Skulla Part Eleven: Through the Jungles

Duke Skulla began Hell Act III at clvl 80 with the following:

Base Stats
Strength 38
Dexterity 25
Vitality 287
Energy 135

Raise Skeleton @4+6
Raise Mage @20+6
Mastery @20+6
Summon Resist @2+7
Clay Golem, Blood Golem, Iron Golem, Fire Golem, Golem Mastery @1+6

Iron Maiden @20+4
Dim Vision @10+4
Lower Resist @2+4
Decrepify @1+4
Amplify Damage, Weaken, Terror, Life Tap, Confuse @1+4

Necromancer's Wand of Enlightenment: +2 necro skills, +28 energy, 28% cold resist, +1 Summon Resist
The Spirit Shroud: 295 def, +1 skills, replenish life +10, -8 magic dam, cannot be frozen
Large Shield, 3 Perfect Diamonds: 57% resist all
Rare Circlet: +2 necro summoning skills
Rare Demonhide Gloves: 20% IAS, +3 dex, 25% lightning resist, 16% poison resist
Ruby Chain Boots of Speed: 30% faster run, 34% fire resist
Rare Sharkskin Belt: 17% faster hit recovery, +58 life, 22% cold resist, 25% fire resist
Rare Ring: +104 AR, +13 energy, +35 life, 17% lightning resist, -25% poison length
Rainbow Ring of Blight: 11% resist all, +50 poison dam
Rare Amulet: +1 necro skills, +2 energy, 16% cold resist, 33% lightning resist

Javelin of Vileness: Prevent Monster Heal
Summoner's Gargoyle Head of Remedy: +1 necro skills, -25% poison resist
Scintillating Circlet of the Colossus: +56 life, 12% resist all
Assorted rings and amulets with resists

Skulla was effectively maxed out at this point. I'd finished putting skill points into Iron Maiden in Act II, and there wasn't much value in adding points to any of the other curses. Dim Vision already had plenty of duration and range for Skulla's purposes. The next skill point in Lower Resist would go all the way from -49% monster resistances to -51% monster resistances. Pretty useless. I was placing my skill points into Raise Skeleton for lack of anywhere better to go, since it would make the skeletal warriors slightly more tanky. Skulla's equipment was also about as good as it was going to get. He had good coverage on all resists other than poison (the least important one by far), 30% faster run on boots, plenty of hit recovery items, and so on. The only things that I could realistically improve were more health and more +skills items, both of which were mostly likely to appear on a circlet. I continued to gamble them with my gold income, hoping for +3 necromancer summoning skills or +3 curses. Ideally I'd roll one of them along with other useful bonuses, but I'd settle for a circlet without them too. I knew that +3 skills could appear on circlets at Skulla's current character level, since I'd gambled one with +3 paladin defensive auras earlier. While the odds were slim of finding something useful, there wasn't much else to do with the gold.

Act III is arguably the most unique act in the game. Like most other players, I hate the long and boring outdoor jungle sections, which seem to go on forever with few waypoint stops along the way. You almost have to run a marathon gaming session of three or four hours to make real progress through the jungles. I doubt that you'll see anything like that in modern game design again (most current games have a checkpoint about every five minutes, if not even faster). The notion that someone could play for an hour, fail to make their way to the next waypoint, and then have to repeat the same thing over again... it's a frustrating way to approach game design. In contrast, the Kurast parts of Act III are amazing, some of the best stuff in all of Diablo 2. Travincal and the Chaos Sanctuary are my two favorite parts of the game. So it's a strange mix, an interesting reward at the end after lots of slogging through tedium in the early areas. Skulla might as well get to it.

The Dark Wanderer's flesh pups provided bodies for the last few skeleton warriors. The Spider Forest turned out to have a monster mix of fetishes, mosquitoes, and jungle hunters. This was not the most intimidating group, to say the least. Both the fetishes and the jungle hunters would run away when they dropped low on health, extending fights and dragging out the clear pace. This Conviction aura/FEB/Stone Skin boss was the first one that Skulla ran across in the Spider Forest, and it dropped the Jade Figurine upon death. Thank goodness, that quest has often been very buggy in the past. Skulla took it back to town and added another 20 health to his life globe.

