Saturday, December 13, 2014

Ultima IV: The Path to Virtue

It's been a bit, thanks to holiday hubbub and an impending move, but there's been a little time for Ultima IV, so time to type up another chapter. Also hey, apparently my first post was around this time last year! Huzzah for me. Although at this pace I'm going to be at this for a very long time. Hopefully I can pick it up a bit once the dust settles after my move.

No need to be rude...
Anyway, after some deliberation with Iolo, we decided to head for Trinsic, taking Lord British's advice to stick to the towns early on, rather than go sailing in search of answers concerning Mondain's skull in Buccaneer's Den. We needed to build up some experience as far as fighting went, though, and since we'd both armed ourselves with fancy new slings from Britain's armory, we thought we'd walk, rather than take the moongate.

The journey went rather better than my doomed solo flight from Yew earlier. We made a pit-stop along our way at Paws, where we rested up a bit and poked around for some further clues. I stocked up on reagents, learned about a secret dungeon entrance hidden somewhere in Lord British's castle, and made a note to talk to Mentorian in a village by Lock Lake to learn about the gate travel spell, which would certainly come in handy. A lot of folks in Paws seemed like they were keeping secrets - Sir Simon and Lady Tessa both told me they were the keepers of what they could not say - but I suspect I'll have to learn more in my travels before I can get more out of the townsfolk of Paws.

After loading up on food, I continued on my way to Trinsic, chasing off the bands of orcs and rogues that pursued us on the journey. The city itself had much to offer - the money I'd accumulated from my fights meant I had enough to get Iolo a new bow, and I gave his sling to Dupre, who I'd asked to join my party. There was much to learn on the subject of honor, both of a life with and without it, and what was necessary to keep honor. I found the rune buried in the southwest corner of town on the advice of a scared child named Terrin, and with the mantra given to me by Winthrop, I thought I'd pay a visit to the shrine, which was just a short walk away through some marshes. And that made me glad I'd bought some reagents, as I had to cure a few poisonings as a result after the venture!

Worthiness precedes reward... wait...
I purchased some more bows after a few more fights, and a friendly fighter at the next counter over informed me that it might be worth my while to ask at the pub in Jhelom about sextants. I also learned from a rattling skeleton that the purple stone was to be used on two altars, and I'd need to obtain items from those altars. More threads to follow up on!

I walked back to Castle Britannia, again buying some reagents in Paws, then considered my next steps after conversing with Lord British. He'd confirmed the importance of the stones, that I should seek out eight from the land's dungeons, and to know their uses. As I spent some time donating blood, I considered the matter. I hadn't visited Jhelom yet and had a lead for information there, so that seemed like a pretty good bet. But the fastest way to get there would be by moongate, and to do that... well, the quickest method would be to go from Britain to Yew, and then use Yew's gate to drop by Jhelom. Which meant a visit to Yew would be necessary after all.

It was with trepidation that Dupre, Iolo and I entered the city deep in the forest, and nearly everyone I talked to expounded to me on the nature and value of justice, which only deepened the guilt I felt for Aric's past deeds here. It all came to a head when I was directed to talk to Talfourd about the rune, and he asked me a question: could I honestly claim to never have been guilty of any crime whatsoever?

I know I'd definitely appreciate a little understanding here.
I'd committed many within the boundaries of this very city. I told him the truth, and he sent me to do some time in a cell with the felons. And yet, there in the depths of my despair as I contemplated the nature of justice and how appropriate it was that I found myself here... there it was, right within the cell, the Rune of Justice. Perhaps there was hope for Aric yet.

So heartened, I left Yew behind to make my way to Jhelom, where I did indeed ask about sextants at the pub, and was informed that I could purchase them at guild shops - so long as I asked the proprietor in the right way. I made a note to do so at the earliest chance I got, one of those would certainly come in handy. While I managed to discover the mantra of valor, I couldn't find anything out about the rune just yet - I'd have to come back later. A ranger on his way to Yew expounded on the finer points of his native Skara Brae, so I made that my next destination.

Once there, I asked Shamino to join me, which he was happy to do. My typical rounds of the town gave me a lot of things to follow up on, and I pondered them while I bought a few more reagents. The rune of spirituality was hidden back in Castle Britannia, I was told, and it seemed I'd have to do a lot of clue hunting afterwards, too - there was a word of passage that I'd need at the last gate of the abyss, and I was told to talk to Zair the Wise about it, who I remembered meeting in Paws. The white stone was no longer in Hythloth, either, and apparently someone in the tavern back in Trinsic could point me the right way. And finally, I heard through the grapevine that those seeking nightshade should ask at the pub in Vesper about where it could be found.

Of all questions to be asked in Yew...
I considered all this as I made my way back to Castle Britannia, and after another chat with Lord British and finding the rune in his treasure chamber, I consulted with Hawkwind to see how I was doing along the path. And I must have been doing something right, as he told me I was ready for elevation in Justice, Honor, and Humility, and that I should meditate at those shrines for three cycles.

I called it a day there, but I think it left me with a pretty good plan for my next session - another journey to Trinsic to follow up on the white stone there, with a visit to Zair in Paws, then attain partial avatarhood in Honor and Justice. Then it'll be time to make my way to the ruins of Magincia to do the same in Humility.

The game begins to unfold, and there's still much more in store for me.

One step at a time.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ultima IV: Starting the Quest

This is not what I would call a great beginning.
With my starting position of Yew too full of painful and embarrassing memories of slaughter of innocent clerics for the sake of money and experience, I decided to plunge my way into the forest and see if I could push through the brush all the way to Lord British's castle - it was he who would be able to explain my presence here and the Quest that lay before me, after all, and I was sure he would provide some useful help and advice.

Unfortunately, it seemed whatever forces were at work in the world decided to deliver its own brand of justice on me. The forest remembered what I'd done to its denizens before, and I was beset upon by several parties of orcs - no less than three, in very rapid succession. Having panicked and accidentally thrown the dagger I'd started with somewhere I couldn't find it rather soon into the first battle (how's that for an auspicious start?), I had to beat them back with my bare hands. Which I managed to do, but only barely, I was sore and very close to collapsing by the time it was all over. I made camp for the night, only to be set upon by yet another band of roaming orcs, and the weariness caught up to me.

I died.

And then was revived, in the very heart of where I'd intended to go in the first place. The universe has a weird sense of humor sometimes.

Oh, I intend to be, Lord British. I intend to be.
By the way, in my opinion, it really is a very handy mechanic to have death bring you back to Lord British's castle, at least for the early parts of the game. It's here that's kind of the hub of an aspiring avatar - Lord British can offer help and hints of how to accomplish the quest, you learn of the runes and mantras and shrines thanks to Sheila in the castle healer's domain, Hawkwind is here to appraise your progress on the path to virtue... and with Britain close by to stock up on supplies, this is a good way to bring a player to where they need to go quick, even if they don't necessarily mean to. One can die very quickly in the early stages of the game, so it's nice to get dropped off at a place where one can recover without too much of a hassle, and get a few things done in the process. I didn't mean to get to LB's place via death, but I did find it particularly amusing - it really did feel almost like Britannia itself was conspiring to make sure I felt some sort of retribution for the deeds committed in past games!

Anyway, back to the game proper. After checking in with Lord British to get a sense of my quest, I wandered the castle, talking to those I could find. They told me all sorts of things, from an admonition not to run from battle to the importance of the shrines and how to make use of them, to the advice that I should not only learn about the virtues, but how they are formed from the three principles. After a stop in at Hawkwind's to see how I was coming along, I wandered over to Britain, where I learned a good deal about compassion. I bought a sling to replace my dagger, and found the rune at the end of a hallway on the advice of Pepper the bard, while Cricket told me what the mantra was.

