As Quiznot expected, the needle causes the entrance to the tower to open. Jack and Jill venture inside...
The Star Tower has a golden sheen to its walls and appears to be a sort of maze.
It's as dangerous of a dungeon as you'd expect with enemies standard attacks doing 14 damage to Jill here.
There's a new treasure here, a potion of skill which gives several experience points when consumed. This is the sort of treasure that would have been useful in any other dungeon prior to this. I can't imagine getting to this point and not being at the maximum level.
The dungeon has its own new mechanic with these red and blue sensors. When the player passes along one, the corresponding colored wall becomes passable and the other becomes solid. The path is pretty straightforward with very few spaces where hitting a wrong color is even possible.
There's also this little fellow running around. Gold scorpions run on their first turn and no matter what combination of tactics I tried I was never lucky enough to actually defeat one. I imagine they're the equivalent of a metal slime from Dragon Quest and offer some good rewards for actually defeating them.
The first floor of the tower also has this cute little Tankbots. I really love the design on these.
Oh, and of course there are also Starmen.
Who, like the ghosts in the mine are able to regenerate their health.
Unlike when fighting the ghosts though, SLEEP is an option now and one worth using. Since enemy attacks are chosen randomly, it may be worth using HEAL instead since the party can possibly avoid damage automatically.
Starmen have the biggest variety of attacks, with a multi-target beam as well. It only does a few damage to Jack and Jill and can be easily outhealed. Starmen are definitely the encounter you want to get here over Tankbots.
Reaching the center of the room leads to a teleporter which will take the party up to the next floor. The top of the room also opens up the main doors allowing an easy escape if the party needs to rest at an inn.
The second floor is more of a maze than the first and has multiple levers to pull in order to open doors to make it to the next floor. Like all scary late game dungeons however, there's a branching path which leads to a weapon of considerable power.
Jack's ultimate weapon, the Star Sword is obtained. Since Jack can only attack he benefits from his new weapon much more than Jill did from the Holy Partisan. It's definitely worth the diversion to obtain it.
The Star Sword is very powerful, capable of maxing out the damage bar with enough luck, but due to the way that the damage calculation is done, it's not very likely. Still, six damage pretty huge.
The enemies on the second floor are the same as the first, so there's nothing new to add there. The second floor is just survival, and with the best weaponry in the game, 75% chance of healing, and a considerable HP pool, Jack and Jill won't have any trouble getting through.
At the end stairs is a warning of a big robot boss. It's strange to me that this is the only boss the game gives you a warning about.
The giant robot is called Starcrash and guards the top of Star Tower. As with every boss they have a charging attack to use barrier against. It's the easiest boss fight yet with how powerful Jack and Jill have become. The fight itself is over quickly, but it's worth taking a moment to realize how this fight takes place in the same location as the game's introduction. There's an attention to detail here in doing so that demonstrates the level of quality you can expect from a ZZT game by Commodore.
The fight ends quickly (and the party has 1 more HP than they entered the fight). With Starcrash gone the twins are safe to open the portal back to the metal moon and fight their final battle for the future of humanity.
Alas, the portal is located elsewhere. Jack and Jill have to walk all the way back out of the tower first.
Back on the map a new glowing purple spot is revealed just south of Serpant's Hold. I head to Fish for one last rest before heading towards the final dungeon.
Unlike the other dungeons, the trip to the Metal Moon is a one way journey.
This absolutely caught me off guard. All the other locations are accessed by a passage and I had just assumed that the portal would be a secret invisible passage that would reveal itself. Instead, the player is pushed against the right edge of the map and has to step onto a connecting board which happens to be the Metal Moon dungeon.
By making the entrance to the final dungeon play out differently from all the other entrance, it marks the trip as an important one.
The Metal Moon is also unique in how it uses the #change command to create a scrolling background effect that looks lovely. It's the same as used on the world map to represent waves in the ocean, but here its used to create an otherworldly feel.
The pulsing walls even appear in the battle sequences. And speaking of appearing, there's suddenly a visible ! that starts running across the screen. A simple mistake, but one of the objects for the game's battle system was accidentally left visible for debugging. The object is used to track the enemy's health and honestly having that information available to the player is really nice. I kind of wish it had always been visible, or perhaps Commodore could have made a psychic ability to reveal it.
