Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ultima VI: Opening Thoughts

One thing that I've enjoyed about playing through the Ultima series chronologically - as well as doing so in a manner that makes me more inclined to be somewhat analytical as I play - has been watching the series develop and change as time moves on. The first appearance of what would be the moongates in Ultima II, the beginnings of the party system and the line of sight in Ultima III, the reagents and the virtues of Ultima IV... each entry in the series iterates on the previous one, and while it was years in between games as they were developed and released, it's a matter of weeks for me. It's neat to see it grow, the craft involved refined, new things tried and left behind and changed and adapted, how one element leads into others.

And as I ready myself for Ultima VI, I'm bracing myself for a whole boatload of those changes.

The Ultima V box art is a nice touch.
Released in 1990, Ultima VI marked the first entry in the series primarily developed on and for the PC, and with it came some pretty dramatic shifts. Engine changes between entries was one of the hallmarks of the series, but I'd argue that the shift between Ultima V and Ultima VI is probably the most dramatic one yet. Ultima VI does away with the dual-scale world and wireframe 3D dungeons the series has stuck with up until this point, and instead threads it all together into a single-scale seamless world. Not only that, it's the first game to make use of character portraits, and it took full advantage of the color capabilities available as well - it's brighter, more vivid, and a very stark difference (we are definitely not in the Ages of Darkness anymore)! This is also the game that introduces us to the Gargoyles, and all the intricacies of their own kind, adding another layer to the series' setting and lore, and doing so by means of a story whose like I still haven't seen since - where an ideological war isn't resolved through victory in one decisive battle, but through compromise, acknowledging the merit of both sides.

It's that very story that's made me excited to get to Ultima VI. It's a game that I've wanted to like and love (and finish!) for that reason alone. Give any other game a setup like Ultima VI's - a good and noble kingdom's very way of life threatened by a mysterious force through no perceived provocation whatsoever, watching sites of great import fall before their very eyes - and the story will very likely proceed along the lines of pushing back, culminating in one final decisive strike that banishes the evil from the land again. But not so with The False Prophet - while it does start with pushing back, ultimately resolution is found through understanding. What's begun through wildly differing interpretations of the same results - all of which are perfectly justifiable - is resolved not by the side which can back its position up the best, but by one individual and his band trying to see both sides of the coin.

The False Prophet loses no time in upping the ante.
It's a story that hits the ground running, too. Before the game even starts you're drawn into a trap by the demonic looking Gargoyles, tied to a slab while they chant ominously and ritualistically, clearly meaning to kill you. It's only by the intervention of your companions that you even manage to escape, and the intro immediately establishes the Gargoyles of having it out for you and you personally, with the lengths they go to in order to draw you into their clutches. Even the first few moments of gameplay is a fight with three of their number who chase after you - they're not willing to let you go so easily. It doesn't just draw the lines in the sand right off the bat - it establishes the player's own role in the story, the personal stakes. And it's a very compelling tactic.

Ultima VI falls into the same category that Ultima V did for me - while I've enjoyed what bits of it I've played, the interface trips me up enough that I've never seen it through to completion. There's a lot to be said for the increased graphical system used in Ultima VI, but to me, inventory management always felt bogged down a bit by the fact it's not a click-and-drag system, and once again, the limited visibility during the night was something I struggled with. Consequently, the most I've ever done with the game was free the shrines and find a map piece or two. I've got no choice but to grow accustomed to the game engine at some point now, though - if not in The False Prophet, then in one of the two Worlds of Ultima games to follow it! Finishing Warriors of Destiny on such a high note gives me high hopes that that won't be the stumbling block that it once was, though.

Before I start out the game proper, though, as per usual I have to bring up the manual. Ultima VI's Compendium is penned by none other than Lord British himself, and from the manual's tone and how it ties into the themes of the game, I can't really think of a more appropriate figure. There's a subtle tone throughout of the superiority of the virtues and the Way of the Avatar, a certain patriotic propaganda feel to it, of Britannia as the pinnacle of a civilized way of living - and, of course, Lord British's own part in it! It's not particularly blatant, but it's there just beneath the surface, and for one who reads between the lines, it offers a hint that maybe the Gargoyles aren't quite the heinous affront to Virtue that your very own monarch purports them to be.

As I did with Ultima V, I've imported my character from the previous game rather than create a new one - it's a feature of the game and one that isn't implemented often, so I may as well take advantage of it while I can. It's the first time I can choose a portrait for Aric, too, though since I'm limited to one option for Savage Empire and Ultimas VIII and IX, and I'm going through the series with the mindset it's the same character throughout, I suppose I'm relegated to one option here as well for continuity's sake. I'm also planning on limiting myself to using the Orb of the Moons to travel to places I've already been to on foot first, just for personal reasons - that way I'm more inclined to explore and take my time, rather than just zip through all the highlights of the game. I think I'll enjoy it more that way.

There's a good deal I'm looking forward to with this one. I've never been to the Gargoyle lands, and I can't wait to have a few conversations at the Shrines of the Gargoyle principles. I've already caught myself digging into Gargish (it was justified! I couldn't be expected to just leave the runes on the sacrificial slab in the opening untranslated, could I?) and I wouldn't be surprised if I tossed out a side-post or something on the language, all its own - I didn't choose to call myself Linguistic Dragon for nothin'! I know already I'm going to have a lot to discuss as I go through the game - time for me to get started!


Friday, April 24, 2015

Ultima V: Closing Thoughts

While we were recording Episode 5 of Spam Spam Spam Humbug (if you're unaware, that's The Ultima Codex's podcast, of which I've found myself a regular part of the panel), Goldenflame Dragon made a remark along the lines of going on record as saying, "We argue which is the best Ultima, but if you don't say Ultima V, you're probably wrong." And I chuckled and grinned along with the rest of the panel for that episode, and we had a glorious chat about several aspects of the game that we enjoyed.

However, I've found myself starting to wonder just how accurate that statement might be.

Considering I've just come off of Ultima IV, with all the gushing and praise-singing I did there, heralding it as my favorite of the series... this puts me in something of an awkward position.

One of the longer fights I found myself in
I enjoyed Ultima V considerably more than I expected, and considering this was the case with Ultima III as well, I'm pleased for what this potentially suggests for the rest of my 'played but not won yet' streak that'll hold until I hit Ultima VII. The stumbling blocks I had in my previous attempts just didn't seem to bother me quite so much this time around, maybe because I had better workarounds - the crushingly small view one gets in the dark was easily mitigated with torches, which I never seemed to be lacking for due to how many I found on my fallen enemies, and gathering them in the first place didn't bring about the high risk of poison my previous attempts did on account of the fact I actually figured out chests could be (S)earched for traps and that one could (J)immy the lock to disarm them. Combat could be a bit long and tedious sometimes, but the fact I could run from combat without worry of losing virtue this time around meant I could avoid it when I felt like it. Consequently, I could focus on the game itself, rather than get bogged down with the facets of the system I found a bit frustrating.

There's a lot that Ultima V improved on, and I think I'll start with the magic system. This was the game that gave us the structure and syllables of magic - eight circles, twenty-six syllables that each represented different ideas, and you strung them together to get a related spell. You wanted a spell to cure poison, you intoned a spell that contained the syllables of poison and negation. You wanted to blast your enemies with a stream of fire, you could invoke a spell with the words for creation, fire, and wind. It added a certain amount of depth to the system, gave it a certain logic and order even moreso than Ultima IV did, where the components of a spell were chosen for the magical properties they necessitated. It was nice to not have to mix spells one at a time, as well - I could tell the system I wanted 10 spells of this type using this blend of reagents, and there they were. Made it a little easier to use.

