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.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ultima II: Revenge on the Enchantress

With space conquered and Antos having given me his blessing, there was only one task left in this strangely condensed, time-twisted version of Earth for me to do. Defeat Minax.
Aric's final stats

Which meant, of course, that tonight's session began the same way most of them have. With a grind-fest to gather the resources necessary.

I sailed around the Time of Legends, smacking down the baddies I found there for a rather hefty stack of gold - I should have done that sooner, it feels like the spawn rate for monsters in the Time of Legends is a lot faster. I don't know if it actually is, or it just feels like it due to there being considerably fewer nooks and crannies and islands for monsters to get caught up on so I find them faster, but either way, it meant that it was a lot easier to get myself a pile of gold there (then?) than anywhere (anywhen?) else.

Awfully expensive ring... that could have bought me 3000 hit points!
Once I amassed myself a sizeable chunk of change, it was off to Lord British's castle to buy as many hit points as I could hold (it still strikes me as somewhat odd that HP is a purchasable commodity), then off to - where else? - New San Antonio one last time to pump up my stats as high as I could off the several thousand gold that I'd stocked up. The last time I finished Ultima II, I ended the game with my strength somewhere in the 70s, and most of the rest in the mid-to-high 50s. This time around my strength was at a whopping 96, wisdom not far behind, and no stat lower than 60.

I was feeling pretty good, until I realized that I depleted my gold resources *before* obtaining the ring.

Have fun storming the castle!
So it was back to the Time of Legends for another smackdown session until I had 500 gold to dart back to claim the ring from the old man beneath ATREE. I never did get the message in-game that it was necessary to get the ring from him, I think it only comes from oracle messages, the near-prohibitively spendy ones, I'll have more to say on that in my closing thoughts post. Suffice it to say that I was properly equipped now, and I headed for Shadowguard.

With trepidation I wandered in through the gates, past the force fields and the devil-and-demon pair of guards, who left me alone. Slowly, carefully, I explored the castle, finding a life insurance salesman, a small chapel for devil worship, an eerie museum with a specimen of nearly every creature and brand of townsfolk I'd met, a she-creature that looked strangely like an orc begging me to take her... Minax was keeping some twisted things in her castle. I eventually found her in one of the corner towers, and I rushed her amid spell slinging and many shrieks of "Die fool!" before I landed a hit and she simply vanished from her position.

This is no time for a nap, Aric!!
I found her again in the opposite corner's tower (conveniently labeled 'Chamber Two') where I again suffered at the hands of her long range spells before getting close enough to land a blow with Enilno, and again she simply winked out of the room once I struck her. Back and forth I ran between the two towers, taking ever more circuitous routes with copious use of the strange coins I'd collected throughout my journeys to avoid dealing with any more of her minions than I had to (they overpowered me on two previous attempts to assault her stronghold). With each blow, she grew weaker and weaker, until with the fifth strike, she perished beneath my blade, her castle crumbling to ruins around me, all her works dying with her.

So ends the tale of Ultima II and the Revenge of the Enchantress, time and space one again set right with her death. The game continues to be something of a slog - it didn't feel much different the second time around - but I did a fair few things this time around I didn't last time, and the assault on Shadowguard was just as gleefully tense as any endgame sequence should be. I'll have a post with my final thoughts on the game in the coming days, and then it'll be time to gear up for another adventure - there's rumors of a creation of my two previous foes still lurking in wait...