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!

1 comment:

  1. That was a great write up of your play through! It makes me really want to load it up and play it.
    I've only really played 8, 9 and UO. I wasn't able to find the earlier games until a GOG sale recently.
    Now I just need the time to sit down with a notebook and start exploring them.