Part 68: Strange Cave
"Oh, right! Khoth wanted us to track down some Imperial spies that stole a scroll from...him? Her?"
"Shall we take care of that now?"
"Sure, why not? Kyass can wait. Plus, this way I can use the Orb of Thralni! Byff the Magnificient, awaaaaaaay!"
"So why are we here again?"
"Some Imperial agents robbed Khoth the dragon of one of its scrolls, and then fled here."
"Kick ass, take names, restore justice. Check."
"And travel through holes in reality!"
"You'd think there'd be more guards."
"More like disappointed. This is it?"
"Whoever built this place has no respect for contiguous space."
"...and no respect for fair play. No fair sending us in circles!"
"Okay, so look for secrets again, guys."
This switch opens a passage down one of the other corridors...
...that has a switch that opens another passage...
"This is absurd."
"Classic sign of an excessive budget. They have to do something with the extra money, but nobody ever said it had to be something useful."
"Aww, undead? That's it?"
"Well, my conscience is clear. Lady and gentlemen: forward!"
Four Revenants in back, two Banshees on either side, a Skeletal Warrior in front, and the day-glo yellow Deathless Sentinel in the middle. For a change of pace, we don't have Elly retribute everything into the ground in the first round. This gives the Sentinel enough time to show off a lightning spray ability and a reasonably powerful cold-based melee attack. Also, Elly charges into the middle anyway and gets her ass kicked by all the other monsters and their various status-ailment-causing melee attacks:
Lightning DOT, Weakness Curse, Slowed, Ensnared...and regenerating, because she had to cast Light Heal on herself to stay alive.
"I am not having a good day! Pͮͨ̎i͈̭̊s̪̝̮͖ͧs͒̌̑́ ͙̮ȏ̇f̯̝̱̪̭̓̏ͧ͂͑̚f̪͚̂͂̄!̼̯̱̣͖ͬ"
"Hey, more magic pants!"
"Anyone else want magic pants formerly worn by a horrible undead monstrosity that hasn't done their laundry in who knows how long? No? More for me then."
Acid resistance is overrated anyway.
"Hang on a second. Are we sure this is the way forward? For all we know it'll dump us into a pool of magma."
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to search the room more carefully."
"But wait, maybe whoever built this place planned on you thinking that the secret path would be the way forward, and this actually leads to the magma pool!"
Nope, the obvious teleporter just takes you back to the entrance. Have fun retracing your steps again! At least the secret passages all remain open.
"The Crown, symbol of the Empire. Time for a little pre-emptive vengeance."
"Holy crap that is a lot of soldiers."
Okay, so! Over on the south end we have a Second Circle Mage and two Empire Infiltrators, one of whom goes to the same clothes store that One-Eye does. In front, facing the party, is two Traitorous Rogues, two Elite Warriors, and Commander Vyela in the middle, with the bow. At the north end is another Infiltrator and a Sharpshooter. And then there's a Soldier in the back, wondering if she was sick the day all these cool custom titles were handed out.
In other words, we have a bunch of high-level bandits (that may have been further up-leveled), plus some assassins, a mage, and a unique archer.
"Whelp. Let's get murderin'."
Further south is another Second Circle Mage, a Cave Demon, and a Guardian Hellhound. The mages spent their turns putting an acid DOT on One-Eye and summoning an inconsequential worm.
"You mind if I use a shortcut?"
"What? ...oh, go ahead."
"Step right up! G̖͚̱̥ͣͩ̆̄e̦̼͑̇̐ͅͅt̮̲̹̝͎ͩ̏̃ ̘̬å̦̞ ̲̻̊͗̓ṯͩͤ͒̚i͖̱̺͎̱͇ͦ̀̽͆̂ͅc̙k͙̬̺̰̳̻̉e̙̦̋̉ͤ͐ť͐ t͔̂̔ͧo͂ͧ̅̈ ̪̘͖̩̝͌t͈ͮ́̚h̋e̺̖̼̻̥̮ ͇̯̠̼́̈͒̐̔͂a̞̳̰̘̠̹ͫ͌ͦ́f̱̈t̹̘̱̫̫̑ͅe̫̬̤͓̎̃̄ͨ̃ͫ̈́r͚̼͍̬͙̬̗ͪ͛̽l͕͔̹̬̭͈̜ͦͪ̈ͣ̂i̝̼̠̝̖̣̅ͥͤ̀̓fͧ̈e͙̪̖̟̗͐!͗"
This is just so goddamn satisfying, you guys. It also works brilliantly at cutting down on the number of targets. Unfortunately, some jerk shows up to heal the Commander Vyela and her Elite Warriors.
