Friday, December 4, 2009

Ultima Retrospective, Part II, or "Highest of highs."

Last time, I covered the first six Ultima games. This time, we'll take a look at some of the side games in the series and both parts of Ultima VII.

As before, this will contain quite a few spoilers. I suggest you stop reading now if you don't want me to spoil the series for you.

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire and Martian Dreams: After Ultima VI, Origin decided to use the engine to create a few side-stories for the Ultima series. Neither takes place in Britannia, and honestly, neither has any real effect on the rest of the series as a whole. The first, The Savage Empire, takes place in a Lost World-like jungle filled with people pulled from various eras. The Avatar is transported there by an experiment gone awry. To get home, the Avatar has to master a new form of magic and fight the insectoid Myrmidex.

Martian Dreams takes the Avatar to Mars, where he must help save an expedition filled with famous, late nineteenth-century figures that was accidentally launched via a Space Cannon from a World's Fair. To put it succinctly, the Avatar goes to Mars to fight a Martian-possessed Rasputin with the assistance of the likes of Sigmund Freud, Nikola Tesla, Teddy Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill.


Both Worlds of Ultima games include a number of new companions for the Avatar, including a man named Dr. Spector. He's a self-insert for Warren Spector. Yes, that Warren Spector. Origin launched a lot of game design careers.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss: The Avatar was quite busy between Ultima VI and VII. Aside from the Worlds of Ultima games, he also appeared in a 3D game called Ultima Underworld. After being drawn back to Britannia to a colony on the Isle of the Avatar devoted to virtue, the Avatar witnesses a kidnapping which he is then found guilty and banished to the Stygian Abyss. Inside, he must rescue the kidnapped girl and prevent a demon from being summoned to Britannia. The game takes place from a first person perspective and is essentially a non-linear dungeon-crawler. You explore the abyss, fighting monsters and discovering the sinister happenings of the colony.

Ultima VII, Part 1: The Black Gate: Back to the numbered series, we reach what I consider the high point of the series. Ultima VII carries over much of from Ultima VI - the perspective, the general looks of the supporting cast, etc. - but adds several dozen layers of depth. Ultima VII is a living, breathing world. All the NPCs run on a schedule. You can explore virtually anywhere. It is a giant sand box of interactivity. You can even bake bread should you so desire. About the only major loss from Ultima VI was that you are now given the key words for NPC conversations without having to type them out yourself. But that's debatable as to that being a loss or not.

The story itself is quite good. It's been almost 200 years (Time in Britannia runs faster than on Earth.) since the Avatar was last seen in Britannia. Lord British is still on the throne and it's a time of relative peace. (Lord British and almost all of the Avatar's main companions are natives of Earth and age slower because of the time difference.) The Underworld finally finished collapsing, but the Gargoyles were giving the island of Terfin - Former home of Blackthorn's castle - to settle on. In the mean time, the Fellowship, a not-at-all sinister philosophical and religious organization has risen to great prominence. But all is not going quite so well. Mages across the land are loosing their minds, being driven mad by some sort of disruption in the ethereal waves that full their powers. People have begun to forget the way of the virtues, and many of the shrines have gone into disrepair. Oh, and there's been a rash of bloody, ritualistic murders.

Enter, once again, the Avatar. After being taunted by a malevolent, red face on his computer screen, he rushes outside to find a moongate open. He assumes Lord British sent it to summon the Avatar to aide him once again, and enters the red portal. For some reason, he decides not to bring any weapons or equipment, but honestly, that's nothing new. He ends up in Trinsic at the site of the latest of the murders. And so the Avatar begins a new journey, tracking down the myserious hook-handed murderer, figure out who this 'Guardian' guy is and learn the dark secrets hidden behind the friendly facade of the Fellowship.

