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't 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 that 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.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Return of Werdna: Maybe Just a Ziggurat More

Didn't this used to be Werdna's dungeon? He should know about a huge temple in the middle of it.
I remembered Level 7, called "Temple of the Dreampainter" by one of the messages, from my first attempt at the game. In fact, it was the last level that I fully played. The level is shaped like a ziggurat, with some associated weirdness that I'll cover in this entry. You basically have to work your way "up" (north, so nothing to do with the "what's east" clue) to the apex room.
What I didn't remember was the difficulty of foes along the way. The enemy parties are essentially unbeatable at the level you encounter them. It took me less time to map Level 7 than Level 8 (the mine level), but I made less actual progress--which, as covered before, really just means less gold.
The level opens at the stairway in the southwest, which is surrounded by a ring of "dark" squares that you have to feel your way through. The summoning pentagram is only two rooms to the east, but the game has a way of putting enemy parties as fixed encounters on the other sides of doors. I had to reload several times in the last session to make it to the pentagram. It was fortunate then that I was exploring in a "rightmost" path because going the other way, it would have taken me forever to find the pentagram.
My map of Level 7, which confuses "north" and "up."
The game tries to have it both ways with the geography. North is clearly north--you're not climbing or anything. There are no ropes. You don't have to cast a "Levitation" spell. Yet if you move through any of the six doors that take you "outside" of the ziggurat, the game acts as if you're on a ledge. If you then move east from any of these ledges, you "fall" to the lower ledge and take damage.
Even weirder, if you move north from any of the ledge squares, the game has you "fall" back to the square you departed from, as if by moving north you somehow jumped so high that you took damage falling back down. 
Yo, dawg. I heard you liked dungeons. So we put a 10-level dungeon inside your 10-level dungeon!
The two enemy parties that you encounter while trying to map all of this are Sorriman's Sorcerers and Thorin's Tramplers. The Sorcerers' silly battle cry is, "Bubble bubble toil and cuddle!" Of them, only Sorriman is a mage, although he does have a samurai named Zac. The rest are two fighters, a bishop, and a priest. Sajak is probably a reference to the Wheel of Fortune host, and Sorriman is a real last name. The party hits hard, casts hard, and has a ton of hit points, particularly Sorriman and Zac. I was able to kill them all a couple of times, but only at the cost of almost all my party members.
It's not fair that they can cast the same spells I can!
The Sorcerers drop a cloak labeled "USE ME" in the post-combat loot list and a "Cape of Jackal" in actual inventory. Either way, it's cursed and adds 9 to your armor class. Still, I put it in the black box in case someone's looking for it later. I suspect that's going to be a common thing.
That's not a good sign.
Thorin's Tramplers says, "Stomp 'em boys!" when they attack. Thorin, a bishop, has 300 hit points and likes to cast MOLITO (mass damage) and KATINO (sleep), so he can do a lot of damage before you take him down. If you can kill them, you find a "Mordorcharge" card on their bodies. I don't know what it's for. The oracle theoretically accepts "credit" for his clues, but I've had enough cash to pay him. [Ed. As Adamant points out below, the in-game charge card is an analogue to a physical version that came with at least the Apple II version of the game.]
I made the mistake of leaving Thorin alive in a previous encounter.
I discovered a new aspect of the game mechanics on this level: If you manage to defeat an enemy party without technically killing everyone, such as if the final characters are slept or paralyzed, they'll attack you again, but with all of the enemies you previously killed joining as "DEAD." You then just have to fight the ones that survived.
Even individual enemies are tough on this level. Plenty of them are mages capable of LAHALITO and other mass-damage spells. The fighters have a ton of hit points and often last long enough to kill someone (or last long enough that someone flees).
I don't know if it makes sense to list the individual enemies anymore; no one seems to be having fun guessing the source of the names. But I'll do it for at least this one level:
  • AC/DC, an evil mage.
  • Bankis, a neutral mage.
  • Bonis, a neutral fighter. 
  • Cutter, a neutral fighter.
  • Electro, a good fighter. 
  • Flint, a good fighter.
  • Laenger, a good bishop.  
  • Lance, a neutral fighter.
  • Lignin Lord, an evil fighter.
