Thursday, July 9, 2020

Amberstar: I Finally Get Things

Oh. Uh . . . great. I'll . . . start . . . using it now.
        
My fortunes reversed after the last entry, and this one took me a lot of time to accomplish some meager things. I started by exploring an 8 x 8 sub-basement under the wine cellar. I had noted some down stairs while solving the quest earlier. The small area had a chest but nothing else to do.
        
I thought I would next try the villa northeast of Twinlake that had been owned by a man named Jonathan. He was an inventor, and his son told me there might be useful items there. There were, but I visited too soon. The first time you visit the villa, the game dumps you into the basement via a trap, and you have to search and fight your way out. Since the villa has three large levels, one with numerous sections that don't interconnect, it's a bit of a challenge. I lasted as long as I could, but eventually the orcs and goblins got the best of me, and I had to reload from outside.
        
One hit to any of my characters will kill them.
         
Not sure what to do next, I made another round of both Twinlake and Crystal. This was good because I'd missed a few things. Some notes from this experience:
     
  • After you rescue her cat, Sunny in Twinlake will offer to sell you hats if you talk to her again. They lower your armor class by one, and so far there haven't been any helmets, so it's a good deal.
  • Spike, the dog, cannot in fact join any guild. That must be why his stats are pretty good at the beginning--they're never going to get any better. 
  • There's a house in Twinlake that's presented in iconographic view, like it's important, but I couldn't find anything to do there. More on this later.
  • Although I found Trasric's orb in one of his plants, I had previously missed the owner of the greenhouse in Crystal: a gnome named Olfin. Olfin, like Gwendolyn back in Twinlake, is also seeking the Rose of Sadness. He relates that it was created for a desert princess named Jasmin. It's said to be found only in the "Sea of Peace," which he equates with the Desert of Sighs northeast of Crystal. 
          
Olfin gives some intelligence.
           
  • Knowing how to speak with animals didn't help me with the demon-possessed homunculus in the Lord Chancellor's house. It wasn't until after I visited Illien that I realized that the gobbledygook in which he was speaking is actually the game's runic language, decipherable via a reference card that came with the game. (You can understand my confusion: how do you speak runic?) It turns out what the demon is saying is: "MORTALS, LOOK DEEP INTO MY EYES AND SEE THE PAIN MY PRINCE IS PREPARING FOR YOU. NO ONE CAN STOP THE PLANS OF PRINCE BRALKUR. HE WILL SUCK YOUR SOUL FROM YOUR BODY THE WAY YOU SUCK AN EGG." Not to criticize, but the demon should have stopped after "body"; the rest just made us laugh. Anyway, the demon's words turned out not to have anything to do with how to get into the cellar, so that was a dead end.
  • The wine cellar in Twinlake has some kind of lock on one wall, and a wall in the basement of the villa has a similar lock. I suspect they connect if I can find some way to open it. (The fact that they share the same automap is also a bit of a giveaway.) I tried picking to no avail.
  • Breth, the innkeeper in Twinlake, tells us that his brother Orlando, innkeeper in Crystal, is having some issues with his wine cellar, and I should ask him about his PROBLEM. I then forget to do this when I'm in Crystal. Between Sunny and Breth, I've learned that I want to speak to NPCs again after finishing their quests because they sometimes have new things to say.
       
I return to Firlas, the sage who left his Bone of Wisdom in Twinlake. I correctly guessed that the bone that Spike possessed was the Bone of Wisdom. In return, Firlas--to my surprise--gives me a piece of the Amberstar! I don't know why I expected this, but I still expected that after all this introductory question and party-building, the pieces of the Amberstar were all going to be at the bottoms of a series of dungeons. If a simple fetch quest can produce one of the pieces, perhaps the game won't devolve into a boring slog through 130 dungeon levels.
        
1/13 done!
        
I am a bit concerned, though, at Firlas's statement that he found it at the bottom of a river "years ago." If everyone else treated their pieces so carelessly, it'll be a miracle if I actually find them all.
           
Wasting time in the desert.
        
Lacking anything else to do in the places I already visited, I start working my way around the continent counter-clockwise. I start with the top of the map, north of Crystal, but I don't find any Rose of Sadness in the desert, and a lot of the area is covered in deadly swamp that I avoid. I do find a bridge that reliably produces a troll when crossing it. So far, the combats have largely been fixed and non-repeatable, and the bridge is the only place I've found where one can reliably grind if necessary. The problem is that the troll offers only 4 experience points and can poison the party members, so it's not quite worth it.
            
Even with rats and trolls, the game couches poisoning as "casting a spell."
          
Illien is a small town inhabited by elves. It has a store, herb store, potion shop, food shop, and a temple. The elves call themselves the "guardians of the eyrie"--the home of great eagles to Illien's south. Statues in the town square pay homage to a lineage of elected or appointed guardians starting with Tillien (presumably the town's founder) and continuing until Pelanis, the town's current lord.
            
The game gives you some flavor text as you enter each new area.
         
Pelanis relates the town's current situation: A dragon has recently appeared and is threatening the Eagles. The dragon has also apparently laid an egg in its lair. Pelanis wants us to kill the dragon and steal its egg to be raised by the Eagles. The dragon lives in a cliff that I'll need to reach by raft, but Pelanis tells me I can use his, moored on the river to the northwest. He also suggests that we make a trip to the Tower of the Grey Wizard while we have the raft.
   
In the tavern, drinking morosely, I find Kelvin, a bard whose harp was swindled by a trickster called the Riddlemaster. I know this already because I found the note from the Riddlemaster to Kelvin back in Crystal, along with 5,000 gold that has been funding my level increases since then. Kelvin begs me to buy a ship, find the Riddlemaster's island, and get the harp back. As a reward, he'll give me yet another piece of the Amberstar, which he wears around his neck like it's not one of the 13 most important things in the world right now.
            
I guess we can't just kill him and take it.
        
