Monday, March 30, 2015

Ultima V: How Can I Resist?

Lot of resisting going on as I begin my venture through Ultima V, not the least of which being the only semi-effective attempts at resisting the temptation to spend my game time diving into Pillars of Eternity. Which I've been enjoying a very good deal (absolutely loving the writing), but hey, I've got Ultima to play, too! So I mustered up my willpower, shoved it aside, and plunged into Ultima V proper.

This feels like defeating the purpose, in... a lot of ways.
And right off the bat, Ultima V sets the stage with a much more uneasy sort of tone than its immediate predecessor. Though I started the journey with Iolo and Shamino at my side, that's not quite the boon that it seems at first - Shamino was severely injured, scant inches from death. I had a couple Mani spells to spare, so I made use of two or three of them to get him back into stable fighting condition before we all left Iolo's cottage, but the very fact the player has to deal with a party member that close to death right from the start does help set up Ultima V as a less lighthearted journey than Ultima IV. Putting the player at a disadvantage from the get-go does give a sense of the distance one has to go in order to achieve their goals, and when delivered at the hands of one of the game antagonists (in Ultima V's case, Shamino's wounds come from the Shadowlords, as depicted in the game's intro), it also helps establish the threat the antagonist presents. But I like this approach much better than the 'supposed-to-lose fight' method, simply because it doesn't set the precedent of setting the player up for failure. Instead, it just forces the player to either tread carefully or expend a few resources to care for the injured, or perhaps just drop Shamino off at an inn and let that be that. Whatever the case, it lays out the dire circumstances without putting the player into a situation they can't mitigate themselves. It's a nice little design choice.

After leaving Iolo's, I wandered the west, hoping to come across a settlement where I could start getting a feel for the lay of the land, how things stand in Britannia during the rule of Blackthorn. This led me to Empath Abbey in short order, where I quickly bumped into a young, spry student named Toshi. A bit of conversation led him to ask if he could join my entourage, and so after a moment's thought, I said yes. He was certainly inexperienced, but he was a bold and enthusiastic young lad, and anyone who knew what stood against the forces of Virtue and yet still wanted to join the fight was quite welcome. Here too did I run into my old friend Julia, and our group grew to five. The residents of the keep had much to say on other subjects as well - Hardluck the castle jester, for instance. His songs reminded me that Blackthorn himself might not strictly be a villain on his own merit, but that he too is held under the sway of the Shadowlords that wreak havoc upon the lands, a reminder that even the good and well-intentioned can still fall under the sway of evil if one does not remain vigilant against it. The lord of the keep told me of a demon who lived in the eastern desert who could tell me more about the Shadowlord of Hatred, which I suspect I will need as I make my way further. One cannot hope to defeat an enemy one does not know, after all! Finally, Barbra told me of a vision she'd seen, that of a man, as through a looking glass, trapped there.

My reaction to reading this stone: "...oh dear."
From there it was a quick trip to Yew, the location of the high courts of the land - and it was a harsher place than I remember it being in past games. From the wanted poster listing my name and that of my companions to the Fourth Law of Virtue posted at the town gates, it paints a very stark reminder that this is not the Britannia of yesteryear. Two individuals were in the town's stocks, having broken some of Blackthorn's other Laws of Virtue - a man for violating the Law of Sacrifice by only donating forty percent of his income to charity instead of the requisite half, and his son for failing to turn his father in. Taking pity on these poor souls, I used the few keys I had on me to jimmy the locks, setting them free - after having met Judge Dryden, I quickly realized that they would get neither sympathy nor mercy from the legal system, and I could not simply leave them to their fates.

I have to say, I really like the feel of these first few bits of Ultima V. Yew and Empath Abbey are the settlements closest to the player's starting point, so it's a very good chance that it's going to be among the first impressions the player gets of the game. And these encounters I've mentioned - the pair in the Yew stocks, Judge Dryden, the contrast with the residents of Empath Abbey and their understanding of what it is their settlement is meant to represent - paints a very nice portrait of Blackthorn's stifling rule as opposed to Lord British's. There's no room for understanding or sympathy or mercy in Blackthorn's regime, only law and overly legalistic interpretation. And yet via Hardluck, it's a reminder that even Blackthorn had good intentions, only to fall into shadow and corruption. It's a glimpse into how the virtues of Ultima IV can be twisted, and the need for nuance. Even the gravestones in Yew suggest a harsher game world than in its predecessor, mentioning those dead from the rack, dying in shackles, the upper and lower halves of Blackthorn's former jester being buried separately (ugh) - Ultima V definitely knows how to build a solid atmosphere.

Oh, like THAT'S going to prove your innocence...
Having trepidations about being too open about who I was and my purposes in Yew, I decided to head for Britain, more specifically Castle Britannia, to see what was up over there in Lord British's absence. I didn't find out much, and even the music as I entered the castle was dreary, mourning its missing monarch. I chatted with Chuckles, learned that Smith was staying with Iolo from one of the castle stablehands, and I found a man named Drudgeworth in the castle dungeons, claiming he could lead me to something if I would let him out. He was very obviously a miscreant, though, and didn't seem keen on elaborating on exactly what he would lead me to. It was a moot point as I didn't have a way of getting past the magically locked door he was imprisoned behind, but even so, it was something of a dilemma to decide whether I wanted to truly follow up on that thread later or not. We'll see.

