Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ultima V: Ars Arcanum

The party dispels a field--back in the day when that kind of thing was necessary.

The magic system in Ultima V is one of the most interesting of the Ultima series--indeed, of any series--and yet it doesn't feel terribly necessary. At this point in the game, I only have one dungeon left to complete (although I do have a bit of leveling-up to do), and the only spells I have bothered to cast are cure poison, heal, great heal, and dispel field--not counting a couple of light and magic missile spells, but only because they were in my inventory when I started the game.

I'll cover the spell system and then explain why I haven't been using it. Over a year ago, I discussed CRPG magic systems in the context of Ultima IV, and I came up with several dimensions of CRPG spells systems:

  • Spell acquisition: Whether you get spells all at once, or are restricted by level, or have to buy them, and so on.
  • Spell limitations: Slots or "spell points."
  • Spell regeneration: How you get your spells back.
  • Spell access: How you actually cast them (type the name, select from a book, etc.)
  • Character limitations: Whether the game restricts certain classes to certain spells, and whether certain characters can cast at all.
  • Physical objects: Talismans, reagents, and the like.
  • Spell stratification: "Schools" and such.
  • Custom spells: Whether the character can define his or her own based on effects.
  • Items as spell proxies: Wands, scrolls, and so on.
  • Magic as a requirement: Whether spells are necessary to complete the game.

Ultima IV offered 26 spells, each with its own letter, which were immediately available to every character at the start of the game, provided he or she had enough spell points and could mix the right reagents. Ultima V offers 45 spells in the spell book, each vividly described, and at least two others that you determine through dialogue with NPCs. However, they're arranged into eight "circles" of magic, and you have to be the same level to cast spells of that circle. You also have magic points, dependent on level and intelligence, and each spell takes a number of points equal to its level. The only way to regain spell points is to rest.

Each spell in this game is a combination of between one and four syllables, a system that we first saw, I think, in Dungeon Master. There are 24 total syllables, and they're distinct and sensible enough that I've found it fairly easy to remember them after only one or two viewings. Here are a few of the syllables:

  • AN: Negate
  • CORP: Death
  • FLAM: Flame
  • IN: Create
  • KAL: Call or summon
  • NOX: Poision
  • POR: Movement
  • REL: Change
  • VAS: Great
  • XEN: Creature

To figure out what spell you want to cast, you simply have to combine the syllables in a logical order. Want to cure poison? That must be AN NOX. Feel like summoning an undead? String together KAL XEN CORP, but if you just want an animal, that's KAL XEN. MANI does some healing, VAS MANI does a lot of healing, and IN MANI CORP resurrects. Unfortunately, not every possible combination is used: You can't IN NOX to poison someone or KAL VAS XEN FLAM to summon a giant creature of flame. But when a character tells you he's perfected a spell that uses the syllables REL XEN BET ("change small creature") to turn a foe into a rat, it makes perfect sense. (This one of only two spells I've found through dialogue; the other is Lord Stuart the Hungry's "create food.")

The spell seems to have backfired on its creator.

As far as I can tell, the only spells that didn't make it from IV are iceball, jinx, and exit (dungeons), the latter of which I really miss.

As in IV, you have to pre-mix your spells by selecting the right reagents. The book gives you most of the combinations, but again they all make logical sense. Black pearl is used for missiles, sulphurous ash for fire and energy, nightshade for poison, garlic for warding, ginseng for healing, blood moss for movement, spider silk for binding, and mandrake for that extra oomph of power. If you want to heal with a MANI, you need ginseng for the healing and spider silk to bind it, but VAS MANI needs some mandrake, too, for that extra power. A magic missile (GRAV POR) needs ash for the energy and pearl for the projection.

Mixing reagents for a healing spell.

Unlike the previous game, all reagents are available for purchase, although nightshade and mandrake are expensive. You can still find them in their spots on the Bloody Plains and Spiritwood, but only at midnight, and you only get a few units each day. I'd rather spend that day killing trolls and just buying the reagents. Also, unlike in IV, the herb sellers aren't blind and don't give you the option to just pay whatever for your reagents. I think this is the last Ultima game to actually make you mix reagents. I seem to remember that you need them in VI and VII, but the game will just take them automatically from your backpack when you cast the spell.

I waited all day to find three sprigs, which would have cost me 45 gold pieces in Moonglow.

Despite the fact that I like the spell system, as I said, I haven't really used it. There are a few factors that go into this. Primarily, it's that there are objects that do the same thing as the most necessary spells: torches instead of LOR ("light"), keys instead of AN SANCT ("unlock"), a sextant instead of IN WIS ("locate"; although that would have helped me in the Underworld), gems instead of IN QUAS WIS ("peer") and so on. Lord British's crown does the same thing as IN AN ("negate magic"), which you don't get until Level 6, and his scepter obviates AN GRAV ("dispel field"). You also find a lot of potions and scrolls that cast some of the higher-level spells long before you get them. I just realized I'm carrying a pile of both whose uses I haven't even bothered to research.