I continue circling the map--there really isn't a lot on it--and eventually come to the town of Gemstone, another relatively small place. Among the standard offerings, it has a tool shop, where I could buy a crowbar if I hadn't found one in the barrel. I do buy a pick-axe, a shovel, and a rope, just in case. NPCs in the hallways warn me to heal illness as quickly as possible (otherwise, it can damage attributes permanently) and to be careful with which spells I choose to learn, as I only get a certain number of "spell learning" points.
        
Good tip.
       
In the tavern, I find my sixth companion, a dwarf warrior named Drobanir, who's already Level 6. His inclusion means that my party has become heavily melee-oriented, and I should probably replace Spike with a Grey Wizard and perhaps Gryban with a White Wizard. I need to look in the manual again to see how well paladines can serve in lieu of White Wizards. But I haven't found either of those characters yet, so my party is full for now.
          
My not-terribly-creative combat lineup.
         
The armory in Gemstone has a lot of high-end weapons and armor, and I can imagine I'll be back here once I've saved some more money. I assume getting insanely rich in this game is at least possible because there's a gem shop that sells gems whose only purpose is to convert piles of coin into something more portable (something we also saw in Pool of Radiance). Right now, though, I'm swiftly depleting the 5,000 stake I found in Crystal, and I still need to recover that so I can spend it on a boat.
       
This mithril mail is worth one and a half ships.
        
For some reason, I become disenchanted with "circling the map" at this point, so I make my way back to Twinlake. On the way, though, I find a house in the middle of a swamp. The map titles it the "guardhouse" of something called a "swampstation." An old man living in the house talks about a "plant" that closed years ago after part of the structure collapsed. There's a dungeon beneath the house, but it's guarded by a magic mouth that requires a password (this was also a common feature in Thalion's Dragonflight).
          
These are creepy.
           
By the time I return to Twinlake, I've realized that the "empty" house is probably not empty. Like most other parts of the game, it's probably just time-sensitive. Sure enough, when I wait around long enough, the owner returns. He's a wizard named Shandra. Clearly I was supposed to meet him early in the game, as he gives me a history book that holds the manual's tale of Tarbos and the Amberstar, which I guess I wasn't supposed to read until now, a map of Lyramion, which I guess I wasn't supposed to use until now, and a recommendation that I can find his apprentice in the Tower of the Grey Wizards. He also gives us a bunch of spell scrolls and potions.
          
I wonder if the original packaging had a clear note saying not to read the tale until you encounter it in-game.
       
I should have probably headed to the Tower of the Grey Wizards next, but for some reason I decided to try the villa again now that I had Drobanir (also, everyone had gained a level and I had some slightly better gear). It worked better than the first time, although I still had to reload a few times after some disastrous battles. The villa had been abandoned years ago after its owner, Jonathan, died. Orcs and goblins had moved into the place, using it as a base for their raiding parties, intent on breaching the locked door to Jonathan's old laboratory.
 
As I explored, I fought maybe a dozen battles with orcs, goblins, and rats. The big problem is that at this phase of the game, if the characters just dropped their weapons, they'd still somehow miss the ground. The enemies aren't much better. So round after round creeps in this petty pace as no one hits anything but air. I assume it will get more exciting as everyone gets better and spells become more of an option. Right now, Trasric runs out pretty fast--although he does have an awesome spell, "Tornado," that absolutely wipes the map of monsters. He can only cast it once before fully recovering his spell points, but when his mana is fully charged, I know I can win at least one battle.
           
Perhaps the largest battle in the villa: two hill orcs, two mountain orcs, two goblins.
        
The orcs and goblins drop leather armor, clubs, and other items that I could sell if I could carry them all, but I soon run afoul of both encumbrance and space limits. I also start finding so much useful stuff that I end up having to drop most of what I've collected for sale. It kills me to leave so much on the ground because I don't know where else I'm going to get the money.
           
This stuff is probably worth about 300 gold pieces, and I have no room for it.
          
Eventually, we find our way to Jonathan's laboratory. A magic mouth requires the name JONATHAN to pass. We then have to pass through a room with a bunch of spinners, and then another one with a bunch of teleporters. Eventually, we arrive at the lab.
         
The beginning of a teleporter maze.
        
The trip is mostly worth it. The lab is full of diary pages that describe Jonathan's inventions along with clues to where we can find them. One entry describes the creation of a magical floating disc for Pharaoh Relanukh. It allows easy transport over flat land and still bodies of water. It was buried with the pharaoh in a great desert to the southeast. For his friend Melvin, Captain of the Construction Brigade, Jonathan created a locater device that shows one's coordinates even underground. It was lost in the Gralswamp when Melvin was attacked by subterranean monsters. I suspect this is the swamp that I visited recently, and I now have the password from Jonathan's diary: WATER.
         
Arriving in the lab.
        
From a fallen meteor with iron ore, Jonathan constructed a compass, and this was hidden right in his lab. I found it and activated it. Like the watch, it disappeared from my inventory and latched itself to my interface. At this point, I belatedly realized that was how the painting that I found in my house (which distinguishes day from night) must work. I used it, and sure enough, I now have a little diagram that shows a moon and star at night and a sun during the day. It's a bit superfluous with the clock (which properly follows a 24-hour system), but whatever.
         
Jonathan's diary describes the impetus for making a clock.
          
Jonathan also apparently created the clock, which I found in the sewers. A chest in his office held a "tunnel key" that I suspect opens the way from his basement to the Twinlake wine cellar (I was far away from it at this point) as well as a "mountain crystal" and a signet ring. The signet ring would seem to belong to the Lord Chancellor of Crystal, who left it behind after consulting with Jonathan about a clock. This might be what I need to get into his basement.
   
In one basement area of Jonathan's villa was a transporter that took the party to a small island. The island had some useful stuff--potions, scrolls, good equipment on the body of a dead orc, and in a chest, another piece of the Amberstar. The problem is, I can't get back from the island. There's a locked door in a house on the island that I assume has the return teleporter, but nothing I do will get me through the door. I don't know if I need a key or just higher lockpicking skill. So I regretfully had to reload from before using the teleporter. I also left a couple of chests in Jonathan's basement that similarly refused to yield to my lockpicking skills.
       
