Friday, July 1, 2022

The Return of Werdna: Spin the Black Circle

The "Locate" spell was key to this level.
Level 6, titled "The Realm of the Whirling Dervish," would have been a modestly hard level in a typical dungeon crawler. By Werdna standards, it was easy. I spent most of it paranoid that I was being lulled into a sense of ease, that some huge obstacle was going to come out of nowhere and gob-smack me. I'm still a little paranoid that I missed something, to be honest. It was too simple and, at only about three hours, too fast. 
The level consists of 16 rooms of 4 x 4 each with corridors in between. The level's one gimmick is that every intersection in the corridor is a spinner that turns and faces you in a random direction. Spinners are annoying, sure, but DUMAPIC ("Locate") isn't suppressed on the level, plus you find several enemies carrying Jeweled Amulets, which cast the spell.
My map of Level 6.
Each of the 4 x 4 rooms can be entered only from a west-facing door in the southwest section. So that the player won't know what direction he's facing simply by studying the wall patterns, the developers put false doors on every "first" wall square to the right when facing any corridor from any intersection in any direction.
Trying to enter a fake door.
I started to annotate the false doors on the map but stopped bothering once the gimmick became clear. But look at the close-up below of one area in which I've annotated false doors with double lines and real doors with dashed lines. Whichever way you face from this intersection, you're going to see a "door" in the first square on your right. If it turns out to be real, you've gone north. If it's false, but the door further down the corridor on the left is real, you've gone south. If both doors are false, I suppose there's no way to tell whether you've gone east or west, but you can get pretty far with nine DUMAPICs, and it's not like you're saving those slots for KATINO.
A close-up of one of the intersections.
There's more: every room in each row has the same wall pattern, although you may find different things within them. Three of the "final rooms" in these wall squares have encounters with "He Who Awaits," a sentinel with 335 hit points. They're purely physical attackers, though, and not hard to beat. Defeating any of them teleports you to (3,6), which is just a couple steps from one of the level's three pentagrams (this is the first level in the dungeon with more than one). I found one of these sentinels early in the level and thus found the pentagram relatively early.
This sounds more ominous than the following encounter deserved.
If the author thought that finding the exit stairway was hard, I think he forgot what game he was writing for. The exit stairs at (17,4) are in the middle of a regular east-west corridor. There are teleporters on both sides which move you five squares, or one corridor, to the north without any kind of visual warning. To get to the stairs, you have to be teleported right on top of them, and you get that from the square at (13,2), after you defeat a "Chepacet Druid" (I guess she's from Rhode Island) called Jesse the Smith. What's supposed to be hard is that Jesse is behind a secret door that doesn't show up even with LOMILWA ("Light") on the board. Any player not mapping would be screwed for sure. But if you're making maps and you end up walling off a square, what are you going to do? Bump into every wall, of course, just to check--especially if every other room in the same row has a door leading into that final square.
Wights are so awesome.
Finding your way through the level thus becomes a simple exercise in pattern recognition. That's what regular games do. What I would have expected Werdna to do is subvert pattern recognition--to do something like keep the idea of the secret door that doesn't show up with LOMILWA, but place it at (17,5) or (17,3)--north or south of stairs. That would force the player to:

  • Search every hallway segment on a map that trains you to think of the hallway segments as interchangeable paths between intersections and rooms.
  • Notice that he'd been teleported one hallway north on a map where all hallways look the same and it would be easy to assume that you'd just gotten confused at the last set of spinners.
  • Realize that because of those teleporters, there was a single square he'd been unable to visit in what looks like a blank hallway.
  • Intuit the existence of an invisible secret door in a place where no doors have appeared on any other square.
That would have impressed me. It would have pissed me off, but it would have impressed me. But I suppose the game is difficult enough that I don't need to complain about a relatively easy level.
With "Light" active, there should be a door to my left, but there isn't.
Enemies were a minor part of the level. They're getting tougher, of course. Single fighters and thieves are so outclassed that it's a joke when I run into them, but some of the mages and bishops have LAKANITO ("Vacuum"), which suffocates anything that breathes air, including Werdna. I think I saved against it once, but it almost always kills me when it targets me. Ninjas are capable of instant decapitation on a critical hit. One roaming foe is an evil bishop named TILTOWAIT who, predictably, casts TILTOWAIT ("Ka-Blam!"), which does 10-100 damage to all enemies in all groups. 