Pirates on the horizon! Already!!
So informed, I decided to make my way to the shrine to make use of what I'd discovered. And on the way there, I had a massive stroke of luck - the Powers that Be recognizing that yes, I intended to repent and make amends, by sending a pirate ship just over the horizon! (Yes, this is probably the earliest I've ever seen a ship appear in a game of Ultima IV. I sat there staring at my screen, then laughed as I shook my head. How many games have I run around the countryside just hoping to spot one just so I can get that last Eighth!)

So after I'd dropped by the shrine, I returned to Britain to make plans. Lord British recognized my growth and informed me I'd need to demonstrate some good leadership qualities, so I got Iolo the bard to join me on my quest. We learned that Mondain's influence had not yet left the world, and that I should ask of his skull in a place called Buccaneer's Den. I think that'll be for later, though, as I was advised by Lord British to stick close to the towns until I become more experienced. So I think Iolo and I will head to Trinsic by way of Paws and see what lessons and adventures we can find in the process. Once we get some rest, that is.

~~~

Traipsin' along with my buddy Iolo.
I feel like I've said a good many words on the game thus far while having made considerably little actual progress. I'm not sure whether that's because I have a good deal to say about the game in the first place, it being one I know so well, or because I'm trying to focus on the narrative which is making me a tad verbose. In any case, I hope I'm at least managing to stay engaging, and my next session should at least get me a decent ways further into the game. I'm actually having to force myself to remember to slow down and poke my nose into everything - since I'm trying to focus on story, I'm trying to refrain from darting around fetching everything until I've actually managed to find the proper clues that point me to them, which is really making me look at the game through pseudo-fresh eyes again. I'm rediscovering conversations I haven't seen in ages, and I continue to gleefully take down notes on what I'm supposed to "know" as I make my way around the countryside. I know I'm enjoying it, and with any luck, I hope my readers are as well.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ultima IV: Justice Prevails

The blank slate of a new character
Considering my last post, the statement that it's taken me a while to actually get started on Ultima IV might sound somewhat paradoxical. Part of it's been due to general 'life getting a tad hectic again', but part of it's been due to my intended approach to these playthroughs - a focus on the narrative of the games and the series as a whole.

Consequently, character creation for Ultima IV took me far longer than it probably should have - but hey, at least I enjoyed myself!

One can't get far into a discussion of Ultima without at least some mention of its character creation system - it is the first thing you do in the game - and I'm no exception. This is the first appearance of the Virtue Questions, and I love the way the whole process sets the tone for the game. Games that approach character creation by a series of questions, a personality test of sorts, I find rather intriguing - a way of determining how your own personal approach might translate into game terms. It sets up your character in the game as truly a representation of you, or at least moreso than simply choosing appearance and starting stats and abilities upfront. I think that may be part of why I liked Morrowind more than Obilvion and Skyrim - the possibility of approaching character creation in such a manner was still possible in the former, but not in the latter.

In Ultima IV's case, I like the fact that it makes use of one of the game's crucial mechanics right there in the process - the Virtues. By pitting them against each other and determining exactly which ones the player favors over the others, it helps establish which ones the character in-game might already have a decent handle on, and which ones they'll need to work a little harder in order to prove their understanding.What could be a better set-up for a game that centers around a personal, philosophical sort of journey? (It's kind of interesting to see how the results I get from taking the virtue test 'honestly' has changed over the years, too. I played a fair few bards when I first got into Ultima IV by doing so, but these days I'm more prone to getting a ranger. Compassion has given way to Spirituality as I've grown older, apparently.) Couple that with the fact that the classes aren't that widely different from each other, and you can cover what you're lacking with other party members anyway, and it makes for a very nice system.

Of course, you could just simply game it, too, and choose the virtue centered around the class you want whenever it comes up. But for a story-focused playthrough, where's the fun in that?

Ain't no way I'm givin' up that money. I need it!!
So therein lay my difficulty in getting the game going - I wanted to choose my class according to my character's past actions in the last three games, which meant I had to consider the virtue questions I was given carefully in some instances - and that was harder than I expected it to be! Valor actually survived the first round of the casting (against Spirituality), which it almost never does for myself, simply because of how willing Aric has been to go hammer-and-tongs with whoever he meets. Compassion was ditched first round in favor of Honor, again something that hardly ever happens for me, due to how many prisoners in Minax and Exodus' castles that Aric simply walked by - apparently he's got little compassion for their plight? Sacrifice beat out Humility mostly based on how much money got spent in the past several games, Justice won out over Honesty partly because Aric couldn't leave a chest unopened, and the eight potential classes were narrowed to four.

Sacrifice lost to Honor, again for the sake of money (it was hard to come by in the past few games, no way he was giving up a bounty he'd get paid for), and the nod went to Justice over Valor, because I couldn't picture Aric staying silent over slurs (I mean, he'd wallop guards who said nothing but UGH, ME TOUGH in Ultima II).

Aric's perceived guilt leads him to Justice.
So it came to the final decision between Justice and Honor, a druid or a paladin, which I admit I was a touch disappointed by, as I've played both classes a good deal (I like the good blend both classes have between magical prowess and combat ability) and was semi-hoping for something a little different - I don't think I've ever done a tinker or fighter run. But the question posed, whether to enact an eviction at the command of your liege lord to honor an oath, or to refuse and risk ruin in the name of justice, seemed a fitting one for Aric. I see the 'refrain from taking action to honor an oath' type questions ridiculed as no-brainers from time to time, but personally, I rather like the dilemmas they produce. Characters who take their word extremely seriously pop up a lot in my writing, and an oath such as the ones the Honor questions imply would not be made lightly by them. I've actually pulled an Honesty/Honor clash with one of them before, and that was a fun struggle to write, pitting his desire to speak the truth against his word to hold his tongue. And with the Ultima series set in a land reminiscent of a period of history where a broken oath could lead to a serious shift in status, I think these questions, approached from the right angle, might not be quite so easy to answer as a modern perspective would make them out to be.

It certainly wasn't in Aric's case. He'd done some pretty heinous deeds in order to achieve his goals - goals that were, ostensibly, laid on him, if only to an extent, by kings themselves. (I can't help but think back to Ultima I, no less than eight kings exhorting him to find a way to defeat Mondain, and killing a jester being necessary to see that done.) In the end, though, the allure of the... poetic nature of going for the Justice response, a feeling of remorse for the heinous deeds done, the ends-justifying-the-means attitude, was too tempting. And so Aric began his Quest of the Avatar as a druid, outside the walls of the city he... ran murderous rampages through... erm...

Maybe it's best he make his way to Castle Britannia. For now. To figure out what the heck he needs to do to make amends, atone for his actions, and achieve avatarhood. Yes, that sounds like a good and wise plan. He and I will get right on that.

Methinks I'll avoid the city folk for now...

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ultima IV: Opening Thoughts

I've been looking forward to this one.

Every gamer has "that one game." The game they return to time and time again, that's been replayed more times than can be counted. The game they know the best, forwards and backwards and upside down and inside out. The game where every inch, every facet, every nuance is recognizable and familiar and understood completely. The game that can be breezed through in a single sitting, because the player knows every trick in the book - and a few that aren't in the book, either. The one game that, regardless of whether they champion it as their favorite or not, is the one that, for whatever reason, the gamer knows most intimately.

For me, that game is Ultima IV.