Jonathan apparently had a teleporter to a vacation spot.
        
Up on the main floor, a half-orc cook named Torg gave me some intelligence about the orc and goblin band. He offered to accompany us, but he was just a second-level warrior. I otherwise would have liked to take him. Aided by a lot of resting, we managed to clear out the rest of the orcs and goblins and eventually find the exit from the villa.
          
I really felt bad not taking him.
        
Miscellaneous notes:
           
  • I don't know why I would buy herbs from the herb shop. The manual doesn't say anything about a potion-crafting system, and there are no skills along those lines. Maybe some NPC teaches me later. 
  • The retention of every dialogue keyword in later dialogues has already become unwieldy.
          
I hope Pelanis didn't have anything to contribute about BALA or GWENDOLYN, because I'm no longer asking everyone about everything.
           
  • To speak to the elves in Illien, I had to activate my elvish character, Trasric. Later, I found a half-elf named Thaer who was willing to teach elvish to anyone, but for a lot of money. There's a dwarf in Illien that nobody could speak to; I'll have to try again now that I have Drobanir.
  • Major inventory problems already. Most of the problem is that I have too many scrolls waiting for a Grey Wizard or White Wizard to memorize them. (My two paladines can eventually memorize White Wizard spells, but their "Read Magic" skills are too low right now.) It doesn't help that Spike can't carry anything.
  • I like that the game shows the race, sex, age, and level of NPCs while you're speaking with them. 
           
I won't be messing with Shandra.
            
  • I like leveling up and allocating skill points. It's quite addictive. I just wish it happened more often. Now that I need several hundred points between levels, the 10 I get from a fight with a half dozen orcs seems relatively paltry.
  • I also like that it makes many of its encounters contextual. Rather than just having to fight eight orcs, for instance, you interrupt them playing dice.
           
This kind of thing just adds a little welcome flavor to the repetitive textures and enemies.
         
At this point, these are my quests and leads. I've ordered them roughly by what I perceive to be the ease. Some of the ones at the bottom, I'm not sure I have the right items or information to pursue yet.

  • Use the tunnel key to bridge the wine cellar and Jonathan's laboratory. I'm not sure if I expect to find anything doing this, but the key needs to get out of my inventory.
  • As Orlando about the PROBLEM in his wine cellar.
  • Talk to the NPC dwarf on the streets of Illien.
  • Take the raft to the Grey Wizards' tower and recruit Shandra's apprentice.
  • Return to the Lord Chancellor's house in Crystal and try to figure out what happened to him.
  • Go the Gralswamp and look for the positioning device.
  • Find the transportation device in the pharaoh's tomb.
  • Make 5,000 gold pieces, find a ship, take it to the Riddlemaster, and retrieve Kelvin's harp. 
  • Take another pass at Jonathan's place once my lockpicking skill improves.
                    
I hated leaving this behind.
         
  • Find the Black Wizard guild so I can level up Trasric. I have a note about coordinates, but I don't know how to find coordinates until I find the device Jonathan talked about.
  • Kill the dragon and steal his egg for the Eagles.
  • Find the Rose of Sadness in the Sea of Peace for Gwendolyn and/or Olfin.
  • Visit Sansri's Insel, an island south of the main continent, find the necklace that can operate windgates.
             
I'll close this entry with a brief summary of the backstory, since I only got it "officially" during this entry. The story begins from the perspective of "Tar," a human toddler abandoned in the woods as a child. A couple from the pastoral town of Forkbrook adopted him. Bullied mercilessly as a child (he had black hair while everyone else in the village had blond), he became a lonely, aloof young man. One day, while walking in the woods, he met an undead bear that attacked and breathed into him, giving him some kind of power.
 
Tar returned to his village and used his new power to kill one of his bullies. His horrified parents took him to the local wizard, Latheoz, who in turn took him to a school of magic called the Seekers of Perilous Knowledge. Tar rose fast in their ranks and started courting Princess Mylneh, daughter of King Marakahn and niece of Grandmaster Kantuon.

Tar became the youngest student to ever pass the Master's Trials. For his first trial, he decided to summon a demon, which requires the wizard to actually enter Hell. Usually, demons are summoned from one of the less-dangerous upper levels, but the ambitious Tar descended all the way into the bottom, where he ran into the King of Hell, Thornahuun. Thornahuun called him "Tarbos" and revealed that he was Tarbos's father and that his mother had been a mortal witch.
         
I realized after writing this entry that I never included a screenshot showing all the interface elements together, so here's one. I assume when I get the locater, it will display coordinates in the middle.
         
The encounter led Tarbos to delve into forbidden books and scrolls, which got him kicked out of the school. He used his knowledge to summon Thornahuun and bind him, then used his horrific new power to destroy the 13 grandmasters of the Seekers. He raised an undead army and announced his intention to take Marakahn's lands and daughter. As he conquered the northern lands, a dozen wizards (four grey, four white, four black) gathered at Castle Godsbane with Princess Mylneh to create the Amberstar. They used it to banish Tarbos to one of Lyramion's moons, then to seal Godsbane so no one could enter and perform the counterspell that would return Tarbos to the world. The Amberstar, now needed to unlock the castle, was split into 13 parts and hidden. An order of paladines was established to guard the castle.
 
A thousand years later, the new King of Hell, Bralkur, Thornahuun's brother, made a deal with a dark wizard named Marmion. Bralkur's magic got Marmion through the castle's barriers, and Marmion has begun the counterspell. (Apparently, it takes a long time.) The seal of the Amberstar thus has become a liability, as it needs to be reassembled so that someone can enter and stop Marmion.
   
It's a somewhat original story but with very familiar trappings. I think a better story would be that the party has been commissioned to find a way to destroy the moon so that Tarbos can't return. Maybe that's what Ambermoon is about.
         
Time so far: 16 hours

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Black Gate: Just Desserts

Part of the rather thin justification for the subtitle.
         
