Saturday, April 20, 2024

Castle of the Winds Part I - A Question of Vengeance (PC, 1993)


Today I'm looking at a Windows 3.1 turn-based RPG from 1993 that was developed by one guy, the mighty Rick Saada. This is a relic from back when one person could make a game. It doesn't have any music and the visuals are as barebones as it got in the 1990's, but By God it's compulsively fun and heavily D&D inspired.

This might be the game that got me into RPGs. I never finished it, because it's a two-part game and only the first part is shareware. It's like the first third of the overall game. No idea where I got it back then, but I had it on disc circa mid-1994 or so. I don't think I ever beat the "game" (or rather, demo), but I did get to the boss, the Hill Giant. At that point in time I'd tried (and failed) to get anywhere with rentals of Secret of Mana and 7th Saga, but I fared a lot better with this game for whatever reason.

Between this, Lord of the Rings, and D&D I developed a pretty strong interest in RPGs, stats, monsters, fantasy in general. This game may well have led the pack though. And now, with the magic of Windows 3.1 emulation, I get to take another look at it...and maybe finally get to Part Two, which is now freeware. I'll talk more about the game's history in that part, this one is all about the gameplay.

Behold, Windows 3.1. You don't have any classes to pick from, but you can be Male or Female and move stat points around to an extent (each stat has to be at least the bottom rung).

Also playing on Difficult, because why not? Back in the day I couldn't get this done on Easy, now I'm going for all the marbles. Not cranking it to the max though, I'm not a savage.

I go with Male since that's the icon I remember from back in the day. I also remember using Custom Character Icon to import .ico files into the game and play as "new characters". Red Wizard from Final Fantasy 1 (which I'd never played) was my favorite .ico.

His name? Beef Curtains. Because he's a big beefcake, and if you run into him, it's Curtains for you!

Strength - Damage output with melee attacks, and amount you can carry. Most first-time players jack this stat up. I find magic to be far superior in this game for battles. Melee is just a complete roll of the dice where you and your foe bash away until one lands enough hits to win. Magic on the other hand does more damage and can can take foes out from a distance. At the very least you do want SOME Strength though or you won't be able to carry or equip much of anything. (Editor's Note: Anyone playing this for the first time, don't neglect Str. Later in the game my low Str became an active detriment. I'd try to balance it out with Int instead of lopsidedly going to Int like I did. Could also move some Dex over to Str.)

Intelligence - Affects MP and MP growth. Not sure if this has any effect on actual spell power, or if the spells have set damage amounts. This is probably the best stat to crank, if one is going to crank anything with the intention of beating the game. That said, I'm sure the game is completely beatable as a Chonk Boi melee type as well, just need to ignore Int and really crank the other stats.

Constitution - Affects HP and HP growth. This is important for any character and should probably be your second priority after whichever of the above two is your main stat. Stats actually matter in this game, too. You'll have WAY more HP with high Constitution than you will with middling Constitution, especially as the levels add up.

Dexterity - Probably the stat I pay the least attention to. It affects how much AC you have before armor, which can be anywhere from none to a good amount of defense. Of course, gear is going to cover your AC deficiencies, and lots of Strength lets you equip lots of heavy gear. So I'm not too sure what kind of character would prioritize this stat. Other people who have played the game more than I have would know.

You also get to choose one spell right from the get-go. This isn't the entire spell list, don't worry. You have to just guess at what each spell does, as the game doesn't tell you, but they're all kinda self-explanatory.

Every level-up you can choose a new spell, and the selection increases as time goes on. There are 30 spells total, but it takes forever* to level after 10 or so. Luckily there are also spell books found in dungeons and shops that teach spells, so you aren't reliant on level-ups to get everything. Collecting all 30 spells is one of my goals here.

* - There are also level-up tomes that'll give you one level-up, and can rarely be found in the world. It is a VERY good idea to save these until level 10, when the EXP to level becomes too much of a hill to climb, and then use them to get a few more levels before the endgame. Though if you never find any of said tomes, the game IS beatable at level 10.

We start off in this town. It's a town. No NPCs, just shops.

