Thursday, August 13, 2020

Ultima VII: The Black Gate: Summary and Rating

The stark black box was an unusual choice at the time. I like to think they were influenced by the Batman posters and VHS covers from a few years prior.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
United States
ORIGIN Systems (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS; 1994 for SNES
Date Started: 20 March 2020
Date Ended: 30 July 2020
Total Hours: 74
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

The Avatar returns to Britannia in this seventh entry. He's been gone 200 years by the Britannian calendar, and while some things are the same (Lord British still rules; most of the old companions are still around), the world has advanced in technology to roughly Victorian-era levels. Lord British's rule has become apathetic: the Britannian Tax Council oppresses the populace; the caste system is stronger than ever; something is disrupting the use of magic and driving magic-users insane; and a philosophical/religious organization with sinister undertones is converting the people away from the traditional virtues of the Avatar. The Avatar is thrust into this mess in the context of a serial murder investigation that takes him from one crime scene to another.
Ultima VII is a seminal entry in not only the Ultima series but games in general. It pioneered the open-world, sandbox environment, and it popularized the idea of the "unobtrusive interface," in which the entire screen is the game window, and interfaces for character sheets, inventory, and other game elements pop up as needed, pausing the action behind them. The game otherwise features most of the elements that people like about Ultima, including an engaging plot that moves the player across the map, finding clues in documents and NPC conversations in towns, castles, and dungeons. However, it falters in elements specific to RPGs, including character development and combat, and a somewhat inflexible narrative makes it difficult to fully appreciate the open-world design.
As a writer, I like to do the talking myself, but occasionally another writer says something so perfectly that I can't possibly improve upon it. This is the case with a portion of Jimmy Maher's excellent article on Ultima VII, published in February 2019. Maher argues that "classic games" that everyone remembers fondly come in basically two types. The first is those that do everything right, like Ultima Underworld. As for the second: 
The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.
Nowhere else has the word "ineffable" been so aptly used. Maher goes on to mention a multitude of game design choices that should have sent Ultima VII directly to the bargain bin: the infuriating inventory management system, the absolute chaos that accompanies combat, the tendency of characters to get hit with friendly fire, and the need to hand-feed the characters. He (correctly) notes that any joy in character development or inventory acquisition is mostly offset by the fact that combat is so easy (or perhaps more to the point, random) that none of it feels particularly rewarding. To Maher's list, I would add a linear quest line that doesn't anticipate the slightest deviation even though it's nominally an open-world game, and the utter uselessness of magic, such that I never cast a single offensive spell except in experimentation. But if not for the perceived need to purchase spells, the economy would have literally no purpose.
I thought this was a missed opportunity.
So let's try to figure out why people remember the game so fondly. To start, for all the bugs its open-world nature causes, it's still an open-world game, and this was still rare in the era. The openness of the world introduces some problems, but my guess is that most players didn't really treat it like a truly open-world game anyway. Instead, they probably followed the quest in its intended order, yet still sensed the freedom of the open world around the fringes. They might stop at one city on the way to another or investigate a random island and in either case feel the delicious sense of plotting their own course without actually doing anything terribly deviant. I think I felt the same way, the first two times I played.
Second, it's a sandbox, and it's always a joy to play in a sandbox. There are intriguing buildings and caves and shipwrecks and other features scattered across the map, satisfying everyone's desire for serendipity. The engine supports a depth of interaction with the environment not seen even today, with players invited to read books, paint, bake bread, forge swords, open and close shutters, turn lights on and off, and cast a variety of spells that affect nothing except the physical environment. We saw it with my playing with the runes and cleaning up Lock Lake. In Nakar's famous LP of the game, he spends most of a session donating used quest objects to the museum. But even here, I think the game plays better in theory then reality. None of the interactions you have with the environment help you solve puzzles, develop your character, or gain a tactical advantage in combat.
Batlin is more invulnerable than Lord British.
Perhaps most important--and there's no place in the GIMLET to reflect this--Ultima VII moves along at a steady clip. Although there are a few annoyances (primarily the inventory system and the food system), you rarely hit a moment that's slow or boring. No matter what the conveyance, the party hustles across the map, taking no more than a few minutes to get from one city to another. No dungeon takes more than half an hour or so. Even the towns aren't as full of game-delaying NPCs as they once were. Most of them have less than a dozen people to talk with, with fewer words to say, and the "clickable keyword" approach means that you can get through the dialogue relatively fast. Combats are resolved in seconds.
The interface is also something of a work of brilliance. I've developed a reputation for being a mouse-hater, but I'm not. I like the mouse when it's used for purposes that befit the mouse, such as dragging items from one place to another. I hate when it's used for clicking on control buttons that could more easily be activated with the keyboard. Ultima VII strikes a near-perfect balance. There are still keyboard shortcuts for most actions, but the mouse works best when you need to actually move the cursor around the screen.

Last, we have the quality and depth of the story and writing, which Maher credits rightfully to Raymond Benson. I would have to name Ultima VI as the first game in which the various NPCs really come alive with such detail that its worth getting into long discussions about their actions and motivations. I'm on the fence as to whether Ultima VII truly improves upon this--I suspect they'll both get the same scores for "NPC Interaction"--but it does put these characters in the context of a much more interesting plot. In Ultimas I-III, the villains were too one-dimensional to truly despise, and Ultimas IV-VI didn't really have any villains. But the Fellowship . . . wow. I honestly hate them. After typing that, I stared off into space for about five minutes, trying to think of any other video game faction that I've honestly hated, and I could only come up with the Thalmor, the Murfree Brood, and those guards in Assassin's Creed games who suddenly shoot you with unerring accuracy while you're in the middle of sword combat with one of their compatriots.
I enjoyed having companions who occasionally spoke up, but it was rare they didn't say anything completely obvious.
But it's at this point that the game's approach to storytelling falls apart for me. Because I hate the Fellowship so much, it's all the more frustrating that you never really defeat them. Sure, you get to kill their top leaders and stop their Big Evil Plan, but that doesn't do anything to address the societal rot that let the Fellowship take hold in the first place. Throughout the entire game, I think there's one NPC who you can convince not to join the Fellowship. You otherwise have no opportunity to expose their bull, to demonstrate the shallowness of their doctrine, to hold up a mirror to its weak-willed members and force them to truly face their demons, not hide them by spouting the same words about the "Triad of Inner Strength" or whatever. This would have been a perfect opportunity to introduce a hero's quest along the lines of The Quest of the Avatar; to do what I tried to do in my "surplaying": discredit the Fellowship, restore the virtues, re-invigorate the old religion. On a deeper level, you don't get to address the fact that Lord British is failing as a ruler, letting the Fellowship take hold in the first place and ignoring their most obvious machinations, such as the takeover of Buccaneer's Den and the corruption of the Britannian Tax Council.