The thing is, these three types of attacks are so deadly that facing one of them is essentially an instant reload. It all comes down to who goes first. Werdna almost never goes first, so anything I try to do is only useful for mop-up. It's a roll of the dice whether my allies act before my enemies and, if so, what my allies choose to do. There are no "tactics" that will protect you from a TILTOWAIT.
The level has, as usual, two enemy parties: Myriad's Marauders ("You are burgerbits, fellow!") and Gomez's Gorillas ("Ugga bugga!"). Of the two, the Marauders are the hardest, with two bishops, a mage, and a priest in addition to a trivial samurai and thief. The Gorillas have fewer spellcasters, but they do have a ninja with almost 300 hit points. 
Myriad has a lot of spellcasters, but so do I.
The Marauders don't drop anything interesting, but the Gorillas have an object labeled a "holy reliquary" when unidentified in the post-combat loot list and "St. Rimbo Digit" when identified. They equip as gauntlets but don't "invoke." I'm not sure what to make of them.
Hot Dagady.
As for random single encounters: 
  • Arial, a neutral thief.
  • Armando, a good lord.
  • Ascii, a neutral fighter.
  • Blackstone, an evil bishop.
  • Boz, a neutral thief. He carries a Darkness Cloak. I'm not sure if it's better than my Twilight Cloak, but both seem to be beaten by the Cape of Good Hope that I found on the same level.
  • Cadidelhop, a good fighter.
  • Chiquita, a neutral mage.
  • Chico, a good fighter.
  • Elrik, an evil fighter. He carries a sword called Were Slayer, just one of many special weapons that are useless to Werdna.
  • Fearless Farley, a good fighter.
  • Gor-y, an evil samurai.
  • Little Conan, a neutral fighter.
  • Pedro, a good ninja.
  • Tharagorn, a good mage. Can cast LAKANITO, which almost always kills Werdna. Drops a Staff of Mogref.
  • Tiltowait, an evil bishop. True to his name, he's fond of the TILTOWAIT spell, which essentially kills every living thing. 
Try to be less obvious, Tiltowait.
  • Wacker, a good fighter.
  • Winder, a neutral thief.
  • Xavier, a good bishop. He's got a Jeweled Amulet, which casts DUMAPIC ("Location"), which is vital on this level.
  • Zyxxus, a neutral fighter
He just likes for his name to appear last on lists.
Against the enemies, you have some pretty awesome allies. I've been trying to make careful notes about the strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses of all my allies since I noticed--very late in the game--that you can summon allies from previous levels' pentagrams at each pentagram. The option was staring me in the face, but I didn't see it. Now I'm paranoid that there's going to be some encounter for which I absolutely need a goblin from Level 2 or something.
It didn't take me long to find the best combination on this level, all conveniently grouped together: wights, master ninjas, and bishops. Wights are so good that I'd take two groups of them if I could. They can cast up to Level 4 mage spells, including MAHALITO, and their physical attacks both level drain and paralyze. Bishops can also cast mass-damage mage spells along with the healing spells that Werdna occasionally needs. Master ninjas have a rare but unbelievably satisfying chance of decapitating in one hit. Lifestealers are worth a mention, and I suppose they could take the place of master ninjas, as they can cast both priest and mage spells up to, I think, Level 4. The paralysis of grave mists and the life-draining of nightstalkers would have been useful on other levels, but here they're outclassed by wights. Everything else is just a lame melee attacker or a low-level spellcaster. In saying such things, I'm aware that it's possible I might be missing some major advantage to some of these allies. No one has commented on this aspect of gameplay in previous comments, so feel free to let me know if you think I'm overlooking something.
Allies for this level. Note that the "P)rev Page" option lets me choose allies from earlier pentagrams.
When I hit the pentagram on this level, I went up to 13 in all attributes and acquired three new spells: MAMORLIS ("Terror"), MAKANITO ("Deadly Air"), and MADALTO ("Frost King"). MAMORLIS is one of those spells that might be effective, but you don't see the effects directly, and thus it seems like a poor use of the slot instead of something like MAKANITO, which has a chance of killing everyone (based on their current hit points) or MADALTO, which damages everyone. It occurred to me for the first time that the way you face enemies in this game--a maximum of six, all in one group--means that there's no difference between spells that affect "one group" and spells that affect everyone. I spent most of the Level 5 slots on MADALTO with the occasional MAKANITO when enemies' hit points were low.

There are a few items to gather on the level. At (13,13) is an encounter with a disembodied voice who asks, "What do you seek the most, pilgrim?" The answer is, of course, AMULET, which gets you a cape called the Good Hope Cape. Cute. It lowers AC by 2. 

The aforementioned Jessie the Smith drops two artifacts. I only had room for one the first time I faced her, so I had to save, reload, and do it a second time. The first object is a "conical hat" that turns out to be an "Initiate Turban." I assume that's better than my previous "Novice's Cap." The second is a "Tale of Madness" that resolves as an "Arabic Diary." (Dervish, turban, Arabic diary . . . interesting Middle-Eastern theme in this area.) I assume this is a reference to Lovecraft's Necronomicon, though I briefly amused myself by imagining a book that started, "Dear Diary: OMG I love Ahmad so much!!!" Anyway, I'm guessing this is the "book" I need at the Gates of Hell, so I may head back down there to give it a try at some point. It should only be two more levels before I get MALOR, but I suspect it won't be that easy to use MALOR in this game.
Looting Jesse the Smith's body.
Incidentally, as I went up from Level 6 to Level 5, I caught a flash of something. I repeated the transition just so I could capture it. It provides proof that the original PC version of the game did have the same copy protection as the Apple II version, so it must have come with sheets of printed codes.
This is one thing it's nice not to have to worry about.
The Oracle was everywhere on this level. I intercepted him 11 times. I'm going to list the new clues along with the old ones--it helps to have them all in one place--and include any current thinking on the subjects.
1. "The egress will set you free." We just had a long discussion about this. The consensus seems to be that it's a vocabulary lesson that will come in handy later. Eugene pointed out that it's probably a reference to a legend about P.T. Barnum and how he would trick visitors into leaving his exhibits (and having to repay to enter) by posting signs that said, "This way to the egress."

2. "Your future is black; you feel boxed in!" My working theory is that this emphasizes the importance of the Black Box, which I already have. I suppose it could also refer to the puzzle on Level 10 that requires a light spell to get out of the initial "box."

3. "Read The Iliad lately?" No idea so far.

4. "Chomp, chomp . . . eh, what's east, Doc?" Again, a Bugs Bunny reference. It may be connected to the later clue about rabbits. I'm still looking for places in which "east" might be substituted for "up."

5. "Secrets abound all around you! Psst! Have you met Glum yet?" I killed Glum and got the Black Box from him. No idea otherwise.

6. "Live the Qabalah!" The Qabalah is a school of Jewish mysticism, and I have no idea how to connect it to Werdna

7. "The answer is carved in stone! It's right before your nose!" I still haven't encountered anything carved in stone. Maybe this is referring to the invisible secret door on this level?