There was much more to explore than just Lord British's castle in the neighborhood, though. I learned a lot in the city of Britain, and even bumped into Iolo's wife Gwenno, who I of course had to let into the party as well. I was going through food at a more rapid pace than I wanted to as a result of the six members of my group, though, so I dropped Toshi and Julia off at the inn while I decided on who I wanted to bring with me - it only seemed right to let Iolo and Gwenno reconnect for a little while. Annon informed me of the Great Council, who, after confirming who I swore my loyalty to, told me about the Words of Power, and even gave me the one that opened Despise. He also told me that the daughter of another Council member works as a sailmaker, and that I should ask her about her mother to obtain another. Greyson told me of the Guardians that protected the Codex, only allowing those on a sacred quest garnered from the shrines to pas, and reminded me of the Mantra of Compassion. Eb the busboy told me to talk to Malik in Moonglow about glass swords, and Terrance let slip something about the Resistance, telling me I should ask around at the Arms of Justice to find out more.

I wonder if it worked. They did kinda fire themselves in the process.
The three villages surrounding the castle gave me some useful information as well, learning about Master Hawkins and the HMS Cape that he designed, though the plans were now lost. A few hinted at the Resistance and further information to be gained, but they weren't yet telling me anything more. So I headed back to Yew where I found Chamfort, who gave me the password to the Resistance and told me to seek out Landon through a secret passage behind his fireplace. Jaana was there as well, who joined up with me, and Landon told me that Blackthorn has Lord British's Crown in his castle, which prevents the use of magic. He told me to seek out Sir Simon, on the mountainous isle west of Spiritwood, to find out more in retrieving the Crown. With the password to the Resistance, I learned more from the folk of North Britanny as well, being invited to a meeting by the town well at midnight. There was much to learn of the Shadowlords, and I was told to find Sir Shawn at the Lycaeum to find out more about them and where they dwell and Sutek on an island in the Great Sea to find out how they may be defeated. The graveyard here also spoke of the state of the kingdom - while most of them were buried over mundane things, the one whose employees ended up lynching the frugal Sir Robert to 'ease their poverty' was telling, especially when remembering that giving too little to charity is a crime.

Feeling like I'd learned all I could in the vicinity of the castle for now, I headed south, dropping by Paws, where I learned that shrines, if I ever saw them desecrated and destroyed, could be restored with the Words of Power, giving me another reason to make sure I find them all. I talked with a man in the stables about horses, and he seemed very interested in seeking out a talking horse - having learned where Smith lived from the stables in Castle Britannia, I told him where he could be found, and he thanked me by telling me that he'd gifted a magic carpet to Lord British, which I could pick up from his private quarters, if I could gain entrance to them. From there it was off to Trinsic, where Jimmy told me more about the HMS Cape and its qualities, and I asked a sleepwalking wizard, on a hunch, about the Council, which ended up earning me the Word of Power for Shame. After talking a bit with Gruman, who refreshed my memory on the Mantra of Honor, I made my way to the Shrine, since it was close. Meditating there, I heard a voice exhorting me to learn the darkness of dishonor - my first sacred quest from the shrines. I figured that was a good time to rest, and Shamino even got a level out of it after an apparition came in the night.

I try. I mean, it is one of the Virtues.
I called it a session at that point, and so far Ultima V is going rather better than I remember it. Still getting a hang of all the new mechanics (my fingers went on autopilot when mixing reagents for cure spells which it wouldn't let me do on account of muscle memory telling the system I wanted to mix a CORP BET CORP spell), and the vast new variety of items and spells and equipment is taking some time for me to wrap my head around, but all in all I'm enjoying myself. Buying anything from the guilds seems dang expensive if the one in Paws is anything to go by, but it's nice that fights now provide items as well as gold, as I get the feeling it's going to be my main source for keys. Once I get a better stock of reagents I'm looking forward to messing around with the wider variety of spells, too - I've long enjoyed Ultima's magic system, even though I haven't really played around with it as much as I could. So it's taking a bit of time to settle into Ultima V's groove, but the process is proving enjoyable.

Not sure whether I'll head for the other mainland settlements (well, Minoc) or see if I can snag a boat and follow up on some of my seafaring leads yet, but at least I'm not lacking for things to do!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ultima V: Opening Thoughts

Toward the beginning of my venture through Ultima IV, Boolean Dragon said over on the Ultima Codex that he thought it'd be interesting to see how I fare in Ultima V - well, frankly, so do I. I'm entering a very long stretch of games that I've played around with but never finished with this one (I won't be replaying a game to completion until Ultima VII at this point), and while I think it's something of a toss-up as to whether I've seen more of V or VI, I think V takes the edge (if only by a little) due to the nature of its closer ties to IV. I'm kind of eager to see how this time around treats me.

According to what I've been able to find, Ultima V came out in March of 1988 - I wanted to nail down the month on this one mostly because I wanted to know which one's older, me or the game. (The game is, by two months.) It's the last Ultima to use the first-person dungeon perspective, with the obvious exception of the Underworld games, and it's also the last Ultima to use the dual-scale maps, the Ultimas after this switching to a seamless, continuous world rather than a separate map for towns and settlements. The story revolves around the capture of Lord British by the mysterious Shadowlords, and the game uses its standard-since-Ultima-III title screen in-engine gameplay role to tell this story, which is detailed further in several illustrated screens of text should one choose to read it (which I think are quite lovely, myself). Mechanically speaking, it functions much the same as Ultima IV, simply refined a bit more in the details - objects in the game world can now be manipulated, waterfalls trickle, clocks tick, the magic system has been expanded, and so forth. It's the first to feature a day/night cycle and NPC schedules, and the conversations one can have with NPCs have been greatly expanded. It's this interactivity and detail to the NPCs and their movements that would come to help define the series, and it's here that they have their beginnings.