Even if you don't agree with me about the plot problems, you have to agree that there are essentially no "good guys" in this game. Who are you fighting for? Lord British couldn't come off worse if he had been written by someone who hated him. Your companions are a bunch of helpless clowns, mewling for food, saying stupid things throughout the game, screwing up in combat. In an era where 99% of games featured NPCs and party members of no depth, Dupre somehow manages the remarkable achievement of having so much personality that it's tiresome. I mean, we get it: the man likes his drink. Do we have to have a five-minute side conversation every time we enter a pub?
As always, we must recognize that a game has to rise to a certain level of depth before we can even think to leverage such criticism, and that rise is generally a good thing. Ultima VII will get a high score in the "game world" category. But I suspect the GIMLET in general is going to be one of extremes, with most RPG mechanics getting low scores and a couple of qualitative aspects getting high scores. Let's check it out.

1. Game World. Starting with a deliciously devious manual, Ultima VII introduces a backstory and game world of depth and quality that we've never seen before. Later games would go bigger, as befits their scope, but few would go better. The type of threat is one that goes beyond the typical "big bad" of most games. Britannia is full of lore, including both ancient lore and recent (past 200 years) lore that even an experienced Avatar must learn. The only black mark I'd give in this category is that only rarely are your actions recognized in other parts of the world. Score: 8.

2. Character Creation and Development. I didn't appreciate how few options there are in character creation, nor how little difference character development seems to play. With only three attributes, eight levels, and no skills, Ultima VII lags not only well behind its contemporaries but also previous games in the series. There really aren't even any classes, and only the Avatar can cast spells. Score: 3.
Without the companions, any leveling would be near-meaningless after Forge of Virtue.
3. NPC Interaction. The Ultima series continues to lead the way here, although the system is still keyword-focused and doesn't really offer "dialogue options" the way we think of them today. Choosing whether to introduce yourself by your name or as "the Avatar" is almost all you get for role-playing options, and I was a bit annoyed that the game so stubbornly made you ask about NAME and JOB even when it made no sense in context. It was one thing when those were abstract keywords typed into a text interface, but when you're clicking on JOB while talking to children, wisps, and furry forest creatures, the Avatar just seems like a moron. Score: 7.

4. Encounter and Foes. You face a small number of enemy types, and while some give you pause, the game really isn't set up to offer different tactics against different foes. There's nothing terribly original about the enemies, although the manual does give them a thorough run-down. Non-combat encounters and puzzles are quite rare. The game's approach to respawning (i.e., the moment you leave the screen) is a crime against nature. Score: 3.

5. Magic and Combat. A real travesty, particularly with magic. The combat system, including the inability to control your characters, makes in-combat magic not only unnecessary but also unwise. A lot of spells don't do what they're supposed to do (particularly "Detect Trap"  and "Destroy Trap") and a lot more simply don't do anything useful ("Fireworks," "Ignite," "Thunder," "Douse," "Great Ignite," "Great Douse," "Curse," "Swam," "Poison," "Peer," "Locate," "Conjure," "Dance," any of the "Field" spells"), and still a lot more are unnecessary because a Level 4 Avatar with a couple pieces of magic armor and a decent weapon is already almost unstoppable in combat. In the entire game, I think I only used "Light" and "Great Light," "Heal" and "Great Heal," "Cure," "Unlock Magic," and "Seance" except when screwing around. I do have to give a little credit to the sheer variety of spells, however, even if I didn't find them all useful.

I started to go through each spell at one point but didn't continue the effort. Nakar has a great rundown of the utility of each spell as part of his LP. Some of his descriptions are hilarious in their accuracy, such as "Conjure" ("Two chickens and a fox; look out, dragons!"), "Fire Field" (Sadly, about the only thing that will walk through it is Shamino, because monster pathfinding is slightly more clever than your allies"), and "Tremor" ("Causes your parents' 386 to hardlock").

As for the rest of combat, that's been covered in detail. I started the game thinking it wasn't bad, but that was when I only had a few characters and was fighting against low-level foes who only used physical attacks. Late in the game, it's absolute chaos. There must be a lot of randomness to the game's variables, too, because even at Level 8, against some enemies like headless, there was a chance that the screen would suddenly flash red and I'd be at the Fellowship shelter in Paws. Because of a lack of any ability to control your characters and because of terrible character pathfinding, there are no "tactics" that really work. Score: 3.
Fun fact: You still wake up in the shelter even if you died after casting "Armageddon." Your companions are all standing around you, but lifeless.
6. Equipment. This category would be more meaningful if combat were harder, but yes, there are a satisfying number of different weapon and armor types, helms, shields, gauntlets, rings, collars, leggings, boots, wands, potions, and fun special objects like powder barrels. Even late in the game, it was fun to find a treasure cache with a few upgrades. I didn't like having to look to an in-game book for weapon and armor values, though, nor that almost everything is in a fixed location. Score: 5.

7. Economy. There's some cool complexity in the ways you can earn money: loot it, cash in nuggets or gold bars, cash in gems, sell silver serpent venom, win it at the casino, and mine lead ore and cast "Create Gold" on it. And I can't say there aren't things to buy, such as weapons, armor, food, potions, conveyances, spells, reagents, and healing. What I will say is that these two sides of the economy are a bit mismatched. First, there's rarely any need to buy anything since you can just find most of what you need. The only reason to make a lot of money is for the spellbook, and for me that was an extraordinary waste of time. Points for trying, I guess. Score: 4.

8. Quests. We've got a compelling main quest but no role-playing choices except the option to take what is clearly intended as the "bad" ending (you don't even get a "congratulations" screen if you take it). Still, it's worth a point. The franchise is finally starting to get the concept of "side quests" but still isn't using them as well as it could, and low or no experience (or other) rewards for solving them means you're really just doing it for role-playing reasons. Some of the side quests let you pursue an "evil" outcome, which normally I'd applaud but seems out of place in the Ultima setting. Score: 6.
Fifteen minutes from the end of the game, the Time Lord asks if I will accept the main quest.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Graphics are very good--just about as good as possible for the era. The graphics are clear in what they depict, and quite pretty in places, and have nice touches like ocean waves washing on the shore. As for sound, I though it was a mixed bag. The voiced dialogue from the Guardian was nice, and a lot of places have sound effects where you'd expect them, such as the creak of opening doors and the crackle of fire, and where you wouldn't expect them, such as an audible "gulp" of food going down the gullet. On the other hand, there are a lot of intrusive sounds, such as constant static or constant chimes in the background, as if the characters all have tinnitus. I think these are caused by some of the magical effects on weapons that we have wielded, and they're completely unnecessary. Other sounds, like the shh made every time you open a container, add nothing but annoyance. In general, I played with the sound off or without bothering to put on my headphones.
My feelings about the interface are generally positive. The controls work well, and I admire what the creators were trying to do by hiding the actual UI except when needed. I think they went maybe a little too far, however. Certainly, it would have been helpful to see the health status of the party members without requiring me to scroll through the status screens. It would have been nice if items had snapped to the nearest available space when I tried to put them down instead of giving me a buzz and re-appearing in my backpack. While the keyboard is used okay, it would have been nice to be able to hotkey items like the map, the watch, and lockpicks. Keys are just a mess. (Yes, I realize that "Exult" fixes most or all of these things.) An unobtrusive UI is new to the genre, and I don't blame ORIGIN for not figuring it all out yet, but neither can I give it a perfect rating here. Score: 6.
I didn't like the way secret doors were handled, either.
10. Gameplay. Ultima VII gets half points for the four major things I look for here. It's open world, but only partly (geographically but not narratively). It's somewhat replayable (in party members, in order of exploration) but not fully. It's a bit too easy and a bit too long, but not "very" in either case. Score: 6.