"Shit, they have a healer! That's cheating!"
"We have a healer! We're all healers!"
"Sure, you think I'm not going to cheat if I have the option? Focus fire on the dudes in robes!"
Three Arcane Blows does for the two Elite Warriors, and softens up Inquisitor Rala enough that One-Eye can snipe them down the next turn. Meanwhile, a bunch of hellhounds are charging out of the south, and Commander Vyela is showing off her special ability: an archery shot that can cleave, hitting two adjacent targets. How?
Elly ducks back into the doorway to heal up, while Byff spams dualcast Arcane Blows at the Hellhounds. They don't last long. Meanwhile, Kane clears out all the soldiers that were getting between him and the Commander.
"Ha, not so tough when there's someone in your face, huh?"
Indeed, we appear to have found a loophole in the AI. Ranged units can't attack units that are adjacent to them (which is occasionally a problem for One-Eye). Vyela wants to attack Kane, as he's the unit that most recently attacked her. But she can't. Normally ranged enemy units will also try to move away from the units that are adjacent to them, but she's not moving. I guess the fact that there are not adjacent tiles that are not also adjacent to Kane means she thinks she's trapped. Why she doesn't just open the door she's backed up against, is beyond me.
In short, we can just park Kane there while the rest of the party takes down the remaining generic enemies at their leisure. Then we can slowly wear away Vyela's stupendous HP reserve in perfect safety.
Normally Vyela is a legitimate threat, with strong ranged attacks and a powerful escort. She's also a neat idea as she's a "boss" enemy archer; the vast majority of bosses are spellcasters or melee enemies. Too bad about that loophole.
"Surrender? No? Then at least fight me!"
"That was a weird fight."
"Don't know why, don't care, it's looting time."
"There goes a practical man."
Vyela, naturally, had some archer gear:
With maxed Sniper and Gymnastics skills, One-Eye currently has a 62% chance of getting at least 2 bonus AP (Gymnastics), and a 50% chance of one shot using fewer AP than usual (Sniper). Remember that you need at least 10 AP per turn to get 2 attacks, and you normally get 8. If I did my math right, without the Mercuric Plate, he'll still get two shots/turn about 75% of the time. With the Mercuric Plate he only needs 1 bonus AP from Gymnastics, bringing the overall odds of success to around 83%.
That's kind of marginal, so it's actually probably worth using archer-oriented armor instead of the Mercuric Plate. But if he's going to do that, then he should wear the Marksman Vest we picked up awhile back, instead:
We'll give that a shot and see how he does.
"What's strange is that the rest of these soldiers were armed with bronze shortswords and crude bows. The Empire can afford a lot better. Why?"
"Maybe they had to cut back after blowing their budget on a ridiculous teleporter system."
"A kitchen! With surface food! Grab everything, lads!"
"By all that's holy they have BREAD!"
"Aaaand a supply room / toilet. Next to the kitchen. Gross."
What do you think the random open bucket on a dirt floor is for?
"More Imperial scum!"
"Wait wait wait! For him to attack us first!"
"Oh, it's going to be one of those kinds of fights. I guess that works too."
"So look, we'll give this a shot the easy way first. I don't have to kill you. Just tell me what I want to know."
"Did he miss that we just slaughtered like twenty people right outside his room?"
"I guess that's one way of looking at things. This is an Imperial outpost, then?"
"Uh huh. And you're in charge here?"
"Okay, I'm done talking. You keep going."
"Oh, the Scimitar? You know about it?"
"Why should I make a deal with you? We hold all the cards here."
"Uh huh, so you can go running back to your masters?"