Released in 1985, which makes my "that one game" a full three years older than me, Ultima IV took the series in a completely different direction, and never looked back. Spurred by letters with concerns over what the player had to do in order to win previous games, Ultima IV went the philosophical route, taking the player on a quest of personal development rather than one of defeating the Bad Guy through any means necessary. Killing innocents, going on thieving sprees - these were still possible, but the game would deliver consequences for this sort of thing. Since then, much has been done with the game - there's xu4, an open source engine for the game that does for Ultima IV what Exult does for Ultima VII, in essence, there's two Neverwinter Nights modules based around the game (which some part of me is hoping to mess around with post-Ultima IX), there was the now-closed modern reboot that was Ultima Forever, which I'm still rather disappointed that I never got to play around with. It's a game that left its mark on gaming history, and even now, nearly thirty years later, it's one of the most unique RPGs - and indeed, games, period - out there.

I was first introduced to Ultima IV when I was about ten, by a cousin of mine. It was also my introduction to the Ultima series as a whole, which probably explains why it's my favorite of the series, or at least goes a long way toward doing so. Not only was it my first Ultima, it was probably my first "true" computer game that I played. Up until this point, most of the games I played were edutainment - Carmen Sandiego, the Super Solvers games, and the like. I'd tried things like the Crystal Caves and Commander Keen games before, but never really got into them as much, mostly because my reflexes were bad and that just frustrated me as a kid. With Ultima IV's more turn-based combat system, though, I could slow down and make my moves at my pace, which made it a lot easier to get into.

I remember spending weeks on the game, running around the game world frantically searching for clues, emailing my cousin back and forth for hints and tips about the game, getting all excited when something finally clicked in my elementary-school brain that allowed me to solve a puzzle. I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I made my way down to the bottom of the Stygian Abyss for the first time, the sense of awe I felt as I watched the symbol of the Codex form as I answered the game's final questions. It was like nothing I'd ever seen in a game before, and I really felt a sense of progression, of development, of things actually happening in a game.

Even now, I return to Ultima IV often. On a long trip, sometimes I'll fire it up on my computer to see just how far I can power through the game before I reach my stop. When I've had a bad day, I'll load up my last save, run around, and pound monsters. When I write, I occasionally run my characters through the virtue quiz, just to wrap my head around what certain aspects of virtue they're liable to hold more important than others. I crack jokes over losing an Eighth, which leaves most of the people I know eyeing me quizzically except for the rare few who blink in astonishment - because they know.

When it comes down to it, Ultima IV isn't just what introduced me to the Ultima series. It's what introduced me to what games are really capable of - it showed me the stories that could be told through them, the themes they could explore, the feelings they could evoke.

It's the game that truly made me a gamer.

So I'm (hopefully) understandably excited to get to blog my way through it. But before I do, there's one last order of business to discuss - the manuals! After all, the game documentation is as much a part of the Ultima experience as the games themselves. Ultima IV even recommends in-game that you read at least the Book of History! And it's well worth it - as always, Ultima IV's manuals are excellently written. The Book of History feels scholarly and sets the stage brilliantly - from the descriptions of past events that's both informative and just a touch tinged with the color of distance and artistic license, to the lay of the land and the quiet references to the less important events of Britannian history (I really want to know more about the battles that gave the Bloody Plains their name) to the descriptions of daily life and professions. The book of magic feels appropriately esoteric and mysterious, the illustrations beautiful and reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript, the spell descriptions evocative. The word "immersive" is one that I feel tends to be a bit overused these days when it comes to games, but it's one that fits the manuals very well - they really get you involved in the world itself before you even enter the game. I especially love that the lay of the land is included in this one - it's fun to wander the mountains north of Lord British's castle and remember the Serpent's Spine in the manual, realize that's exactly where you are. Moments like that... I miss manuals that really give a good sense of that.

I could go on about the character creation process here too, but I think I'll save that for a post of its own. Partly because I still can't figure out how to approach it this time around. So I shall leave that for later, and gear up for diving into the Quest of the Avatar!


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ultima III: Closing Thoughts

I think it was in Ophidian Dragon's Ultima blog where I came across the opinion that Exodus was a terrible name for a villain. And, well, yeah, I kinda agree. I mean, I can see it as some sort of ".exe-DOS" type pun or something, as a reference to Exodus' computer-esque nature, but it's just something of a strange thing to actually call your main villain.

As a name for the particular game, however, I find it somewhat fitting. An exodus, after all, is a departure, a leave-taking, and Ultima III is where the series departs from its goofier, sillier side (not that it's not still present, as many 'joke' characters in the next game will prove), and starts moving toward a more serious nature. Now out of the transitional period of Ultima II, Ultima III begins to set the tone proper for how the rest of the series will progress from here. It's a turning point, a mark that the series is ready to get down to business, move away from the jumbled mishmash that its predecessors were and start aiming to tell an honest to goodness story. And for that, I find "Exodus" a very appropriate name.

My biggest problem with Ultima II, as I mentioned in my closing thoughts for that game, was the terrible sense of pacing that it came with. For the most part, that's fixed here in Ultima III. It feels very tight, very focused, and streamlined, but not overly so. I can still run around the world and explore at my own pace, and there's enough nooks and crannies to poke into that still make that exploration fun, but it makes very good use of the space that it has. There's no vast, expansive regions that serve no real purpose other than to take up space, which Ultima II was riddled with. The only portions of the game that can really be considered redundant are some of the dungeons - and that's less a matter of redundancy and superfluousness as it is offering multiple venues for achieving the same end - namely, obtaining marks.

The game does feature its grindy moments, but as is the case with Ultima I, there's enough varied ways of going about the grind that it still manages to keep itself decently interesting. I listed my favored methods for maintaining my supplies (it's going to be very difficult to show my face in Yew in the next game... I wonder if that's why it was chosen to be the city of Justice?), but there's other ways of going about it, too. Even better is the fact that some of these methods of grinding are also conducive to achieving other goals in the game - dungeon exploration not only provides you with monsters to fight/grind for gold and equipment, but it also has its own incentives inherent to them, like finding the marks and the Time Lord. There's purpose to help drive you to tasks that help you grind, rather than the grind needing to be an end in and of itself.

I loved the puzzle aspects to Ultima III immensely. Nothing felt too obscure or obtuse or out of left field, like Ultima II's clues often felt. It was good to see clues that pointed to others, too - the remark to see out the jester in fire, a man who told me to look 'out back' where I found another man in an alleyway that would have been quite easily overlooked with a clue for me... Ultima III did a pretty job of laying out the pieces for the player, putting just enough of them together without being too obvious. They're not the sort of thing you could brute force your way through without trying to seek out answers, but those answers aren't overly obscure to find. It's a good balance.

Other aspects of balance are where I feel Ultima III suffers a little, though. Food depletes way too fast, and when you're busy trying to gather gold for other things - weaponry, stat increases in Ambrosia, clues from the oracles - keeping your food supplies at a manageable level can feel like a sinkhole that it's difficult to climb out of. Some of the spells (okay, a lot, really) felt a bit like too high a cost for too small a result - Sanctu Mani, for instance, the cleric's more powerful heal spell, felt like way too many MP spent for not a large enough heal. It'd wipe out three-quarters of Aric's MP pool for a heal of around 100 or so HP, which was nice in the right circumstance, but made it a bear to heal my party at times, which I preferred to do through spells rather than paying for healing due to aforementioned economic issues.

