Friday, April 28, 2017

Alternate Reality: The Dungeon: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

In truth, I already knew the answer to this particular mystery.
Alternate Reality: The Dungeon
United States
Datasoft/IntelliCreations (developer and publisher)
Released in 1987 for Apple II, Atari 8-bit, and Commodore 64
Date Started: 17 April 2017
Date Ended: 26 April 2017
Total Hours: 27
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

Alternate Reality: The Dungeon is similar to the early Might & Magic series in that they're all excellent fantasy games wrapped in flimsy science-fiction frames. Might & Magic eventually improved its sci-fi shell, but we don't know if the Alternate Reality series would have done the same. Regardless, The Dungeon is an excellent game by itself, and would have done fine as a standalone title, unconnected with the Alternate Reality mythology.
This is the type of thing you'd expect at the end of a Might & Magic title.
It took me about 9 hours to win after my last session, and for most of that time, everything was exactly as I described it in my first two postings. Except for the final game hour, exploring the other dungeon levels didn't produce harder monsters or notably different gameplay. (This is not a complaint.) I never quite got a handle on how the game allocates monsters. I suspect that different areas have different probabilities of certain monster levels--a system that goes all the way back to Orthanc (1975) for the PLATO system, to which the creator was exposed. For instance, the opening areas might have a 90% probability of Level 1 monsters; a 7% probability of Level 2; and a 3% probability of Level 3 or higher; areas of Level 3 might invert these odds. Whatever the case, it's entirely possible to encounter liches and fire demons right outside the starting gate, or conversely single bats and rats on the deepest levels.

Exploration continued to reward me with artifacts. A pair of winged sandals increased my movement speed and added about 50 points to my skill. "Robin's Hood" made it more likely that I could avoid encounters. A Cloak of Levitation added even more to my speed--by the end of the game my character absolutely flew down corridors (though it still didn't improve on proper tile-based movement). A crystal breastplate proved to be the game's best armor.

On Level 2, I ran into a room with something called a "clothes horse" who offered to trade a shining shield for a leather jacket. I accepted, and the "mirrored shield" ended up being a key artifact.
This was the only time that the game got really stupid.
I never did find a weapon as good as "Razor Ice" again. There were some evil-aspected weapons, and the game amusingly has weapons of opposite alignment scream at you when you equip them.

Early in my explorations of Level 2, I found the Paladins' Guild and joined. Joining a guild lets you purchase the guild's selection of spells, which include (in my case), "Repair," "Light," "Shield," "Strength," "Healing," "Fireblade," "Razoredge," "Protection," and "Vigor." The last spell in that list removes weariness, which was a godsend--no more trudging back up to the inn on Level 1 to rest.
Plus, every time you rest, you're reminded that you've been kidnapped.

When cast, spells deplete your guild ring, which you can recharge at the guild. If the guild ring is already depleted, spells subtract from your invisible energy statistic, ultimately leading to fatigue. Thus, having a spell specifically to cure fatigue seems like cheating.

Later, I joined the Guild of Order as an associate member and got "Super Vision," which allows you to see secret doors (I had run out of Wizards' Eyes). You can possess one spell per character level, and if you're on the brink of exceeding that, the game will let you discard previously-purchased spells. The guilds also offer the ability to pay for spell-casting training, improving the chances that the castings will be successful. In general, though, the spells in the game are optional and generally duplicated by found magic items or regular equipment. "Create Food," for instance, should hardly ever be necessary when food is cheap and plentiful. I cast maybe 20 spells in the whole game.
Joining the paladins' guild gets me some assets and enemies.
Guilds also offer storage lockers to stash excess equipment, plus free curse removal. Both are good ideas in theory, but returning to the guild--returning to any place in such a sprawling dungeon--is a pain, and I think I was only cursed once during the entire game. 

Level 2 offered a couple of new shops, and I'm afraid these were poorly implemented, particularly a dwarven smithy that sold weapons and armor. The smith only takes jewels or gems, and even late in the game I wouldn't have had enough to buy more than an item or two. The shop on Level 1 will convert gems to gold but not back again. Between the smith who wanted gems or jewels and the enchantress who wanted crystals, regular gold really had no use after the first few hours, and I was collecting hoards of it.
The smith was also necessary for this quest stage.
A potion-seller on the same level was theoretically a little more useful, but with the "devourer" lurking around every corner every time my inventory got too plentiful, I was reluctant to travel around with too many extra potions.
A good idea in an inconvenient location.
The potion-seller, incidentally, was found at the end of a long and tedious maze of one-way doors and walls, called "Mordred's Maze." I'm not sure if the "reward" was worth it.
A section of Level 2 that ultimately leads to the potion-seller. The "exit" in the southeast is to the non-existent Wilderness.
So let's talk about the main quest path. Once I had finished the game and looked at walkthroughs, I saw a few things I had missed. It turns out that the Oracle walks you through 5 quest stages, but I only needed her help for three, having stumbled upon the other two during regular exploration.
A key encounter on Level 2.
The first stage involves slaying a "master thief" to get his silver key, then using the key to free Ozob from the palace prison, getting the first piece of Acrinimiril's staff, and returning it to his tomb after navigating the door-teleportal puzzle. I did all of this on my own by just stumbling upon the associated encounters. I had forgotten, even, that it was a master thief who had dropped the silver key.

