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.")
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.
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.
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.
- 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.