That gives us a final score of . . . ooh. Okay, let's just think about this for a second. I just spent four months playing this game, cranking out more entries than almost any prior game, acting like I was having an awful lot of fun while doing so. Am I really going to suggest, with a straight face, that it not only fails to beat Ultima V and Ultima VI, but that it doesn't even beat Ultima III? That it's on the same level of quality as Treasures of the Savage Frontier? The truth is, I overrated some of the games, in some categories, during the first two years, and I should probably make some adjustments. But that only partly helps us here.

Before I reveal the score, let me ask this: Ultima VII is a great game, sure, but is it a great RPG? Does it have what you typically look for in RPG mechanics? Or do you agree (again) with the words of Jimmy Maher:
If you see a CRPG as a game in the most traditional sense of the word--as an intricate system of rules to learn and to manipulate to your advantage--you’ll hate, hate, hate Ultima VII for its careless mechanics. One might say that it’s at its worst when it actively tries to be a CRPG, at its best when it’s content to be a sort of Britannian walking simulator.
Again, I think Maher says it perfectly. Almost everything I enjoyed about the game was separate from its RPG mechanics--the same things I enjoy about, say, Red Dead Redemption. Ultima VII is the earliest game I can think of where you'll be walking through a forest, stumble upon a ruined building, and feel an inscrutable exhortation to figure out what's it's about. Or you're flying your magic carpet and happen to see a guy standing alone on an island. You can't rest until you know what his story is. That's where the game's strengths lie, not in the numbers and dice.
My GIMLET, regrettably for fans of this game, considers the numbers and dice, and gives it a final score of 51.  I want to thank those of you who are departing my blog at this point; it's been nice having you as readers.
Even if you agree with the stressing of the mouse interface, you have to agree this was a particularly weird comparison to make.
For those of you sticking around, it's worth noting that my GIMLET score (which I must stress is still high as these things go, just not as high as we all anticipated) is largely echoed by contemporary reviews. Scorpia's August 1992 Computer Gaming World coverage was mixed, praising the graphics and story, but cataloging a host of technical issues that I didn't experience, such as a gate that can't be passed in the final dungeon and missing bodies in Minoc. But aside from that, she had the same criticisms I did: combat sucks, spells don't work, and maybe more stuff. I don't know. Her review cuts off on Page 108 of the issue and, as far as I can tell, never resumes.

As usual, the CGW of the 1990s wasn't going to let Scorpia have the only say. The counterpoint review comes in the following issue and is written by (later) novelist Charles Ardai. I don't want to spend too much time analyzing his review, but one thing I tell my students is that after they've written their papers or essays, go back and lop off the first paragraph. Almost always, what you've just cut is superficial nonsense, basically you talking your way into writing the paper in the first place, and the second paragraph almost always starts in a stronger place. Ardai needed that advice. Here's how he begins:
Unlike thirteen, the number seven does not carry with it any automatic negative connotation. Things good, bad, and indifferent come in sevens: days of the week, deadly sins, and dwarves, just to name a few. No one minds being seventh at a dinner table and, should the seventh of a month fall on a Friday, no one cancels flight plans just to be on the safe side.
What kind of editor allows that idiotic paragraph to pass in an era where column inches cost money? The same sort of drivel appears in the last couple of paragraphs, too; he's really obsessed with the idea that people won't like the game just because it has a high number, or specifically the number VII, or whatever. I honestly don't know what the hell he's talking about. It's rare that a major commercial magazine publishes writing that is somehow worse than an extra subscription card that hangs on after you've shaken all the others out. Ardai has somehow managed to make a living as a writer, so I can only assume he read Strunk and White at some point.

Anyway, the review is mostly positive, emphasizing mostly the story and wonders of exploration, focusing not at all on anything to do with RPG mechanics, concluding that, "Origin has produced an unusual game, with innovations of plot, tone, and gameplay that, while not spectacular, are certainly worth seeing." The March 1993 issue of the magazine had a reader poll (I am again indebted to Maher for pointing this out) that ranked the game 30th among 100 contemporary releases; above it were Ultima Underworld (#3), Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant (#10), Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen (#11), Eye of the Beholder II (#17), and Might and Magic III (#28). That's a worse ranking than I'm giving it, although many of the same games are above it on my list.
MobyGames' round-up of reviews has contemporary ratings as high as 94/100 (June 1992 PC Joker) and as low as 40/100 (July 1992 PC Review), but the problem with contemporary reviews is that they're overwhelmed with discussions of technical issues that modern players don't experience. I naturally haven't translated all of the foreign ones, but Scorpia's review is the only one I've seen that recognizes that while Ultima VII might be a great game, it's not a great RPG because it lacks sufficient attention to RPG mechanics.
As I prepared the GIMLET, I found myself wondering how my experience would have improved with a smaller party, or even without any other characters at all. I like the way that companions occasionally contribute to dialogue, but beyond a few interjections, they're useful mostly as pack mules. Without them, the Avatar would have to be more careful with inventory, perhaps enhancing my perception of the utility of certain pieces of equipment. Combat would certainly be more interesting and tactical, magic would become far more useful (which would bolster the economy), and my perceptions of character development might improve. The choice of when to do the Forge of Virtue, which I did early, also affects the character development issue. Then again, all games have such variances depending how the player approaches it, so I can't justify bumping the score based on what might have happened.
All they had to do was use this line more often. Four companions would have been plenty.
If the early reviews were mixed, Ultima VII's popularity seems to have increased over time. PC Gamer listed it among the "50 best games ever" in May 1997 and the tenth best game of "all time" in February 2013. Even as late as October 2017, the site was wondering whether any RPG would ever top it (Divinity: Original Sin 2 "comes close," it ruled).  Rock Paper Shotgun listed it among the "best RPGs to play on a PC" in a January 2020 article (it's number 29) after listing it among the 75 "greatest PC games of all time" in November 2017. IGN listed it as #24 on the "top 100 RPGs of all time" in an undated article. These are just a sample. And yet almost every modern article that takes time to analyze it seriously, like Maher's, finds the same faults and the same "ineffable" quality that somehow transcends those faults. This is perhaps nowhere more notable than in Nakar's entries, which begin by calling The Black Gate "the greatest PC RPG of all time" before spending 38 entries mercilessly trashing everything about it.
One curious thing I've noted about the Ultima series over the years is that despite its inarguable quality, it's hard to find games that seem directly inspired by it. In saying this, I am of course dismissing the dozens of shareware and freeware "Ultima clones," but their proliferation does help highlight the lack of Ultima-specific influence in commercial RPGs of the era. Only a few commercial RPGs seem to be deliberately copying an Ultima interface, and even these only stand out because of the relative scarcity of fully third-person games in the era. Hardly anyone is learning from Ultima's attention to NPCs, open game worlds, sandbox engines, or original plots.
My experience with 1990s games is light beyond 1992, so I can't say from direct experience whether Ultima VII is an exception. What I can say is that my research failed to find any games clearly influenced by the title. Sure, there are plenty of games with axonometric interfaces, but few that have the type of environmental interaction that Ultima VII allows, let alone its other qualities. You could potentially see some influence of the game on the Infinity Engine, but even there I suspect the lineage comes more directly from Interplay's two Lord of the Rings titles (which, I should note, beat Ultima VII to the "unobtrusive interface"). Later, we'll see plenty of open-world sandboxes in which objects have been carefully hand-placed throughout the game, but the best of these (e.g., Morrowind) have interfaces and mechanics so different from Ultima that you have to hear it directly from the developer (as we have from Bethesda's Todd Howard) to make the connection. The Ultima series, it seems to me, is widely admired but not (again, in the commercial market) widely copied, except perhaps in the modern "retro" scene. This is a nascent hypothesis, however, and one to which I invite counter-arguments.
What is more factually established is that The Black Gate was the last ORIGIN game. The studio would continue to exist as a division of Electronic Arts after 1992, but the EA influence is felt immediately and progressively, to the point that many fans consider the last Ultima unplayable. In that sense, Ultima VII wouldn't be bad end to the series. The Avatar, having saved Britannia time and time again, is finally allowed ("forced," the game would have it, but come on) to stay in the world that reveres him. If the series had ended here, you could imagine it as a poignant moment in which the "Avatar" was finally divorced from his player's control and allowed to retire. (If I had been in charge of development, I would have played up this aspect with the same cleverness that Richard Garriott introduced the Avatar in Ultima IV.) You can imagine him speaking comfort to the disillusioned former Fellowship members, rebuilding the shrines, perhaps even ultimately replacing the apathetic Lord British as the land's ruler. Ultima Underworld II (1993) could have maybe been seen as a coda in which we start to see some of the Avatar's new role, in the context of preventing another Guardian invasion.
I can imagine the Avatar assisting with this endeavor.
Instead, we got Ultima VII, Part Two: The Serpent Isle (1993), which for all its mechanical improvements tells a fairly idiotic story,  Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994), which at its best seems like a bad clone of Ultima VII, and Ultima IX: Ascension (1999), which I want to hold out hope for, but am not encouraged by what I have heard. Of course, by the end, attention of both developers and players had shifted to the successful Ultima Online (1997). Despite much Googling, I still don't understand how it fits with the earlier series or what role (if any) the Avatar plays within it. I'm sure readers will help fill in the gaps. What I can say is that when I first heard about the game, I regarded it with horror. My experiences in Britannia, my connection to the idea of the "Avatar," were so personal that I couldn't imagine sharing the experience with thousands of strangers, many of them probably the sorts of people who paid only 1 gold piece to the blind reagent-seller in Ultima IV. I originally had hopes for Richard Garriott's Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues (2018), but I was put off early in development by talk of more multiplayer nonsense and ended up never investigating it.
It is thus with some sadness that I say goodbye to the last game of the series that I know for sure I will like. This entry was a real struggle for me. I started it the day I won the game and didn't finish until nearly three weeks later (it usually only takes me 3-4 hours to write an entry), in the process writing and cutting more content than in any previous posting. How could a 51-point game, of which I've had at least 27 prior, offer so much to say, and yet none of what I say seems adequate? It's ineffable.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Amberstar: Summary and Rating