It's difficult to write about Ultima VII's plot in any cohesive manner because it doesn't follow much direct progression. The Black Gate is a giant sandbox of plots and sub plots and side quests. It's concievable that you could skip around and even miss big chunks of the main plot thread. You spend most of the game following the trail of two of the Fellowship's founders, Elizabeth and Abraham investigating the murder spree that seems to form in their wake. There is a route the game will point out for you to follow, but over all, you could skip almost directly to the end of the trail only to have to go back and do earlier parts in the wrong order. It isn't a weakness in the game, per se, but it could cause a new player trouble if they fall off the rails and don't know where to go next.

The game also had an expansion pack called The Forge of Virtue. It wraps up a few hanging plot threads from Ultima III of all games. After the Stranger defeated Exodus in Ultima III, Lord British turned the demonic machine's former home base into a place that would be part of the Quest of the Avatar. The Isle of Fire sank into the ocean before anyone could make use of it, so it was forgotten. That is, until the island rises again. Fearing the return of Exodus, Lord British asks the avatar to travel to the Isle of Fire and find out what's going on. He learns that what he destroyed all those years ago was in reality Exodus's terminal interface and that it's dark core yet remains. The Avatar must take the challenges of truth, love and courage to help create the Talisman of Infinity to banish the dark core. In the process, he has to do a number of tests and forge a dark, demonic sword to slay a powerful dragon. The sword will be integral in the next numbered chapter.

In his travels, the Avatar will destroy three generators put in place by the Guardian. One is causing the mages to go inside, one has destabilized moongate travel (And completely breaks all the moongates when destroyed, leaving the Avatar stranded in Britannia.) and a third allows the Guardian to communicate with his followers. With three objects trapped inside those generators in hand, as well as a broken magic wand that detonates the mysterious blackrock that has been mined in mass, the Avatar confronts the Guardian's most loyal and powerful supporters in their 'secret' hideout on the Isle of the Avatar. Personally, I think hiding on an island named after your biggest adversary right behind one of the most important shrines for Britannians and gargoyles alike - the shrine that once housed the Codex of Infinite Wisdom - is a pretty bad idea in the grand scheme of things. But hey, I'm not an all-powerful, muppet-faced, trans-dimensional overlord. I'm sure he had a good reason for his minions to build the gate there.

When the Avatar reaches the titular gate, he's faced with a choice - Destroy the black gate and prevent the Guardian from using it himself, or use the gate to return to Earth, leaving Britannia to it's fate. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to the avatar to hand the wand to Iolo and go through, letting his companions destroy the gate themselves, but obviously, the Avatar blows up the blackrock portal. But Batlin, the Fellowship's founder and the Guardian's greatest supporter in Britannia, has escaped to parts unknown. But for the moment, victory is at hand and chasing down Batlin can wait for another game.

Aside from the underlying theme of the danger of blind loyalty to a group and the dangers of collectivism, there's one other subtle theme in The Black Gate. That is a resistance to the takeover of Origin by the gaming behemoth, Electronic Arts. For instance, the three generators are in the shape of a sphere, cube and tetrahedron, which is a subtle parody of EA's circle-box-triangle logo. If you look hard enough, you'll find other little jabs at EA through out the game. Sales were not enough for Ultima VII to stop EA's takeover.

Ultima VII was ported to the Super Nintendo. Well, not so much ported as smashed repeatedly with a spiked mace for an hour. Some of it has to do with good old Nintendo censorship. The brutal murders, for example, which spur much of the plot are replaced by bloodless kidnappings. Other problems are a bit more puzzling. You don't get a party for your journey. I think it might have to do with the biggest change for the port. Our happy, wonderful Ultima game turned into a Legend of Zelda clone in many ways. I suppose intergrating party combat into a more twitch-based setup would be difficult.