For me, though... Ultima V just never really clicked for me the same way Ultima IV did. I highly appreciated the more nuanced conversations I could have with NPCs, but something about the game didn't quite gel for me. I remember finding the day/night cycle a bit obnoxious at times (I've never really liked games that limit your field of vision that much for extended periods of time), and while the combat system was much improved I never really got that good a feel for it. Consequently, I never really spent all that much time with the game before - mostly just running around the overworld, finishing shrine quests and gathering information, and maybe peeking into a dungeon or two. There's a lot in the game that I haven't seen before, so with a project like this giving me incentive to push forward, I'm excited to see some of the key moments of this era that I've never experienced before.

Of course, I can't do that without making a few comments about the manual, because what's an Ultima game without its associated documentation? The Book of Lore is full of interesting tidbits - we learn more of Lord British's own backstory here through his arrival in then-Sosaria and his first meeting with Shamino (and a parallel to the Avatar's arrival this particular time around, both having been accomplished through the use of a silver medallion), as well as gain a little more understanding of Mondain's own tale via the history section covering the events of past games. We also learn a little more of the setting, learning the structure of Britannia's current government and what astronomical discoveries have been made. There's a couple tips of the hat that I rather appreciated - the allusion to "rumors of people wandering the heavens in great airships" in the transportation section had me giggling a bit, and I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement with the bestiary's remark that a gremlin's "ability to consume food at an inordinate rate is startling and dismaying." There's the tableau of the runes the game uses rather prominently, which I no longer need because I'm used to reading runic by this point, but it does make me squeal a little bit to see them start to come into proper useage, which I'll probably expound upon at some point during my playthrough. I also appreciated the continued tradition of expanding on the magic system - while in-game there's nothing more to preparing spells than choosing the right mix of reagents, I like the detail added in the manuals as to exactly how they should be prepared, it adds a lot of flavor to the system. The manual even hints at the state of Britannia now with the inclusion of Blackthorn's code of laws based on the virtues at the very end, and Remoh's journal of Lord British's failed expedition sets up the sinister and dangerous nature of the Underworld brilliantly - I look forward to following in their footsteps later!

And then there's Stones.

What? It's mentioned in the manual and plays during the intro, it's fair game to mention in the opening! I've been sitting on this bit for a while now!

Composed by David Watson and with lyrics by Kathleen Jones (Iolo and Gwenno's counterparts), Stones made its first appearance here in Ultima V, and would become a staple of the series' soundtrack moving forward. It's also become a staple of my repertoire and something of a signature tune of mine since I first messed with it in my early days of college - it was rather inevitable, I think, considering my love of both the series and music. I've been waiting for the opportune moment to drop my piano arrangement out there, and the opening of Ultima V seemed the right time, so without further ado, I present my own rendition of Stones.

After recording, I forwarded the tune to a lyric soprano friend of mine, as I thought she might enjoy it - which resulted in her recording vocals for it as well, which I also provide here. We've been wanting to collaborate on something for a while now, so it was nice to have that come to fruition as well!

I've also been messing around with a string version, so we'll see if that develops into anything. I'll be sure to lay it out here if it eventually coalesces.

One last order of business before I move on - yes, I'm transferring my character from Ultima IV over. I spent a long time trying to decide whether I should or not, and eventually settled on yes. Since it was a feature provided and not many series offer the option to do so, I figured that I might as well take advantage of it and play the game to its fullest. I didn't bother maxing out Aric's stats completely, so his strength is a little lower than his dexterity and intelligence, but I'm sure there'll be opportunity to catch it up as the game goes on.

Lord British won't wait forever. Time to dive in! (Let's hope I don't get too distracted when Pillars of Eternity drops next week...)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ultima IV: Closing Thoughts

The completion of Ultima IV means a lot of things for this little journey of mine through the Ultima series. For one thing, it means I've made my way through the first third of the collection, and the last game that I've actually completed before for quite a while - I won't be hitting that territory again until Ultima VII, which means the next five games (or the second third of the series, to put it another way) are mostly uncharted waters for me. There's a certain excitement in looking forward to games that I've played before but never seen through to completion, and there's a lot of things in the games to come that just ooze anticipation. I've never been through the underworld of Ultima V, the Gargoyle realm of Ultima VI, never met a Martian or used a dream machine or blundered into a Tyrannosaur.

On the other hand, it means leaving the familiar, and the memories associated with them, behind. Ultima IV wasn't just a turning point for the series, it was a turning point for me. It was the first RPG I'd ever played, let alone seen through to completion, and seeing the mechanics used, diving into the world of Britannia as the game laid it out for me, gathering clues and chasing down leads - Ultima IV taught me what games are able to do, the stories they're able to tell in ways that books or movies can't quite accomplish. So for me, there's something a little poignant in seeing the quest draw to a close once more. In a sense, this isn't just a time for me to reflect on the game and its place in the history of the series and gaming as a whole - it's a time for me to reflect on my own journey to this point.

On top of the world, lookin' down on creation...
Let me start with the game first, though. Ultima III left behind the sillier elements of the series, and the sci-fi/fantasy mishmash in order to tighten its focus, finally deciding what path it wants to take. Ultima IV took those steps and refined them even further, which I expect will be something of a common theme as I move forward (at least up to a certain point). Take the world, for instance. I remember Ultima II feeling very empty, a lot of interesting "geography" without much real actual point to it. Ultima III went about it a lot better, pretty much every corner of the map being used for something, even if it wasn't strictly necessary to see the game through to completion - but in doing so, it felt a little too tightly woven in some respects. It didn't take long at all to traverse the overworld, the journey between towns was simple and easy, and there wasn't much to impede my progress while traveling about. Ultima IV strikes the balance - there's plenty to see and do and explore, but it feels neither too spread-out nor too compact. Moongates make it easy to travel to and from cities, but you need to look outside of just the cities eventually. Ultima III's monster spawning and short distance between cities meant you could go quite a ways without actually being threatened by anything, but that's not the case in Ultima IV, and I like that. It's a nice balance that works well.

