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!

No comments:

Post a Comment