Part of the problem with playing a lot of old Ultima games on their native platform - the PC - is that technology has rendered some of the games unplayable. Computers today are just to fast for the oldest games. And then there's both parts of Ultima VII that required specialized DOS setting back when they first came out. The games would require you to make a boot disk and load up the game via that. There are two ways to get around this to play the game. The first is using a DOS emulator like DOSBox. The second is to use a specially made emulator for the two Ultima VII games called Exult Exult doesn't just emulate the game and make it playable on modern PCs. It improves the games. You can get a large screen size than the normal 320 x 200 the game was made with. It will also add a number of GUI and interface improvements added in Serpent Isle to the Black Gate. Exult further has its own interface improvements such as an easily accessible health (and mana for the Avatar) bar so you can see which of your party members are about to die horribly before they're on the ground in a pool of blood. The only major drawback to Exult is that it does cause both the Black Gate and Serpent Isle to be a bit buggy at times.

Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds: Squeezed in chronologically in the year and a half between the the two parts of Ultima VII, we have the second Ultima Underworld game. It features better graphics than it's predecessor and a slightly more involved story. Lord British decided to hold a party in his castle with most of the Avatar's companions and various other dignitaries to celebrate a year of rebuilding Britannia after the destruction of the black gate. But one of the guests, working at the behest of the Guardian, traps the guests inside so they'd be out of the way while the Guardian attempts to invade Britannia. It's up to the avatar to use a crystal found in the sewers below the castle to explore a number of world held by the Guardian to find a way to crack the blackrock dome locking them in.

Like Underworld I, Underworld II is a side story with little impact on the main series. It gives a bit of insight into other worlds that the Guardian has conquered and shows that big red does have a few other plans squirreled away in case he failed. It also contains its share of plot holes, such as where the black sword from the Forge of Virtue - a sword which the Avatar is bound to and can not discard - has wandered off too. Then again, giving the Avatar a weapon that powerful from the word go would have somewhat lessened the challenge.

The only major plot-related item in Underworld II that will have any effect on the series as it moves forward is the discovery of a blackrock sculpture of a serpent that will come into play in the next chapter.

Ultima VII, Part 2: Serpent Isle: EA's in charge of Origin now, so hang on kids. Things are about to get a bit rocky. Serpent Isle could almost be called Ultima 8, but it was decided since it runs on the same engine as The Black Gate that they couldn't give it its own number. Instead it became part two of Ultima VII.

It's been two years since the destruction of the Fellowship, and Lord British and the Avatar have finally gotten around to going through Batlin's stuff. Apparently LB spent his time, when not trapped in a blackrock dome, rather poorly of late. Anyway, they find a magical message left by the Guardian for Batlin that tells him that should (Or when, as the case may be) the Avatar thwarts his plan to enter Britannia, he should venture to the mysterious Serpent Isle and... Uh... I guess let him in through there? The whole plan is a bit vague, at best.

Serpent Isle, as it turns out, is where one of the Avatar's former companions and Iolo's wife Gwenno had recently gone to through the here-to-fore unmentioned Serpent Pillars. Not having much else to do, I suppose, the Avatar grabs Shamino, Dupre and Iolo and heads off after Batlin.

Lord British apparently confiscated all the Avatar's best gear from The Black Gate because you're rather poorly equipped when you arrive on the Serpent isle. And by arrive, I mean your boat gets struck by lightning and sails through the air, somehow safely landing on the coast of the unknown, yet oddly familiar continent. The Avatar and company set out from their wrecked ship only to get struck by lightning after about thirty feet. They're off to a great start, aren't they?

Turns out the lightning is magic lighting that's a sign of the the Apocalypse. More importantly, it steals most of what little good gear you came there with. It also scatters your companions. The Avatar soon meets a monk who will serve as your resurrection service for the game and who give a bit of exposition after the obligatory copyright protection. It turns out that Serpent Isle is being plagued by storms. These storms are but a sign that the end of the world is near, and the Avatar and his companions are prophesied to be the ones to fix the world's problems. The monk gets cut off by her fellow monk who interprets the prophesy differently thinking that by helping the Avatar, they are dooming themselves. The two fight with magic before teleporting away. From there, you meet up with Shamino and eventually the rest of your companions and explore this strange, new (old) world.