A few other issues I had with Ultima III were fixed to some degree or another in its sequel as well. The interface feels a bit more streamlined, in that inventory and food and gold are all communal now, and I no longer have to use a bunch of semi-tedious keystrokes to move necessary items from one party member to another. Not having to pass all that gold around really was nice, and made it easier to focus on what I needed to get done rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of who was holding what and who actually needed what.

Combat feels more varied, with battlefields like this.
In the same vein, combat feels improved, though still a little tedious at times, especially with a full party. But the game doesn't feel quite as grind-y as Ultima III did, and maybe that's in part due to the fact that the main character can build up experience via other means, and running around doing everything you need to do in-game will give you plenty of encounters so you don't have to go chasing them down, either. At the same time, combat screens are more interesting and varied than they were in Ultima III, with a bunch of different layouts and obstacles in the overworld and dungeon rooms being pretty unique more often than not. It meant you needed a little more planning than just arranging your party properly and then doing the 'Attack-direction' button mashing, although it did devolve into that a good deal in Ultima IV, too. At least the different layouts and the dungeon puzzles managed to keep it fresh beyond the barrage of missiles, though, and while it does feel somewhat repetitive after a while, at least it takes longer to get there.

As one of the Magincian ghosts said: The world went on without me.
Ultima IV takes further steps into developing an honest-to-goodness, breathing world, too. This is helped along immensely by the conversation and keyword system. Now instead of just simple one-liners, characters all have names, jobs, something to say. Sometimes it's something silly, like Short Round, or the rangers who seek a home where the deer and the antelope play, but it means the NPCs start to feel even more like characters. They're not just moving signposts now, they're characters proper, with a little bit of personality, even. They'll refer to other characters in other towns, give you advice on spells, even try and take action themselves only to fail (a lot of injured people at the various healers' are there as the result of failed dungeon explorations, after all). It speaks of a world that existed before you got there, of people with livelihoods going about their usual business, and that your path simply intersects with theirs. Sure, maybe the conversations you have with the populace are brief, but then again, considering the subject matter of the game, I think this sort of brevity suits it better - get too verbose and the game's liable to become a bit heavy-handed and preachy in places, as I feel may be part of the problem with Ultima IX (we'll see if I still think that by the time I play and finish it). So too do I enjoy the fact that you actually have to type in what you want to ask about, instead of simply choosing from a list - when there's a lot of keywords to use, the latter is admittedly much more useful and practical, but it feels more... I don't know, conversational to actually think about what it is you want to say, and maybe it's the linguist in me, but the fact that sometimes you have to figure out how to phrase things just right never really bothered me - quite the opposite, really, I kind of like it better that way.

I can't entirely move on from Ultima IV without some mention of its music, either. I didn't play with music this time around because I couldn't figure out how to get it to work properly without making the game zip at hyperspeed or else using a graphics path in conjunction with it, but I've done so in the past, and while I'm not overly fond of the overworld wandering tune, I love the rest of it. The town theme feels appropriately 'medieval domestic,' the dungeon theme is simple but ominous, a subtle reminder that danger could lurk around any corner. The music for the castles is bold and regal, the combat music just intense enough for a fight without being overbearing, and more triumphant than the minor-key bit used for Ultima III, to better reflect the honorable nature of it in this game. And the shrine music! Wispy and almost ethereal and reflective, just as it should be. None of it's terribly complex, but it's very well utilized.

Oh, I will, but I'll be back again.
And finally, of course, the story. There's two things that immediately come to mind while reflecting on Ultima IV's narrative on its own, separate from its place in the series as a whole. The first is the fact that it's very much a personal journey. It's not a story to strike down a bad guy to save the village or the kingdom or the world, or stop some disaster from happening for the same purpose. Sure, the Quest of the Avatar is purportedly to give the people of the realm an example to follow, some direction, and in that sense it is very much a quest for the kingdom as a whole, but when it comes down to it, in execution, Ultima IV's story is all about the journey of one individual and their development. What shapes the story isn't the outside forces moving that the player fights against - instead, it's the decisions of the player and what they learn as they move along. It's a story that's shaped from the inside out, rather from the outside in - one that's built upon the lessons learned by the character, instead of their reactions to what is happening around them. It's a Hero's Journey not just for the character in the game, but for the player himself. The only other game I've come across that has such an intensely personal story is Planescape: Torment, and I suppose it's small wonder that I rank that pretty highly on my list of favorite games, too. This is the type of story that I find much more compelling, because they're not just stories of the characters in the game - they're as much a story about the player. They're the stories that make a player think about what choices they make, not for what it will get them in terms of reward (be that experience, equipment, or the like), but for their own merit, what it says about their character. It's less a matter of conquering some Big Boss or Cataclysm or the like, and more a matter of conquering one's own self - highlighted even more in Ultima IV by the lack of a final boss, instead leaving the dramatic final encounter to a series of questions about the game's virtue system, which works well.