The first jungle alcove held the waypoint and the Arachnid Lair. That's an optional dungeon unnecessary to advancing the plot, but Skulla had to clear it out as well, naturally. This underground area featured fiends (bats) and poison spinner spiders; if there was a third monster type, I can't recall what it was. The bats and spiders would both run when they were low on health, and I was starting to get mighty tired of that by the end of this area. Why can't any of you monsters stand in place and die like real men! (It's honestly smart tactics, I would do the same thing if I were about to perish in a fight.) The bats were relatively easy overall, since they don't have a lot of health, even if their fast movement speed and bizarre movement patterns made them a headache at times. The spiders were a lot tougher; they had roughly double the hit points of the bats, and they had much more physical resistance to reduce the damage they took from Iron Maiden. (Arreat Summit says that the fiends had 15% physical resist while the poison spinners had 50%). Furthermore, the spiders were all immune to poison, which meant that they were regenerating health constantly the whole battle. Normally Skulla's poison necromages put a stop to monster regen. It added up to some tough fights, and several retreats back into Act I for additional armies to get the job done.

The final spider boss (a Spectral Hit/LEB/Convinction aura pain in the rear) dropped a unique amulet: the Nokozan Relic! The main bonuses there were 20% faster hit recovery, 50% fire resistance, and +10% maximum fire resist. The Nokozan Relic is probably the weakest of the unique amulets, but it was still a nice find nonetheless. I stashed it for the moment, intending to use it against Diablo should Skulla make it that far. 85% fire resist and extra hit recovery sounded like just the ticket for Big D.

Back in the Spider Forest again, I found myself using lots of Dim Vision with Skulla. All of these monsters liked to roam around restlessly, as opposed to many of the other opponents who will do a straightforward charge attack. Dim Vision would stop that shuffling movement, as well as stopping the fetishes from firing their blowdarts. DV was also the only way to stop these monsters from running away when their health dropped down into the red. Only the mosquitoes would stand there and attack until they dropped, and Lower Resist was my preferred curse to use against them (breaking their poison immunity). The one problem with Dim Vision was the slow pace, since it does nothing to boost the damage of Skulla's bony minions. Dim Vision is the safest curse, and also usually the slowest. Still, it would only take longer if I had to chase down all of those stragglers one by one, so what could Skulla do? He carefully picked his way through the jungles, slaying a good five or six bosses along the way. Danger remained minimal.

The second jungle alcove held the Spider Cavern, and this was an area that Skulla would have to clear in order to reach Mephisto. The monster draw was almost identical to the Arachnid Lair, bat fiends and poison spinners along with flame spiders for a third type. Skulla had only cleared two or three rooms when he ran into the poison spinner boss pictured above, Storm Razer: Extra Fast/Magic Resist/LEB. Well, this boss and his minions put up one hell of a fight, and Skulla spent close to thirty minutes and half a dozen armies struggling to defeat this opponent. I already mentioned why poison spinners made such tough opponents for Skulla: high health, heavy physical resistance (Iron Maiden not doing much), poison immunity that couldn't be broken by Lower Resist, and an AI that would cause them to run away when low on health, preserving the spiders to fight again another day. Now add in the abilities of this boss: LEB to send sparks everywhere, Extra Fast for more movement speed, and Magic Resist to cut the damage of the necromages even further. Storm Razer also had six minions accompanying him, who were also double health and moving around with Extra Fast speed. And any time one of them would get low, it would run away and go heal up in another corner of the dungeon! What a pain. Skulla lost the first two or three armies against these spiders without accomplishing much of anything. The boss dropped into the red zone twice, only to flee and escape beyond Skulla's reach, and then reappear later at full health. Eventually, I was able to start isolating minions and killing them one at a time. Lower Resist until they were at about 1/3 health, and then Dim Vision all the way to stop them from running. Skulla slowly slew the minions until only the boss was left, and even then Storm Razer ran across the entire level before Skulla finally downed him on the opposite side of the Cavern. Good grief. I swear that this single boss took more effort to kill than the whole Spider Forest.

