Monday, June 29, 2020

The Black Gate: Of Valor and Virginity

Surreptitiously awarding the Rune of Valor to Kliftin of Jhelom.
The more Gideon thinks about it, the more he doesn't really like having a death-dealing demon bound up in his sword. The question is what to do about it. Ideally, there would be some magic ritual that would simultaneously release the demon and send it to another plane, but I don't know how to do that, and Erethian--the person who bound the demon in the first place--is dead. I can't drop it in the deepest part of the ocean (which, let's face it, is only about 20 feet deep) because the interface doesn't let you drop things over water. I'll assume that for similar reasons, I can't drop it in a volcano--if I can even find one. No spells destroy it. 
I think about trying to ruin it in the forge, and it's in trying to put it on the hearth that I discover something unpleasant: I can't even remove it from my inventory. If I lay it down somewhere, it just leaps back into my hand the moment I close my inventory screen. This also means I can't try Plan F, which is to destroy it with Rudyom's wand. (Rudyom's wand doesn't work on it anyway, even if I try it with the sword still in my hands.) I can temporarily stow the sword in a container, like my backpack, but if I then set down the backpack, the sword jumps back into my hands again. If I've already replaced the sword in my hands, it jumps into whatever container I'm carrying in place of the backpack. If I'm not carrying any container, it tosses whatever I'm carrying to the ground and puts itself in my hands. It will not be parted from me.
You cannot unforge what has been forged.
The best I can do for now is commit to not using it, which means taking Magebane back from Jaana and giving her her old regular sword again. I don't need a sentient sword influencing my thoughts and actions, and that little confrontation with Dracothraxus was a bit too uncomfortable for me to trust that the sword isn't doing either. Maybe I'll figure out some other options along the way.

Before heading for Jhelom, the party returns briefly to Britain and cashes in nuggets and gems for gold. I spend nearly all my gold on new spells and reagents from Nystul. Now that the Avatar is maxed out in intelligence and magic, I want to get more out of my spells than usual, and I vow to find a reason to cast every spell and discuss them as I do. Before I get into this, it's important to remember that spells in Ultima VII come in nine levels: eight regular levels plus a set of 8 Level 0 "cantrips" that you can cast indefinitely. Except for cantrips, each spell requires an expenditure of mana equal to their level plus the associated reagents. The syllables from Ultima V still exist, theoretically, but the player no longer has to know them. The spellcaster just speaks them automatically.
We get to Jhelom by heading south to Trinsic and then west across the lower continent and then across the channel. I'm doing this from memory, so I'm happy when we see roads and houses on the first island we encounter. We land near the dock, which worryingly has cannons pointed outward, as if expecting hostile ships to arrive. It occurs to me that cannons in this game can be moved but not turned, which is odd for a game that allows so much interactivity otherwise. It amuses me that Britannians, when they go to buy cannons, have to specify whether they want an east-facing cannon or north-facing cannon or whatever.
If the invasion comes from an oblique angle, they're screwed no matter what.
We arrive at midnight, which I assume is going to give me a chance to use my first spell, "Awaken," on a sleeping NPC. Oddly, although the first building we come to--city hall--has a double bed, there's no one in it. There is, however, someone in bed in the hut across the way.

Awaken - AN ZU ("Negate Sleep"), Level 0 cantrip. A relatively useful spell that wakes up a sleeper. It doesn't have to be a magic slumber: it awakens normal sleepers, too, and is the most reliable way of doing so. Unlike in Ultima VI, regular sleepers in VII will sometimes awaken if you just make a ruckus around their bedrooms, but it's faster to cast the cantrip. I'm sure I've used it more times to wake up NPCs in the middle of the night so I could talk to them than I have on characters put magically to sleep.
Maybe the joke is there is no such cantrip, and the person really awakens from some idiot yelling "AN ZU!" in his room.
The sleeper turns out to be Master de Snel, head of the Library of Scars fighting school. (The name is a clear play on producer Dallas Snell.) He's also a trainer. Some experimentation shows that he only raises combat, not the associated attributes, so I think Inforlem is a better deal. (de Snel gives +2 combat for 2 points; Inforlem gives +2 combat, +1 strength, and +1 dexterity for 3 points). I try to have Gideon train with him anyway, but he remarks that Gideon is already his superior in skill. I guess the Avatar just isn't going to be able to spend those skill points. His statement that Jhelom is "devoted to the art of combat--not mere slavish military discipline, but pure violent confrontation" strikes me as a bit ominous. Jhelom used to be devoted to valor.

Back at city hall, the mayor, Joseph, has appeared, and he wakes up before I'm able to use the spell. He characterizes Jhelom as a rough place, and he's called upon to maintain order with his sword as often as his pen. He says that fighters gather in the town square to duel every day, but then clarifies that they mostly use training dummies. It's more like a mass workout than a battle. There are sometimes matches "to the blood," though, and people bet on them. So far, Joseph is beating de Snel in the contest for the Rune of Valor, but I'm not sure I like this place.
Is that because of its nature or because of people like you?