Quest Two involved finding the two halves of the gold ring in the troll and orc lairs, bringing them to the smithy on Level 2, and having him reforge the ring. Apparently, I could have also done this by giving the troll's half to the orc or the orc's half to the troll. Either way, I brought the reforged ring back to the Oracle and threw it in to destroy it. I guess it was evil. Rings usually are.
Why did I have to get it re-forged before then destroying it?
Quest Three was obtaining the mirrored shield. Again, I stumbled into this one via regular exploration. I could have also traded Morgana's Tiara for it; I otherwise carried that artifact around the entire game and didn't know what it was for.

I needed help even beyond the Oracle for Quest Four. The southeastern section of Level 2 is cut off from the rest of it by the "River Stonz." You encounter a ferryman at a key point along the river, but if you approach him at any time of day other than midnight, or give him any amount of money other than 2 coppers, he just takes you downriver to a place you could have walked to.
You're leaving something out of these instructions.
The Oracle tells you that you need to cross at midnight, but she doesn't tell you the part where you have to pay him exactly 2 coppers. I have no idea where I was supposed to get that information. Late in the game, when I was hopelessly stuck, I consulted the official hint guide and discovered this key addition.

Crossing at the right time with the right amount takes you to the realm of the undead, with Egyptian symbology on the walls. Eventually, I reached a long corridor with 7 consecutive battles against "undead knights," all of whom yelled that they were "free" as they died and asked if I was "The One."
"The one" who killed you? Yes, that would be me.
The corridors ended at the palace of the Undead King. He had a long speech that indicated that he and his compatriots had been kidnapped from Earth a long time ago by the aliens. As most of his companions "turned to thievery and murder for their daily bread" and "quarreled and fought among themselves" for the amusement of "the Keepers," the king and his knights remained true and took an oath to defeat the Keepers--one that bound them even in death. They eventually found a way to "look behind the mask of this world" and steal the aliens' own energy weapons, but their revolt ended in death. He designated me The One and gave me another piece of Acrinimiril's staff.
His skeleton sentries are just adorable.
I returned the staff to Acrinimiril's ghost and got a wisdom point for the trouble. Back at the Oracle, I received Quest Five, which had to do with some interrelated encounters on Level 3.
The Oracle sends me on the final quest.
At this point, I'll mention that I reached Level 3 long before any of this, before I looked at the hint guide to figure out what to do for Quest Four. I mapped most of it, but shortly before arriving, you go through a one-way door and can't get back to the stairs. There's a teleporter at the southern part of the level, behind a secret door that I missed, that returns you to the upper level. Thus, I spent a lot of time mapping the level and puzzling through its encounters but ended up unable to save my progress. Almost everything I'm recounting below, I did twice.

The primary purpose of Level 3--which is only 16 x 16 (each subsequent level is 1/4 the size of the one above it)--is to obtain the last piece of Acrinimiril's staff from a dragon. Apparently, you can do this by killing him, but it's a very tough battle. I had two "death" cards when I attempted it, and even both of them plus hundreds of hit points of physical damage didn't do the trick.
I guess I should beware of the dragon.
The longer way is to give the dragon what he wants--something called a "bloodstone." This, in turn, is in the hands of a basilisk on the same level, but the basilisk is immune to weapons and can only be killed with your bare hands. It also helps to have the mirrored shield to reflect its gaze.

You get the "bare hands" clue from a gargoyle on the level, who offers three riddles. The first is the toughest, although it seems simple on the surface. You just have to complete a rhyme:
It annoys me how every line is in iambic tetrameter except the second-to-last. Was "a fate so cruel cut short its trek" so hard?
"Neck"? "Flight deck"? "Triple sec"? The answer, which might be a bit unfair in the pre-Internet era, is referenced in a clue from the Oracle: "Remember 'Xebec's Demise.'" Xebec's Demise is the name of the city in Alternate Reality: The City, which of course we are now literally under. To understand the answer, you have to know what a "xebec" is. I quote from "a small, three-masted vessel of the Mediterranean, formerly much used by corsairs, now employed to some extent in commerce." Once you know that the riddle is talking about a ship, the rhyming answer becomes clear: "SHIPWRECK." It's still a bit of a mystery why the city is named after the wreck of a Mediterranean sailing vessel. Is it a metaphor for the fact that the alien spacecraft on which we're imprisoned has, in fact, wrecked?