In contrast, Sszark died in mere seconds from reflected Iron Maiden damage. I barely managed to get the screenshot. That damage output was incredible, glad that the golem was tanking it and not Skulla. Diablo 2 really sucks for melee characters sometimes, and Sszark is a classic example.

The Spider Forest went on a ways further before finally dead-ending. The jungles turned out to have a strange layout on this map, with the Spider Forest branching out in two directions, the eastern path leading to the Great Marsh and the western path leading to the Flayer Jungle. From this layout, I correctly deduced that the Great Marsh would lead absolutely nowhere. Skulla still needed to clear it though, and so into the Marsh he led his army. The monsters here were bramble husks, gloams, and more fetishes. I hoped that this would lead to a faster clear pace, more chances to use Iron Maiden against the walking trees and Lower Resist against the gloams. That didn't end up happening, however, because the gloams ended up being too dangerous. Even with maxed lightning resistance, their bolts lit up Skulla and decimated his minions. After my life dropped below half in one fight against a gloam boss, I swapped over to permanent Dim Vision against the wispy things. No need to take any chances. Dim Vision stopped them from firing their lightning altogether, and of course DV was great against the fetishes and their shamans as well. Only when Skulla found himself facing off against bramble husks was it safe to use Iron Maiden, which did tear through the evil trees at a disgusting rate. Their frenzy attack had to have been doing crazy damage, then it was reflected back on them at 800% strength. Ouch! In any case, there were some lively fights at times, but nothing worth writing home about. The Great Marsh eventually led to a gold treasure chest, and nothing more.

Fortunately the Spider Forest waypoint was close to the river turnoff to the Flayer Jungle, and I was able to start a new gaming session and head straight there without too much repetition. The Flayer Jungle was packed with flayers (what else would you expect?) and soul killers, with a scattering of vultures here and there. At times the packs of little ankle biters could swell close to company level, dozens of them on the screen at once. I had Skulla use Iron Maiden against small platoons, but the danger level was too great when the monsters came out in vast numbers. It had to be Dim Vision then for safety, as in the screenshot above. Skulla was forced to retreat many times, pulling his army back to safety when they were flanked from one side or another. This was a particular danger near the jungle alcoves, where flayers and soul killers would rush in from multiple directions at once. The danger level here was relatively low, since there was always plenty of room to beat a retreat if things became too dangerous. Progress was slow but steady. There were several bosses, none of them rising into the true danger zone.

The first alcove in the Flayer Jungle held nothing. The second one had the waypoint and the Swampy Pit. This is not one of my favorite areas in the game, but full clear means full clear, and down went Skulla and his minions. The first floor had undead dolls, preserved dead mummies, and gloams. We had barely made it down the stairs when Skulla encountered an Extra Strong/Spectral Hit/Fanaticism aura undead fetish boss, with the fiery Fanaticism aura lightning up the narrow passageways. Those cramped spaces probably worked to Skulla's advantage here, as the fire golem and the skeleton warriors managed to hold the line long enough for Iron Maiden to do its job. Extra Strong plus Fanaticism plus 800% reflected damage caused terrible carnage on the monsters. Whew. Their speed was simply ridiculous, I was glad that they didn't make it through the tank line, and that there wasn't enough space to flank around the sides of the minions. That was the worst situation by far on the first floor.

Swampy Pit 2 had another undead fetish boss, this time Extra Fast/FEB/CEB, not quite as dangerous as the last one. More use of Iron Maiden and another narrow choke point helped see Skulla past this danger. Another Stone Skin/LEB/CEB undead fetish was slain a couple rooms later. The worst situation on this floor came towards the very end, a double gloam boss pack all mixed together. They were Magic Resist/Extra Strong/Spectral Hit and Cursed/Extra Strong/CEB - in other words, two Extra Strong bosses together with a Cursed affix. That had the danger sirens blaring on high alert! It can also be difficult to tell just how many gloams you're facing with their wispy appearance and ability to fly over terrain obstacles. I had no idea how many monsters there were in this one room until Skulla had been hit several times in rapid succession and lost half of his life. I drank a full rejuv instantly, retreated out of there, and came back to the same room from a different angle. Skulla's army was able to isolate some minions and slay them, lure out one of the two bosses in isolation, kill him, and then return for the final one. That could have been very messy indeed if not encountered at the end of the floor, with all of the other monsters dead.

