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!


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