A well-designed cover that actually makes sense in context (a varied party, a giant eagle, the Amberstar itself) decorates a game with the same type of attention to detail.
Thalion Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 20 June 2020
Date Ended: 29 July 2020
Total Hours: 50
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Amberstar is an engaging German game with roots in Ultima and other U.S. titles. The plot, about an evil demon-wizard threatening to return to the world of Lyramion, is less interesting than the individual quests necessary to reassemble the ancient artifact (the titular Amberstar) that will stop him. The game features interesting towns, dungeons, and other areas with a variety of lengths and difficulties. The player starts with a player-created character and from there slowly assembles a party of six from about ten potential companions. First-person and top-down sections alternate effectively, and the game has relatively strong (if not superlative) mechanics for inventory, commerce, NPC dialogue, and combat. A lack of sound, a sometimes-difficult interface, and an excess of long combats at times threatens the player's experience, but ultimately a strong base and an attention to small details and innovations makes this one a winner.

Amberstar is a better game than the summary above suggests (minus the final line) because of small things. It doesn't announce itself as an evolutionary step forward with SVGA graphics, masterful use of sound, or innovations in combat AI. It is not "next generation" anything. If you only read the manual or watched a few minutes of video, you would see little to distinguish it from other, largely-derivative European titles of the period--or indeed from its own antecedents.
This is just a random shot of the party flying over various landscape features on an eagle.
Instead, it improves upon its predecessors with slight tweaks and adjustments, ultimately making for a more interesting, more satisfying game. Its innovations are less fully-formed than nudges towards what CRPGs would ultimately become, while still largely using the mechanics of what went before. Some examples of what I mean:
  • It improves NPC interactivity and the depth of lore conveyed by NPCs. Mechanically, it has barely improved upon the keyword system used by Ultimas IV-VI, but it gives its NPCs more text and more character than the usual RPG, and it keeps things interesting by giving the player some keywords but forcing the player to seek out (and figure out) others.
  • It's a rare game to offer a truly open world. And just like good modern games with open worlds, it lets the player figure things out for himself. If a dungeon is too hard, he can turn around and try again, or keep throwing himself against it until he overcomes it through sheer force of will. There are gates to some areas, of course, but they feel natural rather than artificial. 
  • It has a lot of lore, but it doesn't require that the player find and absorb all of it to succeed in the game. It is possible to figure out most of the puzzles without the associated hints from NPCs, and the player can literally stumble upon some of the Amberstar pieces. I never found anyone on the surface world who had anything to say about the Realm of Manyeye, for instance; I just found it by seeing what happened when I sailed into a whirlpool.
  • It anticipates later games in which the player creates one character (with a backstory and personal connection to the quest) and then recruits his party from a variety of NPCs. Those NPCs have no dialogue once they join the party, and a couple are unforgivably hard to find, but it's still an interesting divergence from the player creating his entire party.
  • To make up for limited graphics, the game does a particularly good job with textual descriptions as you wander the dungeons.
This not only adds some flavor to what would otherwise be a pile of bones, it makes sense in context of the dungeon.
  • I loved the mix between hand-crafted top-down areas and first-person textured areas. It was a good way to vary the nature of exploration, encounters, and puzzles, using the relative strengths of the two interfaces.
  • This is far from the first game to offer an automap, but it is one of the few games up to its time to offer a truly useful automap, including annotating doors, chests, teleporters, and other navigational elements. 
  • The translators did a good job. There are some weird spellings, but overall I see less of the awkwardness of phrasing that I see in many translated games.

