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...)


  1. Firs of all: great "Stones" interpretation. Man I wish I could play any instrument (or to sing ;)).

    This is so far the only Ultima game I have finished. Maybe it is a little step back from Ulima IV (fewer classes and fewer factors on which your Karma level depends - finally I could kill does fleeing enemies or flee myself:)) but it also improve many things such as graphic (especially in dungeons) and combat (diagonal attacks). The story is also quite interesting and changes in the game world were great! I enjoyed this game very much.

    Ps. I'm interested how Negate Magic spell will work for you, becouse for me it was totally useless for iit's absurdly short effect time. And (to some point) it was necessary when fighting some monsters. Oh well, maybe it'ssomething wrong with my DOSBox configuration.
    Ohh and make sure to vist The Exodus Project website and download music patch for the game!

    Good luck fighting the Shadowlords!

    1. ...huh, I apparently forgot to mention that up there, didn't I. Oh well! Music patch has already been downloaded and applied, ain't no way I'm making my way through an Ultima game without the music if I can help it!

      There was a lot about Ultima V that I liked the last time I tried to see it through to completion - the combat, the nuances of the story, the little details of the world, the writing and characterization, all things that were very much improved for the better from Ultima IV. I just kept getting bogged down mechanics-wise - it can take me a while to get used to a new 'system', so to speak, and when it doesn't click after a while I tend to find other things to do instead. But I'm determined to see it through this time! (So hopefully I acclimate quick. ;) )