The depth awaits…

I have to admit… that Ultima V really has much less content than I remembered.

It’s interesting how the game feels scaled back from Ultima IV in a way: the town are much smaller, there are many less NPCs, and as such it is much easier to remember and note down all the clues. (And they said that Ultima IX had small cities :P)

Now of course the NPCs have a lot more depth than their Ultima IV counterpart and much better dialogues, but it feels to me that Ultima V was more focusing about adding depth, both in term of plot and gameplay, even at the cost of a reduced sized. Which is good.

This does means basically that after only a few hours of gameplay I have basically talked to all the NPCs and done all that there is to be done on the Surface. I have the Spyglass, the Sextant, the Crown, the name of all three Shadowlords and the location of their Shards, the way to destroy them from Sutek, the location of the Mystics in the Underworld… basically all that is left to me are the Virtue quests which are currently underway, and getting the scepter… which will wait for the death of all Shadowlords, thank you very much!

The only thing I did NOT do, was was betrayed a council member to get the Oppression’s password. I could admitedly have cheated, but I’d rather not. So this made Blackthorn’s Palace a tad more difficult, but it was nice to infiltrate the place and avoid all the guards.

Now I do have to admit having err… pillaged Castle Britanni’s treasury a couple of time. But don’t you give me that look! Lord British always says that I can help myself in the Castle, so I’m sure he would have said the same here! I was stealing from the Oppression in a sense, really!

And I really needed money for a boat.

Of course the minute I got a boat, it felt like Pirate ships started popping everywhere but whatever…

Also I actually did made a single trip to the Underworld. I didn’t MEAN to do, but my boat err… kind got caught into a whirlpool. But it’s okay, I met Captain Johne and recruited it, so I know have my full party. Despise is also an easy dungeon, so getting back up really wasn’t that hard.

No of course I have lot of dungeoning left to to do. And a lot of Underworld to explore. But I figure I might as well start with Hythloth.

I mean these Mystics sounds nice.

(So what? There’s no law about being an Avatar who like having great armors and stuff!)

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Britannic Journeys

And so here I am, journeying again in the lands of Britannia, looking for this missing monarch who had this stupid idea of getting lost in the Underworld! Geez!

First and foresmot though: the manual! One one got to say that the Book of Lore is one hell of a manual, it’s a fun read, it’s well written and is again a knowledgeable ressources of the world or Britannia. It’s alerady better written than Ultima IV’s and I’d say it’s pretty much reaching the top notch quality that will remain right up till the end of the series.

The introduction was fun to watch especially considering my knowledge of Lazarus which kept the exact same theme. I also love the “view” at the down of the menu screen which shows the introduction done in-engine! I created a character for fun just in order to do another Virtue Question thingy, but I actually transfered my character from Ultima IV. This is a feature I’ve always enjoyed a lot and which I’m glad is kind of getting back in game like in Mass Effect. It also makes things a bit easier, since I’m starting with a Level 5 Avatar, which is quite a lot!

Now the game, boy it’s such a blast to play! I have to admit doing a couple of little mods: first I inverted the Greyson’s Tale and Village Tarantella tunes in the music patch (not having Greyson’s music in the towns feels wrong to me :P) and I applied a patch remplacing the Britannian runes for English runes. Yeah I know it’s not very hardcore but eck, I like having proper alphabet!

I must say I really love the graphics of the game though, they have this dark feel which fit well with the tone of the game, better animation and also gets more realistic (no more of these silly walls with letter to say what kind of shop you are in, but real signs!)

I’ve actually considered playing the FM-Towns version of Ultima IV for a while partly because of this: it used the Ultima V tileset for Ultima IV… but somehow it felt too weird to have Ultima V graphics with Ultima IV.

I’ve gotta to say that the addition of night and day is also wonderful because it basically just adds a lot in terme of atmosphere compared to previouses games. Sure days and night pass pretty fast… but it’s still a wonderful feeling.