What I admire most, however, is the wonderful sense of variety that goes into finding the Amberstar pieces. I know I've said this before, but when the game started, I was absolutely sure that finding each piece would involve 13 quests of similar length and difficulty, making the game extraordinarily monotonous. Instead, a few of the pieces are obtained with just a few minutes of questing, a few are at the ends of long and difficult dungeons, and a few are in between. And the dungeons themselves all have their own themes and character; they're not just featureless corridors.
Few of these features are wholly original to Amberstar, but it's still rare to find so many positive elements assembled in a single game. The result is a title that doesn't look much like Ultima VI, or Wizardry, or Pool of Radiance, but which nonetheless managed to bring together the things that worked best in those previous titles, as if it had cloned their souls rather than just their faces.
The developers perhaps could have spent some time varying the graphics for statues.
Not everything worked. I struggled with the interface all the way to the game's final hours. Too many of the skills were never called into play. You have to carefully step over a few walking dead scenarios, and only having one save slot doesn't help with that. The inability to speed up the combat animations was a near-fatal flaw, and overall the game lasted just a smidge too long; I don't care how interesting and varied the quests are, 13 pieces is just too many.
If my GIMLET does things right, it should put Amberstar right around 50--higher than other German contenders, not quite as high as the most innovative games from North America. Tweaks and nudges get you into the top fifth, sure, but not the top. Let's see.
1. Game World. The backstory is a relatively banal account of an evil wizard trying to return from exile and take over the world. (Just once, I want to read a story in which the evil wizard or demon, having been freed from a thousand years in prison, has no interest in re-embarking on the same path that got him imprisoned in the first place, and now wants nothing more than a good meal and a stiff drink.) I groaned at the "Disassembulet of Yendor" main quest. But the game world is otherwise well-realized, with different geographic areas under the control of different factions, and an interesting pantheon of gods. The game also enjoys an Ultima-like relationship between the game and the game manual, avoiding the problem inherent in so many other titles in which the manual just tells a framing story and seems to have been written by a different person. Score: 5.

2. Character Creation and Development. The big problem here is that the player doesn't have immediate or even early access to many of the game's guilds. I got lucky in finding the paladine guild early, but otherwise a first-time player is forced to choose between becoming a thief or a warrior. Those aren't bad choices, I suppose, but it still bothers me that I didn't find some guilds until the last quarter of the game. You do have to give quite a bit of thought to party composition, which I liked. You make a real sacrifice in front-line power with any pure wizard class. Trying to mitigate this with the hybrid classes creates its own problems, and in some ways I like that paladines, rangers, and monks are balanced between warriors and spellcasters instead of having the full power of both.

Leveling was satisfying and rewarding, if a bit annoying to have to visit so many guilds. But the skills were a bit problematic. About half of them (Listen, Find Traps, Disarm Traps, Swimming) are called into play so rarely, and with so little consequence if you don't have the skill, that it doesn't make sense to invest points in them. I'm not even sure that "Search" really did much, although I suppose you wouldn't know if you didn't find things that would have otherwise been found with the skill. Different races, and their associated languages, were a minor part of gameplay that could have been better-developed. Score: 5.

3. NPC Interaction. I'm still waiting for the first game that offers true "dialogue options," but Amberstar otherwise takes keyword-based dialogue about as far as it can go. You have to pay attention to NPCs and seek keywords based on their statements, or type in your own. There are different types of NPCs found in both interfaces, and obviously a fair number of them can join the party. Score: 5.
NPCs may not be as memorable as in, say, Ultima VII, but they're close.
4. Encounters and Foes. The game's bestiary uses similar creatures as other fantasy RPGs, but they're not entirely the same. One thing I liked (although I can see how other players might dislike this) is that different areas heavily feature just one or two types of creature, usually starting with small numbers and slowly building as you explore. This gives you time to become an expert on the enemy's strengths, weaknesses, and special attacks. Blunt force rarely saves you even if it serves you at the beginning of an area.

Most of the encounters in the game are fixed; finding random encounters and thus grinding is possible but not easy. I thought this was fine. It keeps the system from being completely closed, but it also means you can generally walk between two cities without having to fight six combats. I also liked the variety of special encounters with boss-level enemies in many of the dungeons.
Aside from the magic mouths--most notably in the Tower of Riddles--there weren't a lot of non-combat encounters, though, nor any strong opportunities for role-playing. Score: 5. (By now, you're suspecting I'm engineering all the scores to be 5s. I promise I'm not.)
Even the finding of treasure is often presented as a contextual encounter, with a little narrative to accompany the loot.
5. Magic and Combat. The game does a decent job adapting the tactical combat process of games like Wizardry, where you assign individual actions for each character and then watch them execute all at once, threaded with NPC actions. There are associated considerations of character formation, whether to concentrate or spread out attacks, and of course when to use spells. It isn't as tactical as the Gold Box series, but it is more so than the Ultima and Interplay titles with which the developers must have been familiar.
I thought the magic system worked well, too. Even late in the game, you don't have so much spellpower that you can just cast your most devastating spells on every enemy party. Like most good RPGs, you have to balance success in a single combat with success over an accumulation of combats. There was also a manageable number of spells, and some nice variety among the classes. Not having a competent white wizard meant that I had to miss out on a large variety of enemy-effect spells, for instance.

But the number and length of combats is a problem that goes beyond the couple of points in the "gameplay" category where I would normally rate it. The game really needed a "quick combat" option or at least some option to auto-assign every character's attack to the closest enemy. And it needed to get rid of enemy combat animations, which kept the built-in "fast forward" button from doing what it was meant to do. Score: 5.
Combat is never bad, exactly--just a little too slow sometimes.
6. Equipment. The six characters have slots for weapons, armor, shields, necklaces, helms, rings, and boots, and there is a nice variety of items to buy and find, many restricted to particular classes, races, or genders. I also liked the large variety of usable items--wands, potions, herbs, scrolls, and weapons with special attacks, all of which could provide an edge in combat. I liked that most statistics for the items are clear by looking at them, and that the "Identification" spell (or sage) reveals the rest. I particularly liked the selection of items that slowly improve the interface (e.g., watch, compass, location finder, etc.) Score: 6.
Statistics show me exactly what the amulet does, and who can wear it.
7. Economy. The economy is relevant throughout the game, but you have an overabundance of wealth in the latter half, and the associated effects on encumbrance means that you end up dropping most of it. I ended the game with thousands of gold pieces and dozens of uncashed gems. If the guilds had replenished their stocks of scrolls, that would have provided a good "money sink" for the game's final hours. But the game deserves some credit for its first half, when money is scarce and the party has to make some tough decisions. Score: 5.

8. Quests. The main quest is fine, and as I've said, I like the variety in its stages and the way that the player can assemble the 13 Amberstar pieces in almost any order. Unfortunately, there are no choices or alternate routes in the main quest. As for side quests, there are fewer than it first appears. Most of them end up being steps towards one of the Amberstar pieces. But there are some, and their presence enhances the game even if they don't allow a lot of role-playing options. Score: 4.
One of the game's few side-quests.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Input. Alas, a less rosy category. The graphics aren't bad, but to me they were generally too small. (My colorblindness is often an issue with small graphics, which may have made them look worse to me.) The developers put a lot of detail in the top-down areas, which was often then ruined by the inability to tell one object from another. I often couldn't even distinguish humanoids from animals. The textures in the first-person interface were find, and there were some decent cut-scene graphics.

As for sound, there isn't any except for the music, which I consider a crazy oversight. I know a lot of people like game music, but to focus on it exclusively and offer no sound effects is not a choice most developers would make. Music fans will bump up this category a couple of points for the sheer variety of quality compositions (although a fair number appear to have been at least partly plagiarized) that play in different situations.