  • Sakura, an evil mage. He carries a Staff of Mogref. MOGREF isn't a great spell (reduces AC for the caster by two points), but it's still a better weapon than a plain dagger.
  • Tele-Vipers, a good mage. She's high enough to cast MAKANITO ("Deadly Air"), which I won't get until the next level.
  • Voltar, a good mage.
  • Warty, a neutral mage. He carries a Staff +2 and a Jeweled Amulet. Unless I'm interested in casting MOGREF a lot, a Staff +2 is a better weapon.
As for allies, the pattern I've settled into since the lowest level is staffing my party with a) one group capable of casting priest spells; b) one group capable of casting mage spells; and c) a melee group, ideally with a special attack like paralysis or level-drain. On this level, there are only two choices for a) and b): priestesses and goblin shamans. (I would think "shamans" would cast priest spells, but they don't and I'm not complaining.) That leaves a lot of options for the third group. Cockatrices, strangler vines, giant toads, and vorpal bunnies all have special attacks (petrify, poison, poison, and decapitate) but they activate so rarely that they're not of much use. Most of the other allies are just interchangeable melee attackers. Towards the end of the level, I started to value blink dogs. Their appearance makes little sense here, as the game's mechanics don't allow for them to use the one ability (blinking) that they're known for. Their attack isn't very strong, either. But they do self-replenish by calling for friends, so they work well as a regenerating meat shield. 
Where are these monsters coming from? Are they created when I summon them? Am I yanking them from their daily lives?
The entire pyramid is composed of 2 x 2 blocks, making mapping somewhat boring and predictable. Most of the west side is a waste of time, as there's nothing to find and it's closed off from the rest of the pyramid. There are multiple paths to the top if you wait until you're in one of the four eastmost bottom squares before you start going north. There's an insidious secret door at 8,13 that I missed the first time I went through the room because I didn't have "Light" active. 
You enter the apex room in the southwest, where a message reads: "Priest's Hole. For emergency use only!" There's a door going west from here. If you take it, you get a message about an orange rod drifting in the air to the west of your location on the ledge. If you turn around, you find the door has sealed behind you and you have no choice but to fall all the way down to the first level, block by block, which you can only survive if you brought some DIOS potions with you (falling costs 8 hit points per block) I eventually stocked up with enough of them that I was able to test every single ledge, on both sides, which is the sort of thing you have to do in this game just in case one of those squares had some special item or encounter. Incidentally, I had to reload the first time I went out this one-way door. I hadn't saved since the pentagram. You can imagine the torrent of profanity that followed. 
There's at least one thing to come back for.
The second time I reached the apex room, I saved there in an alternate slot. (Allowing eight save slots is one of the few ways this game is actually a bit easy.) The southeastern square says, "This way to the scenic vista!," with a silly note about accompaniment needed for "children under the age of 90." Moving outside--the door mercifully does not seal behind you--you get a message about how wondrous the scenic vista looks, and how you can see the ladder to the next level on the ziggurat's roof.
Did Werdna mandate the creation of this sign when he was in charge of the dungeon? If not, who did?
How am I seeing anything in a dark dungeon?
The northwest corner of the top room has an altar. You can offer gold or an item. If you choose gold, half your gold disappears for no apparent gain. In any other game, I'd do it anyway just in case it's important later. Generally, in the early Wizardry games, all progress is measured by inventory. There are no flags for encounters having already been tripped. We've seen that you can return to the same places again and again, so I'm skeptical that donating half my gold trips any switch that the game later consults. On the other hand, the progression of clues given to you by the Oracle isn't based on inventory. Somehow, the game remembers where he left off. So might it not remember other things? I ultimately left without giving half my gold, but if it becomes important later, I'll take a hint.
It's not like I was representing it as gold. I just thought it had some value despite its name.
That leaves items. If you try to give it the golden pyrite, a bolt of lightning strikes and kills you, the message saying that "the gods are not as foolish as you are!" If you put any of the other three treasures from the lower levels--bloodstone, Lander's turquoise, or the amber dragon--a bolt of lightning comes and destroys them. Anything else disappears before it hits the altar.