We take the opportunity to explore the empty Library of Scars. In addition to practice rooms, it has an actual library, which disappointingly has a "Britannian Purity League" flyer in a prominent place. The "Books of Britannia" entry is updated with The Accedens of Armoury. To make it easier to see, I cast the "Glimmer" spell, which I honestly forgot existed until I started reviewing the spells. I would have used it earlier in some of the dungeons.
Glimmer - IN BET LOR ("Create Small Light"), Level 0 cantrip. Creates a low-level light for a short duration--just long enough to check out a room. Still better than adventuring in the dark. Useful when you don't want to waste reagents or spell points on "Light" or "Great Light."
De Snel made me suspicious enough that I confess I swiped a key I found in his house. I justify it by saying I've been generally charged by Lord British with investigating what's wrong with Britannia, and I need a wide mandate to do that. The key opens a locked office in the Library of Scars which has a couple of chests. One has The Book of the Fellowship and a serpentine dagger. The other has three gold bars and a Fellowship medallion. A parrot in the corner says "I know where the treasure is" in between "Polly wanna cracker" and "pretty bird." But I can't make it say anything else, even when I try to give it some fish and chips.
At this point, it becomes weird to rouse people from their beds, so I set up my bedroll and get a few hours of sleep. I still don't know what the rest of the party does while I use the only bedroll. When I wake up, it's raining and thundering, which gives me a chance to use another cantrip.
Weather - REL HUR ("Change Wind"), Level 0 cantrip. Makes it stormy if it's sunny and vice versa. Not very "useful," but it's actually kind of unpleasant to adventure when it's raining, so I use it just for aesthetic purposes. There are lots of other games that I've wished had this option, particularly the two Assassin's Creed games where a storm seems to magically appear every time you engage in a sea battle. Note that the original spell of this title in Ultima V was necessary for sailing the direction that you want to go.
Kliftin, an ex-soldier, runs the town's armory, but for some reason the armory also has a spinning wheel and loom, and I catch Kliftin operating the loom as I enter. He claims to have "seen [his] share of death and destruction," which reminds me that the book talks about strife between regional leaders, but you really never have any sense of where these supposed wars happened. Britannia's not that big of a place, and Lord British seems to keep it pretty orderly. Unnamed wars and campaigns simply don't fit with the landscape. He's a little less charitable in his views of the town's duels, which he says are often fought to the death. He's worried about Sprellic, the mild-mannered innkeeper, who stole the Honor Flag from the wall of the Library of Scars and has refused to return it. (I would have stolen it, too; it's supposed to be the Valor flag. Doesn't this town know its own history?) He's therefore going to face three fighters from the Library in a duel to the death. He suggests I ask more at the pub. He sells equipment, but I need to save my money for spells and training, and I'm already doing a fine job finding equipment upgrades.
We cross a bridge to the west side of Jhelom, where we find nothing in a few houses. Then we find Sprellic hiding in his own house, where he begs Gideon not to hurt him "this time." He calms down as we talk and explains that he arrived from Minoc a few years ago to buy the Bunk and Stool pub. He employs two barmaids who together keep the unruly fighters under control through charm (Ophelia) or physical violence (Daphne). Recently, a stranger came to the tavern claiming to be the Avatar. A member of the Fellowship, the man consumed conspicuously then went to bed. Not long afterwards, he complained that it was too cold, and he kept complaining even after he had every blanket in the inn. In desperation, Sprellic went running around town and found an "old tapestry" hanging on a wall, so he took it, not knowing he was taking the standard of the Library of Scars. In the morning, the "Avatar" was gone, with the tapestry, and without paying his bill. Later, three members of the Library of Scars--Syria, Vokes, and Timmons challenged him to duels to the death. Before I've left his house, I've agreed to serve as his champion.
This is a bad sign.
The last place to visit in town, believe it or not, is the Bunk and Stool. Right in the front door, we run into Syria, an olive-skinned "fighter from the south"--gods know what that means in the confusing geography of Britannia. It's clear that Sprellic would have a crush on her if she didn't terrify him. She got 10 lashes for allowing Sprellic to escape with the flag, so she's determined to make him pay. I soon meet Vokes and Timmons, and they are similarly intractable when it comes to the subject. They refuse to believe it's a misunderstanding, or to show any mercy to someone who clearly isn't a fighter. Timmons isn't even a member of the Library of Scars yet, but de Snel won't let him join until he defeats someone who has challenged the school. I had started this quest by thinking that its solution would be finding the stolen banner, but now I'm thinking that these three deserve a good thrashing. 

Dupre is next. He's his usual self, recently knighted, in the midst of "conducting a survey of all the drinking establishments in Britannia." He confirms that Jhelom has gotten a lot more "bloodthirsty" and he summarizes what's happening with Sprellic. I have him join the party, of course, determined to kick out Sentri if things get unwieldy. Dupre comes with chain armor, a sword, a shield, and a mug of beer.
To be fair, that's what most RPGs are about.
It's 11:50 at this point, and the duel is supposed to be at noon, so I have just enough time to talk to the barmaids before I have to head out. They're taking bets on the duel, so I bet 100 gold pieces on myself--well, technically Sprellic, but I hope it will pay regardless. Daphne is heavy and unattractive and vocally resents Ophelia. Ophelia is both a bit mean, egging on Daphne, and a bit daft, claiming that Sprellic is the Avatar in secret and will easily defeat the three fighters before opening his own fighting school.