Finally, while the use of screen real estate was fine, the controls never worked well for me. It remained awkward throughout the game to explore the iconographic areas, and I was always trying to move when the control panel was locked on the "action" side. Beyond that, I liked that you had to earn some elements of the interface, and as I said earlier, the automap works very well. Score: 3. 
10. Gameplay. We end on a high note. Amberstar is impressively non-linear and modestly replayable when you consider different party compositions, a different class for the main character, and a different order to the quests. I found its difficulty just right, and while I thought it lasted a little too long, it was just a little. Score: 7.

All the 5s make this one easy to sum up, and the final score is exactly 50. I promise I didn't engineer that outcome, but I agree with the result. It gets it just into the top 10% of titles I've played, and it beats the next-highest German offerings, Spirit of Adventure and Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny by 6 points. (I would stress, though, that Arkania had some individual categories that out-performed Amberstar.) Perhaps more notably, it beat Thalion's previous Dragonflight by a full 16 points. Although some influence of Dragonflight can be seen in Amberstar, clearly some of the new additions to the team (including designer Karsten Köper and programmer Jurie Horneman) made a crucial difference.

I was hoping that designer Karsten Köper would appear during this series of entries. He showed up briefly to comment on his one known previous game, Mythos, but only to address the Axis/eagle thing. This is what I always fear: that a developer will visit and get turned away by one of the more stupid or offensive parts of our discussion (and I freely admit I started that one by making fun of the publisher's name). Anyway, he's given most of the credit for the Amber series, having apparently brought a strong experience with both computer and tabletop RPGs to Thalion. But he disappears almost as fast as he arrives, with design credits on Amberstar and Ambermoon and quality assurance on Trex Warrior: 22nd Century Gladiator (1991). Much later, he has testing credits on two other German games: Stephen King's F13: Ctrl, Alt, . . . Shiver (1999), which has to be the most awkward game title of all time, and K. Hawk: Survival Instinct (2002).       
Despite the game's North American release, most American computer magazines seem to have missed it, including Computer Gaming World. Thus, most reviews are found in German and British magazines, where the result was extremely varied. The best score (92/100) comes from the British ST Action in March 1993, but the magazine just offers a quick blurb: "Tasty German RPG with a huge play area, several varying quests and exceedingly smooth scrolling. An immediate purchase!" The worst was from the German PC Player in January 1993, which found it "a rather frustrating program only for freaks who [like to] struggle with every [role-playing game] regardless of controls, graphics, and sound." To be fair, "controls, graphics, and sound" are exactly where this game falls apart, and thus you're likely to rate it low if that's your primary orientation. This explains a large number of ratings in the 60s and 70s, particularly from Amiga magazines, although a few saw through these flaws. The October 1992 Amiga Action faulted those features but otherwise recommended that you dump your girlfriend so you'll have more time to finish it; they gave a 91/100. The German Power Play wasn't far behind, with ratings of 85 for the Amiga and Atari ST versions and 83 for DOS.
The sequel, Ambermoon (1993) looks to have addressed many of these concerns. The third-person sections are zoomed in more, to better distinguish features and creatures, and also angled to be more axonometric. The first-person sections show even more color and detail, as do the NPC and monster graphics. More important, the first person sections seem to offer continuously-scrolling movement, along the lines of Ultima Underworld, which was a major change to have implemented in only a year. Unfortunately, the videos I watched suggest that the game still didn't offer any sound effects, and the toggled control pad is still there.
 A shot from Ambermoon, courtesy of MobyGames.
The series was reportedly intended as a trilogy, but poor sales forced Thalion to close in 1994 before the third game was produced. I can't speak about Ambermoon, but I can say that Amberstar doesn't really require a sequel, so unless Ambermoon ends on a cliffhanger, a couplet rather than a trilogy will probably be just fine. Many former Thalion personnel ended up at Blue Byte Software, and I've heard that Blue Byte's Albion (1995) is seen by some as a "spiritual sequel" to Amberstar.

It won't be long before we check out Ambermoon, but for now it's time to roll the dice on a new title, for the first time in a long time. The result is Quest for Kings (1990). I tried to play it over a year ago, got stuck with some error messages, and put it back into the rotation for later. In the meantime, I got some assistance from the author, Howard Feldman, who also happens to be the owner of the Museum of Computer Adventure Gaming History. It's long past time I gave it another try. In the short-term, however, we're going to look at an obscure Atari 800 title called Abraxas Adventure #1: Assault on the Astral Rift (1984).

Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Black Gate: The Road Not Taken

So here's what's supposed to happen, picking up from the party's victory at Skara Brae: I get the answer to the question of Life and Death (or, at least, enough of one) from the Tortured One and return to Alagner. Alagner lets me borrow his book. I have to solve a bunch of annoying navigation puzzles in his lab to get it, and while I'm doing so, Alagner is murdered by Hook and Forkris, an event I'm able to witness in the crystal ball on his table, since it records what happened in the previous 24 hours.
Alagner's notebook satisfies the wisp, who tells me that the Time Lord wants to speak to me, but he's trapped in the Shrine of Spirituality. I can reach him by using my Orb of Moons directly to the northwest, even though this has never worked before. The wisp goes on to explain that Britannia is under attack from the Guardian, who is vain, greedy, egocentric, and malevolent. He has conquered numerous worlds, and his followers--the leaders of the Fellowship--are building a black moongate to allow him to enter and conquer Britannia. The wisp warns us to prevent this, as in Britannia, the Guardian will be unstoppable. Most of this is stuff we already know.

In his prison in the Shrine of Spirituality, the Time Lord confirms that it was he who sent the red moongate to bring me to Britannia. He is being held in his prison by the spherical generator in the dungeon Despise, which he bids the Avatar to destroy. The Avatar has to journey all the way there, get blocked by the red moongate, and return to the Time Lord to hear the Time Lord's solution to the barrier: get Nicodemus's hourglass.
The Time Lord ruins the fan theory that he was Hawkwind in Ultima IV.
Nicdoemus tells you that he sold the hourglass to an antique store in Paws. You can buy it or steal it there, but Nicodemus needs to enchant it for it to be useful. If the ether is still messed up, he can't do that, so the Avatar has to return to the Time Lord and get the clue to visit Penumbra as a first step to destroying the tetrahedron generator. Afterwards (or if the Avatar has already done this), Nicodemus can cast the necessary spell.

The enchanted hourglass somehow provides protection from the barrier, allowing the Avatar to enter and destroy the generator as I did by accident. More important, by double-clicking on the hourglass, the Avatar can contact the Time Lord later on.

To destroy the cube generator legitimately, you must use the hourglass to contact the Time Lord, who suggests that its defense can be countered with a special metal called Caddellite. I had already picked up Caddellite ore on a premature visit to Ambrosia, but if I hadn't, the Time Lord would tell me to ask Brion at the Moonglow observatory. Brion tells you that Caddellite only comes from meteors, and the last one to strike Britannia landed in the "northeast sea." It is also Brion who recommends that you take the ore to Zorn in Minoc to have helmets fashioned from it. Zorn's helmets protect from the cube generator's attacks, allowing the party to access it and get the cube prism.
Zorn forges faster than the player character in Skyrim.
By bumbling prematurely into the sphere generator, I destroyed some of this questline, but less than I thought. As we've seen, I could still contact the wisps and get the hints to visit Alagner, and from Alagner the quest to visit the Tortured One, and I could have continued through Alagner's murder.