The second and third riddles were much easier--if you'd uncovered particular plot points in the game. The gargoyle wanted to know where to get rid of the evil ring (ORACLE) and what the dragon wants more than gold (BLOODSTONE). Having answered all three, he imparts the information on defeating the basilisk.
That's hard-core.
I killed the basilisk accordingly, got the Bloodstone from it, and gave it to the dragon. In return, the dragon gave me the last piece of the staff, which I had to schlep all the way back up to Level 1 and return to Acrinimiril.
I don't want to know what he's doing to that treasure pile.
With his staff reunited, Acrinimiril's spirit "returned to his own world" (huh?) but left behind a Portal Access Card.
I feel like there must have been more to this guy's story.
You have to use the card at "Death's Door," an encounter on Level 3 that follows a one-way maze called "The Gauntlet," with fixed encounters against some of the game's toughest enemies, including fire demons, a horned devil, a small dragon, and a doppelganger who has your hit points and weapons. If you reach the door without the access card, you just get teleported outside the maze.
Good idea calling it "Death's Door," though. That will keep out the riff-raff.
Having defeated the enemies in the Gauntlet once, for no reason, when I returned the second time I was prepared. I had three "Death" cards plus several other high-damage magic weapons, and I tore through them like tissue paper. Reaching the end, I used the Portal Access Card and descended to the fourth and final level.
Using the "Death" card is always satisfying.
The corridors became technological rather than medieval. I soon encountered an "alien sentry," whom I killed. From his body, I retrieved his beam weapon, but it wasn't really needed.
I love how his third arm is still manifestly a "right" arm.
A few steps away (the level was only 8 x 8), I ran into the game's final encounter: in a room "filled with strange machinery," a three-armed alien guard fired a laser weapon at me. It bounced off my mirrored shield and vaporized the alien. After that, I got the "congratulations" message at the top of this post, but it was followed by a warning that "the alien captors do not take your intrusion lightly."
If I had dropped the shield before the final encounter.
Beyond this room, I had the option to return to the previous levels via an elevator or continue on to Alternate Reality: Revelation, which of course was never made. Other exits from the dungeon would have taken the player to The Arena, The Palace, and The Wilderness--though curiously not back to The City--but clearly everything was meant to funnel here, and from here to the series' final chapters.
By the end of this game, I was surprised to find myself lamenting what could have been. When I finished my coverage of Alternate Reality: The City, I was convinced that the entire series was an overblown promise that became a "cult classic" based on intentions rather than execution. Now that I've seen what's possible beyond The City hub, I realize why players remember the titles so fondly.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be grateful that the series never got a chance to be too stupid. From the opening screens, we know that the entire experience is an alien simulation--although until the end, I assumed it was virtual (a la The Matrix) rather than some kind of giant Truman Show. What "revelations" would have waited beyond that? How would they have reconciled the science fiction setting with dragons and spells and ghosts? How does the attribute-generation process make sense if the character is a real person? (Yes, a Google search will provide conceptual ideas for the answers to these questions, some from the creator, but until they're actually written into a game, they're not canon.) It's possible they would have done a great job, but the appearance of the aliens--three-armed green men with pulsing blue brains--doesn't fill me with a lot of confidence.

Those concerns are only hypothetical, though. What we have in front of us is a fun standalone title, and I expect it to GIMLET well.