There was nothing worth noting on the bottom floor. The gold chest didn't produce anything useful either.

After more swashbuckling through the jungles, Skulla arrived at the third alcove. This one had the flayer village inside with the bonfire. After killing all of its residents (D2 makes you do some cruel things sometimes!), Skulla lit the fire and fought the flayer boss that popped out: Spectral Hit/Cursed/Extra Fast. Nothing special there, and the skeleton minions handled it with no problem. The Gidbinn did pop out as expected, something that I'm never too sure will happen. This quest was amazingly buggy in the early days of Diablo 2 back in 2000 and 2001. I sure hope that's all fixed by now! The Ormus reward ring was nothing special.

The Flayer Dungeon was right next to the Gidbinn's pyre, so down went Skulla and his minions. Monsters here were very similar to the ones in the Swampy Pit, with lots of undead fetish dolls again, but there were also large numbers of living flayers and soul killers as well. The water watchers were also a real headache, as they can't be cursed in any way and they routinely poisoned my minions. Skulla had to wait for his necromages to shoot them down over time. The first floor's most noteworthy fight came against an Extra Strong/Stone Skin/FEB undead fetish, where fortunately I was able to get the boss distracted against the fire golem. The mages stayed safe in the backlines. Flayer Dungeon 2 tormented me with a Cursed/Stone Skin/Fanaticism boss pack in a room with scores of monsters. You can see the tail end of the battle in the screenshot above, but that was after killing vast numbers of the flayers inhabiting the place. This was one of the very few occasions where Skulla had to go back to Act I to recruit more minions during this gaming session, there were simply too many of them and even with Iron Maiden Skulla could not keep pace with the damage output of Cursed/Fanaticism monsters. Eventually Skulla won the war of attrition over time, but wow, what a slog in the process.

There were four or five other bosses on the second floor, none of them nearly as dangerous as that Fanaticism one. The bottom floor was the layout where the gold chest is in the center of the room, and you must pass through a full clockwise circle to reach it. This area was almost completely empty though, very few monsters in evidence. Endugu spawned with Cursed trait (and the non-dangerous Spectral Hit), however there just weren't very many opponents to deal with, and this was not a tough fight. The Magic Resist trait dragged it out for a little while, that was all. Soon enough Skulla had claimed another one of poor Khalim's body parts, and it was time to get out of the grimy underground areas for a while.

The river curved around another two or three branches from the Flayer Dungeon, forcing Skulla to wade through more endless waves of flayers and soul killers. I loved it when the vultures would show up, they would kill themselves on Iron Maiden in a few seconds. It was mostly the little rugrats though. Finally I spotted the piles of gold on the ground, and that meant Stormtree and the gates of Kurast were just around the corner. The Stormtree battle was shockingly brutal and incredibly short. I never even got a chance to see his extra abilities, nor did I get any good pictures of the fight. (The one above had to be taken off of Livestream recording, which is why the dimensions are off and the quality is lower.) Stormtree actually rolled Extra Strong/FEB to go along with his innate Extra Fast/LEB, and the necromages put themselves into terrible positions at the start of this encounter. I saw immediately that the whole army would die here, so I retreated Skulla back across the river and spammed Iron Maiden. I was shocked at just how fast everything died, and how quickly the Iron Maiden reflected damage knocked out Stormtree and his ilk. That was the Extra Strong at work there, combined with the Extra Fast and Frenzy attack on those evil tree monsters. They smashed themselves to bits in seconds. Scary stuff. The good news was that Skulla could easily pick up another army in the Cold Plains, and the way was finally opened into Kurast itself.