There are a handful of spells that seem somewhat useless. KAL XEN gives you a rat or a snake, which lasts about one round in most combats. REL HUR changes the wind to your favored direction, but the winds are constantly changing anyway. You'd have to be in a real hurry to bother (in Ultima IV you needed it for the balloon). AN EX POR puts a magic lock on a door. Creatures never open doors, so the only use I could see it for would be a guard, but guards don't really chase you more than a few steps anyway. Others, like magic missile and fireball, are probably good at the beginning but are quickly outpaced by weapons; perhaps if the game didn't let any character wield any weapon, I'd find more use for them.

There are some intriguing options with the various "wall" spells, which allow you to create squares of fire, poison, or sleep. If I was a better battle tactician, or if the battles were harder, I could see using these to channel enemies or force them to fight me while knee-deep in flames. The problem is, most of the really difficult battles are with magic-using creatures, in which you immediately want to don Lord British's crown and cancel all magic, including yours. [Later edit: I was wrong about this--see comments.]

Nonetheless, now that my Avatar is Level 6, I can see some use for the charm, tremor, and confuse spells he just got, and things get really interesting at Levels 7 and 8, with poison wind, flame wind, fear, clone, kill, time stop, cone of energy, and resurrect. I'm just not sure I'm going to make it there.

As I noted in the last blog entry, I've reached a point where I'm ready for the endgame in terms of plot, but not in terms of levels. I need to do some grinding. I thought I'd use this opportunity to try out the offensive spells that I hadn't already cast. Using the moongate I'd planted there, I took myself to the Underworld next to the egress of Shame, entered the dungeon, and began stalking the corridors for random encounters. Unfortunately, they weren't quite as plentiful as I'd hoped. So I wandered around the underworld instead, attacking roving bands of bats, mongbats, dragons, daemons, and corpsers.

I can report:

  • Magic missile and fireball do far less damage than my magic axes.
  • "Call animal" isn't worth the spell points, although it is vaguely fun. At best, you get cannon fodder for a round or two. I just wish you could specify where you wanted the summoned creature to appear. If it appears behind the ranks, it's easier to kill it than waste time maneuvering it about.
  • One of the most useless potions that you can create in Oblivion is "resist poison," given that poison is fairly rare in the first place, and you don't generally know when you're going to need it ahead of time. God, do I wish there was a "resist poison" spell (IN NOX SANCT?) in this game. I'd use it every time I see squids, rats, or pythons on the way.
  • The different "field" spells (poison, flame, sleep, and energy) are fun when the enemy has to come to you through a narrow channel. Unfortunately, they only last a couple of rounds.

Bats don't last long in a wall of flames.

  • The "tremor" spell (IN VAS POR YLEM, or "create great movement of earth") isn't quite the mass murderer that I remember from Ultima IV. It doesn't even kill a majority of a horde of rats.

I'm going to keep grinding, and eventually we'll see if the Level 7 and 8 spells are worth the wait. If the grinding takes too long, though, I may just throw caution to the wind and head into the final dungeon without them.


  1. Ultima and combat have always had a contentious relationship... the 2D tactical combat in particular has never worked as intended.

    Ultima V is probably the first Ultima with some really nifty "spell FX" going on. I remember in Compute! magazine review for Ultima V, they showed a screenshot of the IN FLAM HUR ("flame wind") spell going off, which looked absolutely awesome. But is it worth the spell points? Not really...

    The sad part is, the spells don't really get better designed in the later Ultima's either. By Ultima VII, where your AI-controlled party members are liable to run INTO the death vortex, you avoiding using spells at all because they're absurdly useless and even counter-productive.

  2. I assume "cure poison" always continues to be relevant, though.

  3. Adamantyr: "a screenshot of the IN FLAM HUR ("flame wind") spell going off, which looked absolutely awesome."

    Heh, I remember that screenshot. I thought it was awesome too, but I never used the spell when I recently played U5.

    Addict, are you sure the Crown negates _all_ magic? I assumed it only protected against Charm and Possess spells, but in hindsight I may have been wrong.

    On the subject of U5 spells there is an interesting discussion at the end of this thread on the RPPCodex: http://www.rpgcodex.net/phpBB/viewtopic.php?t=60847&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=200

    One spell I really liked to use against the huge hordes of Mongbats was Confuse. Those affected would kill their target with one hit, so I usually only had to kill a quarter of them myself.

  4. Maybe I remember incorrectly, but I thought the crown only messed with the other side's magic. Have you tried casting with it on?

  5. I'm with the others -- I seem to recall the Crown protecting just our side, not making it impossible for me to cast anything. Then again, it might be because I was playing the Apple II version; in that one, the torches we "borrow" actually can be used later.

