Starting Ultima V was one of the most satisfying moments I've experienced in months of CRPG playing. It feels like coming home. You would think that it would be boring to play a series of four games (Ultimas IV-VII) in the same game world, but instead I find it enormously rewarding. Each game offers new hamlets, keeps, and dungeons to explore--not to mention cities that change over time--and yet you have comfortable familiarity with the the overall landscape. I don't know what I'm going to encounter in between, but I know how to get from Britain to Trinsic. Sometimes there's as much fun in exploring what's changed as there is in exploring what's new.
This is particularly notable given that horrid things tend to happen to Britannia's world in between games. In Ultima I, the world was a collection of islands, but then there was a fused land mass in Ultima III (there was no Ultima II)--a land mass that looks nothing like the Britannia introduced in Ultima IV. The manuals explain these changes via tales of violent earthquakes, upheavals, and tsunamis following the deaths of Mondain and Exodus. (You wonder if it wouldn't have been better--all things considered--if the tyrants had just been allowed to rule.)
When we last left Ultima IV, 14 months ago, I had become the Avatar of Virtue, braved the Stygian Abyss, and uncovered the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom--just before Lord British unceremoniously drop-kicked me back through the moongate to my own world. I groused about that at the time, but I suppose expecting a parade or statue or whatever would show unforgivable pride. I'd have lost an eighth, and then Lord British would be back where he started, without an Avatar. This way, Britannia gets to say farewell to its idol before he has a chance to fall.
Between the game and the manual, we get a pretty cool main quest setup. On Earth, I awake in the middle of the night to a codex symbol shimmering over my bed, which resolves into an amulet. Figuring this for a sign, I leap out of bed, grab my ankh, and head for the circle of stones where the moongate first appeared prior to Ultima IV. Sure enough, another one pops up, and I jump through, arriving in Britannia looking pretty badass, if I do say so myself.
I end up in a clearing. Shamino--my spiritual ranger companion from Ultima IV--comes dashing up, going on about worrying that the summoning wouldn't work, and someone named Blackthorn. Suddenly, these three guys that looke like Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come appear. Shamino yells "Shadowlords!" just in time to get a magic bolt to the chest.
I show my amulet and they fade away. I carry Shamino to a nearby hut, which turns out to be Iolo's. (This, in the 1980s, was the first time most players realized that Iolo was a man.) Iolo tells me what's going on: After the events of Ultima IV, Lord British had the dungeons sealed and the Codex raised from the Abyss, which apparently caused some kind of cataclysm below, leaving a vast cavernous area populated by horrid monsters. Some explorers came back with tales of dark creatures, so Lord British--for some reason--decided to personally lead an expedition into the underworld, and he was either captured or killed. His regent, Blackthorn, took over and became corrupted by the three mysterious Shadowlords. A tyrant, he has outlawed my companions from the previous game and introduced a perverted, draconian form of the eight virtues, with creeds such as "thou shalt not lie, or that shalt lose thy tongue" and "thou shalt humble thyself to thy superiors, or thou shalt suffer their wrath." Shamino and Iolo decided to summon me to rescue Lord British and end Blackthorn's evil reign.
This story--told in well-illustrated cut-scenes--is delightfully mirrored at the bottom of the main screen, using the actual icons and textures of the game. It's so cool in fact, that I'm going to let you watch it below.
I love the resoluteness with which I head to my chest and grab my sword and shield (00:32), and then pause to check myself in the mirror on the way out the door (00:49). The game is still tile-based, but the tiles are much more artistically composed than in IV (more on graphics later). At 01:28 we get the first hint of the sound in the game--the pattering of the waterfall--and while it's not great, I'm not going to turn it off, either. I'm not sure why Shamino looks like a pirate and Iolo looks like a Sikh, but what the heck, I value diversity.