The dungeons have far more character to them than previously.
There were also the wider variety of items to make use of - potions and rings and scrolls and the like. The effects they wrought were useful, and the fact they could be used by any party member meant that even the non-magically oriented members of the group could take care of themselves in a pinch. They just required a different kind of resource in order to do so. Rather than needing to wait for a teammate with magic reserves, Dupre could pop a red potion to cure himself of poison. If Shamino was getting pummeled, he could pull out an An Tym scroll and give himself time to regroup. And I made copious use of everything at my disposal in Doom - while many of these things had similar effects, I never felt that any of them were truly redundant, it just gave me more options and backup plans. The fact that these were all items that could be obtain as rewards from combat was a welcome addition, too - it made combat feel rewarding, especially against the tough foes. It wasn't just a way to grind for cash to be able to buy everything I wanted, it meant that I could live off the land a bit and make use of what I found.

While I found the day/night cycle frustrating when I made my first attempt at Ultima V, I've come to appreciate it immensely now. It contributes a lot to the atmosphere of a living, breathing world, a world that I'm stepping into rather one that simply exists while I'm around to see it. People come and go about their business, ailing NPCs spend most of their day resting, everybody takes the time out of their day to have a meal - it's small touches, but they add so much to the feel of the world.

A demon in a desert - who'd have expected to come across this?
When it comes down to it, though, I think what really clicked with me about Ultima V is that sense of exploration and discovery as I saw the story and the world unfold around me, the same spark that drew me in to Ultima IV all those years ago. I devoured the game this time just as ravenously as I did Ultima IV on my first playthrough, and maybe that's why I've come to love it as much as I have - it's evoked that feeling, rekindled that joy to some extent. The conversations are deeper, the NPCs memorable, and even the landscape itself has some character, what with the oppressive feel of Blackthorn's castle, the individuality of the dungeons, the glint of the lighthouses piercing the dark of night.

And there's the knowledge that there's a good portion of the game I still haven't seen, too. I never once set foot into Destard, I never paid a visit to Windemere or attempted to infiltrate the Oppression, missed out on the plans for the HMS Cape and the Chaos Sword and the infamous room of bloodthirsty children in Hythloth. There's more yet for me to discover, and I know I'll be coming back to the game down the road.

Right under Blackthorn's nose...
As per usual, I can't get away from one of the games without taking the time to muse on its story. What Ultima V comes down to is the fact that virtue, as many NPCs in New Magincia remind the player of, is something that needs to be chosen. This is a game that takes the Virtues and pits them against their antithesis, presents the need for them all the more starkly. Through Blackthorn, his corruption by the Shadowlords, and the resulting Laws he enforces, it can even be considered to take a look at how even good-intentioned actions can turn out to be anything but good. And in the same vein, the ending indicates that actions have consequences, that virtue sometimes needs to be its own reward, and emphasizing what Blackthorn's rule and vilification of the Avatar and his companions suggested - that upholding what is good and right can be a very thankless, and in fact costly, task. It's a story that covers some themes that are difficult to digest, and not only that, it presents them organically, as the player is allowed to achieve the tasks necessary to complete the game in any order they choose, so long as all of them are finished before one plunges into Doom. It's not always easy to provide the player with a fulfilling story when it's in a setting as freeform as Ultima V's is, but when it's ultimately a story of a philosophical nature, it's almost ideal - the musings of the citizens of Britannia on their new "status quo" becomes an invitation to the player to consider the issues presented as well. It's a mature topic covered well, and even trusts the player to come to some of their own conclusions.

As far as its position in the larger Ultima narrative, Ultima V represents the middle volume of the Age of Enlightenment trilogy, or as I called it in my second post of this blog, the "Age of Philosophy." Things always take a turn for the darker in the second portion of a trilogy, and Ultima V is no exception. If Ultima IV began to define the culture and ideals of the setting the Ages of Darkness (the "Age of Struggles," as I referred to it) set up, then Ultima V refined them further, expanding on the structure of Britannia's government and social structure, and demonstrating the differences between the ideal of Ultima for and actuality. It reinforced the idea that the Quest of the Avatar truly is forever (as even the ending screen reminds the player, in runic), that it's a constant struggle. It even took a step in defining the Avatar's role in the world - Lord British, the most highly powered individual in the realm, still can't save himself. It's up to the Avatar to see to the well being of Britannia - an idea that's examined way down the line in Ultima IX as to whether this was truly the best role for him. Ultima IV made the Avatar - Ultima V began to show what exactly that meant. And this, perhaps, is the most important role Warriors of Destiny plays in the grand story of Ultima.

So now do I turn from Ultima V to Ultima VI, and as I do, my regard of the game is considerably higher than it used to be. It still hasn't overtaken my favorite spot, but it's now a very, very close second, I think - Serpent Isle is going to have some catching up to do when I get to it again. It'll be fond memories behind me as I advance to the story of the False Prophet - and I must admit I've been very much looking forward to it.

But that's something to be saved for my opening post of Ultima VI, I think. Until then!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Ultima V: Return of the King

...what? What else could I title this one, really?

Anyway, as that title may imply, I finished up Ultima V yesterday evening, and spent a good while afterward wandering around my apartment with the words "Man. Freakin' DOOM" falling off my tongue.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself, aren't I?

Right off the bat, this ain't gonna be simple.
When last I left my intrepid band of bold adventurers, we were camped out just outside the entrance of Shame, ready to make the journey into its depths, beyond which the Codex had told us lay the way to the core of the world, where Lord British awaited our arrival. This was it. The last stage of our rescue mission. We'd neutralized our main adversaries (hopefully Blackthorn would mellow out once he was truly free of the Shadowlords' influence). We'd managed to pry the Crown Jewels back out of their hands. We'd been told, albeit cryptically, what we might expect during the expedition, and we'd prepared as best as we were able. All that was left was to enact the mission itself, facing down the dangers at the very heart of the Underworld, pushing past them all in order to rescue Lord British and bring him back to his rightful place as ruling monarch.

The first obstacle we encountered was one rapidly dealt with. As with all the other dungeons, the entrance to Shame had been sealed with a Word of Power by the Great Council. My investigations had long since provided me with the word necessary, so it was simply a matter of speaking it to provide us access to this first leg of our last foray into the depths. We braced ourselves for an onslaught - surely, if Lord British had been imprisoned in a section of the Underworld only accessible through Shame, it would be a tough fight to get through the dungeon if the king himself could not fight his way back to his own realm. We gritted our teeth, readied our weapons, and pressed forward into - an empty room. Nothing but rocks as far as our eyes were able to see in the dim torchlight, not even a way down or further in. Nothing, at least, until we took a closer look at the walls, after climbing our way over some of the rock piles that littered the room. After pushing a series of secret switches, we managed to find the way forward and pressed on.

Even a gem couldn't pierce the darkness.
Beyond the entryway, the hallway diverged in three different directions, each ending in a ladder downward. Each was labeled: one "Deep," another "Deeper," and the third "Deepest." Naturally, seeing as we were aiming to make our way all the way to the bottom, we chose the third. The ladder took us all the way to the bottom floor, but rather than simply Des Por our way out, as we had on a few occasions previous, we thought a bit more exploration might provide us with further amenities we could make use of in the trials to come. We found ourselves fighting against sea serpents, slimes, and even a few reapers, though the last were easily rendered helpless through the use of the Crown, and they were guarding some very precious treasure indeed. Numerous viewing gems, potions, scrolls, magic rings, all of them were ours to claim once the reapers had been defeated. Stowing them away for future use, we eventually found the exit point, and emerged one final time into the dank realm of the Underworld.