What spell did I pick, you ask? Magic Arrow. Now in the past I always picked Heal Minor Wounds, which is the spell of choice for any type of chonk warrior type. However with low attack power, tank and heal isn't gonna be great. So this time I'm going Magic Arrow, high Intelligence, and slinging spells to defeat things at range from the get-go.

This might have been the first game to have the "Paper Doll" inventory system that became common for CRPGs in this era, where you drag and drop equipment onto your character. It had a 1993 commercial release, but it was made in 1989 and the demo was likely out on shareware around then. So it beats Elder Scrolls Arena for Paper Dolling.

The shops in this game are interesting because they usually just have a bunch of generic armor pieces that they charge waaaaay too much for. You can find drops in the field, so your best bet is just getting a few of the cheaper armors like boots, gauntlets, bracers. Shields are more expensive, but might be a good investment, as they seem rare in the field and give an outsized AC bonus.

Always be on the lookout for spell books showing up in the merchant inventories. If one has the money (I don't), it's good to swipe these every time they appear, as it's one less level-up you need to get all the spells. Rick Saada also did a great job making most of the spells useful.

Another good thing to do at the outset is sell your Small Pack and get a Large Pack. Much more carry space. The objective here is to get only what you need to survive and bring it to the nearby dungeon so you can start getting EXP and loot.

I manage to get my AC (well, Armor Value, but I'm gonna call it AC) from 0 to 12, which is middling but I won't instantly die when I get bitten by an ant. Surprised it started at 0, since I did put SOME points in Dexterity. Maybe I should have put those in HP instead.

From there, you go out into the world. East is your farm, north is a highway. East on the highway goes nowhere, west goes to the next city (that you can't go to yet). North goes to a mountain cave which is the first dungeon. This game is nice and simple.

I stop by the farm to say hi and OH MY GOD HIS FAMILY IS DEAD.

So yeah, they went full Star Wars here, with the place burned down and everything. So now the "Question of Vengeance" is finding whoever did this.

Was it this random goblin? I'm gonna go around beating everyone up until I get answers, like Stone Cold investigating his own car-assault in 2000.

In the dungeon(s), you fill in the map as you go and have a very limited field of sight. The objective is to find stairways that go down, and continuously head downward.

Arriving on a new floor, you can't see anything, and it's actually pretty awesome. Each new floor has a sense of mystery, and they're all randomized as you play (except for the first floor and the boss floor). So you never know what layout you'll run into or what loot you'll find.

Die and it adds you to THE LIST. Which is kind of cool, you can see the rundown of all your losses. Just save... a lot.

The best way to level in this game is to mash Magic Arrow, then sleep in a corner to recover MP, then defeat every foe that comes in while you're sleeping with more Magic Arrows. If you get interrupted too many times you can run out of MP and get ganked, especially at level 1, but overall the game is all about spamming magic and sleeping. It's the only way to respawn any random monsters, as well. Once the normal monsters for a floor are all down, they're gone. Leaving the dungeon entirely might reset this, unsure.

A key thing that's easy to miss: Disarming traps actually gives EXP. So every time you hit a trap (and they're everywhere), stop and hit it with Disarm a few times.

A magical moment, as I get Level 2. This lets me get the other best starting spell, Heal Minor Wounds. It's weak (about 8-10 HP) and doesn't even offset the regular attacks of stronger foes.

Haven't even talked about the battle system. So every time you move or take any action, all the foes around you can also move or take action. The more burdened you are (meaning the more stuff you're carrying beyond what your Strength can comfortably accomodate), the slower you are, which allows the enemies to take more turns in-between your actions. So getting totally bogged-down is a bad idea, unless you want foes doing 3-4 hits to you per round.

A teleport trap lands me in a room with a bunch of foes. This would be sure-fire death at level 1. The game doesn't have any melee battle animations, just icons bumping into each other and your imagination does the rest.

Now this is a real death-trap. Going down some stairs lands me in front of an ogre and a bunch of lesser mobs. Ogres are no joke at this stage. The good news is that only some of these foes can climb stairs (and the ogre can't), so I can retreat to lure a few of them out, then sleep back my MP, then go fight the rest.