While unequipping items to make room for more treasures to try, I saw that the treasures can be "invoked." I had missed that earlier, since I put them all right into the black box. Each "glows ethereally" when invoked. After invocation, the altar says that each item "nestles in the depression . . . as if it has become a part of the altar." 
I'm afraid to know what will happen.
Once you've sacrificed all three treasures, three magical swords appear above the altar. A voice says, "Take ye one of these swords as a reward for restoring unto me my sacred temple." Your choices are green, blue, and amber. 
Even without something in my inventory, the game "knows" I've already donated to this altar.
A couple of entries ago, commenter Jeearr warned me that this was a "point of no return," as the choice of weapon determines the ending to the game. I kind-of remember hearing this somewhere else, too. Jeearr recommended I leave it until much later if I wanted to experience multiple endings. Commenter Jon Lundy replied that you could just discard the sword later and go get another one to experience the ending based on it. I tested it by choosing "green" and getting the East Wind Sword. When I returned to the altar, it said that it was bright and resplendent, a post-donation message. I then dropped the East Wind Sword and returned, and it allowed me to choose one of the three swords again. I thought it would make me find and donate the three treasures again first. 
The message I get when I have a sword, so it's clearly reading my inventory.
So clearly, I can change my choice of sword, but equally clearly, the game uses a non-inventory-based flagging system for some of the things that happen. I therefore don't know if a) I can experience multiple endings by changing my choice of sword at the key moment; or b) the game remembers my initial choice and determines the ending based on that. I'd appreciate confirmation either way. In the meantime, I left the swords alone and headed up the stairway to Level 6.
I'll have to come back to this level eventually anyway. There's at least one thing to pick up in the dead space off to the sides of the ziggurat, and there's one 2 x 2 room with no entrance that I can find. MALOR should take care of both issues if I don't find a solution before then.
So far, Werdna has been difficult only in the amount of time I've had to invest, and even to that extent it's not much more difficult than a regular Wizardry. But I did have some memory remnants of the first four levels, and because I knew I had defeated them before, I knew I could do it again. We'll be in uncharted territory when I next write.
[Ed. Apparently, I was mis-remembering, and I actually completed Level 6 and a little of Level 5 back in 2010. I don't remember anything about it, though, so in some ways it will be "uncharted territory."]
Time so far: 20 hours

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Won!

By the end of the last entry, I had cut all the Guardian's lines of power to the various gem destinations, and I had used all the blackrock gems on the teleporter in Britannia's basement. I have to say that even this late in the game, I'm still a little unclear about these items; specifically:
  • Why did the Guardian's plot to encase the castle in blackrock have to involve a teleporter in the sewers?
  • If the teleporter was simply to enable the later invasion, why delay the invasion?
  • Why do all the various universes have a single blackrock gem?
  • Why does using the blackrock gems on the teleporter weaken it and cause new teleportation facets to open?

I'll review dialogue and see if I better understand any of these things for the final entry.
Is blackrock just obsidian?
In any event, I start this session in the wreckage of Killorn Keep. I have a save from before I destroyed it, but I decide to play from here. Killorn Keep was a threat. I had active intelligence that the Guardian was planning to mount an invasion from here. The keep was full of enemies and only one ally--who refused to accept my warning and leave. This is war. If you have a chance to destroy an enemy's fortress, you take it. You don't worry about the servants and horses.
I thus return to Britannia. Before going anywhere else, I toss one of my moonstones in Britannia's basement, near the teleporter, so I just have to cast "Gate Travel" when I want to return.
I feel like I didn't fully explore the possibilities of "Gate Travel."
I head back to the Pits of Carnage and make my way to Level 2. I bypass most of the level with the "Fly" spell. I can't remember the right button sequence to get through Zoranthus's Puzzle, so I bypass it by opening the grates with the "Open" spell. That's what it means to be a mage in this game--not to defeat enemies through magic, but to use magic to bypass a bunch of puzzles and navigational obstacles. That isn't a complaint. There aren't many games in which magic serves more as a utility than a weapon. I rather like the novelty of it. 
Zoranthus happily takes the scepter and hands over the air daemon, bound in a jar. I run through the ritual steps one more time with him, then "Gate Travel" back to Britannia.
I'm not sure a trapped demon is worth a single wand, but I'm not going to complain.
