returned the Crown of Hod to Hod or the Eye of Graxx to Graxx. There's no "use" or "give" command for items, just pick up and drop, but still it's hard not to feel like I'm missing something.
      
Graxx refuses to acknowledge the scrolls he asked me to bring him.
     
Meanwhile, Davilla acknowledged when I killed Habgoog but not Caldrix, so that quest is stuck in limbo.
       
But I killed Caldrix!
      
There are a lot of other mysteries. In an ancient sacred temple in the southwest, an Oracle. It sits on the ground like an object that you can pick up, although the game tells you it's too heavy. You can't speak to it or do anything useful with it. I never did find the Damienne who had stolen the scrolls. The most I ever got on something that sounded like a main quest was someone named Guntor, who said that I would need the "Staff of the Gods" to destroy "Vulcor," two things I'd otherwise never heard of.
     
Why is this here?
     
My lack of progress might also be related to a final issue: At the top of the map in the northeast, there's a square that says you can go north, but the game freezes every time I enter this area and go north. I'm not sure if this is an "exit" square for after you solve the quests or if it's a bug. If the latter, it would explain why the game manual counts 600 more squares than I do, and why I can't seem to find so many vital things.

Thus, after spending an absurd amount of time mapping such a limited game, I must unfortunately call a halt and declare it unwinnable unless someone comes forward with more information or the "hint sheet" that the manual promises.
      
In an odd innovation, the "B"-side of the cassette has a track of "ambient noises" to listen to while playing. It consists of chirping crickets, howling wind, animal noises, monstrous groans and snorts, the odd clanging of a church bell, distant thunder, screams, and the occasional hint offered by the developer in a Satanic voice. "Ancient Krellian proverbs say, 'Never let your heart rule your head,'" goes one. Another warns about bad potions. I listened to the whole half hour to see if it offered anything to assist with my predicament, but no luck. It's certainly an interesting approach to providing atmosphere to a game.
    
Something about that dragon behind the rock seems familiar.
     
Based on what I experienced, it earns a 16 on the GIMLET, with 1s and 2s for everything except "economy" (0) and "quests" (3); I'm going out on a limb with the latter and assuming that at least one of the encounters is an alternate or side-quest.

I was glad to find a compatible opinion in the only review I could find, from the May 1987 Sinclair User. "My God, is it tedious," Graham Taylor writes, after offering a little praise for the graphics. He's not just talking about the repetitive banality of the areas but also the loading time of those areas; I was running the game at 4x normal speed, so I didn't experience that particular issue. He also thought the icon system was needlessly cumbersome. One aspect I didn't cover above, which I guess was fairly innovative at the time, was the use of RAM for quick-saving and quick-loading the game. This and the large game world were responsible for the title's 128k requirement.

The Kingdom of Krell was written by Steve Screech, who became relatively famous in subsequent years for his soccer games. His portfolio, up to the present day, is almost all sports titles. Neither he nor Anco ever developed or published another RPG, which makes one wonder why they were particularly motivated to create this one.

"The Kingdom of Krell," as a bit of trivia, appears in the 1971 sci-fi novel A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg. It is also the name of an audio systems manufacturer in Connecticut and a vampire in the Warhammer universe.

It looks like I only have one more ZX Spectrum game, in 1989. I'll miss the emulator--Spectaculator is fantastically easy to use--if not the platform.

****

There's a TI-99 game called Legends coming up, but I can't get it to run. I think I'm doing something wrong with the emulator (Classic99), but I don't know what. I've got the Extended Basic cartridge activated, and from what I understand, it's supposed to just pick things up automatically, but it doesn't. If I try to load it manually, it comes up with "Legends Loading, Please Wait" and then crashes with an "I/O ERROR 07 IN 10." If anyone has successfully gotten this game running, I would appreciate help with the configuration.




Monday, October 16, 2017

Might and Magic III: Mounted and Mastered!

"And on the pedestal, these words appear . . ."
      
There wasn't much Might and Magic to play after the last entry. I could have finished it in another 15 minutes, probably. That it took me a few more hours was reflective less of my savoring the last moments and more that, because I didn't know what was coming, I spent a lot of time in needless character development.

The session started when I gave all my remaining Ultimate Power Orbs to "Tumult, King Chaotic," the neutral king, who had initially struck me as a good halfway choice between the zeal of the "good" king and the clear maleficence of the "evil" king. It turns out they were all jerks.
     
Guys, we might have made a mistake here . . .
     
Once Tumult had the orbs, he apparently used them to lay waste to the other two castles. They were no longer accessible, in any event. I got what I needed from the process, a "Blue Priority Passcard."
      
Sorry, king. But I suspect you would have done the same thing.
      