The mindflayer enemy regenerates as several other enemies have before it. Now the secret of how Commodore is increasing enemy health is made obvious, simply having the ! object move to the right instead of the left is the same as healing. Another still invisible object on the far left edge of the screen checks if it's blocked by the ! health object, and if it is then the enemy has been defeated.
The next mindflayer encounter is a bit rougher. Its beam attack hits hard, 15 damage to each party member.
The last enemy to encounter is the larva. Nothing special about them from what I saw.
Just outside the final room of the dungeon is this strange device which serves as a free healing device. This way Commodore can be sure the player is at full health for the final battle.
The twins reach the Overlord who has been responsible for all of this and the truth is revealed. The Metal Moon and its effects on humanity were all so that humanity could become more powerful. If the twins can defeat the Overlord, they can take control of the Metal Moon and rule a world of their own.
There's no dialog spoken by Jack and Jill, so the way they react to this isn't dealt with by the narrative. Whether they want to free humanity, rule it themselves after having been ostracized for their powers, or rule another world is unknown, but no matter what they decide to do they'll have to defeat the Overlord first.
The Overlord is a massive three headed creature who dwarfs the alien fought at Serpant's Hold. The final fight is visually animated in its background, possibly attempting to pull off something like Earthbound's visuals to the best of ZZT's meager abilities.
The Overlord hits like a truck. They can inflict 25 points of damage when undefended with just their basic attack.
They can also critically for 36 damage if the target doesn't defend! This Unlike the previous alien fight, there's no telegraphing these attacks. The Overlord's offensive ability can easily kill Jill from full health with some bad luck.
Bad luck like not being able to concentrate when it's needed most. I lose Jill and figure the fight has been lost. The battle has just become a damage race and Jack will die if the Overlord gets to attack twice.
But once again Jack will not back down! The Overlord is defeated and withers away with the twins earning their Pyrrhic victory at the last possible moment.
Psychic Solar War Adventure draws to a close. First with the Metal Moon bursting apart and bringing the light of the sun back to humanity. Commodore again excels with these starry night skies creating swirls that look curvy and not blocky. The Star Tower is a mere arrow on the Earth's surface and the twins are caught directly between it and the sun's rays.
It starts out nicely. The Metal Moon is destroyed ,and the aliens are defeated. But then the effects of the sudden outpouring of psychic energy kick in.
Humanity is given the very same powers Jack and Jill were exiled for, and for much of humanity, the sudden influx is fatal. The planet being covered in psychic energy isn't a protective coating, but a violent one, creating a devastation not seen on Earth since the aliens and the Star Tower first arrived. Once again humanity finds itself needing to rebuild.
The next board is a forest at night with the Pearl shimmering in the sky. The ending isn't a happy one as mankind freed from their alien oppressors get right back into oppressing each other.
The twins are gone, having left the Earth for the stars. It's unknown whether they left out of choice or not. Really it's a pretty depressing ending all around.
It's really tough to decide where I stand on Psychic Solar War Adventure. Its reusable RPG system is one of the most impressive things I've seen in ZZT. It's certainly technically impressive. Despite how popular RPGs were among ZZTers, there's really nothing to compare Psychic Solar War Adventure to fairly. At the same time though, there are a lot of little issues which really add up.
It's slow and repetitive yet it's still difficult to really play up those flaws because they don't feel like mistakes Commodore made so much as issues that just can't be avoided when creating something like this in ZZT. The game speed can be turned up which definitely helps, but the fact is you're fighting enemies that all boil down to basic attacks, multi-target attacks, charge attacks, and healing. The game's combat is somewhere between Dragon Quest 1 and Final Fantasy 1. There's more to it than just hitting attack over and over until you need to heal, but there's very little more to it than that.
The psychic powers feel underutilized and unbalanced. Early on spells like HURT and SLEEP can be useful, but the low success rates make it a gamble that isn't worth taking. By the late game these powers can be used reliably, but then you're better off just keeping your party well healed or defended. Even though the HURT power is capable of doing more damage than Jill's Holy Partisan, running the risk of doing no damage at all isn't worth choosing it over having her simply attack enemies directly instead.