  • 5 points for the game world. While I might be lukewarm on the alien plot, I love the sprawling megadungeon and the way it responds to your actions, and even if it turned out a little silly, at least the backstory was more than just a frame.
I also appreciated that each room had a name or description, but someone really needs to work on this one.
  • 4 points for character creation and development. I'm not in love with the creation process, but the development process is satisfying and rewarding. Leveling slows quickly (I gained 6 in the first 8 hours, 2 in the second 8, and only 1 in the final 11), but guilds offer other mechanisms of development. There's a basic alignment system where the actions you take and people you fight affect what guilds you can join. Apparently, if I'd continued to do good works, I could have been invited into the chapel's inner sanctum and given a powerful magic weapon.
A guild is unhappy with my alignment.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. NPCs and enemies are basically the same thing here; whether you can talk to them depends largely on alignment. There are some minor role-playing options, like giving gold to paupers, but no real dialogue system. The "hints" that NPCs give you aren't even very good; the game could have done a better job having them occasionally offer useful information about the dungeon.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The creatures are mostly adopted from the D&D menagerie, but their special attacks and defenses are well-implemented, and I liked the randomness of encounter difficulty. More important, there are a variety of non-combat encounters with real role-playing options.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I got sick of combat by the end, frankly. There aren't enough tactics beyond the use of special items. Even at high levels with great equipment, I found that my attacks missed 50% of the time or more, making even simple combats long and drawn-out. Nothing is more frustrating, when trying to get from one place to another to solve a quest, than whiffing 6 attacks in a row against a simple orc. I do appreciate the variety of things that can happen during combat, like enemies calling for reinforcement, fleeing, knocking you weapon out of your hands, getting stunned or knocked down, or chugging healing potions.
Damn it!
  • 5 points for equipment, one of the strongest parts of the game. There are plenty of items to find and buy, including numerous artifact items plus a host of magic items that can make a difference in tough combats. Different weapons do different kinds of damage, which is a consideration when facing monsters with fire, cold, magic, or other resistances. Then there was that whole "enchantment" business that I never really explored because I never had enough crystals. I admire the game for offering item customization, but I have to ding it in the next section.
I never found out what these were about, but I think we'll see them again in Baldur's Gate.
  • 3 points for the economy. It's best at the beginning of the game, when you're starving and trying to scrape together a handful of silver pieces to eat and sleep. Later, you learn that there are really three economies in the game: gold, gems/jewels, and crystals. By the mid-game, you have plenty of the first one, but you never have enough of the latter two--at least, not without lots of grinding--to avail yourself of the services that they can purchase.
  • 4 points for quests. There's a main quest, with only one real end (unless you just stay in the dungeon), but several of the stages along the way have more than one outcome, including a few authentic role-playing choices.
 I don't think I would have figured this out without the hint.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. In the Apple II version, I admire the detail of some of the graphics, but the composition (limited as it was) is pretty poor, and the sound effects are negligible. The monster portraits are particularly ugly. I hated the pseudo-continuous movement, but the interface was otherwise reasonably intuitive.
  • 8 points for gameplay. The game hardly made a wrong turn here. The Oracle is mostly a guide--you could do the quests themselves in almost any order, and without her associated clues. Moreover, since the difficulty only adjusts slightly between levels, the game is almost completely non-linear until the end. The alignment system makes it somewhat replayable, and I found the difficulty and length absolutely perfect.

That gives us a subtotal of 43, to which I'm going to add 2 bonus points for a well-done "survival" angle, for a final score of 45. (I gave The City a 30.) I went into the game dreading it and hoping I could cover it in one posting, and I finished by rating it in the top 15% of my list. That doesn't happen often.
Scorpia reviewed the game in the February 1988 issue of Computer Gaming World. She brought in her City character rather than creating a new Dungeon character, which she thought was "almost impossible." I agree for the first couple of hours, but it wasn't too bad after that. She has extensive advice for the dwarven smithy and enchantress, though, so is it possible that crystals and jewelry/gems were part of The City, too, and I just forgot?

She hated the "devourer," calling it "asinine," "juvenile," and "plain poor design." I didn't rage quite as much at the monster because reloading is trivial in the days of emulators, but I get her point. In the end, she thought that The Dungeon, while "a big improvement over The City," was still "ultimately unsatisfying." But part of her angst has to do with the intentions of the creators to release at least three other titles centered around Xebec's Demise. "Until the last [scenario] is reached," she says, "you're really just marking time." I wonder how she would have felt had she known that The Dungeon would be the only Alternate Reality title with any kind of resolution. Other contemporary reviews were mostly negative--even Dragon only gave it 3 out of 5 stars, which is their equivalent of setting the game on fire and urinating on the ashes. These formal reviews contrast sharply with fan recollections of the series, of course.
The back of the box says that there's "1/3 more territory to explore" than The City. They exaggerate. I get 32.8%.
The Alternate Reality series was conceived by Philip Price and abandoned when the first game didn't make him any money. (See my The City entry for more on Price.) The Dungeon wasn't originally going to be a separate game--just the sewers of The City--but development delays led Datasoft to decide to release the titles in two halves. (By the time The Dungeon was published, Datasoft was bankrupt but briefly reorganized as "IntelliCreations," which used "Datasoft" as a trademark.) Ken Jordan and Dan Pinal took the lead on programming The Dungeon based on Price's notes, and various mechanical and technological obstacles (e.g., incompatible attributes; no encumbrance system in The City) kept them from allowing a character to move freely between The City and The Dungeon. [For the summary in this paragraph, I am indebted to Ken Jordan's own recollections, from a 1996 e-mail to an Alternate Reality fan page.]

The Dungeon was the first credited title for both Jordan and Pinal, and both would go on to long careers in the gaming industry, but neither ever worked on another RPG that I can find (although both have minor credits on Faery Tale Adventure from the same year). Neither, for that matter, would Datasoft, which would be out of business within a year, dooming the rest of the Alternate Reality series. In more positive news, graphic artist Bonita Long-Hemsath would later work on the Might and Magic and Heroes of Might and Magic series.

Frequent CRPG Addict commenter Acrin1 has been working on a Windows remake of the combined City and Dungeon for almost a decade. (He posted an update just a week ago.) The graphics look crisp and attractive--particularly the monster portraits--but it otherwise seems faithful to the original mechanics. I'll let Acrin1 comment if he wants to elaborate more. To my mind, without The Palace, The Arena, and The Wilderness to support the hub, the enormous City will always be pointless. I certainly didn't miss it when playing this game.