It's curious how the developers pitted "chaos" as the neutral point between good and evil, rather than the opposite: order for its own sake, irrespective of the ends. I wonder if they were making a point about the absurdity of classic D&D "alignments" in general. I think they disappear from the main series after this, and my understanding is that the alignments offered in the Heroes series are more nuanced.

After this, I dropped all of my gold at Gringotts and began the process of working odd jobs for $50 per week. To finish getting all the rewards from Greywind and Blackwind, I needed to wait until Day 50 and 60 of three consecutive years, and I figured I might as well earn interest in the meantime. As I started the process, I had $20 million.
     
Unfortunately, there's no option to burn weeks while resting leisurely.
       
Both Greywind and Blackwind had three thrones. One of them permanently raised attributes; the other two delivered gold and items. (Some of those were Precious Pearls of Youth and Beauty that I spent several days offloading one at a time to the Pirate Queen.) When I started the session, I had this idea that you could only use each throne once, but now I'm not sure that's true. Maybe I'll fire it up again and experiment before the summary and rating.
       
Not that I really needed any more advancement.
      
During the three-year period, I also turned in two more seashells to Athea on Day 99 and brought my love-struck party members to Princess Trueberry, finally curing her doldrums.
      
Yes, the solution to this puzzle was quantity, not quality.
      
Trueberry gave me the alicorn horn in return, which I brought back to the shrine in Orc Meadow. Something happened there involving a galloping unicorn. I didn't really understand it, but I got a few million experience points from the deal.
     
Isn't an alicorn supposed to have wings?
        
Just for the hell of it, I had my characters continue working odd jobs for another few years, rationalizing it with my belief that it's obnoxious to try to accomplish too much before you're 30. As I was wrapping up the process, I realized that Terra's years are only 100 days long, so a 30-year-old Terran is only a little more than eight years old by our standards. I've been practicing child endangerment this entire game.
     
Back at the vault, I retrieved my earnings. I had gained $15 million in interest in five years. Not bad.
      
I have to wonder who his other clients are that he can afford a 12% APR.
      
I immediately spent $13 million leveling my characters about 7 levels each. The average was 115 when I was finished, with the two NPCs now asking for $250,000 each per day. I still had plenty of money, and I could have leveled up some more by scattering some of it into the central fountain in Fountainhead, but at this point I didn't know how much longer the game would last.
      
My party as we head for the endgame.
   
I figured it was time to explore the central pyramid. I'm not going to keep mentioning it, but during the explorations below, I wasted a lot of time visiting buffing fountains before entering the pyramid and its various sections. The enemies weren't hard enough to justify all the additional buffing, and I'm not sure why I was being such a wuss.

The tunnel led to the Central Control Sector of the great space ship resting under Terra's oceans, the various storage and engine areas of which I had explored last time. Immediately as I entered, I was attacked by "Death Agents," who despite their name died in single blows without doing any damage to me.
      
Death needs better representation.
      
The area consisted of a central room with a bunch of side-rooms off of it, and one long corridor heading off to the west. I naturally explored the side rooms first. They held robots, including a new kind called a "Terminator" that couldn't be damaged in melee combat and was capable of "eradicating" my party members if he got lucky. I had to destroy them with spells; "Implosion" did particularly well. I had to resurrect slain characters a few times.
        
If they were going to give it this name, you think they could have tried harder on the graphics.
       
The rooms held a few boons, including chalices that added a few million experience points to the character who drinks from it. One of them served up an "Interspacial [sic] Transport Box," which is capable of visiting any of the game's maps by entering its number. It's a cute idea, but by this time I already had the ability to zoom to any game map with a combination of "Lloyd's Beacon," "Town Portal," and "Teleport." Since the box would have required a lot of fiddling to determine which number corresponded with which maps, I didn't waste a lot of time with it. Getting to this location ASAP would be the key to a successful speed run, however, as the box seems to remove the need for keys to the various dungeons.
     
Next time I swallow a good single malt, I'm going to think, "Ah, there's another 4 million experience points."
       
Most important, the half a dozen side chambers held talking heads that, when prompted with a password (CREATORS) that I got from another one of the ship's sectors, were quite explicit about the plot of the game. Together, they said:
       
Spanning the farthest reaches of the universe, two super-developed societies, the Ancients and the Creator, are engaged in a galactic race for power. The Creators exist in a nebulous realm where they construct their plots and create vile, chaotic armies to disrupt the civilizations of the Ancients. [The in-game text uses the singular "Creator" the first time and then "Creators" everywhere else.]

The Ancients draw their power from the heat and light of stars to create the intricate mechanisms of society, then send these civilizations to cultivate developing worlds. 
      