Unfortunately, I couldn't visit the Time Lord in his original prison, since I'd already freed him and then broke the Orb of Moons. This meant that I never asked him about a way to get through the red moongate, which means he never gave me the HOURGLASS keyword to feed to Nicodemus. However, I discovered that if I obtained the hourglass from Paws, Nicodemus still had the ENCHANT keyword that would allow me to pick up from there.
That was the past, Time Lord.
When I used it, the Time Lord addressed me as if speaking to me for the first time, using dialogue that I would have received if I'd visited him in his prison, but I also had keywords from later in the questline, so it was a weird conversation, mixing dialogue that suggested he was still entrapped with dialogue that I was meant to get after freeing him. Either way, he directed me to Brion and the Caddellite helms the way he was supposed to, allowing me to pick up from there.

Truth be told, I had already obtained the cube prism by dismissing my party, sucking up the damage that the generator dealt with my enhanced hit points, solving the puzzle, and re-enlisting my party members. But I still went to Brion, got the hint, went to Minoc, and got Zorn to make me eight Caddellite helmets.
Spark puts one on.
I declined to finish the Alagner questline because it would have gotten him needlessly killed, and I no longer needed the wisps' hints about reaching the Time Lord. Thus, we pick up this narrative as my Avatar arrives at the Meditation Retreat for the second time. Whether it's the Caddellite helm that protects the Avatar or the extra hit points he gained from Forge of Virtue, he ends up in the generator (as he does with all the generators) alone.
Thank the gods. Trying to move my party through this area would be a nightmare.
If the phrase "fiendish without being particularly clever" makes any sense, it applies to the little cube generator maze. The cube is in the center of a series of concentric squares. The Avatar can walk around the squares, but there are invisible walls blocking him at various points. Stepping on some points sets off traps, while stepping on others creates little bridges between the outer and inner squares. You basically have to walk around the whole thing multiple times, doing your best to avoid fireballs and gouts of flame, reloading if you suddenly wake up at the Fellowship shelter in Paws.
Maneuvering my way around the area.
The voice of the Guardian taunts you throughout this process, sometimes laughing, sometimes saying, "Yes, that is the proper direction to travel, Avatar." Either way, you ignore him until you finally reach the center and take the cube. As usual, this destroys the generator.

Afterwards, the Time Lord speaks unbidden:
Avatar! The Astronomical Alignment is almost at hand! Time is running out! The Guardian must be prevented from coming through the Black Gate! The cube will help thee find the location of the Black Gate. With it in thy possession, those under the influence of the Guardian will be more receptive to speaking the truth to thee. Go to Buccaneer's Den. Search for the one called "Hook." Talk to the so-called Fellowship. Thou shouldst have no trouble ascertaining his whereabouts there. I am sure that thou wilt eventually find the location of the Black Gate. Good luck!
Gorn has no new dialogue on the way out; his "god" is somehow still able to speak to him, so he and the Avatar still part with animosity. 
Having already visited Buccaneer's Den (and, of course, having already gotten to it twice), I already know that the Black Gate will be found on the Isle of the Avatar, but the prospect of using a lie detector on Fellowship members is too good to pass up. I spend a while flying everywhere with a Fellowship hall, re-engaging various members in dialogue. They often begin with their "old" dialogue, but then the cube vibrates and they have additional dialogue in which they're forced to speak the truth. Here are some highlights:
  • Klog in Trinsic not only knew about the Fellowship's role in Christopher's murder; he instigated it. When Christopher refused to help with the Black Gate project despite having been paid, Klog confronted him and Christopher shoved him out of his smithy. Klog called for the assassins, and Hook and Forskis arrived in The Crown Jewel to take care of the deed. Inamo was in the wrong place at the wrong time after all.
  • Batlin casts a spell and disappears the moment he sees that you have the cube.
  • Patterson has no new dialogue. He's not being influenced by the Guardian; he's just a jackass.
The Avatar looks at the cube in confusion, shakes it, checks the battery compartment.
  • Elynor in Minoc knows full well that Hook and Forskis committed the murders of Frederico and Tania. She attributes the Fellowship candelabra left at the scene to their carelessness.
  • Danag, the branch leader in Buccaneer's Den, has the most to offer. He spills the beans on Hook, who is the Fellowship's chief executioner, having been trained to the role by his predecessor, de Snel. Danag doesn't like the Fellowship leaders. He calls Elizabeth a "royal she-bitch" who "will murder thee at a moment's notice," and he says that Abraham cheats at cards. He also says explicitly that the Black Gate is being built on the Isle of the Avatar, in case it wasn't clear from the materials in Hook's chambers, and that Hook has a key. He confirms that Buccaneer's Den and its pirates are completely controlled by the Fellowship, and that most of the organization's profits come from there.
The cube basically vibrates continually as Danag talks.
  • Gordy, the game master, confirms Fellowship owner of the casino and says that the guard Sintag has the key to the back areas.
  • Sintag willingly hands over the key if asked. This is how players were supposed to get in without the "Telekinesis" spell.
  • None of the NPCs in the Baths have any new dialogue. I guess maybe they really are volunteers.
  • The game specifically notes that the cube had no effect on some Fellowship members, meaning they were honestly suckered. This is true of Feridwyn in Paws and Quan in Terfin.
  • Mistress Mandy, the tavernkeeper in Buccaneer's Den, causes the cube to vibrate "a little," but tells me nothing she didn't when I didn't have the cube. The game notes that "somehow you know that Mandy would have told you the truth without it."
Lord British has no new dialogue, neither from the cube nor any of the things we've discovered the whole game.
Apropos of nothing, in the sea between Buccaneer's Den and Serpent's Hold is a ship floating by itself with no crew. I didn't check it out (it would require my own ship), but I wonder what's in the hold.
The Crown Jewel at last!
Thus we made our way once again to the old dungeon Hythloth, built into the mountains west of the old Shrine of the Codex, and we use the key from Hook's chambers--conveniently forgotten by the loyal Fellowship assassin--to open the front door.
Immediately inside the door, we're startled to see a giant stone throne, clearly built for the Guardian. It's not so much the presence of the throne that startles us, but its specific location. Did the Guardian really want to sit so immediately in front of the main door, in a dungeon with a dirt floor, looking out on the Shrine of the Codex through iron bars?
This is more where you'd put the receptionist's desk than the throne of your leader and conqueror.
There are living and dining quarters for Fellowship staff--all of whom we kill--immediately south of the throne room. The dungeon continues to the north, opened by a switch found behind a hidden door.

The area beyond has a jail with three doors. A switch puzzle opens the doors; one must enter the third one, where the body of a well-dressed woman lies dead on the floor. She has a necessary key.