It's time now to move on to another French game: L'anneau de Zengara, which uses the same interface as the reviled Fer & Flamme (1986). Will it be any more sensible? Let's find out.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Magic Candle II: Back to the Shadows

An NPC gives directions that speak to the convoluted nature of the Dungeon of Dorak.
I spent the entirety of this most recent 10-hour session in the abandoned dwarven mines of Dorak, a dungeon so big it could probably support its own game. Even with my hand maps, I'm not sure I explored it all. I mapped 13 separate "sections"--some larger than any previous dungeon level in a Magic Candle game--but I know there weren't that many levels, because some of the sections are just inaccessible parts of the same level. It doesn't help that Magic Candle stairways don't really distinguish visually whether they're going up or down, and that you can often transition levels by walking through doors, with no stairway in view.
Some flavor text highlights where we are.
I thought I'd use this post to cover the dungeoneering and combat systems in detail, since that's about all I did. As we'll see, the actual plot elements of the dungeon are few and ended (for me) in tragedy.

Magic Candle dungeons aren't quite the "megadungeons" that I described in my second post on Alternate Reality: The Dungeon. Special encounters and NPCs are rare; despite being sprawling, they are relatively linear; and what happens is mostly predictable. That doesn't mean they're not fun, but they're fun in a somewhat different way. 
Doors on south and east walls are represented with arrows. This makes them easy to miss.
Having done a bit of reloading and replaying, I'm convinced that there are no "random" encounters in Magic Candle dungeons. Every encounter is triggered either by walking into a room or stepping on a fixed point in the dungeon corridors (the latter are always ambushes), and once you clear them, the levels remain clear. In the first Magic Candle game, reaching a particular plot point in the main quest caused all the dungeons and outdoor areas to re-spawn. I'm not sure if anything like that happens in this game.

Of the encounters, the ambushes in the corridors are the most difficult, and they're rendered more annoying by the fact that you don't get any good treasure from them. You constantly have to cast the "Sense" spell to make sure you don't stumble into them unaware, giving the enemies a free round of attacks. But the developers were somewhat diabolical in their placement of the encounters. You might have several long corridors with none of them, and then three of them bunched together in the same room. It's easy to get either too complacent or too paranoid.
This always sucks.
Room encounters are more predictable and rewarding. The enemy never surprises you, and you usually have a chest or spell fountain to loot after the battle. With only a couple of exceptions, such as the final "boss" battle of a given dungeon, I find that room encounters are generally much easier than random ones.

Good combat strategy begins before combat with a few elements of preparation on the player's part. First is ensuring that you have enough of each valuable spell memorized. Fortunately, this is pretty easy since every room, post-combat, can be used for uninterrupted rest. Second, you want to make sure every character has enough resources, including mushrooms, potions, and (for ranged attackers) arrows. Third, during dungeon exploration, you want every character to have his default weapon drawn, since this otherwise wastes an action. Since you have to sheathe weapons to talk to NPCs, it's easy to forget this step. Regular use of the "Fix" command while resting, generally for less than an hour, will ensure that the weapons are in good shape. Finally, you want to regularly cast the "Shield" spell on each character to keep their shields to as close to 99 as possible; shields directly absorb magical damage until depleted, and they're vital against enemies with damage spells like "Fireball" and "Zapall."
A gaem's "Zapall" destroys the rest of Subia's shield. She had 15 left, so his 18 damage reduced it to 0 and did 3 damage to her, reducing her from 33 hit points to 30.
Most important, in terms of preparation, are the mushrooms and herbs that you have in your system. Sermin mushrooms restore stamina to 99, and since stamina serves as both a fatigue reservoir and "spell points," Sermins are absolutely vital. But they're also one-time use and don't remain active. The others do. Gonshi mushrooms will ensure the character will get 4 actions in each combat round; the most you otherwise get is 3. Nift leaves cause the character's skin to absorb the next 3 physical blows. Mirget leaves cause the character to do about triple damage if the next blow connects, and Luffin flowers ensure that the blow lands. Turpin mushrooms increase the potency of spells.
This would be a waste of mushrooms. Most of the enemies are melee fighters and the one zorlim is a low-level spellcaster.
(Until I just re-read the manual, I thought all of these herbs were mushrooms. I've been describing them as such throughout my Magic Candle and Magic Candle II postings.)