      
This mission has been code named The Great Experiment. It extends further away from the seat of the Ancients than any other colonization. It is under much greater threat from the Creators.

Because of the interference created by the renegade Guardian, Sheltem, the CRON and most of the VARNs carried by this vessel were lost in the Great Sea of Terra.
     
Okay, lots of exposition there. We'll learn more about Sheltem in a minute, but let's talk about the implications of the above. First the ship we're exploring is clearly the same vessel that held the CRON and VARNs of Might and Magic I and II. Now what do they mean that "most" of the VARNs were lost? Were some saved? Did the creatures from them supplant or merge with the existing life on Terra? How long has passed since this all happened, anyway?

What happened, I wonder, to the party that occupied this ship at the end of Might and Magic II? My pet theory is they somehow became the "Death Agents" that attacked me when I entered. There were only like six of them, and they're not found anywhere else in the game.

The background of the Ancients seeding worlds with their little CRON/VARN biospheres makes sense, but did they have to add vampires to the mix? How do undead in general fit with this backstory?

For that matter, how do the legends of the Elemental Lords fit? Are they the "Creators" mentioned here? (I suspect not, given what follows.) Either way, how were we able to visit their dimensions from CRON?

Finally, who are the "Creators"? Are the Kreegan of the VI-VIII series part of their "vile, chaotic armies"?

Seeking answers, we pressed forward down the long hallway. Well, no, actually we left the ship, returned to town, leveled up some more, visited the fountains again, and so forth, which again was all unnecessary. Then, we returned and pressed down the long hallway. The Blue Passcard from King Tumult was necessary to get through one of the doors.
       
       
I can't remember if there were any battles in the hallway. I don't think there were, meaning that one of the random combats with a "Terminator" was the last necessary battle in the game. Actually, I suppose those side rooms aren't technically necessary to win, so those pushover "Death Agents" were the last necessary combat in the game. There may have been one or two robots in the corridors; someone else might remember.
    
In any event, at the end of the long hallway, we ran into a scene that I wish had been illustrated but instead was only described via text:
     
The air is filled with the smell of ether and the flickering of colored lights, like horrible lightning. Down the corridor to the left, two robed figures battle among the plasm of magic so thick it hangs in the air like fog. It is Corak and Sheltem, locked in mortal combat among the sparks of their supernatural clash. Sensing your presence, Corak looks away long enough to give Sheltem the chance to pass into a nearby transport tube. Cursing under his breath, Corak beckons you to follow before disappearing into the same transport tube.
     
Would it have been too much to show Corak and Sheltem?
      
It's not a huge surprise that Corak is alive; the party from Might and Magic II reunited his soul with his body as part of the cleric's quest. I don't know how Sheltem came back to life. More important, though, the party from this game has no idea who these people are.

The player can turn left at the screenshot above and immediately proceed to the endgame, but naturally I had to explore the rest of the map. The automap clearly shows it shaped like the front of a ship:
     
Though not so much like the Enterprise.
   
At the ends of the corridors that look like guns are levers that say things like "Torpedo Launch Control" and "Primary Phaser Batteries." They didn't seem to do anything when activated, though its mildly amusing to think that the party is causing destruction and chaos all over Terra while they frown and flip the levers back and forth.
      
On the surface, an entire island is vaporized.
      
The whole area was swarming with robots, including a ton of those "Terminators." I fired off volley after volley of "Implosion . . ."
      
       
. . . but still had to reload a couple of times when everyone capable of casting "Resurrection" was eradicated.
     
Things aren't looking so well.
       
At the nose of the spacecraft were a couple of talking heads that congratulated me for making it through a difficult optional area. One of them offered the game credits. The other told me to use the special code "KTOW" when reporting my success to New World, to prove that I had made it to the optional area. It promised a "special reward" for this. I will wonder for the rest of my life what that award was.
     
Well, that's clearly me.
       
Time to win! Heading back to the location of Corak and Sheltem's duel, I found the transport tubes that they had entered. Entering myself, I found a couple of round doors . . .
     
       
. . . opening into the cockpit of a small two-seat craft:

       
As we presumably took the seats, a holographic head (accompanied by a digitized voice) appeared on a screen and asked us to "enter init sequence," which I correctly guessed to be the six-digit number offered by Kings Greywind and Blackwind. The five hologram cards I'd been collecting in the game's last hours were needed here.
     
     
The head then offered the final exposition as text on the screen:
       
The Grand Experiment of the Ancients: to use the technology of Elemental Manipulation to create a completely viable ecological and social microcosm. This microcosm was then to be transported to a distant biosphere (Terra) to supplant its indigenous ecosystem. The need was acknowledged for a central controlling unit capable of compensating for unexpected anomalies. 