One thing I must say though, is how streamlined Ultima V feels compared to Ultima IV. It has more depth, better dialogues (or should I say dialogues that feels like real dialogues), but in fact it has much smaller towns than Ultima IV had, and way less NPCs. (For instance Trinsic has a ridiculous total of THREE non-merchant NPCs). I don’t exactly consider that a flaw, but it does make the game easier in a way as finding clues about what to do is much faster than in Ultima IV. I mean I have something like two or three hours of gamplay, but I already have three Words of Power, joined the Resistance, learned were to get the Magic Carpet, and learned all I need to have to find the Sandalwood Box. So it basically feels like things are going lightning fast. Which is good as Ultima IV could feel awfuly slow at times, but comes as an interesting contrast with Ultima IV and does show the very first step of the Ultima series toward a more adventurish approach.

Also: combat is at long last fun to play. I must say the combat and Ultima III and IV were somewhat of a bore due to how limiting it was in terme of possible attacks and weapons. With all its additions, Ultima V feels more fun and more tactical and probably remains amongst the best the series has to offer. I also like finding loot directly on the combat screen even if it’s a bit silly to have chest on giant rats!

So this is it for now but I gotta to say it: Ultima V is still as great as it was 20 years ago. So I’ll be sure to share more of my adventures!

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny

Released in 1988, Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny was very much… well a breakthrough in the genre. (Yes this a word that is often associated with Ultima games). While not quite the revolution that Ultima IV was three years earlier, it brought many novelties to the genre and the series.

Starting notably with an actual plot.

While Ultima IV was revolutionnary game in many aspects, it had on the whole little of a plot, as the focus was more on the personal experience of the Eight Virtues rather than telling an actual story. Ultima V still maintain a strong focus on the Virtues, but with a more developped plot and backstory this time.

Taking place some unaccounted amount of years after Ultima IV, it tells the story of how following Lord British’s myterious dissapearence in the newly discovered underworld, the reagent Blackthorn fell under the corruption of the evil and mysterious Shadowlords and declared martial law, turning the Virtues into peverted laws (with the Avatar obviously tasked to setting things right). The world feels more real this time, notably as most of the NPCs are treated more seriously, with less real-world reference and characters such as Buddha or Shakespere. The main quality of the plot was probably its lack of manicheism in spit of having obvious “foozles”, and crafting one of the most subtle episodes of the series.

It marks also a first in term of consistency, as for the first time in the series the sequel takes place in the exact same world as its predecessor. Indeed, due to the dual map nature of the game, the overland map of Britannia is virtualy identical to Ultima IV down to the number of tiles used, with everything still at the same place. There are some differences and variations, but it’s the same world and it feels like it.

The gameplay mechanics are similar to Ultima IV as well but with a refined combat system allowing for attack in every directions and different range depending on the weapons used, and most importantly the appareance of a day & night cycle. This aspect is even more important because it brings NPC schedules to the world, with the game making full use of it by having some NPCs only available at a certain time.

On a personal level, Ultima V holds a very special place in my heart (which is also why I worked on Lazarus so many years ago). While I did know Ultima before it, it was the first Ultima game I began playing my myself instead of just watching my older brother play, with a Robert&Collin’s by my side to help me understand all the dialogues. It just was incredibly immersive at the time, and was clearly my most memorable gaming experience back then… the Atari ST version having all the musics was also a plus and helped to contribute to the atmosphere from the epic main theme to the haunting Greyson thune used for towns, whose first notes always gave me chills in the fear that a Shadowlord might be about. It litterally took me years before I finially got to the end of it, but it was well worth it.