Remember this quote.
The dueling grounds are back on the first island, so we head there. I soon find that there's no good way to fight the three members of the Library of Scars solo. Going into combat mode engages everyone in the duel, which isn't as unfair as it sounds because all three of the Library fighters jump in together instead of individually. There's no way to tell my party to exercise restraint, so we actually kill all of them. De Snel is happy about the outcome and invites me to join the Library of Scars. Ophelia gives me 1,000 gold for the outcome (Sprellic was poorly favored by the odds). Later, it occurs me that there is a way to get the party not to fight--set them all to "retreat"--but slaughter seems like the wrong way to go about it. I try just knocking them out or putting them to sleep, but it just delays the inevitable end of the duel. They did insist it was "to the death," after all.
Technically, your buildings are both on the north side of the street.
Reloading, I try some other options. De Snel has nothing useful to say about the upcoming duel. Joseph, for all his claims that he often intervenes, refuses to do anything about this case. He claims that he and de Snel have an understanding and that if he upsets that, de Snel is likely to assassinate him and take over the town completely. It's Kliftin who has the answer. First, he figures that the false Avatar is Sullivan the Trickster, known to do this sort of thing. Second, he comes up with the solution: he can just weave a new Honor Flag. It will fool the fighters long enough to call off the duel, and if they ever do figure out it's a counterfeit, they won't be able to say so without looking foolish. Plus, they'd have to challenge Kliftin in that case, who's a lot tougher to beat. It's going to mean that I miss the appointed duel time, but I rationalize (correctly) that this game doesn't have any way of telling today's noon from tomorrow's noon.
While we wait, we explore the rest of the island. Outside of town to the west is a cave, where we're attacked by a single nameless fighter the moment we enter. The cave has a crate with a triple crossbow--supposedly a devastating weapon that costs a ton if you try to buy it in Iolo's shop. I hate micromanaging ammunition, though, so I don't bother with it. 
A cave system south of town is much more extensive, so much that I'm surprised it's not a named dungeon. We fight some bats and gremlins as we enter; I'm still not sure why gremlins turn into food in this game. We soon come across a trap that generates a field of fire across the floor. I think this might be a good opportunity for a spell, but it turns out I'm wrong.
Douse - AN FLAM ("Negate Flame"), Level 0 cantrip. Supposedly douses flames, but doesn't work on any flame that you'd really want doused, like ones blocking your passage in corridors. Only works on things like torches and campfires that you could douse by double-clicking on them. At least it doesn't cost anything, which is more than I can say for Great Douse, or VAS AN FLAM ("Great Negate Flame," Level 1), which supposedly douses everything in the area. While we're at it, I might also discuss Ignite (IN FLAM, "Create Flame," cantrip), which does the opposite. If you can think of a single use for these spells, even hypothetical, anywhere in the game, I beg you to comment.        
A wizard attacks us in a ruined structure in which two stone harpies flank a crystal ball. Trying to use the crystal ball prompts a voice that might be The Guardian to shout "go away!"
An interesting scene.
As we return to the entrance, the spontaneous flames are gone, so I use the occasion to try "Detect Traps" and "Destroy Traps." Neither works, but it's maybe the case that the flames' appearance isn't a "trap" as such. I'll have to experiment some more before declaring the spells worthless. The dungeon has a few minor finds--a few reagents, a set of swamp boots, a little food.
On an island east of town, the Shrine of Valor is in pretty good shape. There are some gremlins running around the area, but it's well-kept and has a sword on the altar, which I suppose is okay. It occurs to me that I didn't hear the word "valor" once in Jhelom, which is a bit depressing, but I suppose I can't expect cities to maintain their mission statements for over 200 years. It occurs to me that when the cities were created around the virtues in the backstory of Ultima IV, certain professions were naturally drawn to certain cities because of those virtues: fighters to valor, mages to truth, and so on. (Druids=justice and rangers=spirituality were always a bit of a stretch and should have been reversed in my opinion, and I guess tinkers=sacrifice never made much sense.) Two centuries later, the remnants of the professions are there, but not the virtues. Jhelom still attracts fighters and Moonglow still attracts mages, but they've become more about the realities of those professions than their aspirations.
The Shrine of Valor from above.
There's a small island northwest of Jhelom with another cave entrance. It's clear that someone's been living inside, but I can't figure out what they've been up to. There's a huge barrel of beer in a corner--and next to it a set of thumb screws. At the south end of the cavern, a curtain parts to reveal a sack with a single key. The key opens two chests in the main room, and inside we find a couple of bars of gold, reagents, and a magic helm. The best I can figure is that some bootleggers operate out of here. On a fun note, if you turn the spigot on a keg of liquor in this game, your party members absolutely freak out, alternately screaming "turn it off!' and "thou art wasting it!" Nothing brings them more distress, apparently.
It's not like you were going to get to drink it.
Our final adventure in the Valerian Isles occurs on the southeastern tip of the main island, where we find a pirate and the remains of a ship. The pirate is pacing back and forth but refuses to talk with us even though his garbage pile and arrangement of furnishing suggest he's been stranded here for a while. There are three barrels of gunpowder among the wreckage, and these are the first ones in the game that I feel comfortable (for role-playing reasons) grabbing for my own use. They generate explosions that can be useful on locked doors and in combat.