Sheltem was created to be the Overlord and Guardian of Terra--the Supreme Law--but his conditioning was flawed. Seeing himself as the Guardian of Terra, not of the Ancients' colonization experiment, he rebelled against the "invading army" that was to be sent to "his" world. Sheltem was contained but later escaped, determined to undermine the Grand Experiment.

Learning from their earlier failure with Sheltem, the Ancients created a new Guardian named Corak. With his conditioning properly completed, the Grand Experiment was launched on its journey through the Void. Corak's first duty was to eliminate the threat of Sheltem, then assume the role of Guardian and Overlord of the Terra colonization.

Unable to stop the colonization of Terra, Sheltem has succeeded in disturbing the balance between the three alignments of men, a balance Corak must work to regain upon his return to Terra. However, Sheltem sees this as only a minor compensation and has set out to exact revenge by sabotaging other experiments the Ancients have scattered throughout the Void.

Two escape capsules have disembarked from this vessel, the first occupied by Sheltem, the second by Corak. At Corak's request, a third has been prepared to follow their course for a rendezvous at whatever world Sheltem seeks to exact his revenge upon. Having proven yourself as an Ultimate Adventurer, Corak and the Ancients ask your help in the adventures yet to come . . .
     
The scene then shows a small vessel departing from the main ship under Terra's seas . . .
     
      
. . . and launching itself into space.
    
"Fineous and Allan, I think it may be time to renegotiate your daily rate."
      
As we know now, of course, that vessel--called the Lincoln--missed its mark. While Corak and Sheltem ended up on Xeen, where a new party of locals would have to continue their fight, the Might and Magic III heroes somehow crashed into the seas of Enroth, found some SCUBA suits, and walked out of the ocean and onto a foreign shore.
     
Ah, but we're getting way ahead of ourselves.

(Side note: I never did find Tolberti or Robert the Wise, the two other canonical NPCs from VII. Where were they supposed to come from?)
      
From the exposition above, it sounds like the Ancients are the creators of the Elemental Lords, and all the backstory from the manuals in II and III about the elementals creating the worlds are mythological interpretations of a real creation process.

Sheltem and Corak are described as creations of the Ancients, but not robots, I assume, since Corak had a "soul" in Might and Magic II (although maybe that was an abstraction for something like a CPU). 

Sheltem being briefly "contained" seems to be a reference to Might and Magic I, where the alien (an Ancient?) described him as an escaped prisoner. It's hard not to agree with Sheltem's cause, incidentally. Isn't "supplanting" the life on an existing planet a bit evil? Especially when you're supplanting it with vampires and giant poisonous spiders and stuff? And if Terra is a real world, not a created one, why is it so small and flat? What condition are we leaving it, having taken Sheltem's existing "disruption of the alignments of men" and apparently carried it to an extreme conclusion?

As we ponder these issues, there are three other things I'm wondering for the final entry:
          
  • What's the highest score that anyone has ever achieved? On the surface, my score above (1,106,212,020) seems likely close to the maximum because I solved just about every quest in the game. I'm sure I could have gotten it higher by spending more time in the Arena and using the fountain in Fountainhead. However, when you consider that I could have worked my party at odd jobs for another 20-30 years, earned tens of millions more interest, thrown most of that in the fountain, and leveled up accordingly, I'll bet I'm nowhere near the top.
  • Even more interesting: what's the lowest score you could win with? That's related to the next question:
  • How fast could you win the game in a speedrun? I suspect you could do it in less than an hour. You'd probably solve Fountainhead's quest (to get the experience fountain active), put the reward gold in the bank, work odd jobs for a decade or so, use the interest to pay for 10-15 levels and the needed transport spells, and make the "Interspacial Transport Box" a priority, bypassing the need for a bunch of keys. After that, you'd have to go to a series of dungeons, zooming around for the Ultimate Power Orbs and hologram cards. The big question mark is to what extent you can avoid combats. I didn't mark the location of individual enemies on my maps, so I don't know how hard it would be to avoid monsters even if you could "Teleport" around. If there are a few major combats that you can't avoid, you would need the appropriate levels and spells to deal with them, which would result in a higher score.
         
Maybe I'll experiment with these things for the final entry.

*****

If any of you are following the progress of Felipe Pepe's CRPG book project, it appears it's almost done. It is done, I think, to the extent originally envisioned, but Felipe keeps adding more games and reviews. Right now, he's seeking dedicated fans to complete short reviews of a few remaining games, including Eamon, Fracas, Rogue, Questron, Divinity: Original Sin, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. You can see the full list here. If you're interested in contributing, you can reach Felipe at crpgbook@gmail.com