From my experience, the most valuable herbs are Gonshis and Mirgets. Between the two of them, and a particular spell I'll discuss anon, my party feels invincible. Attacks don't miss often enough to bother much with Luffins--I certainly wouldn't waste money on them--and the physical damage avoided by Nifts stops being your primary threat after the first third of the game. (Even then, healing is a fairly trivial process; you have spells, potions, and simple resting.) Turpin mushrooms would be more useful, I suppose, for players who prioritize magical attacks, but most of the magic I use is binary--it works or it doesn't--and doesn't depend on potency. The Gonshi/Mirget combination, on the other hand, is extraordinarily deadly. It ensures that your melee tanks will be able to strike multiple times per round, and the first strike will generally kill the targeted enemy.
This party, on the other hand, is almost all spellcasters, and it's going to take me at least two rounds to get into melee range. I wish I had some Gonshis in my stomach.
In a hallway encounter, the party starts in the center of the screen, in its default formation, with enemies scattered randomly. Combat begins immediately.

Room encounters are more strategic. Both the enemies and the party start on separate halves of the room, like pieces on a chessboard, and they can arrange themselves as desired anywhere in their respective sections. A single strip of squares serves as a "no man's land" between the sides, so you can't start combat directly adjacent to any enemy. A pre-combat "phase" allows the player to position party members, identify enemies, set the active spell, and draw or change weapons.
Pre-combat. It sounds like these guys might be up for a bribe.
The Magic Candle II added some additional options to this pre-combat round, including talking to enemies and trying to rally the party. The latter rarely works, in my experience, and it carries a risk that the enemy will get a free surprise attack while you're trying to make your speech. Talking to the enemy often produces an offer to leave the room for a bribe, or even an offer to pay the party to let the enemy leave, depending on relative strength and the enemy's initial disposition.
This zorlim is over-valuing the risk his party poses to mine.
Combat actually begins when you select "Begin." In a tremendous advantage to the player, the entire party acts first in each round. And although the game will guide you in the default order of the players, you can establish your own order by selecting the player that you want to act--you can even do this in the middle of a character's series of actions. For instance, if Gia has a Gonshi in her system and can act 4 times in a combat round, I can have her act twice, then switch to another character to act, then return to Gia for her final two actions. I can't think of another game that does this, and it supports an incredible level of strategy that you rarely need.

During their turns, characters can attack, cast spells, move, or use items (including mushrooms). Since enemies generally arrange themselves towards the rear of their room halves, you almost always waste a round moving towards the enemy if you favor standard melee tactics. If the enemies are entirely melee fighters, you can "Pass" and let them come to you, but most enemy parties feature at least one spellcaster or ranged attacker, and you often want to close ranks as quickly as possible.
Eflun casts an "acidball" against a gaem demon.
Players who favor ranged attacks probably want to line up their characters in the rear of their halves and use spells and arrows from a distance. I find these attacks so underpowered compared to melee attacks that I don't consider it a viable strategy, but I might be missing something.

There's a spell in the "Vannex" spellbook, which I acquired in Drakhelm, that makes most combats almost trivially easy: "Jump." It allows the spellcaster to teleport any party member to any place on the battlefield. Used in concert with Gonshis and Mirgets, it ensures that even the most difficult combats rarely last more than two rounds, partly by ensuring that no party members' actions are wasted in movement. It's particularly frustrating when a battle begins and everyone has Gonshis in their systems, and they burn all of the Gonshis' extra actions just moving towards the enemy. "Jump" ensures that doesn't happen.

This is how the combination might work, assuming that my characters have swallowed Gonshis and Mirgets before combat. When it begins, instead of having Gia go first, I immediately switch to Eflun, who has multiple instances of "Jump" memorized. Since he also has a Gonshi in his system, he can cast it up to 4 times in the first round. He'll use it to move the strongest melee fighters--Gia and Sakar--into locations where they can strike multiple enemies at once, ideally also next to the strongest enemies.
Eflun prepares to "Jump" Gia past the slimes and next to the spellcasting enemy.
Having been jumped, the melee fighter now gets 4 attacks. She directs the first one against the strongest foe, using the Mirget's power to often kill him in one blow, then beats at the others. Based on her progress, Eflun then teleports the next melee fighter to the next group of enemies, and so forth. (Or, if the enemy distribution didn't allow the first character to use all 4 of her attacks, she can stop after 2 or 3 and Eflun can jump her somewhere else.) This combination of strategies ensures that I get 16 attacks against the enemies, none wasted on movement, and 4 of them at 3 times the normal power. It's a rare enemy party that can survive even a round of this. Even if I don't have Gonshis and Mirgets in my system when combat begins, if the melee fighters use their first two actions to swallow Gonshis and Mirgets, Eflun can still teleport 3 of them and they still get to attack twice, once at high power. This generally works well enough.