I like that graphics are advanced enough in this game to set up little "vignettes."
I return to Jhelom, where Kliftin has created the fake Honor Flag. I return it to Syria, who takes it grudgingly and calls off the duel. Sprellic is overjoyed at the result. Ophelia refuses my arguments of a "moral victory" and I'm left with ten worthless chits. As for the Rune of Valor, I always interpreted valor as a mandate to actively seek wrongs and right them. You can live an honorable, just, and compassionate life just dealing with things as they come to you, but only the truly valiant do something proactively about an injustice that isn't otherwise their duty. Thus, I give the rune to Kliftin, who came up with a solution to a problem that he could have ignored, taking some risk upon himself in doing so.
I was tempted not to, but the game didn't give me that option.
We cap this long entry with a visit to the Dungeon Destard, which has always struck me as the least literal of the original eight dungeons ("Wrong," "Deceit," "Despise," etc.), although as the opposite of valor, it's clearly meant to evoke "dastardliness" or thereabouts.

In an early room, I meet an unlikely trio consisting of a fighter, a ranger, and a winged gargoyle. The fighter introduces himself as Cosmo. He claims to be betrothed to Ophelia, the Jhelom barmaid (who didn't mention him once), but she's apparently decided to make him prove his virginity before they get married. That sounds like she gave him something to keep him busy, because she certainly didn't sound like a virgin. Anyway, he thinks there's a unicorn in the area that only virgins can touch. This tickles a memory, but I seem to recall that the unicorn is in a different dungeon. His companions are the ranger Cairbre and the gargoyle Kallibrus. Kallibrus seems genuine but confused because gargoyles don't have genders and don't mate. Cairbre concurs with me that Ophelia just sent Cosmo on the quest to get rid of him, and he even shares my opinion about Ophelia's likely virginity. Despite all of that, he has a fondness for Cosmo and didn't want him to venture to the dungeon alone. It's nice to meet another group of friends, even if their quest is stupid.
"Not that there's anything wrong with that," Cairbre hastens to add.
Deeper in the dungeon, we start running into dragons. Dupre proves himself the weakest link of the party, having joined when he was only Level 3 (everyone else is Level 6), so I get a lot of use out of:
Heal - MANI ("Life"), Level 3. A simple spell that heals about 10 hit points. A useful workhorse; probably the spell I've cast most since beginning the game.
There are a lot of caltrops in the corridors. I really hate those things. You never seem to get them all, and no matter where you move them, someone always seems to stumble over them later. But it's worth it, because we soon find a bunch of gold bars just sitting in the hallway.
Can you even see these?
In a large, central chamber, we kill three more dragons and find the corpse of a man with a Fellowship staff, a chest with two Fellowship medallions, and a sack full of potions and reagents. Further along, another dragon cave delivers some huge dividends: stacks of gold, gold bars, gold nuggets, and gems, along with the 5-10 gems per dragon that we've already been looting from their corpses. Our economic prospects have definitely turned around, and it's time to reflect that in spells, reagents, and training. Poor Spark has 15 training credits to use. There's also a spellbook in one of the chests, but none of my party besides the Avatar can use it, and he has his own. I'm not sure that any NPC in the game besides the Avatar can cast spells.
Coming here should have proven our valor, but it just stoked our avarice.
We do find the unicorn, although in a separate set of caves that share the same mountain range with Despise (if there's an illusory wall connecting them, I didn't find it). He's right in the entrance, prancing around a pool of water, and he introduces himself as Lasher. He tells a horrible story about why unicorns can detect virgins: they were originally a species of nature spirits, both male and female, bound to service by a wizard. When the leader of the clan decided to spend one night chasing females instead of heeding the wizard's call, the wizard cursed the entire herd with chastity, forbidding them to mate. This curse caused them to kill all the females of their species and left them with a sensitivity to "sexual energy" such that they could only tolerate the presence of virgins.
I thought Britannia was a more enlightened society.
He's aware of the presence of Cosmo and his companions, and he's avoiding them because he's "sick of being used as the instrument of women's humiliation." But he laughs when he hears that they're looking for him to prove a male virgin and agrees to help. (I return to them later, but there are no new dialogue options.) During the conversation, he asks whether I'm a virgin. It's an interesting question. I'm not, obviously, but I never thought about whether my character is. He didn't explicitly have sex with Princess Aiela in The Savage Empire, and he rejected the overtures of the gypsies in Ultima VI. He seems pretty old to be a virgin, but one wonders if things back on Earth even count. I mean, his power and skill all reset when he walks through the moongate; why not his virginity? I err on the side of saying no, and the damned horse actually has the nerve to accuse me of lying to avoid embarrassment! After my party has a good laugh at my expense, he confirms that I do regain my virginity upon entering the moongate.

Maybe I put that demon sword away too soon.
He then asks if I'm a virgin by choice or circumstance. I say "circumstance" because Jaana's in a relationship and I've otherwise been surrounded by men since I got here. Lasher offers to help and asks if I want love or lust. The real answer is that I want neither in a society that has yet to discover deodorant or razor blades, but I choose "love" and he directs me to Nastassia in Cove.
