|Liberating the land one city at a time. This shot shows several types of the game's terrain.|
Exploring Beryland has made me wonder how we ever mapped effectively in top-down, tile-based games--or, more to the point, how we ensured that we didn't overlook any important locations. The Ultima games came with maps (and perhaps Ormus did, too, in the original publications) that helped. When I replayed Ultima IV, V, and VI for this blog, I already remembered the basic geography of Britannia; I can't remember what it was like to explore the land as a blank slate. Ultima II was based on Earth geography, so it was easy to find your way around. Ultima was perhaps the most confusing of the games, with all of its islands, but before long you could buy an air car and explore the entire world in a search pattern.
Lacking any of these things in The Ormus Saga, I wasn't sure how to approach mapping and exploration, especially since I kept getting turned around by rivers and mountain ranges. I started mapping it in Excel, but I gave up when I realized it would take far longer than the game is worth. I could have done just some rough sketches on paper or something, but my soul resists the imprecision of such an approach.
|A tiny portion of the game world.|
So I'm making do with half-measures. Once I had enough funds for some "magic maps," I discovered that they provide both coordinates and your rough position in an outline of the overall game world. If I just record the coordinates of cities and dungeons I find, I can use the maps to find my way to most places. All that's left is a mechanism of systematic exploration that ensures you don't overlook any important cities, dungeons, towns, temples, and castles.
|Given relative positions, I'm guessing the game is 256 x 256 squares.|
The game gets its horizontal coordinates backwards, incidentally. It records all the locations in the game as tile positions "north" and "west." But by "west," it really means "east." If you start at 50N, 100W and move two spaces to the east, you'll be at 50N, 102W. This caused a lot of confusion for a while as I tried to find treasures.
Technologically, playing The Ormus Saga has also been very frustrating. The game freezes about 1 in every 8 times that it has to access the disk, and it has to access the disk a lot--to load new tile blocks, to enter and exit locations, to enter and exit combat, to activate menu items, and so forth. Fortunately, the VICE emulator allows the creation of a save state with just an ALT-S, so I'm in the habit of hitting that key combination every 20-30 seconds, and then ALT-L to reload when the game inevitably freezes. Unfortunately, I was done in by another problem that I don't understand. Maybe one of you who's more proficient with the technology can help me with this. I've been using save states for various emulators for years now, and I often find that while the save state will load without any problems during the same emulation session that created it, if I close the emulator and re-start it, the save state freezes or crashes upon re-loading. Why does this happen? Why doesn't it always happen?
In any event, I had to learn the hard way to use save states during most of the gameplay, but use the game's own save feature before closing out of a session. With that, I've been able to make a little progress.
|See that dungeon in the mountains south of me? If I hadn't been mapping every tile, I probably would have overlooked it.|
To recap, The Ormus Saga is a limited Ultima clone that takes place in Beryland. The kingdom is being threatened by the Ormus Cult, which has already taken over a bunch of cities and can, in the course of gameplay, take over more, including the king's castle, which immediately ends the game. You play a generic warleader who has to both develop his own skills and inventory as in a typical RPG, but also raise armies to re-capture the towns taken by the cult.
This is particularly important because each town has a different selection of shops, and only certain towns sell the items you need to progress in the game.
|I can't take advantage of this city's services until I liberate it.|
Once I realized that the game starts in the southwest of Beryland, I began exploring the south coast heading east. The first city I discovered, Dillingston, was occupied by the Cult. So was the next, Dalewood. Finally, I found one that wasn't, called Hillstone, followed by a Temple of Mar, and a city called Harper Valley.