I strutted out of the Dungeon Destard feeling pretty flush. The party hopped the rug back to Britain and turned in their gems and nuggets and bars for a record 4,233 gold pieces. I thought those would last me the rest of the game, so imagine my surprise when I popped over to Cove, bought out Rudyom's spell inventory (he's doing well with the ether restored, by the way), and found myself knocked back to 1,700. Training would soon leave me with less than 1,000. Ah, the vagaries of fortune. I still have to buy spells from Nystul, Mariah, Penumbra, Nicodemus,  and Wis-Sur, so my need for gold isn't going to disappear anytime soon. It's a good thing I'm so devoted to checking out all the dungeons.
            
Here today, gone tomorrow.
          
Continuing in the order of virtues, my next cities are Yew, Trinsic (redux), Minoc, and Skara Brae. All of them are accessible from the continent. My commenters have waxed about the virtues of land travel and all the things you find serendipitously along the way. Persuaded, I leave my magic carpet at the castle and set out for Yew on land. We probably could get there faster by cutting northwest through the Serpent's Spine and the Great Forest, but I know that the road leading west from Britain eventually curves north along the west coast to arrive in Yew, so I take that. The road is no safer than the wilderness; we are attacked by headless, reapers (which look like fallen trees), and wolves along the way.
    
Long before reaching Yew, we find a two-story structure in the middle of the woods. A sign labels it as "Selwyn's Tower." There seems to be no way to get in--I try clicking all the walls looking for secret doors--but peering through a window, we can see a nice bed, a harp, and a Firedoom Staff just lying on the floor. Ultimately, we shrug and continue on.
             
No idea what this is about.
         
We make short work of some trolls guarding a bridge, cross, and soon come to a house belonging to a trainer named Bradman, named of course after the greatest cricket batsman of all time (apologies to Brian Lara, clearly the greatest of our time). His offer of two dexterity points and two combat points for two training points is a good deal--but it's essentially the same as what Sentri offers (1 combat and 1 dexterity for 1 training point), and Sentri is free. Plus, most of my characters need strength more than dexterity.
       
Up the road, we find what we're looking for with a trainer named Penni. She's the wife of Addom, the traveling trader that we met in Moonglow, and we have the opportunity to tell her that her husband is doing well. She trains 1 strength and 1 combat for 2 training points, which isn't a great deal, but I'm not sure you get a better one for strength alone. I'm not going to put off training forever in any event. Almost all the party members spend some time with Penni and at least equalize their strength and dexterity. Spark, who for some reason gets more training points per level than anyone else, goes from 13 strength to 22.
       
Spark is pretty buff after the last session.
          
Despite my constantly stuffing Iolo's backpack with every food item we come across, we've somehow run out, and the party members start mewling for food. Ultimately, I'm forced to cast:
            
Create Food (IN MANI YLEM, "Create Elements of Life"), Level 1. The spell creates one food item for every party member and scatters them on the ground. The created food is usually snack stuff like fruitcakes and cheese, rarely enough to shut anyone up for more than an hour or so. Besides that issue, I just hate spending reagents on it.
            
Iolo's place looks like a frat house.
          
Thus, I'm happy when we arrive at Iolo's place, which is a disaster--dust and garbage strewn everywhere. I don't know whether this is supposed to be a reflection of Iolo's character or the fact that he hasn't been around for a while. His wife, Gwenno, has left a note indicating that she left on an expedition to the fabled Serpent Isle. She wants Iolo to join her, but not until our current quest is done, which means she must not have left until after I arrived. The note mentions my character by name, and I always get a little tingle when the game actually incorporates your chosen character name. I don't know why my companions insist on calling me "Avatar." It's not programmatically hard to insert the character's name in dialogue.
          
Gwenno sets up the sequel.
        
Iolo's famous talking horse, Smith, hangs out in the stables behind the hut. Smith was always a likeable dolt--he is a horse, after all--in the previous games, but over the last 200 years, he's become an actual jerk. He responds to all my questions with sarcasm ("Job? Job? I'm a horse, what kind of job could I have? I can see it now: Smith--baker extraordinaire") and insults me every chance he gets. I have to actively threaten him ("will not make you glue") to get his CLUE, which is that the gargoyles are not evil and Rasputin is a "mean Martian." In both Ultima V and Ultima VI, Smith provided clues for winning the previous game--in Ultima VI only after a long treasure hunt instigated by Chuckles--and the running joke became somewhat funny. It's lost here, where Smith acts like such a jackass that you're more incensed about that then the uselessness of his clue.
          
You mean the money I don't keep when I'm unceremoniously sent home? Come to think of it, what does happen to that money?
          
Despite Smith's rudeness, I'm unprepared for what comes next. While looting the crates in the stables, I find several food items. Assuming that they belong to Iolo, and thus the party, I feed an egg to one of my starving party members. Immediately, Smith starts bucking and kicking and calling for the guards. Two pikemen show up despite the fact that we're in the middle of the woods and demand that I surrender for my theft. To avoid arrest, I have to bribe one of them with about half the gold I have remaining. This game is weird about ownership sometimes. 
          
Moving on, we next encounter a ranger on the road named Tseramed (avatar of lead programmer Ken Demarest). He's a strangely affable fellow, given to poetic orations on the area's flora and fauna. He spends a lot of time stalking and hunting giant bees, who live in a cave to the north, eating their honey, and making poison arrows out of their stingers. He asks me some detailed questions about how I prefer to fight, which makes me a bit uncomfortable. But he has some positive exchanges with both Spark and Iolo.
        
Maybe I should give the Rune of Justice to Spark.
       
He asks if we're members of the Fellowship, and I have to let him into the party to find out that he hates the Fellowship. His beloved, someone named "Lady M.," joined the organization. When she fell sick, Abraham refused to let her see a healer, and she died. Tseramed has sworn to bring Abraham to justice, but he can never quite seem to catch up with the Fellowship leader.
           
Maybe it's his obsequiousness that bothers me.
         