I began looking for the waypoint in Lower Kurast, taking care not to wake up too many monsters at once. This area had a draw of vultures, doom apes, and zakarumites. Lots of hard melee hitters, perfect for Iron Maiden, or so I thought. The problem here was the monster AI, as the doom apes and the zakarumites would both flee when their health dropped low. This included the bosses and champ packs, and after the third time that a Teleportation/FEB/LEB doom ape ran away from Skulla (deeper into Lower Kurast where it wasn't safe to follow), I realized that I needed to change up curse tactics. The new plan: run Lower Resist until these monsters dropped into the red zone, then all Dim Vision all the time. DV overrides monster AI, and it will stop them from fleeing in a certain death situation. Against the bosses, I actually had a chance to break out Decrepify when they tried to run. These tactics stopped the enemies from living to fight another day, and sped up the pace of advance. There were still some good battles against the five or six bosses in Lower Kurast, including a pair of zakarumite bosses fought separately (but very close to one enother) who both rolled Extra Strong: Extra Strong/Extra Fast/Teleportation and Extra Strong/FEB/CEB. I was glad that they had been just far enough apart not to join forces. (The FEB explosion is visible in the above screenshot.)

Of course, I didn't really want to full clear Lower Kurast. This gaming session had topped the four hour mark at this point, and I was getting mighty tired as a player. However, the waypoint didn't appear until the very back corner of Lower Kurast, when it was 85% cleared. Skulla had no choice in the matter, he might as well finish the rest of the area at that point. At least I would be able to head straight into the Kurast Bazaar next time. (Here is the link to the Livestream recordings, for anyone interested in watching hours of slogging through jungles: Part One and Part Two)

I'd been so tired at the end of that streaming session that I hadn't bothered to spend my accumulated gold on gambles. I booted up Diablo 2 to get this out of the way before my next streaming session, never expecting to find anything of value. To my shock, Skulla landed the exact circlet he'd been trying to find for ages: Golemlord's Circlet, +3 necromancer summoning skills. I almost fell out of my chair. I'd been hoping to see that pop up, and had even landed some +3 skills for other classes, but this was still an awesome find. Perfect! (There was no suffix on this circlet so it technically could have been more perfect. I was hardly complaining though.) This meant another skill point in every summoning skill: another point in Skeleton Mastery, another point in Raise Skeletal Mage, more points in Fire Golem and Golem Mastery. Best of all, by going from slvl 26 Skeletal Mage up to slvl 27, Skulla cleared the hurdle for another mage. He'd have 11 the next time that he ventured out into Kurast! It actually also ticked the skeletal warriors up to a count of 6 as well, but I was much happier about the mages. I was expecting to cap out at 9 necromages, never expecting that I'd get quite this many.

This dictated a few more equipment tweaks. I'd been saving an alternate wand in stash that had +2 necromancer summoning skills on it with a bunch of nice resists. If I'd managed to gamble a circlet with +3 curses, then I would have swapped over to that wand in place of the +2 all necromancer skills wand that Skulla was currently using. (I would have broke even on summoning skills and gained a point in all curses.) But this was even better, and Skulla would not realistically do better than what I'd just found. Only the dropping of some crazy unique piece of equipment would change the gear that Skulla was wearing now. So I went ahead and socketed my +13% fire resist jewel that I'd been holding onto forever into the empty socket in Skulla's wand; never could find anything better and the game was getting close to the end of Hell difficulty. I also hopped back into Nightmare difficulty to make use of my second socket quest and personalization reward:

There we go. There was no reason to save these quest rewards any longer, and I couldn't see anything better to do with them. Skulla now had an extra skill point in all of his summoning skills, his resists read 75/74/75/26, and he had 1060 life. That was up from just over 900 health when I'd resumed playing Skulla at the start of the Palace in Act II, a noticeable increase. With a more powerful skeleton army, maxed out fire resistance, and additional spare life, I was as ready as this character would ever be for the dreaded temples ahead.