The land in this part of the Underworld was rather swampy, so we hopped aboard the magic carpet and set about exploring. Over rough waters and even a stream of lava we directed our makeshift vessel, and it was harsh going through such conditions - we were glad that our trek through Shame had not proven overly difficult, for if we had come out of the dungeon with large injuries, it surely would have made this part of our journey all the more unbearable. Slowly we closed in on our target - only to come across the most oppressive, impenetrable, utterly crushing darkness any of us had ever known. Torches, light spells, nothing could push through it - not even a glance through a viewing gem revealed anything through that shell. It was only Lord British's amulet that revealed our goal to us, and even then, only just barely. Deep in the darkness lay a sealed crevasse much like those that heralded the entryways to the dungeons above ground. This, we discerned, was the "core of the world" the Codex had referred to. We took a few hours to rest before venturing in, and as if knowing we were on our way to him, the spectral visage of Lord British appeared to us, restoring us to the fullest of our ability. We stood before the passage, and the echoes of my shout of "Veramocor!" reverberated in the empty space, bounding off deep into the inky black that surrounded us.

A deep breath to steel ourselves, and we ventured in.

Immediately we were thrust into a room with no exits, even the opening we came in through sealing off behind us. Strange purple barriers blocked our passage in every direction, but the king's scepter proved able to dispel these ethereal wards. With no way of knowing which way to go, however, we picked a direction and hoped for the best. The first few floors of the dungeon Doom were a conglomeration of ladders, though our route proved mostly straightforward.

Then the difficulties began.

SO glad I took the time to get access to those 8th Circle spells!
It all started with a ladder we found on the second floor, taking us down to - a trap! We found ourselves in a rocky room strewn about with the remains of the dead, our passage forward - and more importantly, our passage back - indiscernible. Remembering that first room in Shame, we began to search the walls, but Jaana noticed a strange look in Shamino's eye, and too late did we realize we had not taken the precaution of donning the Crown - he'd been possessed! Frantically we hurried to rectify our oversight, all while trying to find a way out of the room. It was a deadly dance we performed, skirting the edges of the and trying to give Shamino as much distance as the small quarters allowed, praying all the while for him to throw off the effects swiftly, until we managed to find the hidden switch that lowered the ladders again, and we climbed back out. Shamino followed suit some time later, with a very sheepish look on his face, though we assured him we could hardly hold it against him. No harm was done in the long run, but we resolved to be more careful in the future.

We pushed deeper, encountering a fair number of demons as we climbed up and down pits, the maze-like passageways of the middle floors of the dungeon connecting with each other in intricate ways that we could hardly wrap our heads around. Eventually, however, nearing what we perceived to be the bottom of the dungeon, we came across a series of rooms that required practically every trick we had to even survive. First came a sandy room full of dragons, demons and sand traps, all hardy enemies, and all standing in the way of a ladder downward. Brute force was not enough here - it was a combination of In Vas Grav Corp spells and An Tym scrolls that eventually won us the day, scarred and weary. After picking up the remnant treasures the enemy left behind, we pushed onward, exhausted, only to find ourselves in even tighter quarters beset upon by more dragons, with their aquatic kin, the sea serpents, supporting them. Those defeating using much the same tactics, and donning regeneration rings to give us a hopeful edge, however slight, we set about finding a way to cross the river in the room, eventually finding a space on the wall that a carefully aimed shot triggered to form a bridge. Unfortunately, it also triggered a swarm of mongbats at our backs, which meant another arduous fight.

Note Dupre's dead body. That was my fault. Entirely.
I'll admit, I full-party-wiped multiple times during this section of Doom. I was throwing everything I had at this batch of baddies, but the onslaught just would not stop. I cleared out as many enemies as I could in the first room, though noticed I hadn't triggered the 'VICTORY!' message that indicated I had blasted through them all, only to get caught off guard by even more enemies in the following room, and once I'd taken care of them and formed the bridge, the mongbats took me by surprise again and I didn't have enough resources to handle them and survive. Eventually I took it one step at a time - I cleared out the first room with strategic aiming of area effect spells, doffing and donning the Crown as necessary to entice the wisps in the room to warp in where I could attack them, and went back out to rest back to full health before taking on the second in much the same manner, making sure I oriented my party properly before triggering the mongbat swarm. Thank goodness dungeon rooms stay cleared in Ultima V!

Not exactly the reward I was hoping for.
When all was said and done, and we limped our way away from the scene of all the carnage, we were barely clinging to the last threads of life, and Dupre had given his own in the fracas - by my own hand, I'm sorry to say, he was in the wrong position when I fired off an In Vas Grav Corp spell and there was no time to amend such. We had to resort to a scroll to resurrect him (thankfully he didn't hold it against me), and it was some time before we had recovered enough to push onward, even with Vas Mani spells and regeneration rings hurrying the process along. We next we found ourselves thrust into a fight, we were relieved to see it was simply sharks and wisps. Sharks were no trouble at all for us anymore, and while wisps were dangerous no matter how you looked at it, we nullified the risk of getting charmed by them with the Crown, and used the terrain to our advantage to take them out before they could get close enough to retaliate in kind. It was refreshing to have a relatively easy fight, but it didn't last long, when more ethereal wards made a fight with demons and mongbats difficult to orchestrate due to the tight quarters, and complicated even further when half the room started filling with lava. Shamino and Dupre didn't survive to stagger their way out with the rest of the group, but fortunately, just after that was our goal.

Through a pit in the floor, we descended into a simple, well-furnished room with a mirror, though it was not our own reflection that we saw in it - but that of Lord British! One by one we were absorbed into the mirror, Shamino and Dupre resurrected in these final moments, and presented with the sandalwood box we had retrieved from his quarters, Lord British extracted a strange stone from it, casting it to the ground where we were all bathed in the crimson glow of a summoned moongate.

We all stepped through, and we knew our purpose had been achieved.

What the world had lost, it had now regained.


A difficult choice, either way.
So ended the tale of my venture through Ultima V. I was catching my breath as I went through the last few scenes of the game (thanks to the harrying combat in the final sections of Doom), as I watched Aric take note of the various items stolen from his home in his absence, and dreaming of Blackthorn's judgment, choosing to face the unknown in exile from Britannia rather than the punishment of the Council. It's a bittersweet ending in several respects - the hero returns victorious, but that's all he has upon his return, his very home broken into and robbed. Blackthorn - and Lord British as well, in his own way, as far as his dealings with him - is caught between a rock and a hard place. It's acknowledged that British's regent's actions were not entirely his own, but they are still actions that demand consequences, and Justice needs to be doled out, the heinous acts answered for. It's not a completely happy ending by any respect, though it is, at least, hopeful - acknowledgement that Blackthorn can change, that there is still satisfaction in doing The Right Thing even at personal cost.

As rough as it was, I really enjoyed the endgame, and part of that's an extension of the improvements made to the dungeons in Ultima V over IV. In Ultima IV, they all felt rather same-y, the same blue-and-green hallways in each of them, and more often than not, the floors of a dungeon felt fairly isolated from each other, self-contained and mostly a puzzle to figure out how to get from the ladder going back to the ladder going forward. In Ultima V, each dungeon feels more unique, from the layout to the design of the corridors. The prison of Wrong is laid out in cell blocks, the crypts of Covetous are littered with tombstones and skeletons, and Doom is one giant three-dimensional maze, necessitating one to go up and down and back and forth between several levels multiple times in order to find the way to the end. It's very much an improvement over the game's immediate predecessor, and I had a good time running through them. But still - man. Freakin' DOOM. What a ride.