The other thing that comes to mind is how very freeform the story's structure takes. Really, when it comes down to it, there's very little that has to occur in a set order in Ultima IV. There's a series of things you need to do, yes - gather the companions, find the eight stones, become an eight part avatar, get the three-part key, obtain the bell, book and candle - but what order you do all these in really has no bearing whatsoever, just so long as you have it all done before you dive into the Abyss. Stories of this freeform sort can be very hard to pull off properly without it feeling either forced or shallow, but I think it works in part because Ultima IV's story is so personal. I've nothing against linearity at all, I don't mind it in the slightest if it's the best way to tell the tale one intends to, but these two things coupled together, I think, make Ultima IV rather unique, and I honestly can't think of anything that pulls it off in quite the same manner.

In terms of the story of the series as a whole, Ultima IV stands in very stark contrast to his predecessors, and according to what I've read about Ultima IV's development, that's by design. We've moved from the Ages of Darkness into the Ages of Enlightenment, and as I said back in my second post for this blog, this is where we move from establishing the rules of the setting to establishing the heart of the setting. This is where we turn from the enemies, the squabbles, the fights, and start to move into the realm of the philosophical, trying to get inside the culture of the setting. This is, to my eyes, something that the series will cling to from this point on, each game (at least in the main series) able to be interpreted as an exploration of some aspect of virtue, whether that's the nature of virtue itself, its nuance, or what happens when one misinterprets it in varying manners. While it may be the fourth game in the series, Ultima IV is where it truly begins, in some respects, this being the first game to pose some of the bigger questions - not just the what, but the why. It's one of the things I love about the series as a whole, and this is where that particular facet has its beginnings.

And so we move back from the game's story to my story, and I think that's a good deal of what I love about the game - they're one and the same, in the end. My history as a gamer - and even a storyteller, to a degree - is inextricably linked to this game. Every time I fire it up again, some part of me is suddenly ten years old once more, wide-eyed as he explores not just the realm of Britannia, but what the medium is able to do, for the first time. Maybe it's just the nostalgia - I know the control scheme can be a bit cumbersome and clunky until you get used to it, the graphics aren't anything to look at, and I know there's some even among my own generation that just can't get past stumbling blocks like that. And small wonder, I guess - like I've said before, the game predates me by three years.

But in the end, I don't care. Ultima IV's story is undeniably a part of mine. And in the same manner that the Quest of the Avatar is forever, so too is there still a lot of my story yet to be written.

I suppose that's a good note to end on as I move into the next chapter, huh?

Well, that's why I took the screenshot.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Ultima IV: The End and the Beginning

It seems somehow fitting that my trek through the Abyss to the codex chamber should be my eighth post in my playthough through Ultima IV (not counting my initial post and my character creation post, that is). Eight virtues, eight stones, eight floors of the Abyss, eight objects to enter it (three parts of the key; the bell, book, and candle; the wheel and the skull)... it only seems right that it should take me eight posts to chronicle my journey as well. Not exactly intentional, but fitting nonetheless. A happy coincidence, shall we say.

Treacherous waters ahead...
Of course, I couldn't go diving into the Abyss just yet - I still had supplies to gather! If I was to pick my way through the dangerous depths of the Stygian Abyss itself, I wanted to make sure I was well-equipped for the journey. So I hopped through the moongate and made for Minoc, or more accurately, the marshy spot southeast of Minoc, where I could gather mandrake root when the moons were dark. I spend a good while here, gathering enough mandrake to mix several Tremor spells, which I thought would come in handy during my expedition, and about fifty portions of the reagent besides, just in case I needed more. It was a necessary reagent for not just the Tremor spell, but a crucial part of the Resurrection spell, and would be needed for the Negate and View spells too, which would come in handy in case I came across a mass of magical enemies or ran out of viewing gems. I ran into several creatures wishing me ill in the process, and the experience gained from all the battles was enough to raise Geoffrey a level by the time I made my way back to Britain, only to head out again to forage for nightshade. This was a much less necessary reagent to gather, in my mind, but I could make use of it in both Kill and View spells, so it would be a handy thing to have regardless, and I would much rather have an excess of it when I didn't need it than a lack of it when I did. After mixing a dearth of cure spells, I wandered back to Paws to stock up on the rest of my reagents, with the gold I'd gained from the fights I'd got into along the way. With a healthy supply of food, reagents, and useful spells at the ready, I headed for Jhelom, where I'd docked my ship for when the assault on the Abyss would begin.

Fair winds were at our backs as we sailed west from the city of Valor, and we set our course for the Isle of the Abyss. I took a moment to peer through a gem and make sure I was entering from the right direction - it seemed there was a portion of the island that I hadn't explored yet that was reachable from a large inlet on the western side. I remembered that I had been told I would need a magically strengthened hull to survive, so I made use of the wheel, steeled myself for what may come, and sailed onward. The inlet turned out to be the hiding place of a very large pirate fleet, and the battles waged on the high seas were tumultuous indeed, with sails flapping in the wind, the echo of cannon fire loud in our ears, and the ruffians even boarding our vessel on several occasions. Our ship was as strong as our resolve, however, and we pressed onward, docking our ship on a swampy spit that gave way to mountains, lava flows trickling over the ridges until we found ourselves staring at a large pool of the stuff, searing even from a distance.

We had found the entrance to the pit itself.

I pulled the Book of Truth, the Candle of Love, and the Bell of Courage from my pack as we stepped through the lava, and I could see the pain etched on my companion's faces from the burns, though none wavered in their determination. At the pool's very center, I rang the bell, which was louder than I thought it would be. I opened the Book of Truth, reading from its pages, and even though the heat dried out my throat and made it difficult to speak, the words sounded loud and clear. Then I lit the candle, and its flame burned brighter than the flows around us. The very earth trembled as the maw opened up - but we could not descend just yet, not until we took care of one last order of business. I held the skull of my one-time foe, Mondain the Wizard, and took a moment to reflect on that fight we had waged, who knew how many years ago, lost in the depths of time. I remembered what he had wrought on the land, both by himself and through his apprentice, through their creation Exodus - and I consigned this last remnant of his personage to the flames of the Abyss, watching the skull crack as it sank.