The bane of my existence early on are red ants. These things don't look that bad, but they are. Definitely the strongest foes on early dungeon floors. Not sure what the difficulty levels do in terms of changing the game, but on Difficult one of these ants can end you fast at level 1 or even 2. Best thing to do is get some distance and pelt them with spells.
Here's a good chance to show off Magic Arrow, which surprisingly has an animation. It's Magic Missile, plzdon'tsue.

Magic Arrow can be fired into other rooms / empty spaces and hit foes that you can't even see yet, exposing them.

Leveling further (4 now), more spells start showing up on the list. Cold Bolt is an upgrade to Magic Arrow, costing 2x the MP (so...2 MP) but doing more damage. How much more? Uncertain, and I doubt it's 2x, but this is a game where you trade MP for finishing fights quick.

The "Detect" spells are also very good, showing the locations of everything of a certain type on your current floor even without the map filled in. Even Identify is great, since the game constantly gives you loot that might be cursed, or enchanted, or normal. Identify lets you find out what all those mystery potions and scrolls you're carrying around are.

This might be a good time to look up the actual spells online and see what the situation is. Per the StrategyWiki (yeah, this game has one) -

It's right about Magic Arrow being important. A caster-type character who starts with Heal Minor Wounds instead is gonna have a real bad time winning any fights and getting to level 2 to get Magic Arrow.

I remember Ball Lightning being touted as the ultimate spell in the game's documentation. It's a 9-square AOE (all of the Ball spells are) whole the Bolts are single-target. Unsure if the Bolts do more damage than their equivalent Ball. They really should, but considering Ball spells use a lot more MP, don't know.

Worth noting that "Healing" is the best heal spell, which is a little odd. It goes Heal Minor Wounds ->Heal Medium Wounds->Heal Major Wounds->Healing.

Not all of the spells are hits. Elemental damage is super rare in this game, and only really any kind of thing in the very last dungeon. I think Sleep Monster is better than they're giving it credit for, as a crowd control spell. Their disregarding of the mid-tier heal spells is curious. Seems like "go straight for the strongest version of a spell" is the play in this game.

Shield is an interesting one because it's probably the #3 option of the starting spells, and I could see some melee builds going for it to more easily win fights at level 1. However, it's pretty weak, increasing AC by about 5. This can save you more HP over the course of a fight than casting heals would, in theory, at level 1 or 2. At any point after that, though, it's kinda useless which is unfortunate.

Cold Bolt in action against an ogre. I remember all these icons vividly, like the coin pile. Running over those and picking them up is a good time.

Teleport traps are becoming the bane of my existence. Here's the "boss room" of the first dungeon and it's full of kobolds with an ogre boss. There's also an ant in there for some reason. What have we stumbled into?

I grab the note (which is the goal of this dungeon) and retreat so that the enemies have to funnel through a door while I spam magic.

Reading the note reveals that...someone named "S" has ordered a hit on you. That someone is Surtur the Fire Giant, the bad guy of this whole deal.

Going back to the village, now the entire place is in flames. No more shopping for me!

So everywhere your hero goes, everyone dies. Why the giants are so afraid of him, I don't know.

In any case, time to go to the next town, with new shops. Welp, I can't mourn forever! Time to go shopping!

This town is way better than the first, with more and bigger shops. I still can't afford anything but I can at least sell all my loots and look for spell books.

Right now they're only stocking spells I already have. I try to get a Resist Fire amulet (just for Surtur) only to find that it's insanely expensive. Pretty much all of this stuff can randomly drop in dungeons, though.

The second dungeon (and last dungeon of Part One / the freeware version) is to the north, beyond this mountain pass. Since the game doesn't have music, you're free to play tunes from other games over it. I found Zelda dungeon themes to work well.

The second dungeon is the Fortress, home to the first big boss, the Hill Giant. Progressing here requires searching the north wall to find the stairs downward, which I think is the first time the game requires searching. It's all very similar to the original Dragon Quest.

I finally get the Identify spell and can identify the huge amount of random items I'm toting around.

It's a pretty underwhelming menagerie of spell effects, unfortunately. Can sell most of these and maybe keep the Magic Arrow scroll for a low-MP emergency, I guess. Potions and scrolls are all single-use casting items.

Oh boy, a spell book! What's it gonna be? Remember, loot is randomized from floor to floor.