I've already met Nastassia, of course, but the conversation reminds me that I promised to find out what happened to her parents. We're going to make some spell and training stops along the way, but otherwise the next stop is Yew, city of Justice.
Time so far: 46 hours

Friday, June 26, 2020

Game 371: Amberstar (1992)

I suspect the title font is in amber, but someone let me know for sure.
Thalion Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 20 June 2020
Amberstar is the first game I can remember that starts better if you haven't read the manual. First of all, the manual is 168 pages--and it explains so little about what you experience in the game's opening hours that it might as well be written for a different game. Second, it sets up a less interesting quest than the game itself. The manual's story is all about the standard evil wizard trying to take over the world. The Amulet of Yendor that can stop him has been broken into 13 pieces, each one hidden somewhere across the land. Yawn. It made me realize that we have the terms Amulet of Yendor or MacGuffin for the Artifact That The Hero Must Find, but we need a separate term for when the MacGuffin is broken into multiple pieces.
Anyway, the actual game begins with no mention of any of this. Instead, the starting character is in a cemetery, mourning over (in my case) her parent's graves, recalling how they were recently murdered by a band of orcs attacking their carriage. Left with nothing to do, the character heads into the nearby city and starts looking for adventure.
The character is reminded of the backstory when she gets to her house.
If you read the manual, there's quite a bit of confusion at the beginning of the game when it comes to character creation. The manual tells you that you can have up to six characters, and it sets up a pretty standard Dungeons and Dragons-derived system for their creation. Races are human, elf, dwarf, gnome, halfling, half-elf, and "half-ork." Attributes are strength, intelligence, dexterity, speed, constitution, charisma, luck, magic resistance, and age. Races have the usual advantages with attributes (e.g., dwarves and half-orcs get the highest strength, halflings the highest dexterity, humans are average across the board); the highest value that anyone gets is 100.
Classes are warrior, "paladine," ranger, thief, monk, white wizard, grey wizard, and black wizard. The wizard classes are interesting. Like Thalion's previous Dragonflight (and, oddly, like Final Fantasy), magic is split into white (mostly healing) and black (mostly offensive) varieties. I figured "grey" wizards would be able to cast both, but it turns out they have their own set of spells, focused mostly on adventuring ("Light," "Magic Compass," "Identification") and buffing. Paladines get some white magic abilities, monks get some grey magic, and rangers get both white and grey. There are typical racial restrictions on classes. That is, humans get to be anything. Mages otherwise have to be elves, half-elves, or gnomes. Dwarves can only be warriors or monks, half-orks only warriors or thieves. That kind of thing.
This interesting screen precedes the more boring title screen.
There are ten derived skills: attack, parry, swim, listen, find traps, disarm traps, pick locks, search, read magic, and use magic. Thieves so far outclass anyone else for swim, listen, find traps, disarm traps, pick locks, and search that it seems foolish to travel without one, although both monks and rangers have some skill in those areas.
Anyway, most of this setup is ignored during actual character creation. You only get to make one character, and I guess it's a human since the attributes are all rolled on a scale of 60, but the race isn't specified anywhere on the character sheet. Neither is the class. She gets no initial magic statistic at all, nor any thief-specific or mage-specific skills. Your only choices are sex, name, and the ability to hit "reroll" as many times as you want for the initial attributes. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't create a six-character party, as I had a whole "color wheel" thing worked out, with characters named Violet, Indigo, Magenta, Vermillion, and Chartreuse. Then it turns out that the game only displays the first five letters, so I changed Violet to Viola.
Too bad no class favors both strength and intelligence.
The character starts in the city cemetery next to her parents' graves. She has clothes, shoes, a knife, and a small, random number of gold pieces. The cemetery is presented in top-down, iconographic form, but most of the rest of the city uses a first-person interface. Either way, movement is turn-based and tiled.
A little bit of backstory for the character.
The interface and I are going to struggle a bit before we come to some accord. I suspect the game really wants you to play with the mouse. To move, you can either click on the movement pad or on the map window itself, where the cursor changes to an arrow indicating direction of movement relative to the party's current position. If you right-click on the movement pad, other options appear: look, listen, talk, mount/dismount transport, cast spell, camp, automap, battle formation, and disk options. Clicking any of these might change the pad to show even more options. In any event, the numberpad on the keyboard always corresponds, positionally, to the buttons on the screen pad. So far, so good, but if you want to use the keyboard in conjunction with the mouse and you're right-handed, you have to awkwardly position your left hand on the numberpad while your right hand controls movement with the mouse. You don't want to control everything with the keyboard because constant switching between the action options and the movement options is annoying. I really need to invest in an external numberpad for times like this, but it would have been nice if the developers had mapped the action items to sensible keys, like L)ook and T)alk, or at least used the QWEASDZXC cluster as analogues for the action pad and left the numberpad for movement alone.
The options on the "action pad" change depending on what screen you're on.
Also annoying is that the "Look" and "Talk" commands bring up a cursor, which you then have to click on the object that you want to look at or talk to. Since you can only ever look at or talk to things immediately adjacent to the character, it would have been more intuitive to have the player specify a direction after using those options rather than clicking on something, particularly since it's easy to mis-click on the wrong thing. If you mis-click too close to the character, it opens the inventory screen, which is particularly annoying.