We have to pause here to consider Lord Blackthorn. I didn't meet this fellow in Ultima IV, so it's a little odd that he's somehow risen to become the king of Britannia. I wish the creators had used an established character. Moreover...."Blackthorn?" Seriously? Lord British needs to form a support group with King "Let's-hire-an-advisor-named-Grima-Wormtongue" Theoden.
I wanted to transfer my Ultima IV character over, but since I last played that game, I somehow overwrote the file. No idea how that happened. So I created a new character from scratch. The game takes you through the same Gypsy-fortune-telling character-creation process as in the previous game, this time as a "memory" of what happened prior. The Gypsy woman asked slightly different questions, but I still came out with valor on top, which would have made me a fighter. I stared at the screen a bit and then said, "screw it, I wanna be a paladin" and re-did the questions, prioritizing honor. In case you're wondering, this is the one where I lied:
Despite the way the game words it, I refuse to see (B) as an "honorable" choice. It's more like choosing the lawful evil path.
Anyway, I finished up and got a quick recap of the previous game...
...and found myself in Iolo's hut, with a wounded Shamino. The two characters immediately join the party, so there's no opportunity to talk with them about the next steps. After healing Shamino a bit with a MANI spell (the game gives you a few starting reagents), I decided to head for the closest town to see what clues I could derive.
So far, the gameplay in Ultima V is just fantastic. I haven't played it in more than 15 years, and I had forgotten most of the features that make it so good. To recap some of the ones I've discovered so far:
- You can interact with the environment in ways unavailable in Ultima IV, or indeed any game that I can think of up to this point. You can look at items ("thou dost see a hot stove"), take torches off the wall, search chests and barrels, shove furniture around, toss coins into wells, gaze into crystal balls, drink from fountains, and so on. When you move the character icon over beds and chests, the icon changes to represent the character sitting or lying down. If you step in front of a mirror, you see your reflection in the mirror. I love little touches like these. (I just realized that, for all its realism, Oblivion doesn't have any mirrors.)
- The game has a day/night cycle, not just a moon cycle. A night, the game gets "dark" by not showing things beyond a certain radius around the party. NPCs have schedules tied to this cycle, going to bed at night and going to work during the day (or, sometimes, vice versa).
- There are a lot more equipment items in this game. Ultima IV gave you a single weapon and suit of armor. Here, you've got helmets, gauntlets, boots, and the ability to wield a second (smaller) weapon like a main gauche or a spiked shield (doubles as a weapon and armor) in the off hand.
- The combat screen is virtually identical to Ultima IV except that instead of attacking in a "direction," you actually target the enemy. You can target on the diagonal (thank god!), and you get more than one attack if you're dual-wielding. You can also identify an "active player" in combat, so you can move only one character at a time. Finally, in combat, enemies drop individual treasure rather than one group treasure at the end.
- The spell system is a little more complicated. You still mix reagents prior to casting spells (many of the combinations are the same as in Ultima IV), but the spells are arranged in eight "circles," increasing in power, and instead of one spell per letter, each spell is a combination of syllables. I'll cover the magic system in a later posting.
What hasn't changed is the best part of the old game: dialogue. The system by which you can talk to NPCs and type in keywords is entirely the same as in Ultima IV, except that I think they say more stuff. Also, HEALTH no longer works as a keyword.
Unfortunately, my initial gameplay was a bit inauspicious. I stupidly wandered out of Iolo's place in the middle of the night, found my way to what I assume was Loch Lake, and got blasted by a couple of cannonades from a pirate ship I couldn't even see. Retreating, I ran into a party of eight skeletons, who killed all my characters. At least, however, I find out what happens when you die:
Lord British rescues you and returns you to his old throne room in Castle Britannia, with all your hit points intact. I'm not sure if there's any disadvantage other than having to find your way back to where you were when you died.
That seems like such a lame way to begin, though, that I'm going to start over with a new character (I hadn't made much progress anyway). From what I've seen so far, this game looks like it's going to be great.