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?

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