For this playthrough, I’ve eventually decided to just settle on the PC version because it is the easiest to do and will also allow me to transfer my character from Ultima IV. I’m actually not fully pleased in a way, because while Voyager Dragon’s patch add the music the PC version was sorely lacking… it only adds them in the Apple II fashion, which was not quite the same as the Atari ST version (for instance the Atari ST version had “Dream of Lady Nan” used whenever camping which was very fitting, while the Apple II/PC version uses “Stones” for sleeping and the “Dream of Lady Nan” at Lighthouses). Voyager Dragon had planned an Atari ST variation of his mod, but it never happened alas 😦

In any case stay tuned for Ultima V, I am already eager to begin it!

Ultima V Cover

To become and Avatar is the endless quest of a lifetime…

Well that was a busy day. After getting the Bell of Courage and the Mystics (which made me realize than the “Mystic Armors” were actually Mystic Robes originally), and I set on the dungeons of Britannia looking for the remaining stones. The process was quite long, and I’ll admit to using some of the maps but heh, what can I say?

After getting all the Stones, came the process of getting the three part key. So I did it the easy way, and got down Hythloth through Lord British’s Castle… which lead you straight to the 8th Level with direct access to the three Altar Rooms.

So with everything I needed, I set sail for the soon-to-be Isle of the Avatar. And as I got into the cove, and I was destroyed by the gazillion of pirate ships waiting there meh. Now since I didn’t want to lose my XP, I quit and reloaded and I got a bit of luck: there were only a handful of ships now! So I rampaged through them, and head to the mouth of the Abyss.

I cast Mondain’s evil Skull into the Abyss to destroy it, and then I rang the Bell, read the Book and light the Candled, thus opening the way.

The concept of the Abyss is interesting in that at the end of each level you have to answere a question about a specific Virtue and use the appropriate stone (altough one might argue how the hell those altar came here?). It also has a lot of room to pass, with many secret passages to find the way down (which reminds me I haven’t seen that infamous child-killing room. Dang!). Altough I have to wonder: who the HELL decided to put a room with a groupe of 9 freaking Reapers? I spend like a whole freaking hour to finish this one, solely because of how much time my entire party spent sleeping. Crazyness.

But still after a few dangerous I came to the room of the Codex.

This is a nice concept as well: you now are alone and the Codex asks you questions about the Virtues, each one making a part of the codex symbol appear, until you finally have to answere the final question with Smith the Hors’s clue… but wait he didn’t give me anything, how am I to know? Oh I know, I need to translated these odd runic letters using the manual. Oh, but it doesn’t offer translation for the runes… it only started with Ultima V.

Well of course I knew the answere was INFINITY – but I really got to wonder how it felt for people back in the day, getting finally to the end of the game without actually knowing what to say there?

And so I was. I had seend the Codex, and actually became the Avatar for good. And then here I was back on Earth. Back home. I really like the ending of Ultima IV – it has some unfairness to it in that you’re basically taken away from Britannia the minute you finish your quest, but it has this dreamlike quality, making you wonder if this whole aventure was real or not which fit perfectly with the introduction of the game.

Alas… this ending was rectonned the heck of the series with future instalment (even starting a bit with Ultima V) which is kind of a shame.

In any case, this was it for Ultima IV. Some aspects didn’t aged well at all, but it really was quite a ride anyway. I now look forward to starting Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny.

Thou hast lost an Eight… but art now an Avatar!

That would summs up pretty much my daily dose of Ultima IV.

You see, here was I continuing gathering money from the depth of Dungeons (getting my hands on the Orange stone in the process though), and buying reagents from Margot the Blind Woman in Moonglow.

Again. And Again. And Again. And Againg.

But somehow my finger ripped, and entered the wrong number. Except I didn’t noticed it, and exited the city and saved my game. And there I saw it: I had lost two Eights – Valor (altough I fail to see what it has to do with cheating someone out of money) and Sacrifice. Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to regain my two lost eights, but that was annoying and frustrating to say the least.

Bored with dungeons crawling, I did went to sail around the world a bit and got my end on the Skull of Mondain (which is mispelled as Modain, arg!)… but I knew I had to get back in the depth. So here I was, plundering Covetous again. Buying reagents, over and over…

But at last it worked! Another travel to Hawkwind and here I was ready for illumination in Honesty. And thus I headed straight away to the Shrine of Honesty and here I was.