I had a bit of difficulty with the interface at times, too. With each party member's inventory being tracked separately, it could make it difficult to remember who was holding what, and every time I wanted to check, it meant several keystrokes' worth of (Z)tats and scrolling. And when I wanted to pass things around from party member to party member, it meant several more keystrokes to get the commands right in order to send things around the horn. The (J)oin gold command was a lifesaver, though it only was useful so long as I kept less than 9999 gold in the party as a whole, which began to be problematic when I was saving for trips to Ambrosia. I'm looking forward to Ultima IV and V's more streamlined party-based inventory, that'll be easier for me to manage.

So, how does Ultima III's story hold up, both on its own and as part of the larger Ultima narrative? The game's story doesn't differ much in nature from its predecessors - it's still the same "here's the baddie, now take them down" plotline as the others - but it takes a rather different approach to that story. Here, it's not enough to pile on the best weapons and armor, pump up your stats, gather what you need to enter the lair, and enact the beat-down. Here, there is one very specific way to defeat the boss, and if you don't pay attention to the clues dropped, you're not winning. The past two games, the problem was getting to the bosses - once you had the resources to do so, it was simply a fight to the finish. Not so in Ultima III - here you need to be paying attention. You can do everything right, fight your way to the final encounter - and still get it all wrong. I've already gushed on the design of Exodus' castle as an excellent endgame sequence, and it's a fitting end storywise, too - it really does feel like what the game has been building up to, and the surprise twist of Exodus being a computer defeated by cards rather than another (but unique) enemy to beat up delivers that eleventh-hour scramble to readjust and recalculate that keeps the tension going right up until the end. The clues are unveiled bit by bit as the player explores, yet leaving one final reveal for the last moment. It's simplistic, yes - game stories for the era practically had to be - but it's executed that much better than the series' previous iterations.

As for its position in the series, it's with this game that we end the Ages of Darkness, and with the more serious nature of the game, we begin to properly set the tone for the way the rest of the series is about to go. I mentioned waaaay back in one of my very first posts my position that this trilogy of games, thematically, is all about setting up the scenery, defining the setting, its mechanics, its rules, and all that jazz, and now having seen the games through properly, I still hold to that. With Ultima III, these pieces finally start to solidify. We've seen Lord British, the moongates, the towns, the dungeons, a general feel for the medieval sword-and-sorcery-type setting (now that we've done away with the sci-fi elements of I and II), the multidimensional aspect of the hero (mostly from the manuals)... the seeds of the Ultima story at its core are here, and the following games will develop them even further.

Overall, I enjoyed Ultima III a lot, and I'm glad I finally saw the game through in its entirety. There were a couple hurdles to get myself over, but once I got past them, I found the game a good time. In fact, as much as I love Ultima IV and am raring to give it another playthrough, I find myself somewhat disappointed that I have to shelve Ultima III for now - there's so many other possibilities I could explore in the game! What are the other classes like? What would the game be like with an all-spellcaster party? A party with no spellcasters? There's a lot of options the game allows you to take, and I feel like I only scratched the surface. But now that I know the game's a lot more fun than I first gave it credit for, I'm sure I'll be back again someday.

For now, though, it's time to progress, and move from the Ages of Darkness into the Age of Enlightenment, to take the setting and tone established in this trilogy and enter the next one to refine them. I look forward to the journey!

Addendum: Mere moments after hitting 'publish,' I realized I forgot to say anything about the music of the game! Sheesh, there go all my claims to being a very auditory sort of person out the window. Anyway, Ultima III was the first game with music, and I of course had to patch it in - I'm glad I did! It's a wonderful soundtrack for the series' first - The main overland theme is mostly just a simple tune with a few variations as it progresses, catchy without being obnoxious Lord British's castle is regal and stately, the tune floating through the towns feels light and lilting, the dungeon theme is dank and plodding and just a touch eerie, and even Exodus' castle gives a fine foreboding ambiance as the player pushes his way toward the very end of the game. Each theme feels very appropriate to the place it makes its appearance, and as small and subtle a thing it can appear, it adds a lot to the game. Has me poking around on my piano to see how much of it I can pick out!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ultima III: Storming the Castle

I actually finished up the game not long after typing up my last post, and considered adding this last bit to that post before I hit that big ol' "publish" button. But I ended up enjoying that last encounter so much, I thought I'd round out my Ultima III adventure with a proper tale of my harrowing infiltration of Exodus' lair. I found it to be a very well designed "endgame," so thought I'd give it a full post, even if it might end up a little on the short side. (Of course, look what happened last time I said something like that.)

Danger awaits on the other side...
With my four intrepid adventurers now set to conquer their last obstacle, I guided them onto the nearest ship of mine and set sail for the Isle of Fire. The Mark of the Snake that I'd branded them all with allowed me to pass by the snake guarding the entrance, once I'd yelled the invocation of "Evocare!" Right on the other side of the snake, a gaggle of giants (what is the proper term for a collective of those...) was waiting right next to where the moongate lay. I really liked that design choice, by the way - dropping a moongate where the lair of the Big Bad was visible but not accessible? Gives a good taste of what's to come without being entirely clear and/or letting you into the endgame long before you're ready. (Supposed-to-lose fights kind of bother me on principle.)

My party was sufficiently advanced enough to dispatch the miscreants without any trouble at all (most of them went down to one hit to Ivan and Olivia's bows), so I pressed onward to the castle and made my way in. Carefully I passed over the fire-edged drawbridge to the castle, hurried through Exodus' front lawn (thankfully I avoided getting attacked by the grass), and was greeted by two demons and what looked to be a balron. None attacked me, the demons statuesque sentinels that told me none left the castle, and the balron acting as a steward of some sort, telling me to choose my path well. The entry hall was full of lava, the path winding around it leading to a force field with a guard on the other side. So began my first fight in the castle!

I'm sorry... it seems death is the only escape.
It took me a moment to realize Ivan and Olivia's weapons were doing nothing, because I hadn't thought to switch them over to mystic weaponry. Fortunately I came to that conclusion before the oncoming guards got too terribly close to me, so I made the switch and came out of the fight without too bad a beating. That's another thing I rather like about the trek through the castle - the fact you're limited to the mystic weapons. It's hinted at in the game itself, so it doesn't come out of nowhere if you're paying attention, and it forces you to consider how you maneuver your party through fights. When your only ranged abilities rely on a limited MP pool that is going to be slow to regenerate, you have to consider the actions that use up those resources carefully. It really pushes your skills with the system to their limits, especially when you come up against foes that can used ranged attacks with impunity. How do you approach them to minimize damage to your party? Do you go for the big, loud cleric spells, or do you reserve those precious MP points for healing? Do you fire off a single, massive wizard spell, or do you conserve for a few well-placed but less damaging overall spells? It's a fitting way to end the game, and it does so by just limiting you slightly in a way you've been forewarned about, rather than changing enemy patterns on you right at the end. It's a way of testing whether you've been paying attention.

Back to the journey! The guard was keeping watch over the castle's prison, which was holding a few monsters and a few other poor adventurers who all advised me to get out of there as fast as I could - I felt very badly about slaying a party of clerics who wouldn't let me pass, all they wanted was for me to save them. But I couldn't get by them, and so I had no choice but to press an attack to venture further into the prisons... and ultimately it was a fruitless effort anyway, as it got me no close to Exodus itself. Sigh... more unvirtuous acts to work off next game.

Here There Be Dragons
It was back to the entry hall after that, wading through the fire to make my way to one of the towers and begin the long trek through the outer passages of the castle, fighting several groups of griffons and one batch of balrons along the way. My previous comments about pushing your prowess in combat to the limits here apply again - there's several of these fights, and the way the force fields and walls are arranged, you can't even really avoid them, try as you might. And when the griffons are firing at you on the field before you even engage them in combat - again, it's a true test of how well you can maneuver around the battlefield. It's tense, it's tough, but it's still fair, and that's what makes it fun.