The Gonshi/Mirget/Jump strategy became more vital in Dokar, which features a particularly annoying monster called a "doombeast." This bastard is capable of a "drain" attack that permanently reduces one of your party member's skills. Moreover, when combat begins he mirror images himself into 6 copies, and it's impossible to tell visually which is the real doombeast. Fortunately, attacked copies immediately disappear.
My characters aren't fond of doombeasts, either.
I learned to use a modified version of this strategy against doombeasts. I have my weakest fighter, Subia, draw her bow and act first. Hopped up on a Gonshi, she can fire 4 arrows at 4 doombeast icons, and in the process either identify the real one or reduce the total number of options to 2. If she does the latter (or if, gods forbid, I face 2 doombeasts), Eflun can then teleport my second-weakest fighter (Buzbazgut) next to the remaining doombeasts to use his 4 attacks and trim down the rest of the options. Either way, once I figure out where the real doombeasts are, it's time to jump Gia or Sakar next to them. The doombeast has too many hit points to die from even a Mirget-enhanced attack, but not so many that he survives 2 or 3 attacks. 
A doombeast sestuplicates himself as combat begins.
I find that combat is only really deadly if it drags. After more than 2 or 3 rounds, enemies can blow past your Nifts and wear down your shields. The AI is reasonably good, and enemies will often concentrate physical attacks on the character with the lowest number of hit points and magical attacks on the character with the lowest shields. Fortunately, "Resurrect" doesn't seem to have any penalty except in the stamina it takes to cast it.
An ogre ignores all the melee fighters around him to hurl an axe at Subia (with the bow) and kill her. Just because he knows he can.
Post-combat, you get a "Resurrect" round if anyone died, and if you don't use it, that character is lost forever. Then you get to loot enemy corpses. About 50% have something--usually gold, but sometimes mushrooms or potions, rarely weapons. Finally, you can open any chests or investigate any fountains in the room, reaping their rewards. My time in Sakar filled me with so many jewels and gems that I don't imagine I'll need to conserve on Gonshis and Mirgets any more.
Sakar breaks a pick to get more picks.
In fact, I suspect I was supposed to explore Dorak later in the game. It seemed a natural next step for me after learning about its existence, and its passwords, in Drakhelm, but its size and difficulty--plus the fact that I didn't know the password to awaken the sleeping god Rhokan--suggests it was intended for a more experienced party. Oh, well. At least I cleared the monsters for a later visit. I hope they don't respawn.
I'll have to awaken this god later.
Beyond its combats, dungeons throw a few navigation puzzles at you, most easily solved. They sometimes block passages with magic snakes or spiders, and you need "Repel" to get past them. Often, there will be a whole corridor full of these, and you'll be sure that some treasure must await you at the end, but after exhausting dozens of spells, you reach the end and find nothing. Another common tactic is to block a corridor with magical barriers that you need "Pierce" to...well...pierce.
A rare occasion where repelling all those spiders actually led to a reward.
Some dungeons are heavy on teleporters. They're invisible unless you have "Reveal" active. Dorak only had a couple of necessary teleporters, but it did have a section in which teleporters served as a different type of puzzle; see below.

Finally, every dungeon features at least one teleportal chamber, where you can use combinations of cubes, pyramids, cylinders, and spheres to move to other parts of Gurtex. NPCs need to give you the codes to these chambers, and I only have three so far.
This dungeon's teleportal chamber.
Plot-wise, here's the setup: the dwarves had been driven from Dorak some years prior by a demon named Vankruh. Vankruh is explicitly not allied with the other Forces of Darkness on Gurtex; it's stated several times that he's dangerous to good and evil alike, and even Zakhad fears him. Naturally, there's a whole Moria/Khazad-dûm vibe to the story.
Finding Dorak in the mountains.
I tromped around the Demonspine Mountains until I found the western entrance, which I entered with the password I found in Drakhelm. I had no idea I wouldn't be leaving for nearly a dozen hours real-time, and more than a week in-game. The dungeon exhausted my ability to accurately map it, and I mostly explored with a "follow the left wall" strategy. I'm sure I missed some things.

On the way down, there were only a few plot elements and most of them didn't make any sense. I kept encountering an insane mage named Strephonio who babbled on about something called the "Hodli ducks." In the corridor before the final battle, I had to use "Walkwater" to cross a small pond, he said it was the pool where the Hodli ducks fly to the moon.
And later this.
A sign directed me to dig in a particular corner, where a scrap of paper purported to be written by Vhan, who was in love with the goddess Leahandria. That's about as far as it got before the writer's "memory faded" and it abruptly ended. Maybe I was supposed to hear something about that elsewhere.
I never figured out what this was about.
An NPC named Moruk was trapped in a corridor and said he was starving, but every time I tried to give him food, he just complained that without food, the food would do no good. That's a heck of a catch-22. "Without food, I'm too weak to eat."
My gift is food, you fool!
The only major treasure I found in the entire dungeon was another set of Pearl Plate, which I gave to Sakar. 