Step 1: I have to bathe in filanium-rich mud--the kind found in the ice caverns--mixed with basilisk oil. I have two bottles of basilisk oil. Curious that I've never encountered a basilisk in an Ultima game.
I return to the ice caverns, where the slick floor is also obviated by "Fly." I find the mud. I'm not sure how to mix the oil with it, so I drink one bottle and toss the other into the mud; the latter turns out to be the correct answer. I enter the mud myself and get a message about the mud caking me.
Apparently careful not to let too much drip off, I go to the next step: "fire" the mud in lava. The closest lava I can think of is in the Arena of Fire in the Pits of Carnage, so I head back there and drop into the lava. "The oily mud bakes on your skin." 
Does that mean I'm walking around looking like a stone golem?
Third step: seal the deal with a Potion of Iron Flesh. I don't have a potion, but I'm hoping that the spell will accomplish the same thing. It does. This would have been a very different sort of entry otherwise.
Now I've got to break the air daemon's current vessel and transfer it to me. Zoranthus warned me only to do this in the Sigil of Binding on the Astral Plane. (Because of course I had to check: Breaking the bottle elsewhere causes the air daemon to kill you. You resurrect in Britannia but are probably "walking dead" at that point.) I head there, drop the bottle in the pentagram, and smash it with my sword. "The air daemon is absorbed into your body."
The floating skull approves.
When I gate back to Britannia, I'm surprised to find four soldiers wearing Killorn Keep uniforms in the basement. When they see me, one says that "MG" told them to scout, "but I reckon I'm gonna be the first in my squadron to rack up a kill." Both of them are soon dead; my Sword of Stone Strike is extremely overpowered. "MG" is certainly Mors Gotha, the Guardian's champion. Apparently, my act of destruction didn't end the threat posed by Killorn Keep. 
With this sword, I could take on an army.
Before moving on, I head upstairs and make sure everyone is okay. I try blowing the Horn of Praecor Loth, but the game just says that "somehow the horn's power does not seem to be at its fullest." How did Praecor Loth manage to use it to bring castles crumbling down when I can't use it even with an air daemon in my lungs? 
I love how they programmed the ability to play individual notes for no reason.
I return to the ruined fortress, and sure enough, a bunch of guards are amassing in the guardroom. I can't reach them because  the regular corridors are collapsed. The guardroom is open to the main chamber now, but there are beds and other pieces of furniture blocking me from walking through. I have to go back to Britannia, get the second moonstone, return, throw it past the furniture into the guardroom, and cast "Gate" on the other one. It later occurs to me that "Portal" would have done it. Why do I keep forgetting about "Portal"?
The guards are suspicious of me, but not after I slip on one of the Guardian's signet rings. They at least acknowledge what I've done to the keep ("somethin' horrible happened here--corpses everywhere"). They've been told that they're headed to a place where "the defenders are 100% sealed up" and they'll just be "goin' in and cleanin' up."  
I can see these guys, but I'm stuck on some furniture.
Mors Gotha is in an office nearby. She asks how I like my "handiwork," gesturing to the keep around us. I say I did what I had to do. "Thou wert e'er as bloodthirsty as I, if not more so," Mors crows. It's a tired argument. Of course I am. I've been through 10 prior Ultima games. My skin is permanently tinted by blood. I can't even begin to count all the people I've killed. I've killed on land, sea, and space, and in past, present, and future. I killed dozens of castle guards just because one of them had a key. I killed most of the gargoyle race. I battled my way through hundreds of giant ants to kill their queen. I killed a megalomaniacal Martian with an M-60. I killed three shadowlords and countless liches, demons, and dragons. I've killed the very creator of my universe. Does Mors Gotha imagine that I am ignorant as to what I am?
The subsequent battle is rendered trivial by the Sword of Stone Strike. Guards rush in behind me, but I just have to petrify Mors Gotha, then turn around and petrify the guards. From there, as long as I strike everyone every 10 seconds or so, they remain petrified.
This is too easy.
Mors completely disappears when I kill her, leaving a spellbook behind. It contains magic formulas and references to the Guardian, so I grab it for Nystul. 