We trudge into the mountains with him, and sure enough the giant bees have made an enormous nest in the place. Strangely, in a side-cavern, we find a man and a woman, both naked around a fire. (The game notes that Spark gets an eyeful of the woman.) They refer to themselves as "Mama" and "Papa" and speak like cave-men, claiming that they were abandoned there as babies, although Tseramed insists it's an act. They say they co-exist peacefully with the bees, "make zug-zug" with each other, and sustain themselves on the bees' honey. They don't like Tseramed, who of course hunts the bees, and refuse to talk to us after a short conversation.
           
Even if they are, it's not like living naked in a cave is illegal.
       
There isn't much in the bees' cave except for stingers (which I give to Tseramed) and honeycombs, which I pick up, thinking we can eat them. The bees attack periodically, and we kill them when they do. No one is poisoned, which surprises me, but at one point I stop to count party members and realize we're one short. Tseramed died unnoticed in some side-passage. At this point, I realize I haven't saved the game in a dog's age--since back in Britain, likely. While I'm not willing to reload and play everything again, I can't just leave Tseramed dead in the cave, no matter how much I mistrust him. Fortunately, the Avatar is as strong as Hercules since the events of The Forge of Virtue and has no trouble carrying Tseramed in his off-hand until we find a healer.
         
The only shot I got of the bees is all bunched up in combat. Sorry.
        
Our first indication that we've finally arrived in Yew proper is a giant game board of 7 x 7 squares, with three game pieces lined up on each side, one set of knights and one set of winged gargoyles. A treasure chest sits in the center square. A plaque announces that this is THE GAME OF KNIGHTS BRIDGE. A book in Nicodemus's hut suggests rules for the game:
       
This is a board game for two players. Each player begins with three pieces. The object is to move thy three pieces in concert in order to force the treasure from the center of the board to thine own side. All the while, thine opponent shall be attempting to do the same. Each turn consists of a player either "moving" or "pushing" a piece followed by a similar action by the opposing player.
    
A legal "move" consists of placing one's piece in any adjacent, unoccupied black or white square. A legal "push" is performed when a player forces a piece, either an opponent's or the treasure, one space directly away from his piece. The exception to the latter rule, making a "push" illegal, occurs when a player wishes to "push" a piece into the space from which it just left in the preceding turn.
   
If any piece, excluding the treasure, is "pushed" onto a blue square or off the board, that piece is considered lost, and is removed from play. The treasure may not be "pushed" off the board. To win the game, a player must "push" the treasure to the back row of squares on his side of the board. 
            
We can move the pieces, but there's no one to play against. Just to see how it works, I try playing against myself. I can't tell from the description whether diagonal motion is allowed, nor whether you can "push" a piece into a square already occupied by another piece. I assume neither is allowed and play accordingly. Also, the only way the game makes sense is if when a piece is "pushed," the pushing piece then occupies the space from which the opponent piece was pushed; otherwise, the opponent can just move back again the next round.
         
In the midst of a game against myself.
         
To push the chest back to your own side, you have to maneuver one of your pieces around to the other side of the chest, while simultaneously blocking your opponent from doing so. I played a few rounds to try to get a sense of the strategy. A player who rushes a single piece to the center of the board to try to get the chest sooner has an advantage over an opponent who slowly moves multiple pieces forward, because he can start dribbling the chest back to his own side while his opponent is just getting out of the gate. But if both players rush single pieces forward, they end up shoving each other around to a stalemate until one of them can get a second piece up to help run interference. A lot depends on the first player. If he moves the same piece twice in a row, the second player should also concentrate on one piece until the treasure chest is temporarily safe. 
    
If both sides move conservatively, it becomes a real mess around the center of the board, and you have to watch out for your opponent double-teaming one of your pieces to shove it off the board completely. Once either side gets control of the chest from behind, it's hard to stop his momentum. You can shove him laterally away from it, but now you're on the wrong side of the chest and can't move it from your side until you get out of the way. In total, it's not a bad game. I just don't know why the game doesn't allow you to actually play it.
        
Don't use the passive voice. We repaired it!
            
Nicodemus is behind a magically-locked door nearby, and by the way he comes tearing out of his house the moment I unlock it, you'd think he'd been imprisoned. His mind is clear, but he surprisingly has nothing to contribute except spells and reagents. I guess he played a bigger role in previous games.
           
Unlock Magic (EX KAL, "Invoke Freedom"), Level 4. Unlocks magically-sealed doors. It and "Seance" are perhaps the only necessary spells in the game. Aside from a cannon, it's the only way to open most magical doors.
              
I soon come to the courthouse and its adjacent jail, which optimistically has only three jail cells. The high court official, Sir Jeff, is pompous but doesn't seem actively corrupt. The same cannot be said for the jailer, Goth, who makes me bribe him for information about the two prisoners as well as the jail key.
   
Why can I bake bread, paint, and forge weapons in this game, but I can't tell Lord British he needs to get his high court in line?
        
The prisoners are a troll and a pirate. The troll is named Gharl, and he's apparently in jail for extorting travelers on bridges. How he was subjected to the Britannian justice system instead of a sword is not explained. He complains that Goth hasn't been feeding him; we give him some food in exchange for a secret--that trolls have a "powerful ally" who "warns [them] in the head when trouble [is] around [the] corner." Sounds like the Guardian has been recruiting allies other than the Fellowship. The third cell has a skeleton in it. I think you wind up in there if you get arrested and don't have a chance to bribe the guards.
           
D'Rel almost gets it.
         
Between the pirate, D'Rel, and Sir Jeff's logbook, I stumble upon a major clue. The logbook lists "Hook," a pirate-turned-assassin, as the suspect in "at least fourteen murders in Britannia." Moreover, he's known to travel with a warrior gargoyle named Forskis and is rumored to have a hideout in or near Buccaneer's Den. D'Rel confirms what the book says. That's the first significant lead on the actual murderers since we left Trinsic.
        
14 murders! That's like 25% of the population of Britannia. How are we just hearing about this?
        
