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!

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