The foes behind me vanquished, I waded through the fire and the flames that lay just before Exodus, only to be attacked by the very floor I was standing on! I love this bit, too, the fact that you're facing enemies that you can't see, one last test of how well you've learned how enemies act during battle so you can use that pathing to your advantage and take minimal damage. It's not particularly difficult if you know the trick (I just moved all my party right to the bottom edge of the combat field, then attacked up every round), but I can see it causing problems if you don't have a strategy going in.

Just a little further...
And then there I stood before the strange terminals that comprised Exodus' physical form. Remembering the words of the Time Lord from my meeting with him, I made my way to each of the four panels, letting Aric insert the proper card into each. One by one the terminals shuddered and collapsed, first to the Love card, then Sol, then Moons, until finally Aric placed the Death card into the last panel, it shook, and the whole castle reverberated with the defeat of Exodus proper. I was treated with the victory screen, and once again told to report my feat! (Which is basically what I'm doing here.)

With Exodus struck down, that ends the reign of the Triad of Evil and the Ages of Darkness - and it was a rip-roaring good time! I'm eager for Ultima IV, but I think I'm actually going to miss Ultima III, I'd love to see what a different party would feel like. As always, I'll have one more post following this one with my closing thoughts on the game in the coming days - then it'll be time to rid myself of all the questionable deeds I've done in the past three games!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ultima III: Preparing for Siege

So much for there not being much to say in my last post! I feel like I'm getting more verbose as these go on - hopefully I'm still managing to keep things interesting.

My screenshot folder for this particular session is kind of lacking - I suppose a good deal of that is because most of it was spent grinding, and that's not particularly interesting to take screenshots of. Strictly speaking, there wasn't much that happen plotwise. But I did get to poke around a lot of the game world and try things that I hadn't before, which meant a lot of fun from my end.

I've never been so excited to see so many yellow squares!
I started the session trying to figure out other ways to amass gold for further trips to Ambrosia - with my main spellcasters at their max pool of MP, I wanted to get everybody's dexterity up as high as I could, and try and max at least my front line fighters' strength as well. There were still a few things to check off of my to-do list, though, so I thought I'd focus on getting those last few errands taken care of while I gathered the gold necessary to boost my stats. Hopefully I'd gather enough moolah in getting those tasks done to at least give me something solid to work with when I next paid a visit to Ambrosia.

First on that list was to track down the remaining two marks for my party. I'd already found both the marks of Kings and Fire in the Perinian depths, but I knew I needed four in order to complete the game and strike down Exodus, so there were still two more to be found within the depths of Sosaria. With that in mind, I plunged into the dungeon of the Snake to see what could be unearthed from its passages. The trek to the bottom was fraught with a good deal of peril - I kept running into dragons and their brethren, usually in very rapid succession, and I was starting to get a little worried that my HP would give out, so I used Trevor's recently expanded magical prowess to zip the party down a couple levels. Sure, I probably missed out on some treasure that way, but I also missed out on potential gremlins - they were back for this game after vanishing from Ultima II (at least that I noticed), and I must say I didn't really miss them. At least they only stole 100 food from a single party member this time around, instead of half my inventory! Still, I want to know how the little dickens can carry so much of it...

Anyway, with the mark of the Snake now branded onto my party, that only left one more mark, so after poking around for a while I eventually found my way into the dungeon of Doom. Though it had a very foreboding name, not only did the bottom level have the mark of Force that I was still missing, there were simply scads of treasure lying about - surrounded by traps and gremlins, yes, but careful maneuvering meant I could claim it all for myself! That filled my coffers by a goodly amount, and I zipped down to Ambrosia once I had Aric Sequitu the party out. I'd upped everyone's dexterity to somewhere in the mid-30s range on previous trips, so I maxed out Trevor and Aric's and made some headway on Ivan and Olivia's before I made my way back through the whirlpool to seek out the Time Lord in the dungeon of Time - which took a bit to find, I hadn't used the moongates in a while and had to remind myself how they worked.

Meeting the Time Lord. I'm sure it won't be my last.
I found my way in before too terribly long, though, and I found the dungeon of Time to be relatively straightforward. I had my share of battles along the way, but it was good experience for the party - Ivan and Olivia were getting close to hitting level 25 at this point, which meant they'd be hitting the HP cap soon - and it meant more treasure to spend in Ambrosia. The Time Lord himself was rather helpful, telling me that Love, Sol, Moons and Death was the only way, all else failed. Considering that those are the names of the cards I found in the shrines, I took note of this order, it should come in handy.

With that done, I once again resorted to unvirtuous means to make some cash - this time by repeated visits to Death Gulch with the purpose of thievery. I mean c'mon, there were piles of gold just lying around waiting to be gathered, and with the Mark of Force on my party, I could gather even more past a barrier. Sure, I took something of a beating from guards in the process - but that just skyrocketed my party through those last few necessary levels!

After a combination of Death Gulch capers and more rampaging through Yew (ugh... I'm half-tempted to make Aric a druid in the next game just out of guilt feelings), I had enough gold to max out everyone's dexterity, boost Ivan and Olivia's strength up, and nudge Trevor and Aric to a decent strength score as well.

Uh... I think I've been caught in the act.
With all four of my party members at max HP, top dexterity, my front line fighters at max strength and my spellcasters at max spellcasting prowess, I think my stats are in pretty good shape at this point. And with the exotic weapons and armor on hand, the four marks on each of my four party members, and the four cards in Aric's back pocket, I think I've gathered all that I need to take on Exodus. All that remains is one last thing...

...which I saw to in Yew in the midst of one of my rampages. I was told at some point that I would need an invocation to get past the silver snake, and that to find the invocation I needed, I would need to pray in the Circle of Light. Four clerics in Yew welcomed me to the Circle whenever I walked into it (just before I let my party brutalize them), so during one of my gold-gathering trips I strode to the center, prayed (for mercy, presumably, good grief my party's done some heinous acts during this adventure), and was told to yell "Evocare!"

So with everything I need under my belt and close at hand - it's time to face Exodus. To the Isle of Fire!

Duly noted. I'm coming for you, Exodus...

Friday, November 7, 2014

Ultima III: Sweet Ambrosia

Well, this session covers a good deal of time, although not all that much of particular interest actually happened throughout, so we'll see what I've got in store as far as content. But I'm thoroughly hooked on the game now - I think I've broken past that initial "compare everything to how Ultima IV did it" barrier and I'm now able to look at the game for its own merit. I actually think blogging about the whole experience has been helping with that, it's giving me reason to see it through and to try and put the game into perspective. My brain's wrapped itself a bit better over the separate inventories, so I've got a better sense of who's holding what and the commands to pass things between party members feels a lot more natural by this point. That combined with the EGA patch has helped me get past most of my interface/control issues, and so I can focus more properly on the game itself.

Stampede!!
So with a renewed eagerness to see what all Ultima III had to offer me, and with my inventory full of exotic weapons and armor and clues to act upon, I scoured the land for ways to gather gold before I sought out the whirlpool that would take me into the fabled Ambrosia. Unfortunately, monster-slaying as I wandered the continent was not exactly a profitable venture. They were just too few and far between, and food constantly depleted as I sought them out. I had to find a more expedient way of gaining funds, and with nobody in my party above level five yet (boy would that change by the end of my session), I wasn't sure if testing my luck too far would be a wise plan. I thankfully had the Mark of Kings on all four of my party, so I didn't have to worry about finding that to keep my hit point totals rising with levels (incidentally, even if it only dictates max HP, it's nice to see levels actually meaning something, as compared to Ultimas I and II). But I was in no position to face the tougher monsters (let alone guards) just yet.