8. "The temple holds an ancient secret." The only temple I've found so far is the Temple of the Dreampainter on the last level. The "ancient secret" might be in the one room that I couldn't enter.

9. "Hop high to enter." I fell down both sides of the ziggurat from the apex room, all the way to the bottoms. But you know what I didn't do? Jump upward (by going north) from each of the "ledges." I didn't do it because it would have been an extra 4 hit points of damage per ledge and I was trying to conserve hit points. Now I'm wondering whether this clue doesn't go with the previous one, and whether jumping up from one of those ledges activates a teleporter that takes you to the secret room. If so, it would be the only instance in Wizardry of a teleporter requiring you to enter its square from a particular direction.

10. "Rabbits are sacred to the Dreampainter." This clearly refers to the same level. Hint #4 is also about a rabbit. Rabbits hop (Hint #9). I feel like there must be some way to put these together that I'm not seeing, unless (again) it's just to jump up from one of the ledges. Hint #13 suggests maybe it's more complex.
Even cartoon ones?
11. "Seek the Dreampainter's soul." Other than finding the way into that room and exploring the "air" squares around the ziggurat, I'm not sure how to do that.

12. "Everyone has a weakness. What is his?" Whose? I'll look for an enemy I can't seem to kill, I guess. 

13. "Take a step to the left, and a hop to the right!" This is a lyric from the Rocky Horror song "Time Warp," but with the step and jump (hop) reversed. Again, something about hopping. Rabbits. I feel like I'm losing it.

14. "Gone trolling!" The game, its author, and the Oracle specifically are all trolling. No idea otherwise.
Werdna at the end of this level. I guess I'm not worried about running out of "keys."
15. "Beware the gifts of Lord Maya!" I don't believe I've met Lord Maya yet.

16. "Get a handle on the forbidden fruit!" No idea. 

17. "Rocks. Multilayered rocks." No idea.

18. "Homer will show you the way." Homer wrote The Iliad, so it could be another clue to consult that book for the answer to something. The game is too early for this to refer to Homer Simpson.

Honestly, the Oracle's hints are freaking me out more than anything else in the game. They're making me feel I'm missing something even as I comprehensively map each level and theoretically uncover each encounter. Gone trolling, indeed.
Time so far: 23 hours

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

BRIEF: Ultima: Runes of Virtue (1991) and Ultima: Runes of Virtue II (1993)

This is, specifically, the Rune of Spirituality.
Ultima: Runes of Virtue
United States
Origin Systems (developer); FCI (publisher)
Released 1991 for Game Boy
Rejected for: Insufficient character development
Ultima: Runes of Virtue II
United States
Origin Systems (developer); FCI (publisher)
Released 1993 for Game Boy, 1994 for SNES
Rejected for: Insufficient character development
The Ultima series has been such a big part of my life for 40 years that exploring new territory offers a certain thrill, even if I suspect the game is going to suck. I watched some footage of Ultima IX the other day, and even knowing its reputation, it was all I could do not to download and install it. Knowing it was too soon for that game, and also too soon to jump into Ultima VII, Part 2, my mind dredged up this Runes of Virtue from 1991. I've seen it described as "non-canonical," but Origin made it themselves, which is more than you can say about either Ultima Underworld. David ("Dr. Cat") Shapiro led the design team, Richard Garriott is listed as "creative director," and Dallas Snell produced it. That's a pretty solid set of bona fides.
Is the loss of the runes really that bad? Can't we just make new ones?
Both games use characters from Ultima VI: The False Prophet; even in the sequel, you won't find any references to the Guardian. (For more on the timeline, see the discussion below.) The (refreshing) surprise is that the Avatar is nowhere to be found. The hero is one or two of the Avatar's companions (you can tether two Game Boys together to play it cooperatively) from among four selections: Mariah, Iolo, Dupre (described as a fighter rather than a paladin), and Shamino. Each starts with different values in strength, intelligence, and dexterity, and with different weapons. Shamino's evenly-balanced statistics (15 each) and magic throwing axe lured me right away. 
Character selection.
After specifying the character, you input your initials and then choose a difficulty level from "easy," "medium," and "hard." These are differentiated by what happens when you die. On "easy," you just get kicked back to the beginning of your current level; on "medium," you respawn out on the surface of Britannia; "hard" is the same as "medium" except that you lose all food, potions, and gold. I played on "medium." The game otherwise autosaves as you transition areas, so it's essentially impossible to lose your progress.
The backstory is simple: A villain called the Black Knight has stolen the eight Runes of Virtue from Lord British's castle. You have to head out and recover them. I don't see any problems with canon there, particularly if we interpret "castle" to mean the museum at the castle, where the runes canonically ended up after the events of Ultima VI. We might even imagine that the donation to the museum took a while, and they were kept in the castle in the meantime. I've never heard of the Black Knight before, but then again I'd never heard of Blackthorn or gargoyles until the games had need of them.
Alas, our ability to merge the game with previous canon doesn't last any longer than the map on Page 12 of the manual. The game has the main continent, Verity Isle (Moonglow and the Lycaeum), the Isle of Deeds (Serpent's Hold), the Valorian Isles (Jhelom), and the Isle of the Avatar (Abyss), just like Ultima VI, but the main continent is shrunk and compressed so that it's no larger than any of the other islands. Beyond that, everything is in roughly the same positions. The dungeon names, which were always meant to contrast with the associated virtues (e.g., Deceit, Wrong) or at least evoke such contrast (e.g., Destard), have almost all been renamed to more obvious versions of their original names: Deceit (the only one to stay the same), Hatred, Cowardice, Injustice, Dishonor, Selfishness, and Pride.
This map is just unsupportable.
The game begins outside Lord British's Castle. Chuckles is in the foyer, telling me not to listen to Lord British and that I can go to any cavern I want. What he means becomes clear when I speak to Lord British, and he tells me to seek the Rune of Compassion in the cavern of Hatred due north. My guess is that Lord British gives the suggested order to recover the runes but you don't necessarily have to follow it.
The game begins outside the castle in a horizontally-squished main continent.
The castle is only one small level, but it has up and down ladders. Upstairs, Sherry the Mouse tells me that you can shoot webs to get rid of them, but tough ones need a Wand of Fireballs. Penumbra, standing next to a secret door, alerts me that they look similar to walls. They're easier to spot here than in Ultima IV. The basement seems to have no purpose at all. 