"Oh right, Thantria. We should do something about her at some point."
"...somehow I completely forgot about that. Shit. Look, just tell us where the fucking scroll is. I'm sick of this interrogator bullshit.
"So do we kill him?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"You old softy. Okay, idiot, get out of here."
So, story time. The first time I played through this dungeon in the original game, I'd just recently gotten access to the spell Shockwave. Exile 1's Shockwave was more or less the predecessor of Divine Retribution: it hit everything in a wide radius around the player. However, Shockwave had a few quirks: it hit everyone, friend or foe; it hit harder the further the target was from the caster (so your party, clustered closely around your mage, would take scratch damage, while the enemy across the room would get badly hurt).
But most crucially, Shockwave hit through walls. You could kill Grah-Hoth without ever even seeing him in Exile 1, just by spamming Shockwave right outside his throne room. And if you wandered into the main room of this base and got spooked by the heavy resistance, you could hide just outside and throw Shockwaves until the resistance was beaten down. That had the minor effect of one-shotting a non-hostile NPC, though...oops! This lead to a certain amount of confusion on my part, but fortunately he's not important to the plot (in any version of the game). His main job is to tell you what the scroll is for if you haven't met Khoth yet.
"Well, that was easy. It's in this box."
"You know what I need? Some means of magically making copies of all these illegible texts we find. We keep having to hand them off to other people before I'm able to figure out what they say."
"Hm, I wonder where this passageway goes?"
"You just had to ask, didn't you?"
Fortunately, this is just four basic Basilisks, far too fragile to last against us. There's some nice steel armor on the floor here, though; I guess they ate their last handler?
The chest has some coins and a Rod of Succor (casts Mass Healing, but we have plenty of them already). The book...
"Why do I get the feeling the Empire is mucking with things it really ought to be leaving alone?"
"It's the Empire. They think they're invincible; why wouldn't they experiment with whatever they felt like? I hope whatever this crystal stuff is, it bites them in the ass."
This is all sequel bait, naturally.
This is the room all those Second Circle Mages came from, as well as their pet hellhounds. There's some Magical Notes and a Speed Burst scroll here, as well as some alchemical herbs and an Aranea Fang.
"That appears to be everything."
"A fun little diversion. Shall we continue to the Great Cave to pick up Kyass' new recruit?"
This really is a small dungeon. That fight we blitzed through is hard if you come here earlier, though. You don't have a lot of room to get set up, Vyela throws down really very powerful ranged attacks (Elly was kept quite busy with healing spells once our initial offense was spent), and there's several unreasonably durable casters and the Hellhounds in the southern room. The entrance being a narrow corridor doesn't help: you don't have room to set up a front line, really, but if you try to use the corridor to your advantage, you'll just get chewed up by the enemy's strong array of ranged attacks.
Anyway, here's the map:
Initial entrance is in the south; that takes you to the southwest area, which takes you to the lava fields if you don't find the secret, or to the northwest and the fight with the undead if you do.
And while we're at it, Byff and Elly both hit level 30 (and One-Eye did last update), which means everyone's pretty well done with their training, modulo some points we'll pick up from Hrror once we're done bringing his prices down to something reasonable. So let's take a look at the state of the party.
A quick reminder on how to read this: "hard points" spent by leveling up, and ranks learned by paying a trainer, both show up in the circle for the skill. Bonuses from equipment and traits show up as a small white +1 (+2, etc.) above the skill. Only the former category can be used to fulfill prerequisites for training higher skills. You need to have at least as many points in a lower-tier skill as you do in higher-tier skills, which is why Kane has 5 points in Quick Action: he needed them to be able to put 5 points into Lethal Blow, which is a much more valuable skill.
Kane is a monster: hugely strong and by far the most durable member of the team. His ability to take hits and keep on trucking has saved the party many times. He levels up before everyone else because he spends the least amount of time dead -- dead PCs don't gain experience. His build is nearly ideal; preferably I wouldn't have had points in Polearms or Throwing Weapons (which was dictated by his starting "Rebel" build), but they would just have been in Edged Weapons instead, which is no big deal. Otherwise, he maxed Hardiness, Parry, and Blademaster, giving him huge resistances, a good "dodge chance" against melee and ranged attacks (but not magical attacks), and massive bonus damage on his melee.