So... I went the unvirtuous route. I went on a rampage in Yew, rotating my party around to help balance out levels (I noticed my front-line fighters were getting a lot of action and Aric was lagging behind a lot) as I cut down cleric after cleric after cleric, all in the name of money and experience, cringing a little every time I left the town and re-entered to start the process all over again. I bought Ivan and Olivia +2 Bows with the first wave of funds (they were still using slings and desparately needed an upgrade), loaded up on food, and then amassed cash for a trip to Ambrosia.

I think I had about 8500 or so gold and my party averaging level eight when I finally couldn't take the suspense anymore, hopping onto my pirate ship and seeking out the whirlpool. The wind was fairly uncooperative, but it wasn't long before the whirlpool drifting into sight and I boldly steered my ship into it, soon washing up on the shores of Ambrosia. Wandering around for a while led me to the Shrine of Dexterity, and I spent my cash boosting everybody's dexterity by about 20 points each - I figured I needed that most about now, making sure I could hit more and get hit less. I of course searched the shrine for a card as well, having been told that I should do so, then continued to explore.

I fought the law, and the law... lost?
I found the Shrine of Strength as well, spending what remaining gold I had on boosting Ivan's strength, but not before I nearly got trampled by two herds of wild horses! I think I spent a full minute boggling at my screen when I saw myself getting attacked by a full group of eight horses trying to mow me down - here I thought the manual was joking when it made mention of wild horses! Having just come off a fight with a lot of demons, my party was struggling a bit, but I made it through the fights all right. I thought it was high time I got out of dodge, though, so I fumbled my way to a pirate ship that I commandeered and sailed back into the exit whirlpool.

I went on my murderous rampage of Yew a couple times to garner the cash to restock supplies, and since I didn't have any keys left and very few torches, I wandered over to Dawn to stock up in the guild. A series of bungled commands left me in a fight with a thief, and soon after a whole slew of guards. This was particularly tense for me, I wasn't sure my party was in any shape to handle fights like these just yet! But when I managed to come out on top in one fight, then a second, I thought maybe I could pull it off. And sure enough, some clever maneuvering and taking advantage of how my enemies seemed to choose their targets meant I could spread the damage around decently enough, and my party limped their way out of Dawn battered and beaten but alive after striking down six groups of guards - forty-eight guards in total. Man did that boost levels quick!

Tired of grinding in Yew, I made my way to Perinian, now that I had a good-sized bundle of torches to poke around a dungeon with. I think Ultima III is kind of in the same position as Ultima I as far as grindyness goes - sure it's necessary at times, but you've got so many ways of going about it that it never really feels dull. You can look for monsters on the landscape, you can explore dungeons, you can run about the towns and whack everything you see... it's all grinding at its heart, but you can approach it from several different angles, unlike Ultima II, which just felt like the same things over and over.

I question the wisdom of slaughtering masses for stats.
Anyway, once I'd gathered another good-sized chunk of change I went back into Ambrosia, this time with keys, to find the last two shrines. I had enough to max out Aric's wisdom and almost max Trevor's intelligence, so my main spellcasters would have a full pool of spells and deep MP reserves to work with. I snagged the last two cards as well, letting Aric hang on to them for the time being - sure he's the hardest to bring up to speed with the rest of the party, but it's because of him everybody's kept in good health, and besides, he's set to become the Avatar proper, so he might as well keep the heroic duties.

So that's where I called it a day, after some more fighting and messing around with my new high-level spells. I still need more cash for more stats, but I think my next method of doing so will be in looking for the last two Marks, Force and Snake, and then perhaps trying my luck at raiding Devil Guard for every cent it's worth. Seeing as how Ivan and Olivia are at level nineteen now, with Trevor at sixteen and Aric at fifteen, I think I can afford a few guard fights if it comes to that! And I still need to pay the Time Lord a visit too... still a lot to be done in Sosaria while I gather the moolah to develop my party further, and apparently a lot to say about it, too. And I'm raring to get to it!

Two marks, four cards... getting there!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ultima III: Clued In


About time I found some undead...
Now that I have a decent handle on the game's commands and mechanics, I figured my next step in Ultima III was plying the general populace for clues and information. Since I had a ship as well by this point, I figured that with the added mobility and the ability to reach the towns overseas, it would be a good position for me to start finding out what hints I could obtain.

I'd already run around Yew, Devil Guard, Britain and Lord British's Castle to see what the townsfolk there had to say, but with my new ship I thought I'd explore the islands, so Fawn was my next stop. There I was told a bit about an invocation I need to learn, and that I'd need to 'pray' in order to find it. From there I headed over to Death Gulch, and learned that guards could be bribed - a fact I'd later learn in Moon, but when a guard tells me he can be bribed, what else am I going to do? (Sheesh, no wonder I need to work at becoming the Avatar. Bribing guards, killing clerics for experience in Yew... got a lot of guilt to work off by this point.)

That can't be comfortable.
Anyway, the Montors revealed to me that seeking the Jester in castle fire might be a good idea - I took this to mean the Castle on the isle of Fire, as in Exodus' home, which meant that I probably wouldn't get to follow up on this for a while, but when I got my hands on some keys and started poking around Lord British's prison in his castle, what did I find but a jester in the middle of a field of fire! I can only imagine what jokes he told to deserve such a punishment. But he told me where Dawn was located, which was very useful information to know, so I thanked him and winced as I burned my party again on the way back from talking to him.

I was told in Grey that only exotics would protect me from great evil, and that I could find information about them in Dawn - so with the clues that I got about when and where I could find this legendary city, I made my way into the dark forest at the specified location, waited for the new moons, and entered.

Dawn allowed me a broader range of weaponry to choose from, and some solid clues to find exotic weapons and armor to boot. I didn't have anywhere enough money to buy fancy ranged weapons for Ivan and Olivia, so I satisfied myself with some dungeoneering equipment and headed off in search of exotics.

I was told that I needed to dig on islands to find them, and with so few of them around, it didn't take very long before my entire party was equipped with exotic armor, and Trevor and Aric readied their newfound exotic weapons as well - they couldn't use any ranged weaponry themselves, so might as well equip the big guns from the get-go. Ivan and Olivia have theirs in reserve, but their ranged weapons are more useful at the moment, so I'm keeping them equipped as is.

Sure, I'll touch the red hot AUUUGAGHGH
With my party well armored, I decided to act on what I learned about marks in Devil Guard. My front-line fighters had gained a few levels, and even my cleric had managed a level by this point (man did that take work, I mostly got that by getting lucky with a Pontori spell), so I felt I could afford to peek into a dungeon. The Perinian Depths was close by, so I explored in there for a while, and when I came back out, I had both the Mark of Kings and the Mark of Fire, the latter of which would have come in handy when I was wandering through fire to talk to a convicted jester. Ah well!

I enjoyed this part of the game a lot, running from town to town trying to find all the little nooks and crannies to make sure I wrested every possible clue out of the townsfolk. I remember bribing the guards in Grey so I could cut through all the thieves in the tavern because I expected there to be something behind them all and that it'd be easier to just fight them rather than try to manuever around them - only to find it was just the guild behind them. But this feels a lot more interesting than the same thing did in Ultima II, partly because there's more "dialogue" that's actually relevent to the game rather than just throwaway gags, and partly because the clues are less... oblique. Some of them are obscure enough to leave me guessing somewhat (like the jester in fire), but not so much that I just roll my eyes in frustration. It's a good balance, and I think at this point I can definitively say this is the game where the series hit its stride. Now that I've actually taken the time to start exploring the game in depth, I can easily see why it's a favorite that holds fond memories for many. It's putting me in mind of my first run of Ultima IV all those years ago, and in a good way.