Viewing statues in Marillion's tomb.
The cemetery has some statues and gravestones that you can look at, plus a sub-area inside the Tomb of Sir Marillion. If you wander into the tomb, you find statues dedicated to Gala, the goddess of life, and Bala, the goddess of death. A memorial to Marillion says that "his life was dedicated to light and his soul will escape from the shadows." Marillion ties into the game's backstory, which has to do with the return, after a thousand years, of an ancient wizard named Tarbos. I'll summarize his full story--which takes up 79 pages of the manual--later on, but for now suffice to say that he was the mortal spawn of the King of Hell and he tried to conquer the world (called Lyramion) a millennium ago. A cabal of wizards gathered in the castle Godsbane and cast a spell that banished him to one of Lyramion's moons. Knowing that the only way for him to return is if someone cast a counterspell within Godsbane, the wizards magically sealed the castle with an artifact called the Amberstar, then divided the star into 13 pieces. A group of knights kept watch over the castle for the next thousand years. Recently, the castle was invaded by a dark wizard named Marmion, who killed the knights and their commander, Sir Marillion. Marmion used magic from the King of Hell to get into the castle without the Amberstar, so now someone needs to reunite the 13 pieces of the Amberstar to get back into the castle and stop him from performing the ritual to recall Tarbos. 
All of this is far in the future for our orphan, though, who leaves the top-down cemetery to find herself in a first-person city called Twinlake. A competent automap keeps track of where you've been but not the names of various locations and services, so I made my own. The map occupies 32 x 30 coordinates, but using worm tunnels and still leaving a lot of space unused.
My map of the opening city.
Twinlake has the usual slate of RPG services: a couple of shops, a healer, a food store, a stable, guilds for wizards and thieves, a sage to identify equipment, a tavern, and a store selling rafts. The PC's house is also here, and both it and the tavern switch to a top-down map for exploration. The textured corridors of the first-person section are pretty dull and featureless, so the game's approach seems to be to switch to an iconographic interface whenever it wants to do anything interesting. There are no combats in the city itself.
The automap works okay except that it shows nothing where the iconographic sections are.
There are a few NPCs wandering the corridors. Some of them offer only a quick scripted dialogue, but others allow you to ask about keywords, including an option to type in your own keyword if it's not on the list. While I like such keyword systems, this one seems to retain in the list every keyword that you've ever gotten from any NPC. This is a bit annoying because I feel like I have to click on each keyword just in case.
Speaking with the ghost of a dead knight, I still have options to ask about the COOK in the town's tavern.
A wizard warns me that magical items have limited charges. A ranger suggests I take unidentified items to sages and pay them to identify them. A guard warns me to avoid bubbles in swamps because they release deadly gases, and another guard warns me of orc activity north of Twinlake. A young girl named Sunny wants my help finding her lost cat, Felix, for which she promises to tell me a great secret.  The cat was lost near the cemetery. In a castle-looking configuration in the southeast of town, I run into Lord Karwain, apparently the ruler of the town, who is looking for someone to descend into the sewers, where something is stirring and soldiers have disappeared. 
The first major quest of the game.
My parents must have been pretty wealthy to have such a big house in the middle of the city. I entered using the key that came with the character; keys disappear when they fulfill their purpose, which would have been a nice addition to The Black Gate. There was one locked door in the house, but also a key to open it. Among the various rooms, I found a few hundred gold pieces, a set of chainmail, a short sword, a pair of boots, and a few other items. Right now, my undeclared character can't wear the armor or wield the sword. The family dog is still in the house, hanging around the kitchen, and I feel bad that I can't take him with me. Is he just going to starve to death?
My old bedroom.
It takes me a few minutes to get used to the game's inventory system. If you're going to make me use the mouse, then let me drag items from chests directly to my character portrait (like The Black Gate) rather than forcing me to click separate buttons for "take item out of the chest" or "put item in the chest" first. But there are things I like about it, particularly the ability to click with the eye icon on any object and get a full rundown of its statistics and what classes are able to wield it. A screen like this should be required by law in every CRPG. Not really, of course, because that would be a huge overreach of governmental powers, and impossible to enforce in an international industry, but you get what I mean. On the negative side, ammunition (arrows, sling stones) seem to show up as individual, unstackable objects, which I think might be a dealbreaker for using those weapons.
The short sword's stats show me exactly how much damage it can do and who can equip it.
The tavern was a large building also in iconographic form. Initiating conversation with NPCs is a bit different in this interface, but the result--including the selection of keywords--is the same. A beggar tells me that the ghost of Sir Marillion appears at his grave at midnight. A family friend invites me to make use of his father's old house, north of town, where many of his "inventions" still sit unused. A dwarf worries that all the orc and troll attacks lately heralds Tarbos's return. (The game is inconsistent in whether it's spelled "orc" or "ork," unless it intends two different creatures. I guess I'll use the standard spelling from now on.) One cook lost his ring down the drain (perhaps to be found in the sewers); the other wants me to retrieve a decent bottle of wine from the cellar, where something "large and slimy" has lately taken up residence.
Trying to talk to something in the tavern's kitchen. Maybe it was a cat.