Serpent Isle is a far more linear game than The Black Gate was and takes place in what you might call three acts. The first act, you meet the locals. There are three cities in the southern part of the continent - Monitor, Fawn, and Moonshade. All three were settled by Sosarians who fled when Lord British took over and imposed his system of virtues on the world. A mage named Erstram lead them through the Serpent Pillars to found New Sosaria. The continent they found was covered in ruins decorated with various types of serpents, so they decided to rename it Serpent Isle. Essentially, all of this is a bit of a retcon to explain where exactly several of the cities that vanished between Ultima III and IV went. But it's fairly clever. More importantly, it's the Avatar's first trip through a world that knows little of his Age of Enlightenment exploits and where Lord British is referred to as the Beast British.

The second act delves deeper into the history of Serpent Isle as they follow Batlin. In exploring the continent, the Avatar and his companions learn that Serpent Isle is, or was, one of the original four continents of Sosaria - The Lands of Danger and Despair. After being split off from the rest of Sosaria, the remaining people eventually started worshiping Order, Chaos and Balance in the form of three serpents. Order and Chaos grew into powerful factions and remained held in check by the lesser faction of Balance. They called themselves the Olphidians and had a rather nice civilization going for a while there.

Everyone remember the Great Earth Serpent from Ultima III? Yeah, well, he was the serpent that embodied Balance for the Olphidians. When he was ripped from the void by Exodus to guard his castle, war broke out between Order and Chaos. In the void, the serpents of Order and Chaos fought it out as well. In the end, Order won the war with their army of robotic automatons. In the void, the serpent of Chaos was defeated and his essence sundered three parts. The three parts were imprisoned and grew corrupted over time, becoming the Banes of Chaos. Order left Serpent Isle through their wall of lights to go elsewhere. Thus, when the settlers showed up later on, the island was deserted and covered in war-torn ruins.

The war had unforeseen consequences. With no mediating force and one force prevailing over the other, the world was thrown into imbalance. This imbalance started localized to Serpent Isle, but over time snowballed into the mess that exists today. The storms are a consequence of ancient war. Batlin, having learned from the Guardian about Serpent Isle and the Wall of Lights, believed that he could attain power to rival the Guardian and betrays him. He frees then captures the three Banes of Chaos, but then does something rather dumb. He goes to the Wall of Lights belonging to the Order sect and attempted to open it with the blackrock serpent (One like the one found n Underworld II) of Chaos. This does not go well, and Batlin's death marks the end of act II.

Act III starts immediately after when your three companions - Shamino, Iolo and Dupre - are possessed by the Banes of Chaos - Anarchy, insanity and wantonness respectively - and proceed to murder about 90 percent of the population of Serpent Isle. Yeah.

As an aside, there was originally supposed to do far more than their murder spree. But in a sign of things to come, Origin had to rush the game out the door and cut a lot. Originally, the Banes were supposed to take over Moonshade, Montor and Fawn and you would have to drive them out before eventually confronting them. Instead, they murder almost everyone and hold up in one of the few places you have yet to be able to access in the game. There are bits and pieces of the cut content that remain. But they're relegated to minor sub plot status as you go off in search of what you'll need to take down the Banes and eventually finish the game.

The Avatar and a few survivors find the dead Gwenno, who had been possessed by the Bane of Wantonness bane before Batlin killed her and captured it. Once revived, she is act rather nuts. To cure her, and then to create prisons to capture the banes, you have to seek out the six Olphidian shrines dedicated to their 'virtues.' Dousing Gwenno with the water of Ethnicality fixes her. After forging three soul prisms, you go fight the banes, slaying them and capturing them in soul prisms. Dumping a bucket of the right water on the right companion, once revived, brings them back to their senses. It also allows Xenka, the seer who started the monastery, to wake up (Or appear. It's a bit sketchy.) and tell her followers how badly they screwed things up. Also, she sends the Avatar on the journey to save the universe from the increasing imbalance. The effects of the imbalance had begun effecting other worlds outside Serpent Isle. That includes Britannia and even Earth.

