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.

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