His traits are along similar lines: extra strength, extra health, and more bonus melee damage and parry chance. Everyone got the Good/Robust health (for +9% HP overall), Negotiator (for more money), and Drath's Knowledge. The Fortune traits just give luck, and were cheap ways to get a minor resistance improvement. Nimble Fingers, which you'll see on the others, gives extra Tool Use ranks.
One-Eye is Kane's mirror, investing in the other half of the physical tree. His missile attacks are about as strong as they possibly can be, and he almost always gets two shots per turn. And with maxed Gymnastics and sky-high Dexterity, he's nearly impossible to hit, as we all well know. His resists are much lower than Kane's, thanks to the lack of investment in Hardiness, but in most situations he's a much more reliable front-liner, since he usually takes no damage whatsoever. His blind spot is undead, especially ghosts and spirits, whose cold-based melee ignores his dodge rate.
For traits, the only notable one is Sure Aim, which is just a straight damage boost to ranged attacks.
One-Eye's build could have been better, of course. First is the points in Throwing, which were basically wasted outside of the early game. Ideally we would have put 5 more points into Bows and no points into Throwing (we want 15 basic combat skills for Adrenaline Rush, remember). Next is the points in Luck and Tool Use; I would rather have saved them for Priest Spells. I really would have liked to have had a second priest caster, and One-Eye is a good choice as he always goes first in combat (and Elly always goes near to last). Alas, I didn't think of this until it was too late to get the important spells of Unshackle Mind and Group Healing. If you can't reach those, then there's not much point in investing into Priest Spells with a non-caster.
...in retrospect, we could have purchased two ranks of Priest Spells for him from a trainer and reached our goal of 8 ranks, with room to spare. Dammit. I could use the editor to "fix" him, but we'll be okay with just the one caster, really.
Byff is also a monster. He's done by far the most damage out of anyone in the party over the course of the game, thanks to the availability of cheap, high-damage AoE spells from relatively early on. His build plays heavily to this, with all of the Elemental Focus (+damage on elemental spells) traits, plenty of extra intelligence, and Energy Blessing for a higher max energy.
Maxed Gymnastics is kind of wasted on him, since he gets +2 AP from his equipment and thus will always be able to double-cast anyway. On the other hand, the extra AP from Gymnastics sometimes lets him move before double-casting, which can be quite helpful. And what else is he going to put his points into, anyway? He maxed everything important. Okay, I suppose he could have invested into Priest Spells. But that would have put even more strain on his energy supply; priest spells are expensive.
Elly matches Byff, except with Priest Spells instead of Mage Spells. She didn't quite manage to max out Gymnastics or the Resistance skill (top-left of the magic skills tab), since she had to sink more hard points into basic combat skills to get Adrenaline Rush. Byff, with the Discipline Blade, was able to avoid spending 5 points that way.
In retrospect, Elly spends more time in the line of fire than Byff does, due to her use of Divine Retribution, which works best when you're standing close to a lot of enemies. So properly speaking, I should have given her the Discipline Blade, and gotten extra points in Hardiness for her. Well, everyone should have invested into Hardiness; it's a great skill. But Hardiness is only accessible to characters trained in melee, and I wanted to try casters with Gymnastics, so here we are.
Speaking of, Elly gets double-casts reasonably frequently even without any AP-boosting equipment. But her attack spells are so expensive than I don't often make use of the ability. Perhaps I should have had her invest in Magical Efficiency (the skill to the right of Resistance in the magic skills tab) to bring the cost of her spells down. That skill gets poo-poo'd by Avernum grognards, but we've demonstrated that non-optimal builds are perfectly capable of winning on Hard, so who cares what they say?
What I may do is buy her one rank in Mage Spells, so she can cast Bolt of Fire, which only costs 1 energy. Byff spends many of his turns casting Bolt of Fire twice, to good effect; why can't Elly do the same? The big problem would be trimming down her armor so she only has a -5% to-hit penalty, because otherwise she can't cast mage spells at all.