As always, I'll have one more post drawing together my final thoughts on Warriors of Destiny, then it'll be time to put the game behind me and move forward onto Ultima VI. Finishing this one has put me in an interesting position, to be sure - but I think I'll leave that one for my next post. Until then!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ultima V: Dungeons Deep, Caverns Old

With the defeat of Faulinei at the end of my last session, I realized that I'm hurtling pretty quickly toward the endgame of Ultima V, and I'm... surprised at how smooth the ride has been, really. I've mentioned before my difficulties in getting into the game on my previous attempts, but they haven't really been an issue this time around. I'm not exactly sure why, either. Maybe it's because I have more reason to see the game through to its end, what with a blog to "hold me accountable" to a degree. Maybe it's because I've taken the time to really process the game, think through my impressions and the game design so I have something interesting to say. Or maybe it's just because I'm finally becoming 'fluent' in Ultima V - I'm so used to doing everything the way Ultima IV does, there's been some 'translation' issues. For example, to mix, say, a Tremor spell in Ultima IV, my fingers go on autopilot and hit M-T-E-A-H-Enter, and poof, one Tremor spell all mixed and ready to go. It's muscle memory in action, I don't even have to think about what those individual keystrokes represent, I just know that's the sequence that gets me a Tremor spell. Here, I have to remember the incantation, look up which reagents go with it. Sometimes I forget the sextant is something I have to (U)se now instead of (L)ocate with, and that I can only do so at night. These sorts of things used to be an impediment - not so anymore.

Does this mean Mystic Armor is fireproof?
As such, I'm finding it difficult to stop playing long enough to write up a synopsis of the session! Which is a good sign, I'd say, and I've got a list of things that I didn't get to this playthrough that I want to make sure I make mention of and fool around with next time I fire up Ultima V - the game has endeared itself to me much the same way its immediate predecessor did back when I first played it at the tender age of ten. This is feeling similar to the way Ultima III did for me when I began winding down - as excited as I am for the endgame, I'm almost sorry to know that I'm going to have to say goodbye to the game soon, too. But that, in and of itself, is a mark of a good game - it's one you want to keep coming back to.

On to the game itself! With Faulinei defeated, that left two other Shadowlords to deal with, which mean further ventures into the Underworld to gather the Shards needed to do so. After some consideration, I decided to track down the Shard of Cowardice first - Hythloth was a fairly easy jaunt by ship from the Lycaeum, and it would have the added bonus of putting me within reach of the mystic equipment, which would be very handy to have on hand, the armor especially. I sailed south and around the Isle of the Avatar, taking a moment to shout the Word of Power that Hassad had given me in order to open the entrance of the dungeon. What met my eyes was a very long ladder down, down, down into the depths of what seemed to be a mine. Further and further we made our way, until we found ourselves in a small room at the very bottom, full of bats and with a decent amount of gems. There was no other way out of the room, however, so after clearing out the vermin and gathering the gems (they would prove useful, after all), we climbed back up the ladder to see if we'd missed anything.

Navigating tight spaces
Sure enough, there was a hidden passage just off the main ladder on the seventh floor, and after following it for a ways down to the eighth, and one more Des Por spell later, we emerged back into the Underworld, which was beginning to feel very familiar. Peering through a gem to get a sense of my bearings, I remembered that the mystic equipment was supposed to be right beneath the Codex, which wasn't very far at all from the entrance to Hythloth. Through the gem, I could see a small alcove just to my northwest where they likely lay, so after some careful climbing, we gritted our teeth and forged ahead into the lava. Though we were seared by the heat, and had to step back out several times to recover, two or three trips rewarded us with six sets of Mystic Armor, and six Mystic Swords to accompany them. Quickly we donned the armor, though we kept the weapons in reserve for potential later use - the range of the magic axes we were using was just too useful for the time being.

From there we started to explore the nearby vicinity - it was very mountainous territory, with only small pockets of space able to be traveled. We had earlier been informed that we would need to make use of magic to get around down here, and indeed, the In Por spell saw a good deal of use as we wandered our way through. We had a location for the shard, but the sextant we held was of no good to us here in the Underworld. We did, however, have one other way of discerning our location: the In Wis spell, which I used on occasion to help orient myself. The battles we fought in this part of the Underworld were both frequent and arduous, though the terrain could serve to our advantage when we made proper use of it - we held our ground in narrow passageways, and sometimes the fallen would obstruct the way of the rest of our enemies, which gave us free rein to pick them off from afar. (Twice I managed to stave off an army of mongbats because of the chests of loot some of their number dropped upon defeat - they made a wall of sorts across the only gap they could use to get to us. I must admit I was highly amused by this.)

Ha ha, you can't get me now!
It took many spells and a fair number of gems to map out our route to the Shard, but we did find it eventually. The knowledge we'd gained in the process made it easier to find the way back to Hythloth, but between attacks and earthquakes, we were in very bad shape by the time we neared it. Exhausted, we collapsed, Dupre very nobly offering to stand guard while we rested, only to be visited by the ghostly apparition of Lord British, healing us all to full strength before we pushed back into the dungeon. Battling our way past demons rendered considerably less powerful through the effects of Lord British's crown, we passed back and forth between the fifth and sixth floors of the dungeon, collecting treasure all the while, until we found the main ladder that led back to the surface.

Immediately we set sail for Serpent's Hold, heading for the chamber that held the Flame of Courage to see another of the Shadowlords eliminated. Calling out the name I had been given, I raised the Shard above my head - and hesitated, the hand holding the Shard beginning to tremble. I'd come far, yes, but would I really be able to see this entire venture through? We had seen the power of the Shadowlords, the terrors they had wrought upon the land through the hand of Blackthorn, the wounds they could inflict even on their own. What if there was worse out there before we rescued the rightful monarch? Could my fellow adventurers bear through it? Could I? It was Shamino's hand on my shoulder, his resolute expression, that snapped me out of such thoughts, and as Nosfentor lunged, her whispers in my ear letting the fear take hold just long enough for her to advance, I threw the Shard into the brazier.

That's two down...
It took a moment before I was ready to head out again, and even then, it was only to gesture vaguely, telling my little band that we made for Lost Hope Bay, to seek out the Shard of Hatred by way of Covetous. It was not a long trip, though mostly made in silence. The dungeon itself was fairly simple to traverse - it seemed to served as a large crypt of sorts, and a ladder labeled "To the Lower Crypts" took us down most of the way through the dungeon. Using the scepter to dispel the magical fields we encountered as we searched the hallways, we eventually found our way to the exit through a combination of magic and exploration. All we had to go of off for this particular Shard was a coordinate, so we were off again after one In Wis later. It seemed a fairly straightforward venture, after crossing some mountains and heading south for a ways. This part of the Underworld was less labyrinthine than others we had come across, so it seemed it would be a simple trip.

It turned out to be a bit less so, as the Shard was within a rocky region that required careful climbing to approach. The less able of our group slipped often, and we were all fairly well scraped before we caught our breath in the middle of the little mountain. The shard lay within, and we took a moment to rest before we inched our way back, bit by bit over the rocks, keeping a careful eye on each other, not wanting to lose anybody to the perils of the steep outcroppings. Jaana in particular was in fairly bad shape, and so rather than try and make it back to Covetous, we decided to work our way back to the surface through Wrong, which was a bit more of a direct route with less mountain climbing. It also had the advantage of being closer to Empath Abbey when we emerged again, so that was a second reason to take the alternative route.