It didn't feel right running through endgame in silence, with only the blips and burbles of shots fired to punctuate this last leg of my journey, so in the absence of the game's music (I couldn't get it to work without either updating the graphics as well or making the game run on super-speed, neither of which were desirable outcomes) I fired up Pandora, which gave me a suitably epic medley as I descended into the pit (I found the Piano Guys' Cello Wars particularly amusing as I plunged through level three, as well as the string medleys of Zelda music and the Skyrim theme that popped up during levels four and five). So with dramatic strings skrilling in my ears, I stepped into the Abyss, ordering my party behind me.

Since Katrina and Geoffrey were limited to melee weapons here, I stuck them to my left and right, and also put Dupre in a more forward role in the second line of defense with Iolo and Shamino. Julia and Mariah brought up the rear. Our trek through the first floor of the dungeon was fairly straightforward, first battling several lava lizards while picking our way through yet more lava, then a pack of demons as we filtered our way through a corridor lined with impenetrable barriers that forced us to pass over sleep fields. The second floor, too, was mostly straightforward, simply making our way past the aquatic creatures that greeted us to make our way through a false wall a gem had forewarned us about, through poison fields that led to the altar. On each floor, I was questioned as to the nature of the Virtues and their relationship to the Three Principles, which I was made to answer before placing the stone of the appropriate color on the altar and making my way further down.

Shepherds are tenacious.
Level three was again very straightforward, and even opened with an empty room, though I found myself battling a large stream of demons afterward - appropriate, for the floor that centered around Valor. It was level four that began to require a bit more strategy, necessitating me to navigate through more false walls, wind my way through tight corridors, and deal with creatures that moved through walls. It was the following floor that truly stretched my party to its limits, however. The rooms I trekked through held balrons, triggers behind fields that needed dispelling in the same place as the magic-negating zorns, gazers - but it was the reapers that truly tested my patience. One room held no less than nine of them in addition to three gazers, and the Tremor spells I cast to open the fight were nowhere near as effective as I had hoped they would prove to be. It was a slow, tedious process for my party to creep their way over and strike them down. Katrina and Dupre unequivocally proved their worth in this room, and indeed seemed to be vying for position as Most Valuable Party Member. Dupre bore through the burn of poison to shoot at the reapers from afar, the toxins coursing through his veins apparently having the side-effect of making him immune to the soporific effects of the reaper's spells, and Katrina bravely took step after agonizing step as she suffered through a veritable deluge of electricity and fire, her progress hampered by the several-turn-long nap nearly every step of the way, undeterred even when she was down to her last sliver of health (she was down to 2 HP at one point, and it was only luck that woke Aric up just in time to cast a Heal spell on her). Meanwhile, Aric and Mariah jockeyed for position to sling whatever spells were available while they were awake to do so. Repeated Tremors frustratingly had little to no effect, so they threw out whatever could do some damage from range - Fireballs, Iceballs, Kill spells, even a few Negates I had lying around, cancelling the reapers' magic in the vain hopes of buying the rest of my party time to wake up.

A creepy corridor.
Battered and weary, my little band of adventurers stumbled out of the room, only to find themselves in a room filled with dragons not long afterward. Despite having been below 100 HP for a good long while, Katrina never faltered, and reinforced my faith in her as a Companion. She may start out as a frustrating weakling, but with proper care, she's a force to be reckoned with. I found her to be one of the most resilient of my party, and she cut large swathes through the crowds of enemies with her Mystic Sword - I remember blinking as she sliced down a gazer in one swipe back on level four. She kept her head during this fight with the dragon nest, too, though it was Geoffrey who found the trigger beneath the lava that allowed us to the altar, down to level six and the winding maze that wound through its halls. The proper path started through a false wall, and curved back on itself several times. There were narcolepsy issues here as well due to the many balrons we faced, though nowhere near as problematic as the reaper den we stumbled upon above. We did get lost a time or two, though we found our way through without too much trouble. It was still a relief when I peered through a gem on level seven and found the way forward was much more straightforward, though - just a series of single rooms, and as long as we pressed our way north and west, we would be fine. We skirted the edges of a room on the suspicion getting to close to the conspicuous spot in the center of the room would unleash hydras on us, found switches hidden in secret walls, and arrived at the altar none too worse for the wear.

Can't beat the real thing.
More fiery creatures met us as we made our way through the last floor of the Abyss, and we all spent some time roasting in the lava flows (again!) as we searched for the way onward - which we soon found to be over yet another pool of fire. A rest and walk down a hallway after that, we saw a sight that suggested we were nearing the end of our trek through this dismal place - we saw ourselves. It was almost like looking in a mirror, really. A full party of eight, comprised of one each of the eight professions of Britannia. They were like us, yet not - one last reminder of the fact that we must all face ourselves before we can truly gain wisdom. It was a little jarring to see these simulacra just on the other side of the room, knowing we would have to fight our way past them in order to proceed. Though the look Shamino gave his own counterpart was apparently enough to send him fleeing before a single blow was thrown. We were glad for our ranged weaponry, it meant we could fight without having to see up-close just how accurate these facsimiles of ourselves were. However they might have looked like us, though, they were no match for our fighting skills, and after another bout with balrons, gazers, dragons, and demons - we were at the final altar. It was somewhat tremulously that I answered the voice from nowhere this time, and with shaky hands that I placed the black stone in its proper resting place.