Back in Britannia, Nystul says he can use the spell in the book to unravel the Guardian's magic. He just needs to know the time and place of the original casting. It was Nell, Lord British's chambermaid and sometimes lover, who told me that she heard chanting in the throne room at four bells. That's exactly what she said. Nystul accepts "throne room" but rejects "four bells." He just wants "four." I think this is the only place in the game where you type your own keywords. It makes me miss the earlier Ultimas as well as their more complex parsers.
The question of "who was it?" remains a mystery. Everyone probably blames Patterson.
As I deliver my answer, Julia runs in with the message that soldiers are pouring through the gem and attacking the castle. Before she can finish her account, Mors Gotha steps through the doorway behind her. Julia and Nystul rush off to the throne room while Mors Gotha confronts me again. 
I don't know how Mors Gotha survived our first encounter, but keen to defeat her again in a more challenging way, I discard my Sword of Stone Strike and equip the Black Sword of Major Accuracy that I found in Loth's tomb. I chug every potion that I think might be helpful and blast her with a few wand remnants at the outset of combat.
That VAS IN MANI spell I have lined up isn't going to work.
The combat is long but not hard. I try to use some magic but remember too late that no spells above Level 3 can be cast in Britannia. I can't use "Poison" on my sword, let alone more epic magic like "Paralyze" and "Freeze Time." I mostly just keep myself healed with "Minor Heal" as we swing away. She doesn't last long. As she dies, she calls for the Guardian's help. Nothing happens. "God DAMN it," she says, and dies.
I kill a couple of guards in the hallway as I make my way to the throne room. "Avatar," Lord British offers as I arrive, "The time to act is now!" The last act I make on my own is speaking to Nystul; then the game takes over. Nystul reads from the book as I raise the horn. The daemon's strength surges through me.
It would be funny if the castle crumbled here but the dome stayed in place.
A cinematic shows the blackrock dome crack and crumble. In the final scenes, The Avatar stands next to Lord British on a balcony. Lord British says:
Again thou hast bested the Guardian. Thou hast shattered the curse of the obsidian jewel by the power of thy strong hands and quick mind, and it hath passed from us like a feverish dream. We are at peace again, Avatar, and we must return to the task of rebuilding our nation. Come! 'Tis time we breathed once more the sweet air of Britannia.
If I'm mad at anything, it's that I never found out if the Guardian's invasion of Britannia that I kept seeing in my dreams was real or a hallucination. Freeing the castle isn't going to matter much if there are enemy troops all over the continent. 
I get why the dome is cracking, but where is all the light coming from?
I reload and try some obvious ways to screw things up. If you rush to the throne room without killing Mors Gotha, Nystul just says that the ritual can't start while the invasion is still happening. If you drop the horn of Praecor Loth, Nystul just tells you to go and find it. Denizens of the castle remain invincible and are never targeted by the invaders. If you attack them, you just end up in the jail cell as usual.
I checked out the official cluebook for anything that I missed. It appears that the official walkthrough suggestion is to do the Ethereal Void before the Tomb of Praecor Loth. The ritual with the air daemon triggers the Killorn scouts and the appearance of Mors Gotha in Killorn, but nothing is much different if you don't destroy the keep. Doing things in the cluebook's order puts some space between the two battles with Gotha. The book says that she "disappears into a moongate" when you first defeat her; I guess the petrification animation kept the moongate animation from appearing. But you can also just steal her spellbook and run.
Note how the silhouette of the Avatar could plausibly fit either sex.
I missed several spells not found in the spellbook. I was supposed to somehow get "Dispel Hunger" from Zaria in the Pits of Carnage. Merzan, the merchant in Killorn who attacked me, sold "Rune of Stasis." "Summon Demon" was apparently found on the bloodstained pentagram in the Pits of Carnage, but all it does is summon a hostile demon. I suppose it could be useful for grinding.

"Smite Foe" (VAS JUX MANI) is an advanced version of "Bleeding" that kills almost any creature. You have to deduce it by adding VAS to JUX MANI. That's fine, but it feels like some other spells ought to work that way, too, and they don't. VAS ORT JUX doesn't give you an extra powerful "Magic Arrow," for instance.