Near the castle is a couple of shops, both run by a guy named Gnu Gnu. You buy items just by walking into them. Most of the controls in the game are simplified like that: you open doors, open chests, speak to NPCs, trip levers, and push objects simply by walking into them. The only reasons you have to use the buttons are to attack and/or cast a spell; the two buttons essentially represent your two hands. There's a Zelda-esque (or perhaps I should say "hydlike") quality to the game, but it's important to remember that Shapiro was making this kind of game all the way back in 1982, with Caverns of Freitag.
However, the victory screen you get when recovering each rune is clearly referencing Zelda and Link's recovery of each piece of the tri-force.
Outside, I head to the dungeon Hatred. I'm not at all prepared for what follows. The dungeon has multiple levels, though each level is not much larger than about four game screens. In addition to enemies, it is absolutely chock full of puzzles: switches, teleporters, pressure plates, barrels and boulders that you have to push, keys, ladders, secret doors. Some examples of the puzzles in this one dungeon alone include:
  • A lever that turns various "Xes" on the ground into boulders. A second lever turns them into portals. You must use the first, then push the boulders into a couple of dead-ends, then use the second lever so you can portal through those dead ends.
Pushing boulders into corners so I can later turn them into portals. Dr. Cat looks on.
  • A set of portcullises that open and close at intervals. Nearby, a demon throws javelins at you. You have to avoid the javelins while staying near the portcullises for when they open.
  • Entire lines of teleporters with arrows indicating the direction you'll be sent. You have to interpret these and enter the right points to wind up at the right destinations.
  • Mushrooms that change objects into other objects when you eat them.
Nonsensically, the NPCs you meet in towns and castles often show up at various points in the dungeon to give you hints. Sherry the Mouse and Dr. Cat usher you through Hatred, for instance. There are also occasional signs to give you hints.
Why are you even here?
In one large area, Hatred has an "arena" that seems to have no purpose except to allow the player to watch different enemies fight each other. Enemies wounding and killing each other is possible in this engine, and indeed some puzzles seem to assume you're going to let them kill each other while you dart out of the way.
Many of the puzzles are clever, and although I had trouble with a few of them, I had some fun figuring out the solutions. What I had a lot less fun with were the enemies: bats, giant rats, skeletons, reapers, trolls, and tigers. They reduced my health (represented by hearts) shockingly fast, and I found the weapon controls maddeningly unresponsive. There's a pause after you turn before you can successfully attack. Worse, the magic throwing axe turned out to be a horrible idea, because until it finds its target, you can't attack again. Miss an enemy, and you're standing there defenseless until it hits the nearest wall.
I hesitate before stepping on a pressure plate. A reaper fires a missile in the corridor below me.
There are hearts strategically located in the dungeons to replenish health, and stars to replenish magic, and coins to let you purchase better items at the shops. On one reload (outside the cavern), I went and bought some leather armor, but it didn't do much good.
I got stuck on a particularly difficult puzzle just before acquiring the Rune of Compassion. There were three rows of obstacles in my way: closed portcullises, stone heads, and water. Nearby pressure plates turned some of these items into other items, like open portcullises or grass, but I couldn't find a combination that "opened" all of them, and I kept getting hit with projectiles fired by reapers on the other side. Finally, I realized that some of my flailing around had caused a corridor to my north to collapse, allowing passage to a new area. There, I found a mushroom. Eating it turned stone heads into grass. So I had to just find the pressure plate combination that left me with nothing but stone heads, then go eat the mushroom.
This puzzle was fiendish--and it was early in the game.
On the other side, I found the Rune of Compassion flanked by two reapers. By this point, I was on Level 4 or 5 of the dungeon and had abandoned any pretense of following the game's normal reloading system. I was using save states to ensure I didn't have to travel the entire dungeon again every time I died. But even that wasn't enough. I got killed by a reaper, managed to hit the key combo for "save" rather than "load," thus saving my state on the "game over" screen. About this time, I decided this game wasn't for me.
Upon the Plains of Hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, upon achieving the threshold of victory, sat down to wait, and there waiting, died.
I had an "out" anyway--Runes of Virtue is not an RPG by my definitions. Improvements to the character only come from finding runes (which give you attribute boosts and health), allowing the player no control over the "rate or details" of development. Except when they drop the occasional heart or coin, killing enemies does nothing for you except get them out of your way. As I noted when I coined the term "hydlike," many of the games in this sub-genre fall on the "non-RPG" side of the line.
The attributes on the character sheet increase, but only at fixed intervals over which you have no control.
To fill in the rest of my knowledge about the series, I watched YouTube videos of completed runs and shamelessly grabbed a few screenshots. (Credits go to spoon shiro's coverage of Runes of Virtue, Tork110's playthrough of Runes of Virtue II on the Game Boy, and GamingWith Zack's series on Runes of Virtue II on the SNES.) I was mostly looking for bits of dialogue that added lore to the series, and the exercise was mostly a waste of time. The NPCs you encounter . . . I was going to say they're the least "believable" of the series, but perhaps a better way to say it is that they have the least gravitas. They include Sherry, Chuckles, Dr. Cat, Finn (the vagrant who claims to be Lord British), Zoltan, and Klip-Klop, the two-headed horse. They're somehow more cartoonish here than in Ultima VI, where they were already pretty silly. They say things like, "One door leads to a beautiful lady, the other to a fierce tiger!" or  "The Xs in the cavern will teleport you back here!," not "Lord British is Shamino's illegitimate son!" or "Mondain was a Lord of the Sith!"
Inventory upgrades seem to be a major part of gameplay, including some that are necessary to get through the dungeons. For instance, a magic rope, for some reason, lets you walk on water. Like NPCs, enemies are mostly drawn from Ultima canon. Wisps become enemies again for the first time since Ultima V. Mimics, sea serpents, seahorses, and squids are all back. Gremlins are here, stealing your food again, and slimes do their dividing trick. Dragons act like they do in Dr. Cat's Caverns of Freitag, lurking in alcoves and breathing fireballs down adjacent corridors. I think the only completely original enemies--sounding exactly like something Dr. Cat would come up with--are "eep eeps," infuriatingly annoying foes who do nothing but stand in your way and take you to a dialogue screen that says "Eep? Eep eep!" if you happen to bump into them.
Fighting a dragon in a roomful of pressure plates.
The puzzles and enemies naturally get more difficult as the player moves forward, but so does the strength of the character and some of the resources. A lot of the puzzles involve mazes of directional teleporters that you have to interpret, manipulate (changing the direction of some of the teleporters), or block. At least one puzzle requires you to shoot something while you're being teleported across multiple pads.
An extreme version of this kind of maze.
Except for the first two dungeons--Hatred and Deceit--Lord British sends the player to the dungeons in the standard virtue order. Each one holds one of the runes. You transition between islands via ships at fixed points. The final dungeon, the Abyss, is accessed from the bottom of Pride. Pride weirdly has the Rune of Spirituality, while the Abyss has the Rune of Humility. Once you get the Rune of Humility, the game ends automatically. You get a brief message, and then you get a quick scene of Lord British knighting the victorious character. I suppose if you regard Dupre as the canonical hero of the game, it explains how he was knighted between Ultima VI and Ultima VII.
It doesn't explain why Mariah isn't called "Sir Mariah," though.
Shapiro didn't return for Runes of Virtue II; design and programming were assumed by Gary Scott ("Gnu Gnu") Smith, but most other personnel remained the same except for the addition of Amanda ("Penumbra") Dee.
You don't defeat the Black Knight in Runes of Virtue, which explains why he's back to menace Britannia in Ultima: Runes of Virtue II. The opening shows the Black Knight complaining of boredom and deciding to kidnap Tholden, the mayor of Britain, just to annoy Lord British. 
The Black Knight hatches his plan [Game Boy version].
There are worse reasons to do things, I guess [SNES version].
Lord British's reaction to the kidnapping is, predictably, to "summon the Avatar." A moongate opens and a figure steps out--except that you've already chosen to play the game as Mariah, Dupre, Shamino, or Iolo. (Iolo, incidentally, is a very young man in the SNES version.) The box also seems to suggest that the hero is the canonical blond Avatar. It's a weird bit of confusion right at the beginning of the game. Either way, Lord British assigns the hero the quest of finding Lord Tholden in the dungeon Hatred. Once the player accomplishes that, Lord British announces that the Black Knight has now kidnapped Whitsaber, the mayor of Trinsic. 
It's one kidnapping. You don't have people to handle one kidnapping?
The order of rescue here is more random than the first game, with the dungeons going Hatred, Dishonor, Injustice, Selfishness, Deceit, Cowardice, Pride, and the Abyss. Once again, the developers messed up the last two dungeons so that the mayor of Skara Brae is held in the Cavern of Pride and the mayor of New Magincia is held in the Abyss, although to be fair it was never clear why Hythloth should be the anti-spirituality dungeon and the Abyss the anti-humility dungeon in the first place. The names of the mayors are all identical to those in Ultima VI except that Quenton (a murdered ghost in VI) is still the mayor of Skara Brae instead of Trenton. As the hero rescues each mayor and escorts him back to his home city, the mayor bestows his associated rune as a gift.
The sequel takes place on a more familiar landscape.
The world uses the canonical map of Britannia, with the continents set to the proper sizes. There's more to explore, including towns and keeps, and a lot of optional areas, but otherwise it's a similar setup to the first game--one dungeon per rune. The puzzles are similar, employing the same sorts of mechanics, inventory items are similar, and the enemy list is identical except that eep eeps have mercifully been forgotten. Enemy AI is improved, to include fleeing when wounded. Nystul, Cooper the Blacksmith (an original character, I think), and Mandrake the Bard join the list of NPCs.
Mariah confronts the Black Knight in the sequel.
As with the first game, players can tether their Game Boys to play cooperatively (there is one optional dungeon that requires it). There is no such option with the SNES version of the game, something that the version makes up for with significantly better graphics and sound. Some sites disparaged the graphics, but to me they're better than anything we've seen in any other Ultima game to date. Alas, it also lacks the character development that I require to call it an "RPG." As with the first game, killing enemies contributes to a nebulous "score" but not to any experience or leveling.
The SNES hero contemplates a mimic.
A parade follows the restoration of each mayor. At the end of the game, Lord British gives you a final congratulatory message for defeating the Black Knight, after which you can continue to play.
The parade you get after each rescue is better than the endgame screen.
The victory screen, in contrast.
A few words on the timeline. You're going to tell me that neither game is "canon" and that it's not worth over-thinking it, but overthinking things is kind of what this blog is about. Anyway, I would submit that Runes of Virtue II is actually a prequel to Runes of Virtue. This works if you assume that when the Black Knights says, "I have not had fun since I terrorized Britannia!," he's referring to some previous event that we haven't seen, not the events of Runes of Virtue. Putting II before the first one explains why Iolo looks younger, Quenton is still alive, and the runes are still with their associated mayors. Putting the first game after VI explains why the runes are gathered in one place for the Black Knight to steal and why Dupre is knighted in Ultima VII.