And then...  darkness. I called out for my companions, but there was no response - I was in this chamber alone. Perhaps this chamber was reserved for those who had become an eight-part avatar. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I noticed a keyhole, shaped just like the key of Three Parts that I had formed in the dungeon altar rooms. A booming voice demanded the Word of Passage, which I called out in reply. And then the voice asked me a series of questions, asking about the nature of the virtues, the principles - and as I answered them, I slowly saw a design being etched into the stone before me, a design that looked vaguely familiar. Then I remembered it - the last page of the Book of History, imploring me to study that image well, for when I next looked upon it, my "life's quest would be revealed." The visions I had received at the shrines suddenly came together as I was asked one final question, and as I answered it, I felt the rumble as stone moved, revealing the resting place of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.

I had done it.

I had finished the Quest Lord British had bestowed - and taken up a new one, for the Quest of the Avatar, as the Codex told me, is forever.


This is probably my favorite of the final virtue questions.
So ended Ultima IV, and its endgame still remains, perhaps paradoxically, both utterly unique and the quintessential 'final stretch' experience. The final challenge in a solid game, and the events leading up to it as well, should be reflective of the game as a whole. One last test of how well the player has learned the rules of the game, the skills that he has been honing, the knowledge he has been gathering. Ultima IV's final exam is just that - a series of questions that cut right to the heart of the game itself, a method of testing just how well the player has learned the system of virtues at its very core. The dungeon leading up to this test serves to reinforce these lessons, necessitating brief reflection on the structure of the virtue system before one can proceed to the next level of the Abyss. Even the battles in this stretch help test how well the player has been paying attention - there are scads of tough fights, secret walls, and hidden triggers. It's memorable (the face-yourself moment on the final floor, the gradual drawing of the symbol of the Codex and the callback to the foreshadowing of it in the manual... I could go on for a while in this vein), it's exciting (I can still feel my pulse quicken bit by bit as I descend the Abyss, no matter how many times I've been through it), it's a solid culmination of everything the game has thrown at you (as any endgame should be), and I love it. It's the perfect conclusion to a game revolving around a philosophical journey and personal development. Sure, it can be frustrating at times (my first time through waaaaay back at the tender age of ten, I blew through the Abyss solo only to be kicked out at the very end for not having gathered the full party, and I had to do it all over again, and I can only imagine the look on my face), but in a sense, even that's fitting for the tone of the game, especially at the endpoint. Attaining wisdom isn't easy, and the bright-eyed intent to find it dims eventually. It's the struggle afterward that really defines the quest, and it is, as the game states, the endless quest of a lifetime.

As always, I'll have one more post collecting my final thoughts on the game, and then it'll be time to gear up for Ultima V! Stay tuned.

What more can I add to that, really?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Ultima IV: The Keys to Victory

With four of the stones in my pocket, a full party of eight, and sitting on the doorstep of Cove, it was time to ply the last batch of townsfolk for clues. Many of the threads I'd followed led to this small little village hidden off the coast of a lake, and it was time to tie them up into as neat a bow as I was able. Somewhere within this little village were the answers to the last questions I had about this quest of mine, and I was determined to draw them out.

Let's just say things were heating up and leave it at that.
My first answer come in the form of Brother Zair, whom I'd been directed to practically at the very beginning from a man I'd met in Paws. He had information about the word of passage that I would need at the entrance to the chamber of the codex - it would seem that each of the rulers of the three keeps across the land each knew one part of the word. Looked like another visit to the Lycaeum, Empath Abbey, and Serpent's Hold was in my future. Sloven pointed me to the supposedly haunted in over in Skara Brae to find out about the location of the white stone - he not only confirmed that the inn was indeed haunted, but that I'd have to ask the ghost who did the haunting about the stone. Merlin was rather more straightforward about the black stone, in contrast - I was told to search for it in a moongate, the one that opened on the darkest of nights, when the moons were black. That seemed fitting, and I added it to the list of places to revisit when I made my way back to the Lycaeum. A gathering of mages left me with much to ponder about the one pure axiom I apparently need, and Allen told me that the abyss could only be approached by ship, I'd need a magically strengthened hull to accomplish that. The sailors I'd talked to in my journeys talked often about the HMS Cape, and how mighty it was. I knew it went down in the Cape of Heroes, so perhaps it was time to plunge the depths of the seas. Finally, Blissful the Seahorse told me to meditate at the shrines of Honesty, Compassion, and Valor to find out what steps I'd need to take to enter the Abyss itself. There'd be some backtracking in my future!

There was one last thing I'd been directed to Cove to find, though, and after a little poking around I found the Candle of Love in a little alcove off of the shrine they had there. The shrine's Ankh also gave me a handy checklist of what I'd need to enter the chamber of the codex when I finally made my way to the bottom of the Abyss. I'd need to be an eight-part avatar, have the key of three parts, and know the word of passage and the one pure axiom. I only fulfilled one of those pieces, but I knew how to obtain two of the others, and I had much to consider in regards to the last. I considered myself well informed by this point.