WHOA. It's the best single-target attack spell. We leapfrogged right over Fire Bolt. It costs 3 MP and does the most damage, winning most low-tier fights in one shot. I think the intention was to make elemental damage way more of a thing than it is in this game, because otherwise Cold Bolt and Fire Bolt are pretty redundant, costing 2 MP each and doing the same damage. Since elemental damage and weaknesses barely exist, there isn't much point to having both. Plus Fire Bolt is gonna be useless against the final boss, who resists all fire.

"The final boss? You should be worried about US" say these random iguanas when reached for comment. Behold the Lightning Bolt spell in all of its 1989 programming glory.

This spider room is kind of like the miniboss of the fortress. They're surprisingly strong individually, and if you rush into this room you're doomed. Picking them off with spells from the south was the way to go. Lightning Bolt really burns through MP though, which is a bit of an issue and has me sometimes going back to Cold Bolt and even Magic Arrow.

I meet a brutal end when I get sandwiched between two bears and they go all Night at the Roxbury on our hero.

My God.

Have a bunch of deaths now. The good news is that I'm super close to the end of Part 1 here. Even on Difficult, the game isn't too bad when you can save anywhere. Just don't save in a situation where you might get boxed-in or trapped with no MP to gate out.

Manticore is one of the more vicious foes here, and can attack at range. One of the best icons they produced for the game. As a kid I remember just liking the .ico files. 1993/4 was a simple time.

The bad guys also have bandits on their side. Whenever confronted with a bunch of foes, back off so they get funneled through a door. This...doesn't actually work that well with bandits, as these bastards can fire arrows.

A lot of spells are unlocked at this point, and the choices are getting difficult. I went with Rune of Return, which lets you warp back to town to sell loot (and warp back when used again, which wasn't even necessary for the spell to be useful, and brings it into the realm of awesome).

Somewhere in there I also found a book of Ball Lightning, which means I lucked out by getting the two best attack spells from random spell books. Completely skipped the Fire tier of spells.

On floor 11 I stumble into the boss, the Hill Giant. He's got a bunch of goons too, and I'm only level 6. Generally you want to be about level 8 for this, which would take a while to grind out with the available foes, and I'm in a hurry.

Hrungnir is his name. I think this is as far as I got back in the day, because I couldn't be arsed to grind out more levels then either. Also...he's the guy who killed your parents and sacked the farm. If Surtur sent a Named Hill Giant to do it, he was serious.

Hrungnir can throw boulders at range, so kiting him isn't gonna work. I unleash Ball Lightning and try to lure him and the ogre squad into bunching up so the AOE can hit all of them.

Cutscene triggers, and most of his goons are still up. Plus I'm out of MP and low on HP.

Winning this fight automatically gets you his amulet, and winning Part One is a matter of putting it on and activating it. This lets our hero find out that he's AN HONEST TO GOD PRINCE.

Meanwhile, the ogres were still beating on him. The amulet warps you to safety, and that's it for Part 1. I regret that I didn't get the rest of the EXP from that room, but I'm surprised I was even able to (barely) drop Hrungnir at level 6.

Part 2 (the non-freeware "full version") starts you in this new, sprawling town. Lots of shops here. Is that the titular Castle of Winds? I don't know. I'll find out. Never played this before. I don't consider it to be a separate game, since it imports your character right over from the first one.

Look at what dire straits my HP/MP were in after that fight. I had -nothing- left in the tank if Hrungnir had survived that last spell. Used a combination of Ball Lightning and Lightning Bolt and it somehow worked out before I ran out of MP. If I remember right at this point, I think I actually got to Hrungnir back in 1995 or so but didn't beat him.

Suffice to say, this game is awesome, and punches way above its weight. Now that I've finally avenged my loss to Part I back in the day, I pretty much have to play Part II, so we'll see what happens there.

With his family avenged, the hero knows he's a prince and has the destiny of defeating Surtur, which is why Surtur sent Hrungnir to kill him. Basically it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the hero would have had no idea he was any kind of destined hero if Surtur had left him alone to live out his quiet farm life. Kinda like how Skynet created John Connor by creating the conditions for Kyle Reese to have to go back in the first place. Pre-destination paradoxes, man. Whoa.

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