These sorts of hydlike action-puzzle games aren't really my thing, but for those who like the genre, the Runes of Virtue games seem well done. They're a lot closer to what I expected on the Game Boy than games like Wizardry: The Suffering of the Queen or The Final Fantasy Legend, both of which seemed to be replicating a PC experience on a handheld device.
The Japanese Game Boy box shows the Avatar fighting the Black Knight.
Reviews of the first Runes of Virtue were mostly negative, with most of them noting the difficulty. "The excitement of the game soon grows stale," GamePro wrote in the April 1992 edition, "after two or three caverns of mindless wandering and fighting." Nintendo Power gave it only 3/5 stars. The sequel only improved slightly, with Nintendo Power giving it 3.5/5. The same magazine gave only 2.5/5 to the SNES version in October 1994, along with a comment that I don't understand: "Fans of the excellent Game Boy title will recognize the areas, plot, and even the dialogue of the original game, but the graphics clearly don't belong on the smaller system." How is the SNES a "smaller system" than the Game Boy? 
Modern reviews also tend to talk about the difficulty, as was the case of a blogger who said, "This game is mindtwistingly, headsmashingly, Game-Boy-thrown-across-the-room-and-putting-a-hole-in-the-wallingly challenging." I didn't see a single YouTuber try the game on anything other than "easy." Estimations of completion time average around a dozen hours for both games, something I was unlikely to achieve even if I liked the gameplay.
This is probably the longest "BRIEF" I've ever written, technically unnecessary as I have no obligation to play console games in the first place and thus no obligation to document why I rejected them. But they're the only two games for the Ultima series that didn't have a PC release, and thus I thought it was important to at least learn what they were about.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds: Summary and Rating