    I can't recall what In Flam Hur (flame wind) looked like, but even on my Apple IIc, In Vas Grav Corp (energy cone of death) looked really cool. Only problem is that I didn't realize it'd strike my friends down until it was too late.

    BTW, if your main issue is needing enemies to kill for grinding, you *could* always use Doom for that since it's mostly high-level nasties.

  6. Except once you enter the dungeon Doom, you can't leave... Every walkthrough I've read about the place makes it sound like a serious grind-fest.

    Oh, in your dungeon explorations, did you ever find the infamous "children killing room"? Nobody has ever said where it is exactly, what dungeon, floor, etc.

  7. Indeed, the Crown only negates the enemies' magic, not your own.

    I found IN VAS POR YLEM to be great for a battlefield full of bats, mongbats, or rotworms that I didn't have time to spot.

    GRAV POR is handy for your lower level mages with high INT but poor combat skills. Never misses, zaps an orc in one hit, a troll in three.

    There is one more "custom" spell to discover, that can be useful in some situations. But I won't spoil it.

    And, not to spoil, but you WILL need DES POR and UUS POR in Doom. It is a wicked dungeon!

    Ah, the child killing room (I referred to it in a comment in the combat post). I want to say it was in Shame, or one of the other "mine" themed dungeons. It's a room at a crossing of tunnels, so it's likely you'll see it when going through that dungeon.

  8. Honestly, dump your party members and go killing reapers with a magic axe and the crown on.
    Lower your karma after you have reached level 8 to a point where you get resurrected just below reaching level 8 again. A single avatar with dex+30 has so many more attacks that even a dragon does not stand a chance. I think you have three whereas the dragon has a single one.

  9. Y'all are right about the crown. I tried casting a few times when I had it on and I got "failed!" messages, so I assumed it was the crown, but it turns out it was other things--you can't cast "great heal" in combat, for instance.

    However, there's still a small problem in that only one "area effect" spell can be active at a time. So if you have the crown on and then cast "negate time," the latter supplants the former, and as soon as it wears off, you're crownless.

    All moot now, of course.

  10. Mixing reagents sound rather tedious. Also, requiring reagents is a good way to limit magic if magic is overpowered. However it sounds like in U5 it is underpowered compared to melee and items anyway, so you mostly ignore magic instead.

    1. @Ragnar Agreed on magic. However for the underworld or really tough ennemies, some spells can shine. Mostly Summon Daemon, and the Cones of Fire and Energy. Not to mention healing spells (Mani and Vas Mani). But it's subpar if you compare it to say, 8th circle spells of AD&D.

      I guess you just need to mix for whatever you need and bypass anything else.

      -- Francois424

  11. Having found some folks with memories of ultima v I wonder if anyone happens to know if there was in fact a spell "in corp mani" (speculatively create death from life). I recall that there was a different fail message for attempting to mix a non-spell versus the wrong reagents for an actual spell.

    I remember that trying to mix "in corp mani" did get me the 'real spell, wrong reagents message'...

    1. I don't know if the spell is real or not--I never found any clues to that--but there's no difference in messages between mixing the wrong reagents for a real spell or mixing a nonexistent spell. Your mixture just turns into acid or poison or explodes.

  12. One thing about AN EX POR (magic lock) - you can use it in Blackthorn's private chamber - after you fly through the throne room and make him angry, he will start chasing you with his minions. They can even open doors, so the spell is useful here. But I prefer pushing chairs and block the entrance, it's hilarious when they stare at you from behind the chairs and can't reach you ;)

    1. Good point. Blackthorn's is one of the few places where enemies capable of opening doors actively chase you.

  13. Magic is one the weak side in U5. My spell caster's primary job was to cast AN NOX and later on VAS MANI. Although to be without him would be crippling. Thankfully my Avatar has 24 spell points just like Jaana.

    I did find the KILL spell to be helpful in the final dungeon. In fact i had to spend a few days leveling up just so i could get to 7th level and then go back to the final dungeon. Without the kill spell i tended to get run over by the dragons.


  14. There's no way I could have filled this number of posts from the NES port, but here are some more differences:

    The dungeons are in the same top-down isometric feeling engine (i.e. no first-person view).

    The Avatar's spellbook has all spells from the beginning. The only limitation is experience level and reagents to use them. There are 32 spells (4 x 8), but not all the same spells exist. Level 1 includes an escape spell you can cast for free that dumps the party in a random location chosen from 8 set places. Using a spell requires a spellbook in hand, and then using it to choose from a list separate by level. Reagents are used automatically if they're in inventory, no need to pre-mix them.

    I have to admit I didn't give each spell a chance due to the limited number of reagents and funds, and what I perceived as mostly useless spells since I found a magic sword early on that killed every monster (except the shadowlords) in a single hit.


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