All the game's towns are menu towns, and each offers the ability to search a list of doors, chests, bookcases, baskets, and other receptacles that in a more elaborate game you'd find by actually wandering around the town. Many are locked (and it took me a while to find a town that sells keys), but between the opening city and the three unoccupied ones, I found enough treasure to fund an army of around 150 troops. This allowed me to besiege and take over Dillingston and Dalewood.
|The heroic general loots the city.|
Between the visited cities, I'd also collected lore on a number of buried treasures, so I set out to find some. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that buried treasure chests require magic keys to open, and I hadn't yet found a city that sold them.
|How disappointing after all that digging.|
During these explorations, I was surprised at how few wandering monsters I discovered. In 4 hours of gameplay, I fought maybe 10 total combats. For this reason, I still haven't gotten off Level 1. I don't know how many experience points it takes. You start the game with 210, and I'm up to 492 now, but nothing so far.
Because of the relative scarcity of monsters, I was looking forward to my first dungeon exploration. I saw one in the mountains early in the game, but I needed to wait until I found a city that sells a "climbing tool" to access it. When I found a shop selling the tools in Dalewood, I eagerly returned to the dungeon, prepared to fire up a torch, entered it, and...
|This is a "dungeon."|
Yep, dungeons in this game are just menus, like cities. Despite "conversation" and "attack enemy" options, neither of the two dungeons I've "explored" have had anyone to talk to or attack. The only purpose to them is to search for the same types of chests and other receptacles that you can find in towns. As in towns, many of them require keys or magic keys.
Last time, I tried to describe combat, but I don't think I made it sound as stupid as it is. Even though you can see your character icon and various enemy icons, it's not a battlefield map like in Ultima IV or V. Neither you nor the enemies ever move from the starting position. When you attack, you aim at a column of enemies, and your attack always goes to the first enemy in that column--basically, it's like selecting your target from a list. Phantasie used the same approach, with graphics that are just for show rather than any kind of tactics.
|Note that the "battlefield" with these sea monsters still looks like grass.|
The one creative element here is the use of the "Troop Attack" in combat. If you select that, you choose an enemy to target just like a regular attack. But when the enemies retaliate, they attack your troops rather than you. In that sense, troops are like extra hit points in combat.
|These demons are too dangerous to fight on my own. I use my troops to whittle them down. Some hero, huh?|
If your troops make the kill, you don't get any experience, so I learned that what to do in tough combats is let your troops attack a few times to wear the enemy down, then finish him off with a character attack. It's not always easy to estimate how many hits it's going to take to kill a foe, however.
In city combats, there's no individual attack option. The troops are all you have. You and the enemy exchange blows, slowly whittling down your troops, until only one side is left. There are no tactics, no spells, and the conclusion is foregone from the beginning, but the game still forces you to fire back and forth for 10 minutes instead of just offering a way to reach the inevitable conclusion with a single button.
You don't get any treasure or individual experience for winning city battles, and even a winning one can easily cost 70 or 80 troops, which cost around 400 gold pieces to hire in the first place. Thus, your accumulated gold disappears quickly, especially since the enemy keeps re-conquering cities you've already liberated.
|The enemy attacks a town in which the garrison is apparently one guy. I haven't figured out what the shields behind the troops mean. You can attack and eliminate them in combat.|
Towards the end of this session, I discovered the king's castle, which is just another menu town. Each city, town, and castle has a selection of 4-6 menu NPCs to talk with. Their names are mostly normal ones (e.g., Jonathan, Ben, Dan, Tina)--probably the developer's friends--though occasionally rendered backwards (e.g., Nomis, Ekim). From them, I've discovered a bit of the game world's lore and quests. A summary:
- The Ormus Cult is led by an evil wizard named Lord Marox. He lives on an island called Black Isle.
- Lord Marox created a Gem of Power with the help of the god of the World of the Dead. The Gem makes Marox immortal, and it must be destroyed. This plot point occurs in no other game I know.
- The king's name is Argon. Lord Marox used to be a member of his royal council, and when he defected, he stole the king's crown. Getting the crown back is a step in the game's main quest.
|Visiting the king. Not enough games go to the periodic table for their character names.|
- The people talk of a historic event called the "dragonwars." During these wars, a city called Ghoul was destroyed. Four ancient books, scattered across the land, hold some secret to do with Ghoul. A priest named Carlos in Monter Bay (I haven't found it yet) is searching for these books.