I AM AN EIGHT-PART AVATAR!

Now I have to get the Bell of Courage. And the Mystics. And do more dungeon crawling. Meh.

The Yellow Stone is mine!

No… not the park!

The one was that was laying inside Dungeon Despise rather.

Due to my inability of getting my last avatarhood thingy in Honesty… I basically gave up and decided to start my quest for the stones instead. As this was already my main source of getting money to spend on the blind woman, this meant I was already pretty familiar with it, so I went into the depth and looked for the Stone. Now I do have to confess that I looked a bit at the maps to help me – mapping the thing would be a neat old school fun I guess… but I don’t have any appropriate paper left actually. Heh.

One thing about the dungeons in Ultima IV is that they did bring one major addition to the series: rooms. Rather than just having the 3D exploration with random monsters to kill, you also have pre-defined rooms with a set look, set monsters and possibly treasure chest. They also brought the first form of puzzle to the series, through the use of secret wall which reveals new ones and so on… This is an aspect that will get further in Ultima V, which explains the drastic change in Ultima VI… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

So I came out of the dungeon victorious with the Yellow Stone I was seeking. A visit to Lord British lead me to Level 8, which I can now go to Minoc to recruit Julia which is my only missing companion.

More gold spend to the blind woman lead to revelation alas… that I’m still not honest enough.

Meh. 😦

Avatarhood is just so close…

…and yet it just seems to be slipping away the closer I get to it.

I am now a seven part Avatar – I am only lacking enlightenment in a single Virtue: Honesty.

You see the Virtue of Honesty has kind of a real design flaw. Back in it wasn’t easy to actually track whatever lies of truth your character might tell, so in the end Honesty ended up being tracked by a single feature: paying the proper amount of money to the blind women selling reagents.

Which basically make my playing for now consisting of: killing monster, getting money, buying reagents, and getting back to Hawkwind in the hope he tells me I am ready to be enlightened. But not thus far… so it’s quite repetitive.

I did do quite a bit on the side though, I now have the Candle of Love and the Book of Truth, and the Bell of Courage is waiting for me to get a Sextant to go find it. I also got both the Black and White stones, which means I also got the balloon, or lighter-than-air device as they named it (altough having to consider the wind really is annoying and kind of make the use of the Balloon a moot point after getting the White Stone).

Of course I still need to get the other stones, which means a lot of dungeons crawling, which I’m not exactly looking forward too, as personally I’ve only been truly fond of Ultima dungeons in the latest games (on account that the earlier game were basically all about monster bashing).

On a side note, I just can’t seem to find any clue to the HMS Cape Wheel. It would be easy to get a walkthrough and find it, but I’d rather be able to find the information in-game, but I’m at a loss here. Meh.

In any case, since I am now back home and things are settling down a bit I should now be able to blog more than during the last couple of weeks.

Hopefully by my next blog post I will be an Avatar at last!

I am a quarter-Avatar!

Yes indeed: after long and gruesome hours of play, I’ve gained enlightenment in both Humility and Spirituality! Hurray, I’ll be the best Avatar yet! Wait what, waddya mean I have lost an eight in Humility? But… but…! 😦

Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum… Lum…

Ah much better!

So were was I? Ah, yes! Enlightenment. It’s actually not that easy to do… and I can’t stress enough how original the concept was for its time. Sure, once you know all the mechanics it is easy to repetitively do the same tasks over and over again to gain Karma in each virtue… but this is not necessarilly the most fun.