The mother of all inferable spells--which surprisingly I didn't even think about--is VAS KAL CORP, or "Armageddon." That just means "summon great death," which I would assume was just "Mass Kill" or something. In Ultima VII, the spell is IN CORP HUR TYM ("Cause death [via] the winds of time"), which makes more sense, but you can't use four runes in Underworld
A storeroom before "Armageddon" . . .
Anyway, the cluebook says that casting the spell "kills all creatures, destroys all objects, doors, stairways, and bridges . . . on all realms" (emphasis mine). It also makes the blackrock stop teleporting you and removes all the runes in your rune bag. You have to take its word for the effects "on all realms," because there's no way to leave whatever realm and level you're currently in to go and check. And you can't cast it in Britannia to see Lord British's reaction because you can't cast high-level spells in Britannia.
. . . and after.
I love how "Armageddon" went from a spell given to you in ignorance by a wisp (Ultima VI) to something available on the open market for a high price (Ultima VII) to a spell that any mage could infer and cast with three common runes. Britannia's fate is sealed if it doesn't try to exert some control over VAS runes.
Let me know if you think there's anything else I should try before moving on to the rating. We'll have that in a few days.
Final time: 54 hours

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Return of Werdna: Kaboom

This level in summary.
The first time through, I called Level 8 "the most hateful [level] I have ever encountered in any CRPG." The passage of twelve years has not dampened that sentiment. Titled "The Death of a Thousand Cuts," it is the ultimate exercise in trial and error: a level in which three-quarters of the squares have mines that kill you (or nearly so), and yet you still have to step in every damned square because one of them might contain some vital item. (And three of them do!) Incidentally, setting off mines does not remove them from the map, so you can't periodically run back to the pentagram to heal and slowly "clear" them. It was an effort of will not to simply use my map from the first experience, which would have turned 5 hours into 15 minutes.
My final map of Level 8.
This is one level in which your exploration pattern makes a huge difference. Try to map the contours of the level clockwise, and you not only find the summoning pyramid quickly, you're safe from mines until you get there. Go the other direction and you're in for a world of hurt. You'll be reloading a lot as your Level 2 Werdna and whatever allies he has left from the floor below last virtually no time against this level's denizens, let alone its mines.
As with the last level, the time I spent here allowed me to get to know everyone intimately, to the point that I was anticipating their actions and yelling things like, "Keep your goddamned hands to yourself, Abduul." I met two adventuring parties here: Arcturus's Avengers and Abduul's Artful Dodgers. The ironic thing about this level is that both parties  are composed of mostly evil enemies. That makes their battle cries ("Murderer, you shall pay!" and "Die, infidel!") all the more mysterious. Both have a melange of characters, including high-level spellcasters and (in the Dodgers' case), a thief capable of stealing your important artifacts. I'll let you puzzle over their names, but I'll say that I'm a bit annoyed the Avengers stole my default name of "Gideon."
Perhaps the most annoying message in the game.
Unlike the parties on previous levels, neither of these parties drops anything important. 
Gideon, you traitor.
In between these enemies, as usual, you meet individual foes and occasional pairs and trios: Gytr, a good mage; Tars Tarkas, an evil fighter; Merlin, an evil fighter (?!); Lord Gwydion, a good lord; Xenic, a neutral fighter; Kazrak, an evil fighter; Aspergil, a good bishop; Drip, an evil mage; Bananarama, a neutral fighter; Fank, a good priest; Oger, an evil thief; Thalessa, an evil fighter; Bugnews, a good fighter.
Against these enemies, you have a better selection of allies than on lower floors. I thought the best of the bunch were spirits, which cast Level 3 mage spells, including MAHALITO (a fireball that damages all enemies). Their physical attacks poison. Second are Level 5 priests, who continue to keep the lights on and Werdna healed. There are a lot of allies tied for third, including banshees and shades (both cause level drain, but banshees seem to flee more often), rotting corpses (poison and paralyze), and gaze hounds (paralyze, low AC, high hit points). Dragon flies have a breath attack, but it's mild. Ronins have physical attacks and Level 2 mage spells, not high enough to be much use. The rest--harpies, bugbears, wererats---attack only in melee and often flee. I have no idea what "looters" are supposed to be, but they mostly just run away.