The box is a bit misleading. It seems to depict the ice caverns, but it suggests that there's a teleportal gem to be found here.
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds
United States
Looking Glass Technologies (developer); Origin Systems (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1995 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 2 April 2022
Date Ended: 18 June 2022
Total Hours: 54
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Ultima Underworld II uses the same interface as its predecessor--a revolutionary engine that allows for three-dimensional, continuous movement, vertical navigation, and realistic environments. It sets the game more firmly in Ultima canon than the first Underworld; you have to have played Ultima VII: The Black Gate to understand key backstory elements like the Guardian, the Fellowship, and blackrock, as well as the dynamics of the castle that serves as the hub of gameplay. Some of the story elements don't make sense, and some of the interface elements don't work well, but these can be easily ignored amidst a sea of successes. The Underworld series remains a key transition point in the history of RPGs, both technically and thematically.
When wrapping up a game that I really like, I have an unfortunate tendency to focus on negative things. This isn't because I'm naturally pessimistic or critical. It's because I'm holding up those games against the best in the genre. When rating most games of the 1980s and early 1990s, I try not to be too harsh because I don't really see them as contenders. I treat them like a mediocre painting done by a child. You make allowances: She hasn't really learned composition yet; vanishing points are easy to grasp but tough to master; realistic anatomical details will come with practice. You focus on the positives and trust she'll get better. But once a game crosses a certain line, I no longer feel like it needs paternalistic praise; the author is clearly a master and I'm evaluating him against other masters. Nonetheless, I'll try to maintain a positivity in this summary because I'm very positive about the game.
Except for some minor quibbles, there's almost nothing negative I can say about the Underworld interface, which saw only minor changes from the first game. I would have liked more spell "shelves" and the ability to select runes by typing their letters. The way one screen slides out of the way and another slides in when you transition from inventory to character sheet or inventory to rune bag is fun once or twice, but there should have been some way to make it instantaneous, particularly in the heat of combat. Beyond that, expecting the developers to do any better with the interface would be expecting them to travel through time. In an era in which customers would have been happy with only two or three of their innovations, they offered dozens. Even today, long after advanced graphics and sound have come along, there's something amazing about casting "Fly" and moving upwards and downwards in cavernous spaces, or jumping from pillar to pillar with lava flowing beneath.
I didn't need to watch this animation as often as I did.
I'm less enamored with the story--although, again, it has more detail and logic than anything else being offered in its era. While I love the Underworld engine, I remain unenthusiastic about its setting in Britannia. In the first game, that setting was forced--the game had clearly been developed for an original setting and later shoehorned into the Stygian Abyss when it was purchased by Origin. For II, the plot always seems to have been set in Britannia, but that didn't necessarily make me like it any better. This is an engine made for a dungeon crawl, multiple levels deep and dark. Starting on the first level of the Abyss with no resources, no idea what you're going to face around the bend, is so much more delicious than starting in the friendly confines of Castle Britannia. Despite the subtitle, I never got the impression I was exploring a "labyrinth of worlds" so much as a bunch of small, discrete worlds. But a few of them did rise to the quality and visceral thrill of the first game, and I appreciated them.
A few final things I discovered after winning: First, if you lose the air daemon, or just release it in the wrong place, Zoranthus gives you another one without complaint. Apparently, you can also find one in the Ethereal Void somewhere, allowing you to bypass a large chunk of quest. 
Handing out djinn is just a Tuesday for him.
Second, I was unable to find a path of dialogue that got me the blackrock serpent from the goblins in the Britannia sewers. They don't drop it if you kill them, I verified. If you are able to get it, it comes with this dialogue:
[The goblins] have agreed that we should give over to thee one of the secrets of our tribe. Over a century ago, a human appeared near our home in the rocky Serpent's Spine Half-starved he was, and there were wounds on him which seemed to have been made by arrows! . . . Before he died, he gasped out a single world to those who found him: "Pagan!" We know not what this might mean, or where he came from--our trackers traced his spoor to the foot of a sheer wall of stone. He carried this with him, though.
If you don't crash Killorn Keep like I did, Altara flees the keep when Mors Gotha arrives, leaving you a note. In discussions with Mors Gotha, but continuously choosing curious or non-threatening options, you can get to a point where she offers to let you join the Guardian's forces, and you can agree! She then says, "Thou hast only to hand over thy weapon, Avatar, a sign of thy decision, and we shall away, off to the palace of the Guardian in the Pagan world." I didn't realize that the name of the Guardian's homeworld was determined this early, and cited in two conversations. Anyway, if you hand over your sword, Gotha just attacks you and the game continues as if you'd never agreed to betray Lord British. But you know.