There were another four demons in here when we entered. Oy.
Unfortunately, after entering, we came to the discovery that we were out of viewing gems. The venture for the Shard of Cowardice had used up a good deal of them, and I had failed to take inventory before plunging back into the depths. By this point I was experienced enough to have a backup plan, though - I had plenty of reagents on hand, and a few In Quas Wis spells, while giving me less strength for other useful spells, would serve their purpose well here. We struggled in the early going as we made our way through the prison of Wrong - a long path of explosive traps led right to the lair of a summoner and his six demons, which made for a very tough fight, Dupre was barely holding on by the end of it, and most of the rest of us weren't in much better shape - but once we found our bearings, it was a relatively simple matter to ascend back to the surface of Britannia, and we trekked through the Deep Forest to the keep of Empath Abbey.

In a way, it felt almost appropriate. My first brush with the Shadowlords had not been particularly far, and it was to Iolo's cottage just a little further into the woods that I had brought Shamino to in the aftermath. It only seemed fitting that I should end my struggles with them in the same vicinity. Boldly I stepped into the chamber holding the Flame of Love, thundering the name of Astaroth as I did so. The Shadowlord appeared at the same instant I pulled the Shard from my pack, and the surge I felt in the process - a rush of memory, of all the damage the Shadowlords had done to the land, to my friends, of all that they had put us through, directly and indirectly - the utter rage I possessed as I flung the Shard into the fire--

Well. Suffice it to say that I can't really say whether the angered scream that rent the air as Astaroth dissipated was his... or mine.

Love conquers all. Including Shadowlords.
In the end, though, it meant that the three Shadowlords were all defeated. I had the Crown Jewels in my possession as well, which meant it was time to prepare for my last sojourn into the depths, this time through Shame. Dungeon delving had given Jaana, Johne and Shamino the experience they needed to reach level five. Yew and Cove provided the stock of reagents I needed, and I prepared several high-level spells for use. I set sail for Buccaneer's Den to make sure I didn't run out of gems like I had on my way through Wrong. I poked around Serpent's Spine in the hopes of finding the glass swords I'd been hearing about, and did eventually find a few of them. I would need every advantage I could get in the trials to come, so best to make sure I collected as many as possible.

When all was said and done, though, we set sail one last time. We docked our ship, set out through the waterways in our skiff, and as Shame came into view, we remembered the words of the Codex:

That which the world has lost awaits thy coming.


It's occurred to me that while I've definitely taken some dramatic license with in-game events in my telling of them pretty much from the very beginning, I've stepped it up a fair amount in the last couple of posts, and I think a good deal of that is due to the fact that Ultima V has a lot more dramatic moments worthy of some narrative embellishment as compared to its predecessors. It does lead to something that's been in the back of my mind for a while, though, and this seems as good a moment as any to bring it up.

I've said before that it's story that I look at most when I'm playing a game, which stems from the fact that, first and foremost, I'm a writer. There's a lot of ways to tell a story, and there's been some fantastic ones told through the means of games. Planescape: Torment is very high on my list of favorite games, occupying a spot not all that far behind Ultima IV, and my experience with Pillars of Eternity speaks of a well-told story in much the same vein. Both games, and others that I've enjoyed, feature some brilliantly atmospheric writing that takes advantage of subtlety, of nuance, of the little details that make a scene truly evocative.

Boy that scepter came in handy.
But the story of the Ultima series appeals to me in another manner, namely because it doesn't exposit all the details. It's true, yes, that much of the effectiveness of a story, and indeed any creative endeavor, lies in the detail work, so you don't want to forgo them entirely, and Ultima certainly doesn't ignore the minutiae. At the same time, though, its story leaves the player with a lot to interpret for themselves - it trusts the player to fill in the blanks on their own. It's more the framework of a story, a series of plot points and motivations set before the player which they can then thread together and interpret with as much or as little import as they want to give it. Granted, I think a good deal of this is, in part, a product of its time - there just wasn't the ability to include the grand, lavish cutscenes or several novels' worth of meticulously crafted writing back in the 80s. Even so, allowing a player to do some of the work in crafting the dramatics, if only in their imagination, can be just as conducive to crafting an excellent story as anything else.

Planescape: Torment told me a fascinating story with some powerful writing, evocative imagery, and allowed me to wind my way through it and define my character's personality with a myriad of possible reactions in dialogue choices. Ultima V has allowed me to craft that tale myself, in my own words, with as much or as little attention to the specifics as I've chosen. And both experiences have been extremely memorable - there's nothing inherently better in one approach over the other.

That's the beauty of storytelling through the medium of gaming, though. Sometimes you give the player a brilliantly made story - and sometimes you give them a springboard to make one of their own. Both have their place, and both can be very, very effective.

Well, that's enough of another one of my side-musings, I think. I'm just about ready to dive into the last stage of the game here - it took me a bit to decide whether I wanted to raise Aric to level eight for access to those big high-level endgame spells, and eventually went 'why the heck not?' So I did, clearing out some of the rooms of Covetous and Wrong in order to do so (I love the dungeon design in Ultima V too, by the way. This post has gone on long enough already as is, but I need to remember to bring it up before I'm done with the game). I mixed up some of my new spells, restocked reagents, and now I'm raring to get into Shame and rescue Lord British. Should be wrapping up soon - stay tuned for the (hopefully) thrilling conclusion!

Lord British, here I come.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ultima V: Having Fun Storming the Castles

Considering how enjoyable I found my latest session, it was hard not to borrow from The Princess Bride for this post's title. I could almost hear Gwenno uttering it as she waved goodbye from where we left her in Britain's Inn.

I had things to do before I took the fight to my enemies proper, though. I still wasn't sure whether my little band would yet be up for the obstacles we had to face, so the beginning of this particular round of gameplay started with running around the area near Lord British's Castle, with the occasional dip into Despise, to train up my party and earn enough cash to outfit my party proper. My immediate plans would likely prove more fruitful if I evaded notice entirely rather than a direct assault, but even so, I wanted to make sure that the six of us were well prepared in case things went sideways.

Well ain't this ominous.
Consequently, by the time I decided we'd all gained enough experience to move onward and make some progress, Aric had climbed his way to level seven, while Dupre and Jaana were just over the edge of level five. Shamino, Iolo and Johne all were holding strong at level four themselves, and some pit stops at Yew and Trinsic to sell off unnecessary equipment earned me enough cash to outfit everyone with a magic axe, a shield, and the best armor I could find for everyone - scale for Johne, chain mail for Jaana, and full plate for the rest of us.

And on that note, this seems like an ideal time to bring up the subject of loot gained during combat. No longer is it just a reward of gold - monsters now also occasionally leave behind equipment, and the tougher the enemy, the better it's likely to be. I haven't bought a single torch, gem, or key (save for skull keys, of course), subsisting entirely on what's been left behind by enemies and what can be scrounged up in dungeons. Combat feels a bit more rewarding in this respect, especially with the hard fights - it's satisfying to pummel a few dragons into submission and find myself a few In Mani Corp scrolls richer for it. With the addition of potions, scrolls, and magic rings into the mix as well, I feel like I've got a lot of options for dealing with the situations in front of me, though I'm not sure how many of them I'll actually think to make use of. Just the fact that it is available is something, though.

With a good deal more experience under our collective belts, it was time to push onward. I'd had a taste of the Underworld already when I picked up Captain Johne, but Despise had been a rather simple dungeon, with only the occasional beastie and pit trap to worry about as far as obstacles went. I was under no such impressions that it would remain the same for the other dungeons, and thus I figured it best to finish up what I could on the sunlit lands before I plunged back into the darkness.