The book mentions two other wanted criminals. The first is a thief named Kellin who goes by the aliases Tarvis, Kreg, and Hodge. "Tarvis" was one of the names in the register in Britain. The second is Sullivan the Trickster, who we learned about in Jhelom. He likes to claim he's the Avatar.
     
Kellin is hiding literally next door. He greets us as we enter Empath Abbey, using the "Kreg" nickname. He claims to be working on research for which he will need a Potion of Invisibility. We call him out on his lies immediately, and pretty soon there's a dead thief. Sir Jeff couldn't be less interested, even after we drop the body in his office.
             
You liked those odds, did you?
         
There aren't many monks left at Empath Abbey, and as with the other cities and strongholds, the place has forgotten its role as the seat of one of the principles of virtue. The remaining monks don't do anything religious at all--they just pursue their own arts and make wine. Perrin is an intelligence trainer. Taylor is a naturalist and Aimi raises flowers and paints. I buy a bouquet of flowers from Aimi for no particular reason. I also try using her painting supplies. If you double-click a paintbrush, then click on a palette of paint, then click on a blank canvas, an image takes shape. You have to do it about 10 times, and even then it's not clear what the image is. It looks a bit like a portrait of a guy with a beard facing left.
           
Oh, shut up.
          
Taylor is the only one who has any response to the keyword JULIUS--Nastassia's father--which is one of the key reasons I visited in the first place. He only knows that Julius is buried in the cemetery but has no idea why. Neither does the healer, Reyna, whose mother recently died. She takes my flowers because she has trouble finding the time to pick her own.
         
I was going to give those to Nastassia. Oh, well.
        
The cemetery. It's tended by a man named Tiery who has this ongoing joke where he misunderstands everything. If you ask him about BUDDIES he thinks you're asking about BODIES and vice versa. He has absolutely nothing important to convey.
                   
I'm dreading all those grave stones the way I've come to dread in-game books.
           
The graveyard has 72 headstones, all but one written in runic. I can read runic, but it's not like, instantaneous. And yet I feel like I have to read all of them to find the one about Julius in case it imparts any additional information. I swiftly ascertain that the stones are mostly in-jokes about the game's design team. I try Googling a couple, and it's clear that for all that's been written about Ultima VII, no one has taken the time to translate all 72 of the gravestones on one page. So here you go, along with my notes about the stones' likely meaning and significance. Scroll to the bottom if you don't care.
          
  • BETH. DIED BY GARRIOT. (Despite the lack of a final "T," this clearly refers to Richard Garriott. No "Beth" is listed in the game credits, although a Mary Beth Miller is one of the writers.)
  • JACK. EATEN BY DINGOS. (Possibly a reference to writer Jack Herman.)
  • RAYMOND. THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. (Likely a reference to lead writer and composer Raymond Benson. The James Bond movie of the same name did not come out until 1999, but Benson was known for his work on James Bond games and novels, and I believe "The World Is Not Enough" is stated as the Bond family motto in some early Bond books.)
  • NENAD. THE MUSIC MAKER. (A reference to sound artist Nenad Vugrinec.)
  • ANN. A DELICATE FLOWER.
  • ERIC. UNAWARE THE GAME WAS LOADED. (Possibly a reference to programmer Eric Brown.)
  • HERE LIES MARC AND WHY NOT. (There are Marks on the design team but no "Marcs" that I can see.)
  • BRUCE A. WE KILLED HIM. (There's a graphic artist on the game named Bruce Lemons, but no "Bruce A." that I can find.)
  • HERE LIES MYSTRAL. SHINED LIKE A CRYSTAL. (This one is likely not an in-joke. The stone is duplicated in the cave on Dagger Isle.)
  • TARG. A WORTHY OPPONENT. (Likely not an in-joke. This headstone is duplicated in the cave on Dagger Isle.)
  • JAKE. THE PARTY IS OVER. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Jake Rodgers.)
  • LOUBET. HIS LAST BREATH. (Reference to graphic artist Denis Loubet, whose in-game avatar appears in Ultima V.)
  • HERE LIES JOHN. HIS WORK WAS NEVER DONE. (The design team had a John Watson, and one of the programmers was John Taylor.)
  • GARY W. MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES. (Likely a reference to graphic artist Gary Washington.)
  • KARL. A PORTRAIT OF TALENT. (Likely a reference to graphic artist Karl Dolgener.)
  • CHRIS D. AN EXPLOSIVE CHARACTER. (Likely a reference to graphic artist Chris Douglas.)
  • HERE LIES DONNA. SHE IS A GONNA.
  • BOB. HE MAKES THE GRASS GREENER. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Bob Cook.)
  • DANNY. DEARLY DEPAINTED. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Daniel Bourbonnais.)
  • BILL B. WE THOUGHT HE WAS ONLY WINGED. (Likely a reference to programmer Bill Baldwin.)
  • WITHIN THESE WALLS LIES MASTER RICHARD. (Possibly a reference to Origin founder Richard Garriott, AKA Lord British. Oddly, this sign is found outside a tomb with a magically-locked door. The plaque actually in the tomb is the next one.)
  • B. ADAMS. SPAINED A PERFECT RECORD. (This plaque appears in the tomb with the sign above but also on a second stone in the same cemetery. Brian Adams and Bruce Adams are both listed among the design team. I don't know what is meant by spained, but it's not my typo.)
  • CHARLES C. GUEST VICTIM. (Likely a reference to programmer Charles Cafrelli.)
  • A. H. DIED HONORABLY. (Possibly a reference to quality assurance team member Andrew Hoffmann.)
  • THE BEAST. IT WAS A FULL LIFE.
  • NINA. MAY HER SPIRIT SOAR.
  • MICAEL P. LONG TIME COMING. GONE FOR GOOD. (A reference to graphic artist Micael Priest.)
  • BRUCE L. HAD A FANTASTIC ENDING. (Likely a reference to graphic designer Bruce Lemons.)
  • JEFF W. DANGER RADIATION. (Likely a reference to programmer Jeff Wilson.)
  • GLEN. WENT WITH A SMILE. (Possibly a reference to graphic artist Glen Johnson.)
  • PHIL S. A VICTIM OF VENOMOUS FATE. (Likely a reference to programmer Philip H. Sulak.)
  • HERE LIES JOHN DOE. BURIED WHERE HE DIED.
  • PAUL. ODD HOW AWAKE SLEEP MADE HIM. (Possibly a reference to programmer Paul Meyer.)
  • MR. MIKE. LOST EARLY FROM A BOUT WITH GUMPS. (Possibly a reference to programmer Mike McShaffry. "Gumps" is a reference to Graphical User Menu Pop-Ups, the driving interface of the game.)
  • WILL. HE WAS A REBEL AND A RUNNER. (Possibly a reference to programmer Will McBurnett.)
  • TONY B. A CREDIT TO HIS NAME. (Likely a reference to programmer Tony Bratton.)
  • PHILIP. SPELLS MASTERED HIM. (Possibly a reference to programmer Philip Brogden.)
  • CHUCKLES. LAUGHED TILL THE END. (Chuckles is the jester in Lord British's castle and the in-game avatar of programmer Chuck Bueche.)
  • MARTIN. THE NOTES WERE TOO SHARP. (Likely a reference to sound lead Martin Galway.)
  • JEFF D. DIED WITH A PENCIL IN HAND. (Likely a reference to art director Jeff Dee.)
  • HERE LIES KEN. KILLED BY A PEN. (Probably a reference to lead programmer Ken Demarest, whose avatar appears in-game as Tseramed.)
  • TONY Z. A GOOD SOURCE FOR GUMPS. (Likely a reference to programmer Tony Zurovec.)
  • ZACK. HE DEMANDED ATOMIC DEATH. (Possibly a reference to programmer Zachary Booth Simpson.)
  • JIM G. HE WAS A WONDER TO US ALL. (Likely a reference to programmer Jim Greer.)
  • ART D. BIT THE RUMP OF A BIG BAD GUMP. (Likely a reference to programmer Arthur DiBianca.)
  • ALAN. LOOKED GREAT IN PINK. (Possibly a reference to associate producer Alan Gardner.)
  • DALLAS. WENT DOWN WITH THE SHIP. (Reference to executive producer Dallas Snell and probably something to do with the Electronic Arts takeover of Origin.)
  • LADY M. YOUTH IS HERS FOREVER. (One of the few stones that is clearly based on someone in-game. "Lady M." was the beloved of Tseramed the ranger. She joined the Fellowship and died when she fell ill and a Fellowship leader refused to let her see a healer. She's also the author of the in-game book A Guide to Childcare for the Rich and Famous. Her stone is the only one in the graveyard not written in runic.)
  • SCOTT H. GONE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW. (Likely a reference to designer Scott Hazle.)
  • MICHELLE. HUNG FOR POISONING LOVER. (A Michelle Caddel was on the design team.)
  • GARTH. SORRY ABOUT THY THUMB.
  • JULIUS. MAY HIS SPIRIT REST FOREVER. (This is the father of Nastassia from Cove; the reason I cataloged all these epitaphs in the first place.)
  • MALC. HIS WORDS REMAIN WITH US.
  • IN LOVING MEMORY OF MAMA. (This grave is offset from the rest in its own plot outlined with stone. It is probably the mother of the town healer, Reyna, who discusses her recently-lost parent with the Avatar.)
         