Finally, if you kill the flying eye-brains in Killorn after Mors Gotha arrives, she has some special dialogue as the keep goes down. Essentially, crashing the keep just prevents you from having to fight the first of the two final battles.
Mors Gotha if you crash the keep with her in it.
In a GIMLET, I suspect we'll see something close to a tie with the first Underworld, maybe even a slightly higher score. What this game lacks in ambiance is balanced by a slightly better equipment system, skill development system, and economy. 

1. Game World. Origin knows how to tell a story, even if they don't always make sense in the details. Even though it doesn't always make sense, we've never seen an RPG set in a castle covered by a magical dome. I appreciated references to previous Ultimas, including the notion that Lord Draxinusom was fighting the invasion outside the castle. Although none of the individual worlds were completely fleshed-out, they all had their own lore and backstory, and I liked how references in one world popped up in another, and that there were some places where you could make decisions that reverberated across worlds. Score: 6.
2. Character Creation and Development. A good system that allows for a variety of "builds," some easier than others. I liked the training system better than the "praying" system of the first game. I appreciated that although there's a level cap, you continue to gain skill points beyond it. I appreciated all the different ways that you can approach puzzles, and that the world doesn't have a lot of artificial barriers. I don't think you can quite play it as a stealth game--it would need a "backstab" mechanic or something similar, so you could still get skill points from combat--but it gets pretty close. If I were to play it again, I think I'd try maximizing "Charisma," "Lore," and "Appraise," and then see how far I could get in the game on potions and wands, which you can buy and recharge at the Killorn market. Score: 7.
My final character.
3. NPCs. It was fun doing regular loops around Britannia and seeing what new things the NPCs had to say. The dialogue system is relatively solid, but I think there were more dialogue options and role-playing choices in the first Underworld. No one outside of Britannia really had much personality, either. Score: 6.

4. Encounters. The game has a small but effective menagerie, well described in the game manual, with an interesting set of strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses. I don't remember any respawn areas in Underworld, but this one had several optional ones. The game is full of non-combat encounters that aren't designated as such (i.e., no text box pops up with a menu of options) but that still call upon your creativity, knowledge, and skill. I appreciated the role-playing options: the different ways to deal with the servants' strike; the different ways to deal with Dorstag in the Pits; whether to crash Killorn Keep. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. I really enjoyed playing as a mage, and particularly that there are so many useful non-combat spells. There's a common sentiment that real-time combat isn't tactical, but I don't agree when it's integrated into the larger game world. An open environment offers opportunities to create chokepoints, fly or jump out of enemies' reach, shove them into lava, or just sneak or run past them. As with the first game, it's too bad that combat wasn't just a bit harder, thus requiring the full use of such options. Score: 6.
I try out "Flame Wind."
6. Equipment. A great variety of weapons, armor, magic items, and utility items, suitable to just about any build and play style. The wear-and-tear system works well. The identification system works well. The crafting system isn't really necessary for a mage, but it also works well. Encumbrance is set liberally but not generously. Other than everything is always found at the same fixed locations, I don't have much in the way of complaint here. Score: 7.

7. Economy. There ought to be more shops, but the presence of someone who will take gold to identify and recharge items, as well as sell potions, adds a lot to the gameplay. I thought the bartering system worked pretty well in the first Underworld, but in II you could really make it part of your overall gameplay strategy. Because of my particular build, the economy mostly stopped being useful to me about 3/4 of the way through the game, but that isn't inevitable. Score: 6.
8. Quests. A clear main quest with a few minor choices along the way, plus a few side quests to add flavor and role-playing. There are no options or alternate endings for the main quest, but there are alternate options for close to the end of the main quest. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Not much different from the first game. Graphics are state-of-the-art for the era and more than acceptable today. Sound effects are effective if not spectacular. Music is moody and well-composed even if I did turn it off. I'm not sure we've ever seen a better approach to automapping. The mouse/keyboard combo works well, though I noted a few issues during this session, most having to do with magic, that I didn't flag last time. Score: 7.

10. Gameplay. A strong final category. It's about halfway between "linear" and "open," though perhaps leaning slightly towards the "linear" side. It's reasonably replayable if you're excited to try different character options. I think it could have been a little harder and a little shorter, but only a little. Score: 7.