The Avatar is told that he must do the following. He needs to get the various ceremonial implements of the Great Heirophant, the three blackrock serpents of Order, Chaos and Balance, and the eyes of Order and Chaos. He, or one of his companions must then sacrifice themselves as part of a ritual to recreate a purified Chaos Serpent. Finally, he has to return the Great Earth Serpent to the void so he can mediate the two forces once more. Dupre, unable to live down what he did while possessed by the Bane, sacrifices himself in the Monitor crematorium. The Avatar uses his late friend's sacrifice to recreate the Chaos Serpent, who immediately starts fighting the Order Serpent in the void. Finally, he heads to the shrine of Balance on Sunrise Isle, and sends the Great Earth Serpent back into the void, finally ending the war and the imbalance. The Avatar himself goes through the wall with the Great Earth Serpent and witnesses the reunion, but before he is able to return to Serpent Isle (Assuming he could at all. He was kinda floating in space there.) the Guardian reaches into the void and snatches up the Avatar and drags him off to a new, unknown world. A world already conquered by the Guardian and knows nothing of Sosaria, the virtues or the Avatar. The world of Pagan.

Serpent Isle is a great game and honestly, I love the story. But the story comes at a price. The immense sandbox of The Black Gate starts to vanish. It would be seen again, in a way, when it came time to create the Ultima MMO, Ultima Online, some years later. But the rest of the main series would become far more linear in their scope and remove much of your ability to explore.

What really gets me about the story is two fold. First is the people of the three cities. They are people who, unlike everyone you've met for the last four games, decided not to live under Lord British's virtues and fled to an unknown land. As such, you encounter people who could give a damn about your being the paragon of those virtues. You're back to being a stranger, of sorts. Also, it's interesting to see how they subtly twisted the three principles - Truth, love, and courage - in representing their towns.

The second part I particularly liked was the Order/Chaos dichotomy. Neither side is good or evil. There could just as easily been Banes of Order had Order lost the war instead. The system leans towards finding Balance between the two extremes. I think the theme, such as there is, of Serpent Isle is striving for that balance. Balance is something the Avatar is not inherently all about. The Olphidian civilization is a well-thought out concept and has the level of detail I'd expect from Origin.

Serpent Isle had it's own expansion pack, The Silver Seed. Using a magic amulet given to you by the monks, the Avatar and friends travel back in time to near the end of the War of Imbalance. It's a similar setup to the Forge of Virtue in that you are in a fairly self-contained area doing a bunch of quests. This time, though, instead of awarding the Avatar with a game breaking weapon and massive stats boost, you get a still incredibly strong weapon and a bunch of other good relics, including one massively game-breaking ring - the Ring of Reagents. In all Ultima games (With the exception of Ultima IX, sort of,) the magic system requires reagents to cast spells. They take up space and cost money. The Ring of Reagents gives you infinite reagents, meaning you can easily turn into a spell slinger as soon as you get your spell book.

Both parts of Ultima VII remain among my favorite RPGs. And with good reason. They both have engaging stories, interesting characters and locations. Both games have living, breathing worlds, the likes of which won't show up again in RPGs for many years. Both games add quite a bit to the series as a whole and seemingly set up what looked to be an interesting story arc for the final installments of the series. The Guardian, while a bit passive aggressive, makes an good, omnipresent opponent who doesn't dip too far into the big bag of villain cliches. While you only see him in the flesh during the endings of both parts of Ultima VII, he makes his presence known through taunting the Avatar and through his effect on his followers in the Fellowship. He's an adversary who you learn little about in spite of his constant presence.

In a way, all those good points make the disappointment of Ultima VIII and the jaw dropping idiocy of Ultima IX all the more tragic. I'd originally planned to cover the end of the series in a single update, but it would end up being far too long. So join me next time, when I'll unleash years of pent up frustration on the final games of the Ultima series.

Images courtesy of the Internet.