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.

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.