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.

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