A particularly annoying puzzle came about halfway through the dungeon. There was a long, winding corridor full of teleporters that all took me back to the same corner on the first level. Even with "Detect" active, there was no way to avoid them with a party of 6 members. I avoided some by changing the party formation, but ultimately I had to have Gia kick out every other party member, move to a safe space (but still in visible distance) and then invite them all back into the party. I had to do this repeatedly.
After threading their way through part of the maze, the party is abandoned by Gia so she can get farther down the corridor on her own.
Vankruh's voice spoke to me once or twice as I descended, and then again outside the door to his chambers. An NPC in Drakhelm had suggested that if I simply sheathed my weapons and spoke to him respectfully, I could get past him. Indeed, that's what happened. I was hoping he'd have some interesting dialogue, but he just congratulated me on adopting a non-violent solution and let me through his chambers. 
Vankruh intimidates me as I enter his dungeon.
Naturally, I had to reload and try attacking him. What happens is, he has 2,000 hit points and magic doesn't work in his chamber. I'm sure it's possible to beat him with repeated attempts, but for role-playing purposes I decided to move on.
Vankruh, unaware of the concept of "reloading," congratulates me for my peaceful solution.
Sakar had some philosophical comments on that. I wonder how Gimli would have felt if Gandalf had just spoken respectfully to the balrog and everyone had left in peace. The rest of the story would have been a lot different.
"I wanted to kill Vankruh, but I'm glad we didn't have to," he finished.
The final room of the dungeon brought me to combat with a doombeast, several other demons, and a new enemy called a "naur," who has 700 hit points and is capable of three "Zapall" spells per round (3-4 such spells bring down my shields; after that, it's all direct damage). I took out the doombeast and minions with my usual Gonshi/Mirget/Jump strategy, sucked up the naur's damage for a round or two, then surrounded him with melee fighters who gulped Mirgets every round. He fell after a half dozen attacks or so.
Subia shoots at doombeast images to identify the real one.
When the debris cleared, I found myself facing a magic candle! Specifically, the Candle of Despair in which one of the Eldens is supposed to be trapped. I knew from previous dialogue that I was supposed to use the white scroll, previously recovered from the ghost in Deraum, to free him. But when I used the scroll, it just said "the scroll is blank."
Hasn't anyone in this world heard of "prisons"? With "bars?"
Well, I knew that it wasn't blank. I'd spent some time researching it at the library and apparently scribbled a bunch of stuff on it. Had I not saved the game after that? Sighing, I used a nearby teleportal chamber to return to Oshcrun. I visited the library in Telermain again, went through the whole process, then walked back to Dokar and made my way to the bottom again (to simplify the teleporter maze, I just kicked everyone out and had Gia go alone). But the message was still the same.
Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?
In a normal game, I'd figure I jut needed to do something else for the scroll to work. But something about the specific message--"the scroll is blank"--bothered me, since I knew it wasn't. I Googled a bit, found a walkthrough, and confirmed from it (I think) that the scroll should work. The walkthrough also indicates that the mage Ziyx should have told me where to go to find information about the pink scroll, but he didn't do that. Is my version bugged or corrupted somehow? Or am I misinterpreting the walkthrough, and I need to do something else before I can free the Elden from the candle? The thought of starting over fills me with despair, but neither do I want to keep playing if the game is unwinnable. I guess this is my punishment for happily accepting the ability to walk on water.

Miscellaneous notes while I wait for opinions:

  • As I mentioned in a recent comment, there is some attempt to build consistent languages in this game. All Elden proper names begin with a "Z," for instance (probably a reference to the developer's first game, The Rings of Zilfin), and all dwarven proper names have a "K" in them. Demonic figures on Gurtex, as well as the continent itself, tend to feature the letter "X" (though not in the case of the main enemy). It's a step on the way to more complex, realistic languages. N'wah!
  • In previous posts, I characterized occasional NPC comments as "chatter," but we should really stop to acknowledge what the developers did here. Each NPC has a host of comments that trigger when visiting particular places. The dwarf Sakar had a lot to say about Dorak, at least one comment per level, and I suspect his dialogues are different than what other dwarven NPCs would have said. This not only enhances the personalities of the NPCs but also makes the game more replayable. Only the Ultima titles have featured this many comments from your own party members, and even they tend to shut up once they're actually in the party. It's an important step towards the "banters" that are a staple of Bioware titles.
Sakar admires the handiwork of his people.
Eflun is condescending.
  • For role-playing reasons, I'm probably going to stick with my current party even though better NPCs are available. Subia is slowly getting better but is still pretty weak. Buzbazgut almost never hits.
He's slowly improving.
Depending on what I hear from your comments or my research, I might end up shelving The Magic Candle II for a little while, because I can't imagine starting over and replaying over 30 hours right away. (I suppose there's a possibility that my saved games will worked with a patched version.) I really hope I just overlooked something.
For those of you who've been bugging me for years about a better system for reviewing comments, I took a step forward this week with a new comments page that shows the last 250 of them. Let me know if it makes it easier to participate in discussions, particularly on old entries.