I said no. Very quickly.
Blackthorn's castle was thus my first stop of the day, where I knew Lord British's crown to be. Nestled in the midst of volcanoes, the castle loomed ominously before me as I sailed my ship toward it. It struck me that this was where I'd found the skull of Mondain on my previous adventure, and I wondered whether Blackthorn was aware of this little factoid or not. I can't help but wonder just how much of that was intentional. If memory serves, this little island has a pretty sordid history through the course of the Ultima series since its first appearance here in Ultima V - and that's terribly fitting, considering what was here before it was an island proper. The claws of Mondain's influence dig deep indeed.

I hopped on the magic carpet I'd picked up from Lord British's chambers, thinking the speed it offered would be welcome - considering the pitfalls in the castle I came across (I can only imagine how many times Blackthorn's own guards have fallen victim to them), this seemed a wise decision for more than one reason. Carefully I explored the castle grounds, finding several prisoners chained to the walls in more than one locale. Every last one of them warned me of the dangers, exhorting me to leave before it was too late - only when explicitly asked about it did they even mention the terrors of their own plight, putting my safety before their own rescue. Touched by such a selfless mentality, and concluding that this could not be the truly just fate for its like, I picked the locks and freed them from their shackles whenever I could. None of them stuck around long afterward, merely thanking me and dashing off - I can only hope they safely escaped both the castle and the island. The place is worse than Alcatraz.

I met a few other denizens of the castle as well, and they were as much a shifty and unsettling lot as Blackthorn himself - his jester Foulwell issued thinly veiled threats when I informed him that I didn't find the tale of a drawn and quartered woman particularly amusing, for instance. The cook Gallrot talked of the slop he made out of horse meat, and a few young children when he could get them. The fact he wouldn't touch the stuff himself made me think only just barely slightly better of him. (Seriously. I think I stared at that blurb of dialogue for a full minute, thinking 'Well, they're going all out to establish Blackthorn as a villain, aren't they?')

This isn't yours, Blackthorn.
Weblock actually proved somewhat helpful, however, telling me how to get to the roof, and after some deft skirting I reached the chamber where Lord British's crown was being kept. I smiled to myself at the thought of returning it to its rightful owner - but only for a moment, as I remembered I had a second task here in Blackthorn's castle. Kaiko in New Magincia had told me one of the Council's members had been taken prisoner here, after all, and finding him was on my list of priorities. Sure enough, he was down in the dungeons, and after assuring him I was with the Resistance, he gave me the Word of Passage for Hythloth, which I badly needed on account of both the mystics and the Shard of Cowardice lurking in reach of the dungeon's exit to the Underworld. I bumped into another prisoner Gorn who was very familiar with the castle's layout, on account of having escaped from it several times, and using his directions I made my way out of the castle through the back.

As an aside, I was glad that I'd made it through the castle safely, but since it's such a big and memorable part of the game, I couldn't resist going back in and intentionally getting caught (after saving, of course) just to see the interrogation scene. And man. Was that well done. Forget the dramatic cutscenes of modern games - Ultima V pulled it some stunning work with nothing but blocky, pixelated graphics and a few lines of dialogue with pauses in just the right spots. Even though I knew the results of the scene whatever I told Blackthorn, that I was just going to reload afterward anyway, I really did pause just a moment as the usurper thundered at me to TELL HIM THE MANTRA OF HONESTY, to consider, to wonder. And the fact that I did says a good deal about how effective that little bit can be. (Incidentally, it was Dupre that ended up the bargaining chip, and one of my responses to Blackthorn's threats to kill him was basically 'He can't die yet!' I mean c'mon, he has to have his big moment in Serpent Isle!)

Pretty sure this doesn't belong here, too.
Anyway, back to the "canonical" events, so to speak. Since I was busy storming castles, I decided to drop by Stonegate and attempt to recover the scepter. I was well aware that this task would likely be made more difficult by the fact that all three Shadowlords were still roaming the lands, but I was bolstered with confidence from the success of my venture in Blackthorn's castle. I climbed through the mountains to the south of Lost Hope Bay, taking a few moments to wander the perimeter of the keep and glean what knowledge I could of the layout and what might await me within. All three Shadowlords were home at the moment, which was rather less heartening, but I was here and I was determined. A demon met me at the door as I broke in, saying he would allow me to pass if I answered him a riddle - which he promptly went back on and attacked me anyway after I gave him the correct reply. Unfortunately for him, his magical ability was rendered useless against my party via use of Lord British's crown (I really hope he doesn't mind me borrowing it like this), and he was swiftly defeated.

Obtaining the scepter itself took considerably more work. It took some very deft maneuvering with the magic carpet to avoid the encroaching Shadowlords, and it took several attempts to lead them into a corner before I made a mad dash for the scepter and fled the keep. I think I had to back off at least five times before I managed to make a convincing feint, and when I saw my opening I took it, rushed for the door, and never looked back. I was well aware of how dangerously close I had come to another confrontation with the Shadowlords, and wondered whether my hubris was very nearly our undoing.

Always good to have a plan.
Still, I had two of the three Crown Jewels in my possession now, and with them, the last of the tasks I could accomplish on the surface. It was time to prepare for my expeditions to the Underworld, starting with a search for the final piece of the set - Lord British's amulet. I had been told nothing more than the fact it lay in the Underworld amongst the graves of valiant warriors, and I could think of none more valiant than those who had fought to protect their liege upon his capture. To find it, I would need to follow in his expedition's footsteps, tracing the path his scribe Remoh had meticulously recorded. So after stocking up heavily on reagents, I headed to the rivers near Spiritwood to find find the falls they ventured into the Underworld through--

--only to pause, remembering Remoh's mention of not having found a viable way back. Obviously one existed, else the journal itself would not have found its way to the surface again, but it would not be easy to find. But I had a backup plan, I realized. I hurried over to Trinsic, then turned south, and after digging around for a bit I found exactly what I was looking for - a moonstone. This would serve as my exit strategy. I was glad I had taken the time to ask Goeth, odd as he was, about this new property of the moongates.

Quite the somber scene here in the dark.
Once more I jumped on the magic carpet, and after taking a moment to brace myself, I flew it downstream and down, down, down to the Underworld itself. (And another sidenote: I adore the music that plays in the Underworld. A solid beat with a vaguely ominous, almost droning melody laid on top of it, perfect for setting the mood for a venture through a dank, dark, cavernous landscape.) Lighting a torch revealed I had landed in a small underground lake, and a sign just off the southern bank confirmed that I was indeed on the right track. As I perused Remoh's journal once more in the flickering light of the blazing torch, I carefully followed the river leading from the lake, trying to spot the landmarks mentioned. A fork in the river, a passed tributary, a particular curve - all were remarked upon by Remoh, and all were followed. Past another series of waterfalls, I breathed a sigh of relief as I spotted more definitive proof that I was indeed following the right track - an abandoned skiff, surely the one Lord British and his group had left behind to explore on foot. Through the mountainous passages and yawning caverns we traveled, mopping our brows from the oppressive humidity. Until there, bathed in the glint of a brazier mysteriously burning, lying forlornly at the foot of five graves, we saw it. The lost amulet of the lost king.

But if one could be found and rescued, then so could the other.

We took a moment to remember the five souls that had lost their lives here. None of us had truly known them personally, but their valor, their honor, and their ultimate sacrifice deserved not to be forgotten. Then we buried the moonstone anew, and took our leave, emerging near Yew. I remembered leaving a frigate moored not too far to the north on an earlier journey, and so I decided to head for Deceit to take one more trip down under before calling it a day. The Shard of Falsehood lay beneath it, and of the three Shards, I had the most concrete path recorded for this one. It seemed even the dungeon itself wanted to expedite the journey, as not far past the entryway was a hole labeled "Bottomless Pit." I glanced around at my companions, and after an exchange of small nods, we dived in.