Most important, I soon find my first companion: A shaggy-haired, mustachioed man incongruously named "Silk." Like me, he's an undeclared class. He's looking for the thieves' guild and wants to join. It just so happens I have already wandered through the illusory door to the thieves' guild accidentally, so I know where it is, but when I visit both it and the warriors' guild, the options to join are greyed out. I assume this is how you declare your class, and I further assume that we'll need some combination of experience or money before they'll let us in. I don't know where the other guilds are, so I wonder how long you have to play the game if you want the main character to be a "paladine" (the game is consistent about this, so I'll stop using quotes) or ranger or mage. 
We find the guild but not anything to do there.
The rumor about Marillion's ghost intrigues me, so I returned to the cemetery (also to search for Felix) and wait in Marillion's tomb until his ghost does, in fact, appear. Unfortunately, it just rants about the attack on Godsbane and doesn't have anything useful to offer. There's a locked door in the tomb, so I expect some later quest allows me to interact with him more productively and unlock this door. I don't see any sign of Felix.
Marillion is clearly reliving his death.
At this point, I already have four explicit quests:
  • Find Felix for Sunny
  • Figure out what's going on in the sewers for Lord Karwain
  • Find the cook's ring in the sewers
  • Get the wine bottle from the tavern cellars
I decide to try the tavern cellars first. I struggle with the interface for a while before I figure out how to light a torch. I don't see why clicking on it isn't enough; you have to click the "use" button first. 
Dungeon exploration is pretty straightforward. You get atmospheric messages as you move along. If you want to search something more thoroughly, you stop and hit the "eye" icon. The automap works as long as you have a light source. Unfortunately, torches don't last long, and I only started with two, so after the first dies, I light the second and make a rush back to the stairs. Clearly, I'll have to go to the store for more.
The game shows in its iconographic sections, tells in its first-person sections.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • There is only one save slot. Saving the game is bizarre when you have party members, because for some reason you also click on the "save" button to get rid of them. The game presents this to you with the question, "Would you like to let members of the group go?" and then presents two options: "Exit" and "OK." "OK" makes it sound like yes, you want to let members of the group go, but if you hit "Exit," you don't save. In fact, what "OK" does is get rid of members that you've selected while simultaneously saving, so to keep the party as-is, you just hit "OK" without selecting anyone. It's still ridiculously confusing like a lot of the interface.
How would you interpret this screen?
  • There's a day/night cycle, and NPCs in the iconographic parts of the game keep to a schedule, retiring to bed at night and moving about during the day. In the first-person side, NPCs are constantly present, but stores open and close based on the cycle. The character finds a magic painting in his house that changes based on whether it's day or night, allowing her to determine the rough time even in a dungeon, though I can't help but think a watch would have been more convenient.
Acquiring the useful-but-cumbersome painting.
  • There's a food system, but you don't have to eat to stave off hunger. Rather, you simply have to have food in your inventory if you want to regenerate hit points and spell points when you rest. Both only regenerate 10% even if you have food, so I assume there's going to be better mechanisms for this. There are pools in Sir Marillion's tomb that regenerate both, for instance.
  • If you decide you don't like your main character and change him or her during the game's opening stages, reloading your saved game will just replace the character but maintain your auto-map, dialogue keywords, and save position. I haven't tested how it affects gold or inventory, as I hadn't spent or acquired anything when I changed my character. I assume there's a point at which this is no longer possible.
  • I have a hard time spotting some doors in the iconographic sections. I have an equally hard time telling what some of the icons are supposed to be.
One of the tavern rooms. There's a door in the west wall.  There are tables with place settings on them, but what are the four objects lined up north-south on the right-hand side of the tables? And what is that thing in the far left-hand side of the screen?
  • The game apparently has no sound effects, just music. Town exploration is accompanied by a theme-and-variations composition. The theme is eight bars and goes through eight variations with different instrumentation and ornamentation. Each variation takes 10 seconds, and the A section is repeated, so you have 90 seconds of music before the piece cycles back to the beginning. I say all of this because the game gets praised for its music, and I wanted you to know I took time to listen and analyze before turning it off permanently.
It always feels incomplete when I don't have the opportunity to even taste combat for the first entry, but this was already getting pretty long.
I end where I started: This is a promising beginning to a game that would be more promising if I didn't already know it was going to devolve into a quest to collect 13 pieces of something to save the world. My idea of a perfect RPG is one in which my highborn ingénue, now forced to fend for herself in the real world, slowly develops the skills she needs to survive, assembles a team around her, and solves local problems until she's strong enough to take on the orc band that killed her parents. Take her from Level 1 to Level 8 during this process and leave plenty of room for continued growth in the sequel.
This is the type of quest I enjoy.
The only thing I can hope now is that the game doesn't make the collection of the 13 pieces completely uniform and bloodless. Like each one is at the bottom of a 10-level dungeon. That would suck. A couple ought to be at the bottom of 10-level dungeons. A couple ought to be acquired by solving some kind of puzzle. A couple ought to be for sale. Mix it up. Keep the player guessing. Let him hope that the next one might be easy. Ultima VI did it well with the map quest, for instance. At first, I had some hope that the entire trilogy would be about finding the 13 pieces, and Amberstar was just the beginning, but a premature trip to Wikipedia killed that theory.
