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.

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