Time for a bar fight...
I think my next step is amassing cash for a trip to Ambrosia to bump my stats. That might involve a few dungeon runs, so we'll see what happens next. But I'm definitely hooked now, moreso than I thought I'd be with Ultima III, and the game is surprising me in very pleasing ways.
Now pardon me while I let Trevor practice his Lorum spells.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ultima III: The Lay of the Land

Apparently Ivan went invisible - is he camera shy?
Last night I started my adventure through Ultima III proper, and I must say I'm finding it rather more enjoyable than I thought I might. My previous experiences with the game just left me thinking the game tedious and tiring, and I think that was due to a combination of commands and just looking for monsters to whack - actually, now that I think about it, a good deal of that stemmed from what I'm used to in Ultima IV. It's going to be difficult to try and look at the game's progression from Ultima II, rather than rant over what Ultima IV did better, but if I'm going to try to examine the narrative of the series as a whole, won't do me much good to get too far ahead of myself, will it?

My first order of business, of course, was equipping everything I'd been given at the start of the game (daggers and cloth armor for everybody!) and figuring out what the heck all the commands did. Having a full and varied party now makes combat a lot more interesting, especially now that it takes place on a separate tactical screen, but it also means it takes a lot of keystrokes to separate everything out right. Each character has their own inventory, gold purse, food stock, and so forth, which means four times the work in keeping track of everything. Which isn't too tedious once you get the hang of the commands, but so far it's involved a lot of (Z)tat-ing to remember who's got what and who I passed everything over too. The (J)oin Gold command has been a godsend to help with the money situation, although I expect that'll get more complicated when I'm dealing with larger sums.

That isn't the case just yet, though, and I'm having myself a grand old time exploring the map. Rather than go seeking out a fight like I normally do when I fire up Ultima III, I decided to familiarize myself with the territory, figure out where I can go for weapons and armor and the all-important food. So I wandered into Lord British's castle to poke around there for a bit, meet the locals, and say hi to the monarch. He didn't have much to tell me besides the fact I needed more experience, but I did find a healer in the castle (which would prove handy later), and several blocked-off passages, either because of locked doors or force fields. Those I'll have to come back to later.

Dupre, in his predictable haunt.
Of course, where Lord British's castle is found, Britain probably isn't far behind, and it wasn't in this case either. I found Dupre in the tavern (where else would he be?) and I waved to him as I hurried on over to purchase some rations for everyone and price better weapons and armor. Turns out I had enough on me after my grocery shopping to get some a sling each for Ivan and Olivia and a mace for Aric. So after finagling with the commands for a while, I managed to get everybody equipped with their new weapons, Trevor hanging on to all the daggers, just in case I forgot he's not a weapon-y fighter and I accidentally threw one or two.

And then I ran loose.

I dashed around the continent trying to find a moongate, then mapping them all out as best I could. I marked towns and dungeons on my map, making the rounds through Devil Guard, Britain and Yew to gather what clues I could. I fended off orcs and cutpurses and even a horde of demons, making use of my new slings, a slew of Mittar spells, and the occasional Repond. I Appar Unem'd the resultant loot, was pleased to find that sometimes I'd get equipment from chests, and used the proceeds to continue to stock up on food and save up for some new armor for my front-line fighters. I even got lucky and found myself a ship, manned by a lone pirate who was swiftly dispatched. And on my way to park it into an eddy so it didn't get swallowed by the whirlpool, I found myself facing a storm of squids, which poisoned Olivia before I finally struck them down, making me scramble for my notes amid a bunch of Sanctus from Ivan and Aric so I could recall where the nearest healer was to get her cured.

When all was said and done, Ivan, Olivia and Trevor all had enough experience to gain a level, while Aric was lagging behind. I expect this will be the case until I can find someplace where undead are regular occurrences and give Aric a steady source of experience.

Stormy waters lie ahead...
That was where I called it a night - I felt I'd started to get a grasp on the mechanics and commands, obtained a good feel for the lay of the land, and gained a level or two to boot in the process. It's apparent right from the get-go that Ultima III takes itself more seriously, townsfolk less likely to spout song lyrics and more apt to help move the story along a little with cryptic clues. The world itself also feels a little more... efficient? That's not quite the word I'm looking for, but it feels like a much better use of the space - it's a smaller game world, but that just eliminates the vast expanses of pure nothing that Ultima II had in spades.

All in all, my first foray into the world under Exodus' rule was a lot more enjoyable than anticipated, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else Ultima III has in store for me. Next stop - more information-gathering!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ultima III: Opening Thoughts

From the light-hearted adventure that was Ultima I and the disjointed mishmash that was Ultima II, it's time for me to move on to the more seriously-bent Ultima III, and the end of the Ages of Darkness. If Ultima II was the awkward adolescent of the series, then I suppose that makes Ultima III the high school graduate, having sorted out a little better idea of what it wants to be and beginning to act upon said idea.

Ultima III was released in 1983, and marked a lot of firsts for the series. This was the first Ultima to allow a full party rather than just a single character, for instance, and the first game in which combat takes part in a separate tactical screen. It's also the first game to take line-of-sight into account during travel. And most importantly to my pianist-slash-violinist background, it's the first Ultima to feature music! Needless to say, even though the DOS version doesn't include the music, I've patched it in for the full experience. I've also patched EGA graphics into the game (again thanks to The Exodus Project), but this should be the last game I modify graphically. I considered for a bit using the more recent version of the project, which decreases food consumption and increases enemy spawning, but I mentioned earlier I'm trying to stay as close to the originals as possible, so I declined.

The plot isn't entirely novel, as it's the same defeat-the-baddie as the past two games - this time with Mondain and Minax's progeny-of-sorts Exodus - but it does take a more serious approach, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this all plays out - Ultima III is the first game I've blogged about here that I haven't actually played in its entirety before.

Ultima III came with three manuals of sorts - one for the game itself, and one each for the two brands of magic that are used in the game. And the game documentation is really starting to shine by this point - all three come with beautiful illustrations, wonderful flavor text, and set the stage excellently for the game ahead. Although it does make some allusions to potential mechanics that don't pan out in-game - the suggestion that party members can be recruited in the game world, for instance. Maybe it's just poor word choice in the manual or something planned but not implemented.

The manuals also leave some questions open about game lore and such, but that's half of what I love about the series - I actually find a setting that isn't 100% consistent with itself and only expounds upon relevant details somewhat more believable than an impeccably designed one where every detail is consistent and explained, but it's a fine line to walk! Ultima III's documentation does a decent job of this, I think - sixth circle of mages? What's it like for the other five - and the three above that? What's this 'One' the clerical book of magic refers to, the 'Dark Lord' one invokes for the P-spell? Enough seeds to get the imagination churning, and I love it.

One last thing to mention about the game documentation - the map. No towns, dungeons or the like are actually marked on it, just the general landscape, and I like this idea a lot. Actually having to notate the map as you explore - that's a nice touch.

I don't have a whole lot of experience with Ultima III, especially compared to its predecessors. It never quite clicked with me, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact I'm more used to Ulimta IV, which streamlined things a little more - here you have to keep track of all four of your party's food, weapons, gold, etc., whereas later it's just one big pool. Most of my time with Ultima III was just fooling around with different characters, wandering into combats and playing around with the system a bit. So I'm interested to see what happens when I actually hunker down and play the game with the intent of seeing it through.