That gives us a final score of 63. Checking my review of The Stygian Abyss, I find that I've rated the sequel one point higher, landing it among the top 5 games played so far. In my memory, I think of The Stygian Abyss as the better game, but not so much that I can find anything wrong with this rating. I might be mentally giving Abyss points for doing it first, which doesn't really factor into the GIMLET.
It is, in fact, just a dungeon game anymore.
A summary of "not as fresh as the first game, but equal to it, if not better" would apply to many of the game's contemporary reviews. For instance, in the April 1993 PC Review (UK), reviewer Paul Presley writes: 
If Underworld I got nine stars and Underworld II got only eight, is the sequel worse? No. If someone were to hand me £40 and say buy either Underworld I or II, I'd take the sequel any time. The reason the original got nine stars is because it was the first of its kind and it did what it set out to do damn well, causing convulsions in the opposition and showing everyone that the PC is still growing as a games machine. The sequel is essentially just more of the same only different. The various elements that go to make it up are ear-wiggingly better (improved graphics, better plot, more imagination), but there isn't anything that takes it to a yet higher plateau to wait for the others to catch up.
Here's the March 1993 Game Players:
Although Ultima Underworld 2 doesn't provide any new breakthroughs such as above-ground exploration, it remains on the cutting edge of gaming software, if only because there's no other product capable of doing what Underworld 2 does. Looking Glass has listened to the complaints and comments from Stygian Abyss veterans, using their input to craft substantive improvements to the game engine. 
Still, innovation tends to live longer in the memory than raw quality, and it doesn't surprise me that the original Underworld gets most of the nostalgia. 

Computer Gaming World offered a curiously lukewarm review by Doug Seacat in the May 1993 issue. (The whole issue is curious. They reviewed both Legends of Valour and Ultima Underworld II without noting any of their similarities, and they wasted Scorpia on a review of The Magic Candle III.) I suppose it isn't any more negative than my own, but mine is written with 30 years of hindsight. It's odd to see the same complaints in the release year. Where the April 1993 PC Zone reviewer said, "there is really nothing you can do with this game except sit there, dribble slightly, and say 'blimey' every eight to ten minutes," Seacat finds complaints in getting hung up on doorways, redundancy in skills, and the fact that NPCs don't solve their own problems--all complaints that could be made about any modern 3D game. I would have thought there'd be more dribbling.
I do have to appreciate his note that "Lord British wanders around doing nothing." As we've discussed, Lord British's stature takes a series of major blows in the last few games. It started in Ultima VI but really ramped up in Ultima VII and this game. In his attitude towards the Fellowship and a lot of other things happening in Britannia, he is ignorant, negligent, and useless. I had a chance to mention this to Richard Garriott recently. I was curious if there was a deliberate effort to deconstruct the character or whether it was a matter of Garriott being less involved in the games and his employees simply not treating their boss's alter-ego with much respect. "None of the above," Garriott answered. "It was purely to give space for the player to shine!" But he did acknowledge that "perhaps I overplayed, or underplayed, the role of [Lord British]." As someone who once regarded Lord British as an Arthurian figure--the creator of a code that formed my secular religion as a teenager--I've been distressed to see him treated increasingly like a buffoon.
In my "summary and rating" entry for The Stygian Abyss, I covered the history of the development of the series, much drawn from Jimmy Maher's excellent coverage from 2019. Interviews with designer Paul Neurath indicate that Origin barely paid attention to the development of the first game and nearly canceled it out of sheer apathy. Only slowly, as sales spread through word-of-mouth, did Origin realize they had a mega hit on their hands. The sequel was developed under much different conditions, with Origin demanding a more integrated plot and cracking the whip on the timeline. That it has so few errors with only nine months of development time is a credit to the skill of the programmers and designers. According to a 2000 interview with project lead Doug Church, they killed themselves to release the game for Christmas 1992 but missed it by a couple of weeks, ultimately releasing in January 1993.
Labyrinth of Worlds only sold about half the number of copies as the first game, but as Maher points out, that was still considered a smash by contemporary standards. This success makes it all the more puzzling that Origin never commissioned an Ultima Underworld III. Neurath says that Looking Glass pitched several ideas to Origin, all of which were rejected. An internal document made public by the UK blog Pix's Origin Adventures in 2018 suggests a reason: Origin was planning to develop the sequel themselves. The 104-page design document, dated August 1997, suggests a Fall 1998 release--a snack for hungry gamers awaiting Ultima IX: Ascension. As for why develop it in-house, the document notes: "Recent external development of premium Origin titles have not received the critical praise nor met the revenue expectations they deserve."
Origin's plans for a third Underworld game.
The backstory sets the game in a new world called Jaal, far more violent and chaotic than Britannia. As the player progresses through the story, he learns that Jaal is where the Shadowlord Astaroth ended up when he was banished from Britannia in Ultima V. Astaroth intends to reunite with his fellow Shadowlords. Somehow, it serves their plot to kidnap someone from the Avatar's homeworld, who then becomes the PC of the game. The game would have used the Wing Commander: Prophecy engine, and its environments would "run the gamut from desert wastelands, jungles, caves, cramped towers, forests, steep mountains, and some underwater levels." There's a lot of talk about multiplayer options.
Anyway, someone at Electronic Arts said no, as there's no evidence the game ever got past the document phase. Later, an attempt by Arkane Studios to pitch an Underworld III to EA also failed and was turned into Arx Fatalis (2002). In 2013, Paul Neurath founded Otherside Entertainment and made Underworld Ascendant (2018) with permission from EA to use the Underworld title but not the Ultima name. The result is a weird half-sequel, in which the player character explores the Stygian Abyss, but the Abyss is not on Britannia. Cabirus reappears, but so do races that never appeared in Britannia, such as dwarves and dark elves. And, of course, the main character is the "Ascendant" rather than the "Avatar." It looked pretty good to me when I watched some YouTube footage, but I guess it got awful reviews.
Our next Ultima will be Ultima VII, Part 2, coming up later this year. But before then, we'll have a parody and one surprise.