Playing Ultima IV as if playing it for the first time, thus pretending I have no idea where to find any of the required items, and need to talk to everyone, take note, find clues at Pubs… just makes it as fun as it ever was. There is this real sense of leading this kind of big investigation which makes any new information acquired very rewarding. It also makes the game much longer: the last time I did played Ultima IV I finished it in less than a day. This is just taking much more time here…

In any case I gradually get a sense of where to find items: I know where the Skull of Mondain and most of the Stones are, I have all the runes, I know I need to get the three part key, the word of power and specific items to get in the Abyss… But for now this all feels secondary as I focus on my spiritual enlightenment to become an eight part Avatar.

Admitedly, the game is not perfect and still suffer from quite a lot of combat (altough it doesn’t feel anywhere as bad as the boring grinding of the first three game), the whole Virtue Quest aspect makes it just much more fun than its predecessors.

You know I have got to say that I’ve always felt it was a shame that Ultima IV never got a proper remake. God know I loved and Lazarus and I’m enjoying U6P very much as well (to which I should probably get back to finish as well heh), but Ultima IV would have been glorious to remake because of how unique its concept is and I was extremly dissapointed when the Dawn of Virtue remake ended being cancelled.

Because I feel this is really one of those game that you could really improve on the concept by translating it inside a modern CRPG context – because the whole Virtuous aspect would need to reenvision the whole concept and that could be very interesting.

I actually feel that Ultima X: Odyssey (another game which I really wish had NOT been cancelled) was very much on the right track with it, with its focus of offering quest mirroring the kind of moral dilemmas seen in the character creation process. Even if this was in a MMO context (and that to be fair, the whole Alucinor background felt kind of “rough”), it had an incredible potential, because when I think back at the Ultima series as whole it actually offered very little of such Virtue dilemas (and the rare I can think of, where actually in Ultima IX!). Also it would create a different kind of evolution as in instead of repeating the same actions over and over, it would lead to have to do quests focusing on actual Virtue choice to further your character’s enlightment. Wouldn’t that be awesome ?

Note that while this will obviously be more about the Serpent Isle philosophies rather than the Britannian Virtues, this is actually the kind of approach we aim to try out in “Return to the Serpent Isle” with actual Virtue dilemas to choose from that will influence the game.

And here goes, more shameless pluging from me! Sorry!

In any case my quest of the Avatar continues…

I’ll be sure to post more later…

Let Virtue be you guide…

There it is! I have finally started on the path of the Eight Virtues.

After some long hesitation (which notably lead me to start the game both on the PC and the SMS), I finally decided to stick with playing the PC version through the use of xU4 as it allows to use both the improved VGA graphics and the textured 16 Bits dungeons from the Atari ST/Amiga version.

But for starter let’s begin with the manuals. Much like the game itself, the manuals was new stepping stone in the Ultima history: for the first time it was actually written as an actual history books, telling the story of Britannia and the use of magical spell through its second half “in universe”. While there are references to gaming aspect, they are always kept indirect as if not to break the immersion of the player. The manuals are well written and really come as a great read!

After reading it, I’ve finally come and started my quest. The introduction really remains awesome (albeit ugly) in terme of immerding you in the story. After going through the Virtue questions, I surprisingly ended playing as a shephard and started near the ruines of Magincia. While I went in and met the survivor Katrina… I decided not to explore the city right because of how dangerous its swamps makes it. So I exited and got awefully lucky as a pirate ship came by… I managed to kill its crew alone, and thus set sail to the Castle of Lord British and start my quest of the Avatar proper.

Things are going quite well in the end: I am now holding 6 of the 8 runes of Virtues and did get some very interesting informations. I am also ready to get a part in Humility, but unfortunately the shrine is not quite accessible yet. I also have two companions yet, Iolo and Dupre and will be getting more soon as I am already Level 5.

Now admitedly, the dialogue depth of the game is pretty poor by today’s standard: NPCs don’t have much dialogue and the writing would feel amateurish in comparison but it really is interesting to go and talk to everyone and the text parser allows to sometime search some topic that might get you a little lucky. Also it brought back an old habit: taking notes. As the game don’t have any form of ingame journal, and the text interface for dialogues means you have to remember it all I’ve begun taking note on all important aspects – pretending I am playing the game for the first time rather than just go and get the important stuff from memory of where they are.