That was helpful, thanks.
The big news is that Werdna himself gets a lot more effective on this level. The two Level 3 mage spells are MAHALITO and MOLITO, both of which cause mass damage of different sorts. 
Of course, the ghost of Trebor keeps stalking you across the level, occasionally showing up out of nowhere and killing you. It's harder to get away from him here because if you panic, you end up running into a minefield. 
This is so annoying when it happens after you've made a lot of progress.
The real difficulty on the level is surviving the mine damage, which gets worse as you go south and west, until by the time you get to the bottom of the map, you're taking 10 hit points per mine. Around this point, I stopped even trying to survive. I would map three mines, die, and reload. There were a few places where I had to get creative just to verify that a square contained a mine. The mine at 0,2 on the map is probably the most difficult. You either have to wade through three 10-point damage mines from the east or a bunch of lesser ones from the north. Either way, you need to fight at least one random battle mid-way so that your priests have a chance to heal Werdna. Spinning around looking for random combats, you have an equal chance of getting killed by Trebor. It was a lot of effort to verify that the square did, in fact, contain a mine.

As noted above, all the mapping is necessary because there are three fixed treasures amidst the mines: golden pyrite, an amber dragon, and a witching rod. The latter of these is found in a pool of acid that costs you 14 hit points to search. I noted their locations but didn't grab them all because until the end of the level, I didn't have room in my inventory.
Finding the "witching rod."
A safe path snakes its way through the minefield and to the exit in the southwest. Even after you've mapped it, navigation can be perilous. More than once, I miscounted the steps or held down the forward key too long and had to restart. More than half a dozen times, Trebor got me while I was trying to find my way. With persistence, I finally made my way to the 2 x 2 room in the southwest.
As you enter the room, a message helpfully asks if you've forgotten something. One step further and you battle a clay golem. He has nothing useful. But in the opposite corner of the room is an assassin named Glum. He has 220 hit points and is capable of special attacks like decapitation. If you kill him, he carries a "weighty cube" that turns out to be a Box of Holding. You want to have room for it when you find it because it makes room for everything else. Alas, when I finally made it to the room and defeated the assassin, I accidentally had a jammed inventory and had to leave the box. 
Glum appears to be a frog.
There was no way I was going to try to make my way back to the pentagram from the exit, so I took the stairway up to Level 7 and saved. I had four spirits and five priests, so I was comfortable in my chances of making it to the pentagram. That was a little cocky of me. It took me three reloads to get past the parties on this level, reach the pentagram, and summon some new allies. Guessing, I chose priestesses, giant slugs, and strangler vines. It was not an optimal party, but I did manage to kill Glum again and this time retrieve his box. I put everything that wasn't equipped in it. I recall that if you equip the box, thieves can't steal it from you.
This is what I had at the end of this session. I'll take a light hint if I seem to be missing anything.
Now I needed to get those marked treasures. I returned to Level 7, summoned priestesses, goblin shamans, and blink dogs (again mostly guessing), and headed back down. I had to fight either the clay golem or the assassin again; I chose the clay golem. My party selections weren't bad: goblin shamans have Level 3 mage spells as well as priest spells, and blink dogs replenish themselves by "calling for help." Priestesses take the place of Level X Priests from previous pentagrams. I can't tell exactly what level they are, but they have Level 4 priest spells. I'm getting ahead of the next entry, but Werdna also has LAHALITO (major fireball), DALTO (blizzard), and MORLIS (fear) since hitting the Level 7 pentagram.
One of the important treasures on the level.
The monsters still didn't last very long, perhaps because I didn't have very many of each, but I managed to pick up the three treasures on Level 8 with a minimum of difficulty. I made it back to the summoning pentagram and replaced my flagging party with my standard Level 8 combo: Level 5 priests, spirits, and rotting corpses. I'm not sure I've mentioned before, but you get a random number of each monster when you summon them, from 1 to some maximum set for each type of creature. Sometimes you have to try several times before you get an acceptable number.
With this combo, I moved back down to Level 9. There were a few places I'd marked for a revisit, including the hellhound room, a couple of the "tower" rooms with different kinds of guards, and a random encounter with Greyhawk's Ghostbusters, who I'd been unable to defeat the first time.