Talk about whitewater rapids!
There was much shouting and flailing of limbs as we tumbled our way down, but we did, at least, make it to the bottom of Deceit very swiftly. We certainly wouldn't be coming back via that method, but all it took was one simple Des Por spell, and we emerged in the Underworld again. The sisters in Cove had given me fairly detailed directions via a vision that one of them had had, so it was simply a matter of following them, with the occasional use of a viewing gem to make sure I was on the right track. It was a somewhat circuitous route, but after skirting another underground lake and more falling as we were tossed down numerous waterfalls in rapid succession, so many that we lost count, we finally washed up, drenched and weary, on a tiny island where we spotted the deep crimson glister of what could only be the Shard.

It was very, very gingerly that I picked it up, memories of my fight with Mondain surfacing in my mind, the moment I had shattered that gem in the first place, one of those splinters now in my hands again. I vowed to see this one truly destroyed, never to give rise to anything akin to the Shadowlords ever again. Of course, I had to return to the surface in order to do that, and even through careful climbing to make the trek back up the long fall we had taken along the water, impassable peaks blocked our way back to the lake itself. We would need another method, and we found it in a judicious use of an In Por spell, putting us right back on the route we had taken to get here. From there it was simple to get back to Deceit, and we took it one step at a time as we slowly made our ascent back through the dungeon. Undeterred even by hallways littered with skeletons, we found a secret door just behind where we had entered the dungeon in the first place, and emerged into the light of the Britannian sun once more with much relief.

"Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
There was still work to be done, though. We rushed to the Lycaeum with all haste, and as the sun began to set, I stepped in front of the Flame of Truth, taking a breath, and bellowing the name of the Shadowlord of Falsehood. The syllables echoed off the walls, resonating, hanging in the air as the Shadowlord himself materialized, and I almost imagined myself hearing the whispers, the vile lies Faulinei tried to fill my head with, just enough to make me pause, to question, to doubt. And it did, for just a moment. The space of a breath passed, Faulinei advanced - and then I threw the Shard into the flame.

A flash, a quake, an acrid scent and a rending screech - and then he was gone.

Only two more left to take care of now.


Dramatics aside, I had a rip-roaring good time with this session. I've never been this far in Ultima V before, and man, have I been missing out. Charting out Lord British's path in the Underworld and following in his footsteps, seeing the sign and the abandoned skiff and the graves - I don't get that kind of feeling from many games even now. And people talk about those gaming moments that they're somewhat sad they'll never get to experience for the first time again... I think I can add 'destroying a Shadowlord' to my own. Even though I have two more to hunt down and defeat, I know what to expect now, and that shake of the screen just won't hold the same effect now that I know it's coming.

But that doesn't diminish how much I'm looking forward to it in the least.

Hythloth's up next, I think, those mystics will be useful and I need to grab the Shard of Cowardice anyway. And man am I raring to find it! There's not a whole lot of the game left for me at this point, and yet based on how the past few sessions have gone, I get the feeling I'm still going to have a lot left to say about it for a good while yet. I suppose we'll see!

Without a doubt, one of my favorite details in the game thus far.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ultima V: The Whirlwind Tour

I do believe I'm well and properly hooked now.

I fired up Ultima V again intending to get a session in, visit a couple towns and get some clues, do a shrine quest or two, maybe try and get a level for some of my current party, and that'd be that. Instead I fell victim to the RPG version of 'one more turn' syndrome - "Okay, maybe I'll just do one more shrine quest... maybe I'll just visit one more town... well, I'm not far away from getting Shamino another level... maybe I'll just play a little longer..." On and on it went in that vein, and before I knew it, I'd lost a good portion of my evening and had far more exploration and clue-hunting under my belt than I'd planned on, and my notes just kept going. It always takes time for me to really click with a game, and I'm never quite sure where and when that point is, or even, really, what causes it to happen. All I know is that I've never got to that point with Ultima V before - until now. It was slow going in the early stages, but now that I've broken through that nebulous barrier, whatever it was, I'm practically having to wrest myself away from it long enough to scribble down my thoughts on it and type these posts up.

This seems ironic, somehow...
Consequently, I've got a lot of ground to cover in this one. I mentioned at the end of my last post my intent to drop by Spiritwood, to seek out Sir Simon on an island near there and ask him about the missing Crown Jewels. That was where I began with this session, or at least sort of. I took something of a detour, although a necessary one. I'd pass by the Valorian Isles on the way anyway, so dropping by Jhelom seemed a natural pit stop. And since it was just over on the next island, I paid a visit to the Shrine of Valor, which told me to visit the Codex and learn of the failings of a life without valor. That would come after a trip through the town, though, where I met a very rude smith, a man who told me a bit of what I might be able to expect in the dungeons, and a former Council member who was a little touched in the head and often spoke backwards - though I did manage to get the Word of Power for Destard from him. It was a quick jaunt to the Codex to get the reminder that knowing one's limits - and thus one's self - was part of the nature of Valor, so after returning to the shrine, I continued north in search of Sir Simon.

And I found him, though I'd have missed the keep he dwelt in if I hadn't thought to use a viewing gem as I passed by the island, it was surrounded by mountains that I had to climb via the use of Lord Michael's grapple. There was a lot to learn in Bordermarch, though - and not only that, I bumped into both Sentri and Dupre there, who were more than willing to take arms and join me. There was no room for them in my group at the moment - a smaller entourage would be less noticeable, after all, but I assured Dupre I'd come back for him when I saw the crestfallen look on his face. It didn't seem right to leave him behind. Sir Simon told me of the crown and the scepter of Lord British, that his crown (which I'd previously been told was being kept in Blackthorn's castle) would protect against magical attacks, and his scepter could disperse magical barriers, which would come in handy if I could retrieve it from where it was being held in the keep of the Shadowlords themselves. His wife Lady Tessa told me of Lord British's amulet, which lay amongst the graves of valiant warriors in the Underworld and that I would need it to find my path in an unholy darkness. I'd been told all three items would be necessary to rescue Lord British, but they would not be easy to retrieve!

Speaking sdrawkcab is tluciffid.
I left Bordermarch behind me and moved on to Skara Brae, where I didn't really learn anything that I wasn't already aware of - the mantra of Spirituality, who I could talk to to find out where the Shrine was, that sort of thing. And on that note, it's nice that the mantras are kept the same from Ultima IV, not just for continuity's sake. It's knowledge that the player character should already have given their history, and it's a nod to players of Ultima IV if they've paid attention and/or kept their notes (or just know the lore well enough), and yet the game still provides methods of reminders for the new players. It's a fairly nice balance, certainly struck better than Ultima IX did in that respect (oh, what I'll have to say on that subject when the day comes). Anyway, I dropped off Geoffrey so I could dart back to Bordermarch and pick up Dupre, and also came across a young boy named Froed, whose father had been imprisoned in Yew for breaking a law of Virtue. He asked me if I could tell his father he was well, and I made a note to do so. I also learned that Blackthorn was seeking the mantras, intending to use them to destroy the shrines and remove their power from the world - bolstering my thought that perhaps the Shrines themselves are evidently against Blackthorn's rule.