It took me far longer than it probably should have to figure out what my party's make-up would be. I toyed with the idea of including a druid (on account of Aric having been a wizard in Ultima I and a cleric in Ultima II), but eventually settled on a paladin, ranger, wizard, and cleric - Aric filling the role of the cleric, and the other three named after characters of mine from elsewhere. I went with a paladin and ranger instead of a fighter/thief combination for a bit more spellcasting ability, giving Ivan the paladin enough wisdom to cast a healing spell if need be and Olivia the ranger enough stats to at least open a chest.

So with my party assembled, my map ready, and my notebook close and hand, time to fling myself unto the breach again and strike down Exodus!

The adventure begins...

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ultima II: Closing Thoughts

I stated in my opening thoughts for Ultima II that I viewed the game as the series equivalent of the book of Leviticus - the first major potential stumbling block for anybody trying to proceed through canon in order. (Numbers is also an apt comparison. Any of the last three books of the Pentateuch, really, there's something in there for everyone to trip over.) While I still think the metaphor holds a decent amount of water, now that I've played it right off the tail end of Ultima I and am preparing to go into Ultima III, it's become fairly evident to me that more than anything else, Ultima II is a transition stage, the 'awkward adolescent' of the series, trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be and throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks in order to do so. I feel that's a good deal of why it feels so disjointed as compared to its predecessor and sequel - it's trying to do everything at once because the series hasn't sorted out exactly where it's going yet. It's straddling the middle between the sandboxy open feel of Ultima I and the streamlined seriousness that Ultima III begins to demonstrate, trying out different things and seeing what works for it.

A sentiment I couldn't help but feel fairly often.
And while I can appreciate this (you never know what'll pan out if you don't give it a whirl, and Ultima II does represent an important developmental stage for the series), there's a lot of the game that I simply find uninteresting and/or frustrating. I think my biggest issue with the game is its terrible pacing. It's very easy to go through long stretches with little to no development - and I think this is more due to a confluence of certain game mechanics than anything else. Ultima I could throw you into bouts with no discernable progress under the right circumstances, but there was enough of a variety that the mundanity of it could easily be broken up, as well. That's not really the case with Ultima II - at least not until you've got the freedom of motion a ship provides and/or the stats to take on tough foes, neither of which come particularly swiftly in the game. Anything that could break up the monotony of the grinding requires results from that grind - so you're stuck doing it one way or another with no good alternative. It makes for a very static-feeling game up until the last third of it or so, when you have enough resources to start heading for space.

Exploration was fun, if mostly fruitless in the end.
A lot of this bad pacing has to do with the random factor in the game, or at least the feel of a random factor. There's a lot that relies on luck in Ultima II, and when it's game-critical knowledge or objects or mechanics that are gated behind random numbers, it's a problem. Obtaining a ship seems the most egregious example of this - you have to lean on luck to produce a certain type of enemy, where you're able to actually get to it, and that the item it gives you once you defeat it is the one you need. Then you have to wait for another type of enemy to spawn. If any of those factors doesn't pan out, then you're waiting a very long time for something that truly changes the game. There's also critical intelligence found nowhere else in the game that's gated behind nearly prohibitively expensive oracle readings, which also have a random factor beneath it. Developing your stats is mostly luck of the draw that it'll affect the stat you want - okay, so maybe it has something to do with the number of steps you take to get to the clerk, but that's not something the average layman would interpret as connected events, leading to that random feel again. When obtaining important items, developing your character, even knowing what to do is locked to the realm of the random, it can make for very frustrating circumstances when luck doesn't go the player's way. There are games that make random work (thrive on it even, roguelikes readily come to mind), but what makes them work is allowing player choice to have the chance to mitigate bad luck - not always successfully, but something that can allow a player to say, "Maybe I should have done that differently." Here the only thing a player can do differently is reload and try again.

Lots of little nooks and crannies to poke around.
Another problem I have is something I brought up while exploring space, and that's how empty the game world feels. It's cool to have a lot of very varied maps to explore (running around space was probably one of the best times I've had exploring in a game), but there's not much in them of note except for the occasional feature that makes you go 'huh, that's different' for a brief moment before moving on. Most maps only have one or two towns to play around in - while Ultima I's locales were pretty much carbon-copies of each other, at least they were numerous enough to give a sembleance of civilization. Here it just feels sparse. Even the dungeons feel somewhat superfluous - they mainly provide monsters to fight and by extension gold, but you need items obtained from overworld enemies in order to make full use of them anyway, and it doesn't feel like you gain anything faster in a dungeon, so they just end up redundant - more empty space. (And I still can't help but harp on the fact levels are meaningless, and therefore so is experience.)

But for all of the issues, Ultima II has its high points. The time gates are the first iteration of a fast-travel system in the series, and getting the hang of how they function and how best to make use of them was a fun problem to wrap my head around. There's actually some sembleance of conversation in this game, townsfolk providing clues and hints as to how to progress in the game - and even if a lot of them are just fluff, self-referential fourth-wall-breaking, or pop-culture reference (which used to bother me, but actually kind of makes sense since the game purportedly takes place on Earth), it provides some actual flavor to the towns, takes one step closer to feeling like a living world populated by characters rather than just pixels, plot devices, and mechanics. The towns themselves, though limited in number, feel unique, and poking around Shadowguard led my overactive imagination to some gleefully unsettling moments - the museum in which there's an example of not just every enemy, but every brand of citizen present was eerie indeed. There's reason to explore, if only to finding something out of the ordinary and interesting.

It's a little disconcerting these are right by each other...
So how does this all relate to the narrative of the game and series, my purported Topic of Interest? Well, this is still the era where game stories are pretty simplistic by their very nature, and when it comes down to it Ultima II's story isn't much different than Ultima I's - at their core, they're both the 'here is a baddie, now build yourself up to the point where you can beat them' type of tale. The differences are in their execution, and Ultima I pulls it off better. While Ultima I is streamlined, dropping hints at regular intervals, revealing relevant game information with the completion of each king's quest, Ultima II basically relegates this intel to random oracle readings and dependent on finding the one townsperson that reveals a hint. While this does take a step to a more 'nautral' feel, plying the locals for knowledge and squealing with glee when you finally find the one who knows what you need to know, it's not quite perfected the method - again, the bad pacing created by game elements hurts the story here.

As far as its place in the Grand Ultima Story, that's hard to say. It's probably the most glossed-over game in the series besides the semi-canon Akalabeth prologue. I do think that it does set up a very nice pattern of retaliation, though - the fact that events do lead to consequences that the Stranger-slash-Avatar has to deal with. It's something of an overarching theme of the series as a whole, whether it was intentional or not - practically every game after the first deals with some sort of after-effect of the previous games, and that's begun here in Ultima II. We're still in the opening chapters of the series, but it's already establishing precedent of needing to deal with the repercussions of actions taken, for better or worse. And for that, even if it gets mostly hurried over in the rest of the Ultima canon, I think Ultima II is a rather pivotal point in the story of Ultima.

Now that Minax is dealt with, I can turn my sights to the Island of Fire looming on the horizon. I'm currently working my way through the manuals (and boy am I going to have a lot to say on them!) and trying to plan out my party of four, so it may be a bit before I lay out my opening thoughts on Ultima III. But Exodus won't wait for me long, I'm sure... and I look forward to the chance to face the beast.