In any case playing Ultima IV sure is fun… I still have a long way to go before becoming an Avatar of course, but each step lead me closer to this goal.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

A revolution.

There is no other word from which to define “Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar”, which was released in 1985.

While this might seem like a grand word for a game that at first look might just feel like an updated version of Ultima III (even moreso with the 16 Bits versions of the game which sported nearly identical graphics), this is in no way an exageration.

The basic gameplay is indeed very much like Ultima III, altough with one truly major addition: interactive dialogues. Rather than having NPCs who just utter one line, all NPCs have unique names and dialogues, that you trigger by actually typing to them through the use of simple keywords: the basis of which being the now traditionnal Ultima keywords: “Name”, “Job”, and “Bye.” This helped the world feel more alive, but also more interesting as you really had to talk to everyone on every subject you could think of to further your quest.

But that was the “Quest” in itself that was the revolution.

Not only the concept of Ultima IV was revolutionnary for its time, but even by today’s standard it remains more original than the vast majority of RPGs on the market. Indeed I would go as far as saying that no RPG developper in their right mind today would dare craft a game with a concept as unique as Ultima IV for fear it might not cater to the masses.

At a time where RPGs were basically (and I would argue still are) about killing monsters and saving the world (even if it means being a complete bastard about it), Ultima IV offered an unique concept through a personal and philosophical quest whose only focus was about the betterment of oneself’s and following a set of Ethics, and not about saving the world or anything of the like.

In a word: this was a game were the goal was about being a good man and that could only be completed by doing so: as such it’s easy to consider that Ultima IV might be the first true “Role Playing Game” of the Computer World, because you actually have to roleplay your character to win. You can act like a bastard if you wish… but then that means no success in your quest. And this is even more a revolution as the previouses Ultima games really enticed and even forced you to commit immoral acts at times.

This was rendered even more personnal due to the introduction: for it is indeed you the player who are taken from your earthly life to live this deep personal quest to find yourself. This is part of what made Ultima IV unique, because more than any other game it actually felt like you were actually living this adventure, and for the kid I was back when I first played it… this was the stuff from which dreams are made of, and I could truly envision myself someday going to Britannia and becoming a true Avatar.

This is also why I’ve never been very fond of Ultima VI’s retcon to make the Avatar and the Stranger(s) who defeated the Triad of Evil one and the same, because it really diminishes the impact of this first journey to Britannia.

In addition to all this though, this was also the true beginning of Ultima and Britannia as a game world and story with Ultima I~III basically being relegated to distant legends, and the establishment of a single world and a (tenuous) continuity that would continue one game after the other.

This is why I mentioned that is in a sense the true beginning of Ultima, because it was the beginning of Britannia as well as the beginning of the Virtues which have and always have been the main focus of the series from that point.

Personally while I do have some very vague memory from childhood about Ultima IV, I only got to play it after Ultima V (perhaps even after Ultima VI altough I don’t believe so) when a friend lent me his copies of Ultima IV and Ultima II for the Atari ST when I was in sixth grade, but this was a wonderful experience from the start. Alas, I was stuck with the french version of the game which (in addition of being terribly translated) was awfully buggy and impossible to finish, leaving me stuck as a 7-part Avatar for ever.

I only got to finish Ultima IV the first time years later on the PC with the very first available upgrade patches. The last time I played the game was, of course, in 1999.

I’m actually not quite sure yet as to what version of Ultima IV I will be playing. I often played with the Sega Master System version actually, because in addition to very neat graphics, it offered the combat system of Ultima V which is a most welcome improvement, but I feel like having a more Computery interface this time around in order to remain consistent with the other games.

I’ll of course let you know my choice in my next post.

In the mean time: Britannia awaits…

Ultima IV Cover

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