I wonder if he'll finally find his peace after I finish the quest...
Saying goodbye to the pleasant folk of Cove and the quiet, contemplative atmosphere of the place, I prepared a Gate Travel spell (which I had learned from Mentorian near the town's entrance) and magiced over to Trinsic, where I supplied Geoffrey with a bow, who was in desperate need of a better weapon lest he be left behind. From there I made my way to Skara Brae by way of Minoc, so I could pick up some more Mandrake along the way. In Skara Brae, I stayed in the inn for a mere five gold - I suspect they had to discount the room severely in order to get any business, due to its haunted reputation. It took a couple nights, but the specter did show up eventually - and proved rather friendly to one on the Quest. I found myself wondering what his story was - his lingering presence seemed tied to the Quest itself, and I couldn't help but wonder what sort of circumstances led to that. He was disinclined to elaborate on the subject, though he did inform me that I could find the white stone in Serpent's Spine, though I'd need the ability to float through the clouds to find it. I remembered being told about a lighter-than-air device just outside Hythloth, and that I could find a secret entrance to that dungeon in Lord British's Castle, so I made a note and moved on.

My next stop was Yew, as that was a quick jump through the moongate away, and Empath Abbey wasn't too far away from there. A brief discussion with the lord there confirmed that he knew one part of the word, and told it to me with the exhortation to seek out the other two parts, which I had every intent of doing. From there it was off to the Shrine of Compassion, and after three cycles of meditation there, I discovered that I had to light the Candle of Love third in order to open the way to the Abyss. I suspected the shrines of Valor and Honesty would tell me the first and second steps, so I boarded my ship and set sail, with a brief stop at Serpent's Hold to learn another part of the word of passage from Sentri and a little poking around the Cape of Heroes, where I found the wheel to the HMS Cape. From there I sailed to the Shrine of Valor, learning that I should ring the Bell of Courage as my first step at the entrance to the Abyss, then it was off to the Shrine of Honesty, which I actually found without getting lost for once, where I was told to read the Book of Truth after ringing the bell. Since the Lycaeum was close by, I stopped there to learn the last part of the Word of Passage, then headed over to the moongate to pick up the black stone. Three more to go, and the complete Word of Passage to boot! Progress was undoubtedly being made.

The White Stone was here once.
...or so I thought. I took the moongate back to Britain, and plunged into the depths of Hythloth only to turn right back around and try to climb my way back out to the surface. I'd never done this before in any of my playthroughs - either I'd just X-it my way out, or I'd use Blink to get the white stone and not bother with the balloon at all. Consequently, this meant for a fair bit of stumbling around to find my way up. I even managed to find the altar where the stone used to be, and no wonder it went missing! It was RIGHT THERE on the first floor of the dungeon, and sure it was behind a trick wall and three poison fields, but surely somebody could find their way to it without too much trouble - although I suppose there's no way to get a ship there, but someone who can swim real well might be able to. Well, in any case, I kind of undid some of my progress here. I got swamped through a combination of dungeon rooms and encounters in Hythloth, and I was so desperate to get out that I somehow lost both my Valor and Sacrifice eighths - I'm still not entirely sure what happened, I blinked and suddenly they were gone. Apparently 'impatience' is not a virtue of the Avatar, either.

A brief glimpse of what's to come, from the air.
Resolving to rectify this unpleasant turn of events as soon as possible, I boarded the hot air balloon I found just past Hythloth, and a bit of navigating and several wind change spells later, I landed the balloon in a little alcove atop Serpent's Spine, marked by an ankh - and sitting there by it was the white stone! It didn't take long after that to regain my partial avatarhood in sacrifice, all it took was a rather generous blood donation to the castle healer and then a stop by the shrine. It took a little longer to regain my valor partial, but it too didn't take too much time, thankfully, and I opted to leave my ship by Jhelom and use magical means to get back to Britain - it was a short trip from Jhelom to the Isle of the Abyss, so it'd be more expedient that way. Having recovered from my momentary lapse of virtue, I delved back into Hythloth and pushed my way into the altar room of Courage, through which I pushed my way into Destard. There were some tough fights here, I bumped into a lot of Reapers and Gazers while searching, but I suppose my party was getting some much-needed rest as a result of those battles. In any case, it was a relatively short venture, and once the red stone was mine I ventured into Shame through the altar room. This was a longer journey, but eventually I made my way to the second floor where the purple stone lay awaiting me. I took the ladder up - and discovered that this part of the first floor didn't have an exit ladder. Well, I decided I wasn't quite up to backtracking quite that much, and caved - I mixed and cast an X-it spell.

Only to plunge back into Hythloth and make a run of the altar rooms. I'd noticed that each dungeon connected to the altar room associated with the principles that formed the virtue that stood in contrast to each dungeon, and since Hythloth was Spirituality's opposite, that meant it connected to all three. And sure enough, after enough poking about in its depths, fighting off demons, and placing the proper stones in the right places, I pocketed first one third of the key, then a second, then finally the last. A few spells later, I was back in Castle British, who raised Mariah another level - and then told me I was ready for the Abyss.

And I paused a moment. Enlightenment in eight virtues. Tracking down the eight colored stones. Checking out the Book of Truth from the Lycaeum's library. Pulling up the Bell of Courage from the depths of the sea. Finding the Candle of Love in a small alcove. Scrounging about in the dark depths to find the three parts of the key. The Word of Passage. The wheel from the Cape. Even the very Skull of Mondain himself. Everything I needed was there, either in my hands or in my head. The knowledge I needed, the necessary items, and seven stalwart companions that had fought by my side against dragons, gazers, zorns, demons, balrons, reapers, the most terrifying creatures the depths could think to throw at us.

All that remained was the Stygian Abyss itself. And there, down in the very heart of the darkest pit in all of Britannia, lay the object of my quest. The Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.

Together, the eight of us would conquer it. And I would enter the chamber and finally view the codex itself.

The end of the journey was in sight.

Ready for the final leg...