- A large black dragon has recently returned to the eastern swamps.
- The dwarves in the city of Dillingston are mourning for a wizard named Thorn. NPCs have mentioned him several times as an old friend of King Argon.
- Marox is trying to enter the World of the Dead. This requires a holy word of 7 letters (NPCs have already given me three) plus an artifact called a Trigonom, which is a combination of three amulets forged by the gods. Marox already has the Amulet of Death. The Amulet of Wisdom is locked up in Argon's castle. The elves in Elvenstone may know the hiding place of the third.
From the NPC discussions, it's become clear that solving a number of side-quests, or sub-quests, is going to be about finding the right artifacts and quest items in miscellaneous dungeon treasure chests. For instance, I found some kind of magic gemstone in a dungeon near the king's castle. Some will undoubtedly come from buried treasure chests.
Towards the end of this session, I conquered the city of Coldwater and finally found a shop selling magic keys. With one in my possession, I dug up one of the fabled treasure chests and found a pretty good haul. Now that I can afford both keys and magic keys, I need to re-explore all the cities and dungeons I've already passed to collect their treasures.
|At last! I only have about a dozen more to find, now.|
Some other notes:
- Hit points regenerate very slowly, like 1 in every 30 or 40 moves. Resting in towns is the only viable way to get healed on a regular basis.
- Food depletes so slowly you barely notice it. I have to buy a few more rations maybe once every hour of gameplay.
- When you find treasures, you often find gold nuggets and jewels. These sell for 17 gold pieces and 25 gold pieces, respectively, in any city. Annoyingly, you have to sell them individually by re-selecting "sell nuggets" and "sell jewels" multiple times in the "sell" menu and saying "yes" to the buyer's offer. Similarly, you have to buy troops 6 at a time instead of just plugging in the number you want.
|Repeat 10 times to get another 60.|
- Just as in Ultima IV and onward, walking through swamp carries a risk of poisoning the character, requiring a "CURAX" spell or trip to a healer.
- There are multiple levels of weapons, armor, and shields, but each town might only sell 2 or 3 types. You have to study costs to know which is "better," since there's no visible armor class on the screen.
|Above dragon shields, found in other towns, are black shields and magic shields.|
- Weapons and armor occasionally break in combat. This doesn't actually happen in combat, but you're told about it in the post-combat screen. These seem to be scripted and timed events. If a sword breaks in one combat, you can reload, explore for a while, fight a different combat, and see the sword break there. It will break even if you don't use it during the combat (i.e., if you have the troops do all the fighting).
- Escaping combat doesn't make an enemy go away, but it might make the game recalculate his numbers. If you get attacked by an enemy and don't like the odds, you can escape and re-engage, and you might find yourself facing a smaller number.
|This combat seems a little unfair at my level, but if I exit and return, I might face only 1 or 2.|
- I still haven't found any reason to attack NPCs in the towns.
- Spells are actually inventory items, like in Ultima I. That's why they kept failing when I tried to cast them. I've only found them sold in one town (and even then, only a couple of them), and received them as treasure from one chest.
- With all the dungeons as menus, there seems to be no reason for torches except to illuminate a larger area when night falls.
- There are no keyboard commands in the game--everything is by joystick--but the names and order of the commands (attack enemy, board ship, cast spell, dig, enter, etc.) suggest that the developer intended to map them to the keyboard and never got around to it.
I think I've experienced most of what the game has to offer at this point. It's not torture to play it or anything, but it's a bit boring even in its innovations, and a lot of its mechanics seem to be geared towards making it artificially long. Ultima was a better and more exciting game 10 years prior. I'll probably keep playing to avoid bailing on two games in a row, but not if I experience any more technical glitches.
Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 7 (not counting after freezes)
Reload count: 7 (not counting after freezes)