The only grave marker in gold.
             
  • ANDREW M. NEVER GOT CLUED IN. (Likely a reference to writer Andrew P. Morris.)
  • ROBIN. SHE GAVE SUNSHINE TO US ALL.
  • SHERRY C. MANAGED UNTIL THE END. (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member Sherry Cain.)
  • KAREN. QUALITY WAS JOB ONE. (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member Karen Conroe.)
  • MARCO. UNDERFED, UNDER GUN, UNDERGROUND.
  • HERE LIES BEN. ALL TESTED OUT. (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member Ben Potter.)
  • LYNN. SHE HAD THE GRACE OF A SWAN. (Likely not an in-joke. This one is duplicated in the cave on Dagger Isle.)
  • SCOTT. BURIED AN AXE IN HIS HEAD. (Possibly a reference to test supervisor Scott Shelton.)
  • JAMES N. LAST WORDS: I DRANK WHAT? (Likely a reference to quality assurance team member James L. Nance.)
  • NATHAN. BLOWN AWAY BY GROGS FIREBALL.
  • DUKE. VENI, VIDI, EXII. (Whoever he was, he came, he saw, he left.)
  • CHENAULT. ME PUERGO CANUS MEUS URIT. (Likely a reference to quality assurance lead Michael Chenault. I can't figure out exactly what the epitaph is supposed to mean. Something like "Save me from gray hair and burns.")
  • DAREK. HIS DAYS WERE NUMBERED.
  • BRIAN. SWALLOWED BY THE MONSTER. (The design team had both a Brian Adams and a Brian Martin.)
  • J. CRIPPEN. TO DIZZY AND TC COCOPUFF. (No idea on the epitaph, but this is a reference to quality assurance team member Jarrett Crippen.)
  • TIM. THE UNKNOWN TOMBSTONE. (Possibly a reference to quality assurance team member Timothy Hardy.)
  • J. SHELTON. HERE I LIE BUT STILL I ROAM. (A reference to quality assurance director Jeff J. Shelton.)
  • MIKE H. EVERYTHING FIT TO PRINT. (Likely a reference to manual and package designer Mike Harrison.)
           
Julius's stone gave me nothing at all, so the whole exercise was mostly a waste of time. We wait around the graveyard until midnight, hoping for a ghost on which to use my "Seance" spell, but that doesn't work, either. I leave town feeling like I've let Nastassia down.

As we walk away, a couple of things occur to me. First, everyone referred to the town as "Empath Abbey." I'm not sure a single line of dialogue had the word "Yew" in it. Is Yew just gone? Or is "Yew" the collection of huts in the woods, stretching nearly down to Britain, spaced (game) miles apart from each other?