One of the "officers' mess" groups of the tower guards had a unique item called a Twilight Cloak, but no one else had anything, including the Ghostbusters. My priests and spirits performed beautifully; I had re-explored over half the level before I lost even one of them. Trebor mostly left me alone, too. I was prepared to save if I got one of the messages indicating he was really close (saving re-stocks the level and sends Trebor off to a new random position), but never got to that point.
The officer's "mess" is about to earn its name.
I was primarily interested in trying to get into the unmapped squares in the level's central room, which is 2 x 5. When you first enter, a message reads "Dante was here." Just north of that, a second message says, "Bring your marshmallows?" North of that, I had mapped the encounter with the hellhound. I guess I screwed it up because this time, I just got an encounter with a random party. I was able to continue north to a new message: "The heat is getting quite unbearable. The glow ahead is intense. What can be causing it? A monstrous statue rises up from the sullenly glowing ground and bars your path. Flee while there is still time!"
The game let me search here and then warned me, "You are about to battle something cute!" The enemy that appeared was a "hellpuppy," an evil ninja with 166 hit points. My allies made short work of him. I continued north. 
It is kind of cute.
"It's the Abyss!" the next square screamed. "May Kadorto have mercy on your soul! Go back! Go back!" That was the furthest north I could get in the room, so I moved west. There, the game told me that I stood before the very gates of hell. I could offer a bribe, use an item, or run away. I ran away the first time, made a save, and then tried the various options. Trying to bribe just wasted gold; it melted and vaporized. I went through each of my items and tried to "use" it. The only thing that did anything were the Demonic Chimes that I'd gotten from the hellhound in this very room. "A hideous wail of many tormented souls screams forth from the chimes, shaking the very foundations of the gates!" the game reported. But after that, the game just returned me to the options screen, and nothing else I used accomplished anything.
This is either an homage to Ultima IV or Zork or both.
Having participated in several hell-related rituals in games before, including another (Ultima IV) at the entrance of something called the "Abyss," my suspicion is that the Demonic Chimes serve as a "bell," and that I need a "book" to follow before finally using my Black Candle.
On the subject of mysteries, I caught the Oracle a few times during this session. Here are all the Oracle hints I have so far:
  • "The egress will set you free!" I think I've made fun of that enough.
  • "Your future is black; you feel boxed in!" Probably a reference to the assassin's black box, necessary to hold all the items you need to carry.
Tumbuk 3 before they discovered Zoloft.
  • "Read The Iliad lately?" No idea. The Iliad deals with the consequences of the meddling of the gods in the realm of men, which might have some ties to the game's backstory. It better not have anything to do with the Trojan Horse. The Trojan Horse doesn't appear in The Iliad, although people often think it does. That's from The Aeneid.
Is there an audio version? I'm sitting on half a dozen Audible credits.
  • "Chomp, chomp . . . eh, what's east, Doc?" A silly Bugs Bunny reference. Since Bugs's actual line is "what's up, Doc?," this suggests there's some place where I'll have to equate east with "up." Or maybe I'm munching the wrong carrot.
  • "Secrets abound all around you! Psst! Have you met Glum yet?" Yes, Glum was the assassin I killed to get the black box. As for secrets all around me, that seems manifest.
  • "Live the Qabalah!" I think I'd have to take an entire 15-week course to learn how to do that.
  • "The answer is carved in stone! It is right before your nose!" I'll look for something carved in stone, I guess.
My character at the end of this session.
With everything I could do on previous levels done (for now), I returned to Level 8, stopped and saved on the pentagram, and slowly made my way through the minefield for the umpteenth time, killing Abduul's Artful Dodgers and Arcturus's Avengers for the umpteenth time along the way. By the time I got to the room in the southwest, I was down to two spirits and one priest, not ideal to take on either the assassin or the golem, so I took a save. Aside from the fact that the game offers multiple save slots, this is a dangerous place to save. You could get into a situation in which you can neither move forward nor make it back to the level's summoning pentagram. In this case, though, I needn't have worried. We defeated the golem with the loss of one spirit. It still took me a couple of reloads to get to the summoning pentagram from there, but I made it and am well set for the next session.
Time so far: 15 hours