The game suffers from a painful early game requiring luck to stay in dungeons for more than a few battles (or even make it to them in the first place). I think if the game started out in Robert rather than Fish it would've felt better. Other balancing issues in the early game include the complete lack of powers for Jill and how extremely RNG heavy everything in the game is. Too much of the early game involved reloading saves trying to get a more favorable outcome.
Perhaps starting the party off at the equivalent of level two would have helped. Ideally, compressing the experience required to level to reduce grinding or adding more levels with even ones offering just HP boosts and odd ones offering the bonuses to psychic powers would go a long way towards making the player feel like they were growing more powerful by playing the game naturally rather than stopping to run into a wall to eke out some more experience in a dungeon. It also falls a bit flat towards the end. Bad luck can still get you killed, but at level four any sense of danger when not fighting a boss is gone. While I was thankful to reach my party's maximum potential at 500 experience, beyond that point gems and score were both pretty pointless. By the end of the game I had over 1100 experience meaning more than half of it was wasted. (The rocket car feeling so pointless didn't help either.)
Lastly, the ratio of mandatory to optional content feels off. Although nobody would ever play through the game in such a way, to actually complete it you need 200 gems for the climbing gear, to grab the documents in the volcano (you can skip the boss), and then to go through the Star Tower. Most of the game's content is optional so it doesn't feel like you're making progress towards achieving your goal beyond making your experience increase.
Where this is perhaps the most obvious is the jail sidequest. At best, somebody will drink each of the three drinks in the pub and call it a day. To think somebody would pick all three options, see three identical results, and then go back and try one again seems really unlikey to me! It's such a shame because I feel like the jail dungeon was the high point of the game for me. It was a moment where the game creates a moment of excitement with the knowledge that an alien will soon be discovered, combined with the jump from level two to three where the party hits a balance between its power and its vulnerability. There's still enough to keep the player on their toes, but reloading a save feels like something that happens because the player made a mistake rather than the game giving them some bad dice rolls.
The flaws of the game seem readily apparent to me, and I feel like Commodore would have noted them as well. Whether he was purposely going for the rough difficulty curves of early RPGs or simply decided it was better to release a still impressive ZZT game in 2007 to a community beginning to wither rather than run the risk of it never seeing the light of day (or worse yet, being released to silence) is unknown.
Though, now that I've finally got my venting out of the way, I can also sincerely tell you that Psychic Solar War Adventure is one of a small handful of ZZT titles that transcends the medium and can both be judged against games outside of ZZT as well as hold its own against some of them. Were this a standalone title I don't think the greater gaming public would have been praising it endlessly, but I think it could stand on its own. It comes off as a very primitive cross between a roguelike and a traditional RPG, but it ultimately works.
I had to put myself in the right position of lying in bed on a laptop while listening to some podcasts, but that was enough to keep my interest. There are points of genuine curiosity as the player is taken along on the twins' journey. You can't help but wonder what will happen when you meet the alien in the jail or just what will be waiting for you in the Star Tower. I'd have a hard time telling somebody to go load up the game and sit there for 6 hours and do nothing else, but if you're got something to listen to that can let you still be entertained while dealing with the game's low points, you can definitely find yourself engrossed in Commodore's ruined world. (Maybe edit an object somewhere to #give score 100 at the start too... and perhaps keep in mind the typing ? to open the cheat prompt and entering -FIGHT will make the game think you're no longer in an encounter.)
Commodore has been featured more than any other ZZTer so far on this project, with the an early Worlds of ZZT livestream being his first full release of The Living Dead followed by an article covering his 2009 experimental sidescroller, CAT, CAT, THAT DAMN CAT. His works are varied and some of ZZT's most impressive in my opinion, and just looking at his released games there were almost certainly be several more playthroughs of his games in the future. The flaws are easily observed here, but it's just as easy to observe Commodore's dedication to creating ZZT games that go above and beyond their expectations. If you can get yourself started, I highly recommend spending some time on this one.
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