Second, nobody really embodied the spirit of justice--except perhaps for Tseramed, who's looking to get justice for his lost love. We haul his body back to Lord British, get him resurrected, stick the Rune of Justice in his pocket, and send him home. I don't know exactly why I don't keep him. Something seems "off" about him to me. There's nothing wrong with him, exactly, but he's not really one of us.
       
Lord British restores Sentri.
           
The Shrine of Justice is pretty far east of Yew and the Dungeon Wrong is even farther. From Britain, we march north through the Serpent's Spine and keep going through the Great Forest. We come across a troll encampment in the woods, and my party members start shouting at me when I eat the slain troll's slabs of meat. This game is weird about food ownership.
 
For all the talk of most of the shrines being overgrown and neglected, most of our visits have found them in pretty good shape. The Shrine of Justice is no exception. Except for a single gremlin--which leaves a bunch of grapes when it dies--the place is in fine shape, with a gavel on the altar. We meditate on justice and continue east.
          
Nothing amiss at the Shrine of Justice.
          
On the way to the Dungeon Wrong, in the thick of the forest, we start seeing blue trees. Some of them have tree-houses in them, and some of those have little furry critters scuttling around. These are the Emps, making their first and only appearance in the Ultima series, although there is a fan theory that the Emps are the "Fuzzies" of Ultima III. Vegetarians, they are horrified at the thought of meat, but they are particularly fond of honey, and it just so happens that I have plenty of it from the bee caves, having only recently realized that the party can't eat it.

I meet four Emps: Tavenor, Trellek, Trellek's wife Saralek, and the elder Salamon. "Julius" is surprisingly an option when talking to Trellek, and he reveals that Julius died saving an Emp family from a fire, and that the Emps brought him to Empath Abbey for burial. I'm glad I stumbled upon the Emps, then, but you'd think that there would be some hint in Yew about visiting them.
         
It was ever thus.
           
The Emps are concerned because humans are cutting down their Silverleaf trees. Salamon wants me to do something about it and, for some reason, take Trellek with me. She hands me a contract. At this point, I determine that I have some scroll in my backpack that causes the game to crash to DOS when I try to read it. I haven't saved since my last trip to Britain, when Lord British resurrected Tseramed, so I spend some time identifying the scroll that causes the problem, discarding it (I hope it wasn't important), and then walking back to the Emp village.
          
Salamon's document isn't so much a "contract" as a "cease and desist" letter.
         
I don't know where I went wrong, but I can't get Trellek into the party. When I ask him to join, he wants me to get Saralek's permission. She wants me to get Salamon's permission, even though Salamon suggested it in the first place. Then, after I have Salamon's permission, the dialogue options for Trellek to join disappear. Meanwhile, Salamon's contract is just made out to a generic "woodsman"; I have no idea where he lives. I'll deliver it if I see him, but I guess I really didn't want an Emp in the party anyway, so I leave without Trellek. If there's a good reason to come back for him, I will. (It occurs to me later that I may have misunderstood some dialogue, and that getting the woodsman to back off may have been a prerequisite for Salamon's permission to let Trellek go.) I hope I haven't otherwise found an eighth party member by then. Imagine telling any one of these people that you have to let them go so a fuzzy little monkey--who abhors killing--can join in his stead.

In a mountain range to the northeast of the village, I find the Dungeon Wrong. There are actually three separate small dungeons, in three separate clusters of mountains, but each looks relatively similar on the inside. As in Ultima VI, the dungeon is man-made, and laid out in a series of cells, as if it had once served as a prison for criminals convicted in Yew. An awful lot of them have skeletons in them, which doesn't say a lot for Britannia's justice system lately. Neither does the mass grave or the torture chamber.
      
This must have smelled great back in the day.
This guy not only died in his cell but somehow got charred.

True justice sometimes requires a guillotine, but rarely a rack or an iron maiden.
          
The administrators' offices look to have been abandoned for decades, but there is one active guard patrolling the northernmost dungeon. He'll speak to you if you double-click on him, but he just has the generic rude guard dialogue. The other denizens are all hostile--ghosts, skeletons, spiders, rats, headless, trolls, and slugs. There's even a lich in the northernmost dungeon. He killed Sentri and I had to take him back to Lord British for resurrection.
      
Is someone still paying you?
A lich schemes behind a locked door protected by fire fields.
      
There are a couple of traps that generate fire or poison fields across the corridor, and it reminds me that I hate this spell:
      
Destroy Field (AN GRAV, "Negate Energy"), Level 5. Destroys fire, energy, and poison fields. Of these, energy fields are the most important because you can't walk through them. The spell is very literal and only destroys one square's worth of "field," and the field is usually made up of multiple squares. Since you have no way of directing the party through the one square you've destroyed, you either have to destroy them all or walk the party through active fire or poison fields regardless.
      
We leave the dungeon with a few extra gold nuggets, a new magic sword for Sentri, and a few more reagents and supplies. Nothing like the treasure haul that was Destard. But Spark somehow loses his magic axe in the process, so it's almost a wash.

As I said, the "dungeon" is actually three separate small dungeons, none any longer connecting to Covetous like it did in Ultima VI. Although all three are close together, the Lost River cuts between the second and third, requiring the party to walk south practically to Cove to cross the river and go back north to the dungeon. I use this opportunity to visit Cove and to tell Nastassia about her father. She is grateful and emotional for the news, shouting to the heavens:
        
Didst thou hear that, mother? Thine husband was only trying to provide for his family! And he died a hero! He was not a vagabond! Dost thou hear! Thou canst rest thy tortured soul now. Please, mother. Forgive him. Do so, so that I can now forgive thee.
      
That's what counts.
           
Afterwards, she invites me to spend my life with her if I ever "become weary of adventuring." That's a sweet offer, but I don't know if I'm quite there yet, having only spoken to her for about 15 minutes. Not to mention, there's still plenty of adventuring to do. The question now is whether I stick to my previous plan or head directly to Buccaneer's Den to look for Hook.

Time so far: 51 hours