Dagger and Verity Isles were next on my list, the former to visit the Shrine of Honesty and learn of the failing of dishonesty, the latter for the Lycaeum and Moonglow. I found another lighthouse here, Waveguide by name, but neither of its residents seemed to be very helpful - Gregory was a very unpleasant man who I couldn't get out of conversation with fast enough, and Jacqueline had memory issues. So I moved on to the Lycaeum, to see what I could find out about the Shadowlord of Falsehood and to gawk at the almost extortionate prices for reagents. I learned the Shadowlord's name from Lord Shalineth, and Lady Janell told me to speak with the twin sisters in Cove to learn where I could find the Shard of Falsehood. Mariah was here as well, though ailing, and so I thought it best to leave her to her recovery rather than take her along with me. Sir Sean told me where I could find Stonegate, the keep of the Shadowlords themselves, when I asked him about it upon recollection of someone telling me to ask him about the place. It was Lord R'hien whose words stuck with me the most, though, decrying Blackthorn's Laws on the basis that Virtue lacks meaning when imposed by force, rather than chosen. It seems fitting that this is why the Keep of Truth remains a holdout against Blackthorn's claim to rule.

I told him I lost the fight with the frying pan. It was epic.
Moonglow was a reminder of this, when I spoke to young Malik and his mother Malifora, learning the Word of Power for the dungeon of Deceit in the process - both asked me for money for what information they could provide, as if truth was something that needed to be bartered for. Though with a man like Don Piatt in charge of the town, I suppose this was only to be expected, as those who spoke the truth too openly could be looked down on. Don warned me of a man who lived in a tower in the middle of town who sowed only discontent, but Zacariah turned out to be rather helpful, telling me of the comets in the heavens heralding the Shadowlords and where they would be that night, along with the clue the Goeth, whom I'd met in Jhelom, could tell me of a new power of the moongates.

From there it was off to the Codex again, which told me dishonesty favored temporary gain over the permanent (Blackthorn's version would give it something temporary and permanent, with the loss of one's tongue), then a return to the Shrine of Honesty, and another stop in Jhelom to learn of the stones I could find to manipulate the location of the moongates - and find a Magic Axe in the process! I would use this profusely for training purposes, and by the time the session ended Aric was starting to near level 7, while the rest of my party was at least level 4. Speaking of the moongates, though, making a stop in Jhelom meant I was near both a gate and the Isle of the Avatar, which made completing the Shrine of Spirituality's quest a fairly simple matter - in response to the exhortation to learn of the neglect of one's spirit, I read that to forsake one's inner being is to abandon hopes for one's self and the world. Yet Blackthorn would have one pay more attention to others' own spiritual journeys with his Laws, forcing the public to enforce them or else die a heretic.

Pretty much the game's theme in a nutshell.
New Magincia was my next stop, and the residents there also had a lot to say on the need to choose virtue freely - which seems fitting, considering it's built on the ruins of a city destroyed for its failure to choose virtue. It's become a pleasant little pastoral town now, and there's even a cemetery for the denizens I met in Ultima IV, finally at rest. I bumped into Katrina again here, and her excitement at my return was, admittedly, quite charming - though it made it more difficult to tell her it wasn't feasible to include her on this particular venture. Still, she seemed confident in my ability to get the job done, so I said my farewells and continued to explore the town. The best thing I learned was from a woman named Kaiko, who told me one of the former Council members took refuge in New Magincia for a time, until Blackthorn captured him, and is presumably being held prisoner in his palace. Someone else to look for when I make my way there to reclaim the crown.

After stopping by the Shrine of Humility and the Codex, learning of the weakness of pride (which Blackthorn's Law misses completely, mostly serving to maintain the pride of those in power), I headed for Cove and the Shrine of Compassion, which asked me to learn of the heart of the cruel soul. Cove didn't hold that much for me, but I did learn of the location of the Shard of Falsehood, which lay in the Underworld near where Deceit let out into it. The twin sisters gave me directions to where I could find it, which would be very useful indeed. I dropped by Britain again to gather some supplies as I passed, and while I was there heard a rumor about the mystic arms and armor - supposedly Bullweir, the rude smith in Jhelom, knew something about them. I didn't look forward to speaking with him again, but those would be nice to have again.

Katrina, why must you test my humility so?
Serpent's Hold came first, though, and here I learned the Shadowlord of Cowardice's name, along with the location of the Shard of Cowardice, beneath Hythloth - it would seem there are a series of small caverns near there, which would require magic to explore properly. I'll need a good deal of In Por spells ready before I go after that particular shard. An eager fighter named Maxwell wanted to join me here as well, but I was getting used to my group's configuration, and it was nice to be alongside stalwart companions that I already knew well, so I told him to continue to fight the good fight at the Hold. After a visit to the Codex again for the reminder (that Blackthorn very much needs) that only the detested took pleasure from others' pain, I went to follow up on the mystics, learning of a man named Ambrose who had been searching for them and currently healing in Cove. He was only awake for an hour at a time or so, but when I made my way back to Cove he was fortuitously just waking up, so I spoke with him on the matter. It would seem they were pretty much right where they were last seen - at the spot in the Underworld that lay directly beneath the Abyss.

There were just a few more matters to tie up at this point, so I headed to Yew to pass on Froed's message, and while I was in the jail I found Felespar, who told me Wrong's Word of Power. Greymarch was glad to hear his son was all right, and also pointed me to Sir Simon about the scepter - redundant, really, but it still was uplifting to see this poor prisoner's heart lighten at the news of his boy. Then it was a march to the Shrine of Justice, my last quest from the shrines. After the Codex told me that those who inflicted injustice could not expect fair treatment themselves, a wind turned the page, and gave me further instructions: to head for the core of the world past the exit of dungeon Shame, to call out 'VERAMOCOR' to enter, and that which the world had lost lay within. It became clear to me then why I would need the crown jewels to rescue the rightful king - the amulet would get me "beyond the darkness," the crown would protect me from the "stealers of souls," and the scepter would assist me in getting past the "ethereal wards."

I'll do my darndest. And you'll help.
I paused to consider a moment. I had the Words of Power for all the dungeons save Hythloth, and I had an idea of what lay beneath all of them save Despise. So I ventured through the latter to get an idea of what I might face in the dungeons and the Underworld - I would need to trek through them soon, after all. Despise proved rather straightforward, and when I emerged, some exploration let me to a wrecked ship, where I came across Captain Johne. He claimed responsibility for unleashing the Shadowlords, having come across the Shards which drove him to kill his three companions. Seeking to make right his previous actions, he begged me to allow him to accompany us - and after consulting with my group, Gwenno gave a small nod. She would head back for the inn in Britain, and gave Johne the chance to redeem himself.

Back through Despise we went, our new companion in tow, and that was where I called it a day. I think I've settled on this group as my final party proper - it just doesn't seem right to go through an Ultima game without Iolo, Shamino and Dupre if I have anything to say about it, and I didn't get to travel with Jaana last game on account of having started Ultima IV as a druid, so it only seems appropriate to give her some opportunity to properly act as a companion of the Avatar. And Captain Johne needs a chance of redemption, if only so he can have some closure properly.

The pieces are coming together, and I think I've learned all that I can from the people of Britannia. My next steps, then, are to gather the Crown Jewels and defeat the Shadowlords by collecting the three shards in the Underworld. I think my best bet would be to start with the crown, as that way I can find the last Council member and hopefully gain the Word of Power for Hythloth in the process, and its protection from magical attack would be useful in my attempts to gather the rest of the items I need. So I think that'll be where my next session begins - the assault on Blackthorn's castle. I'm getting really excited, I've never gotten this far in the game before so I'm anxious to see how all of this goes! I still can't decide when to storm Stonegate, either... I suppose we'll see how the run for the crown goes and I'll make my choice from there. In any case, the fight's only just begun - now it's time to start outfitting my group for the depths. It's going to be a wild ride indeed.