The next area has a variety of switches and walls opened by those switches. We got through by figuring out the pattern. The next chamber we explore has dozens of bodies and skeletons, almost all of them wearing Fellowship medallions. As we move west, we see that the chamber is occupied by a dragon, which we kill without much trouble. There's an enormous pile of treasure, including gems and multiple stacks of gold pieces, at the southern end. We pick up a few final enchanted armor pieces, but it would take a moron to bother to pick up all that treasure.
The dragon's useless treasure hoard. Shamino gets a magic choker, at least.
The rest of the dungeon is weird. If the other Fellowship members have to travel through it to get to where they're constructing the Black Gate, they must constantly put their lives in their hands. There are numerous hidden passages (and I hate how this game does hidden passages) and one succession of areas in which you get teleported every time you sit on a throne, only to an identical chamber so you don't realize you've been teleported. There are some false teleporters that dump you back to the beginning. There aren't a lot of enemies, but a lich nonsensically blocks the way to the final area.

The lich killed Dupre, so I have to resurrect him.
The penultimate area is a large Fellowship hall, where we defeat about half a dozen members of various classes. A hidden hallway behind the altar leads to a final teleporter, which in turn leads, at last, to the chamber of the Black Gate. Knowing what's coming, we arrive with "Mass Might" and "Protect All" having been cast.
This place would make more sense for the throne.
The chamber is a long north-south room with the Black Gate on a triangular platform at the north end. Each corner of the platform has a pedestal with a receptacle for each of the three prisms. The room is occupied by five people: Batlin, Elizabeth, Abraham, Hook, and Forskis. As we enter, the Guardian's voice booms: "Stop the Avatar! I will come through the Black Gate now!"
Each of the Fellowship members has some dialogue. Batlin demands that we stop and questions our sanity. He says the Guardian will crush us "like an insect." He says if we bow down to the Guardian, "perhaps he shall give thee a place at his side."
How is it "mad" to stop a tyrannical, otherworldly being from coming through a portal?
Hook isn't interested in bribing us with power. Neither is his henchman, Forskis.
To be fair, Hook and I are in agreement.
Forskis is like a parody of gargoyles.
Abraham and Elizabeth both join in the calls to kill us:
These two names have loomed so large throughout the entire game, and yet these lines are the entirety of the Avatar's interactions with these characters.
Outvoted, Batlin changes his tune:
Batlin, you're the craftiest guy I know. But you're the only one in this room who doesn't realize that I decided to kill you five minutes ago.
I saved a lot of resources for this battle, including several Potions of Sleep. Immediately after the battle begins, I administer them to each of the Fellowship members.
Batlin flights with spells while his companions sleep.
Only Batlin is immune, and it doesn't take the rest of the party long to defeat him. He has a little speech:
Dost thou imagine thyself an immortal? The Guardian is far more. Return to your precious Earth and rest. Sleep, that he may visit your dreams with countless visions of death in the belly of the Great Sea Serpent. As for me, I shall begone! Thou shalt never find me! Farewell, Avatar!
And with that, Batlin teleports away, leaving me to wonder what he meant about the "Great Sea Serpent." We spend a grim few minutes executing coups-de-grâce on the rest of the Fellowship. After the sordid business is over, I remember that we've been carrying around about a dozen glass swords that I had intended to use in this final battle. Ah, well. An Ultima glass sword wouldn't be an Ultima glass sword if it was actually used.
One by one, I place the cube, tetrahedron, and sphere prisms in their receptacle. The last one lowers the protective barrier around the Black Gate. As I insert the objects, a few questions occur to me, such as how a gateway can be constructed of solid material, and why the Fellowship members built a fail-safe into their protective barrier that involved the three generator prisms.
I'm also a little confused about the blue light on the wall behind the gate.
Regardless of the answers, as the barrier collapses, the Guardian once more invades my thoughts:
So, Avatar! The moment of truth has come. You can destroy the Black Gate, but you will never return to your beloved Earth. Or you can come through now and go home! It is your choice!
If I didn't already know that it works, I'd be thinking now that the Guardian is trying to trick me. How can this portal go both to the Guardian's realm and to Earth? I'm grateful Lord British isn't here, as he'd probably shove me bodily into the portal before the Guardian finished speaking.
Instead, I point Rudyom's wand at the Black Gate and the endgame cinematic commences. It shows the Guardian struggling to come through just as the portal explodes.

It's not my fault that your followers made it so small. How were you planning to get your legs through?
I don't think it's going to stretch.
I feel like this should have killed him.
"Avatar!" calls the Guardian. "You think you have won? Think again! You are unable to leave Britannia, whereas I am free to enter other worlds! Hmmm . . . perhaps your puny Earth shall be my NEXT target!" I want to remind him that I've just beaten him in about two weeks in a world of 100 people with medieval technology, and he's talking about trying to conquer a planet of 5.4 billion people with fighter jets and nuclear weapons. And it's not like Earth is likely to be flim-flammed by a secretive, seemingly-benevolent organization led by an oily figurehead. But the game gives me no chance to respond. Instead, we get the endgame text:
In the months following the climactic battle at The Black Gate, Britannia is set upon the long road to recovery from its various plights. Upon your return to Britain, Lord British decreed that the Fellowship be outlawed, and all of its branches were soon destroyed. The frustration you feel at having been stranded in Britannia is somewhat alleviated by the satisfaction that you solved the gruesome murders committed by the Fellowship and even avenged the death of Spark's father. And although you are, at the moment, helpless to do anything about the Guardian's final threat, another thought nags at you . . . what became of Batlin, the fiend who got away? That is another story . . . one that will take you to a place called The Serpent Isle . . . 
And then the "congratulations" screen at the top of this entry. Several things occur to me as the credits roll:
  • This is the first game I can remember in which "credits roll" at the end. They last a while, too.
  • Any player who didn't take Spark into his party way back in Trinsic would probably be confused at the mention of avenging the death of "Spark's father."
  • Rather than outlawing and destroying the Fellowship, a better solution would have been to have the Avatar take it over, using its infrastructure to promote a return to the eight virtues and a rebuilding of each city around them.
  • There were times where the Guardian's communications with the Avatar seemed to be helping him. Was that just to sow confusion, or was the original intent to make the Guardian a more ambiguous figure?
  • The Astronomical Alignment was a silly and needless addition. The game has no time limit whatsoever, and the planets (as viewed with the orrery viewer, in any event) are never in anything but random positions, even when the alignment is supposed to be "imminent."
Oh, give me a break.
  • The series has now completed the severing of the Avatar from the player. The brilliance of the Avatar concept as introduced in Ultima IV has been disassembled. The Avatar is no longer the player's literal "avatar" within the realm of Britannia but just a character of that name that the player controls.
For the final reason above, it's not surprising to me that many fans consider The Black Gate to be the "end" of the Ultima series, the next three games notwithstanding. To many players, remaining in Britannia would hardly be a punishment. You are a powerful fight and mage, famous, the right arm of the king, adored by most of the population. It's a worthy reward for between four and ten world-saving quests. But the severance does bring it all to an end. When we pick up again, whether it's with Ultima Underworld II or The Serpent Isle, the game no longer will begin with the player being pulled from the "real" world and inhabiting his avatar in Britannia. If you don't get why that matters, you and I have never played the same Ultimas.
Actual final time: 74 hours