At least the game understands the concept of "side quests." As I return to the rich world of Britannia, I'm reminded that ORIGIN never really got that concept right, not even in The Black Gate, which admittedly has more than the previous titles in the series.
Time so far: 3 hours


Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Black Gate: La Forge

I have a feeling we're going to regret this.
So far in our chronology, expansions have been rare enough that we haven't devoted any significant time to them. Although not common, they are nearly as old as CRPGs themselves. The first that I can identify for sure are two 1981 games in the Dunjonquest series: the Upper Reaches of Apshai expansion to Temple of Apshai (1979) and the Keys of Acheron expansion to Hellfire Warrior (1980). Only shortly after those came the second and third Wizardry scenarios (1982 and 1983). They are now known colloquially as Wizardry II and Wizardry III, and later titles would continue from that numbering, but the original releases required the original Wizardry to create characters.
Lots of other games have lacked expansions as such but have been modular from the start, such as Eamon (1980) and its various clones. And of course outside of the CRPG genre, expansions go arguably back to 1976, when Advanced Electronics released Pong Extras for the pong console.
We have also seen in this era some confusion between the term "expansion" and wholly original games. For instance, the Bloodwych Data Disks (1990) are often given as an expansion of the original game, but my reading of the description is that the disks contain standalone executable files that read saved games from Bloodwych and offer more levels. I only consider a game an "expansion" if it requires the original game installation to run.
Thus, Forge of Virtue doesn't earn any extra points for being the first expansion. But aside from the modular titles in which you could move characters in and out of different adventures at will, Forge of Virtue might be the first "interlocutory expansion"--that is, taking place entirely within the context of the original adventure. (We can come up with a better term.) The opposite would be "coda expansions," which take place after the main quest and generally can only be played after solving it (e.g., most of Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal). There are of course still others that allow the player to choose either way (The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone), and others beyond that that stand completely separate from the main title (Assassin's Creed IV: Freedom Cry). There are weird combinations such as Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening, which can be a coda expansion or a standalone expansion depending on how the main plot went, or the "Watcher's Keep" part of Throne of Bhaal, which is an interlocutory expansion to a coda expansion that can also be an interlocutory expansion to the original game.

Interlocutory expansions are tricky because developers can't gauge exactly where the player will be when he begins the expansion. What they can gauge is how the expansion will affect the character for the rest of the main game, and the answer is almost always that it overpowers him. Such is the case with Forge of Virtue, as we'll see.
Heaven knows why ORIGIN decided that Ultima VII needed a few extra hours of content, or why they thought the Avatar needed even more power. The game isn't that hard as it is. I've heard cynical theories that the original game was so bugged that the company came up with the "expansion" idea as a way to deliver crucial patches while getting players to pay extra for them. In a contemporary interview with Warren Spector published in Game Bytes magazine, he had no explanation other than, "Someone realized we could do it, and so they did it." If anyone knows of any source that explains Forge of Virtue better, please link it.
The expansion is introduced into the main game in the clumsiest way. The Avatar has just arrived in Trinsic and is just beginning to hear about the murders and absorb that it's been 200 years, and then suddenly there's an earthquake. Way to pile it on. As you recall, once the Avatar reaches Lord British, the king has this to say:
The foundation of Britannia was shaken with the rising of an island. This event was no random disaster, it was one of sorcerous intent . . . I felt a great disturbance in the ether when this island arose from the sea. The island is none other than the Isle of Fire where thou defeated the Hellspawn Exodus . . . Avatar, thou shouldst know that when I created the shrines of the Virtues, I also set upon this island three great shrines, dedicated to the Principles of Truth, Love, and Courage. They reside within the walls of the Castle of Fire. I never revealed this to thee before as I thought them forever lost when the Isle of Fire mysteriously sank beneath the waves. The shrines are meant for the use of an Avatar only, and therefore a talisman will be necessary to use one. The talismans are guarded by tests that thou shouldst have no problem passing if thou wishest to seek their counsel.
There's a boatload of retconning in that paragraph. Originally, the shrines of virtue were created after the events of Exodus: Ultima III, and thus after the Isle of Fire originally sank after Exodus's defeat. The entire world has been reconfigured since the events of Ultima III, so it's hard to believe, geologically, that this is the same island even if it could somehow be determined by geography. Third, there was no Avatar before the events of Ultima IV, so the shrines would have been useless (none of the other shrines require you to already be an avatar to visit). Fourth, it wouldn't make any sense to lump three shrines to the principles of virtue in one place; it would have made more sense to co-locate them with the Lycaeum, Empath Abbey, and Serpent's Hold, just as the shrines of virtue were co-located with the towns that exemplified them.
If you can ignore all that, it's not a bad opener for a plot. The true nature of Exodus has always been a bit of a mystery. Was he man, machine, or a combination? Was the computer in which I fed the data disks Exodus himself, or was it just controlling him? Either way, his defeat definitely felt less complete than that of Mondain or Minax. I could see their heads fly off their bodies (I imagine), but Exodus just . . . sank. The endgame text even takes care to specify that he was "defeated"--not killed. His return is the least implausible thing about this backstory.
Lord British unnecessarily gives you his ship, docked in Vesper, to travel the five paces between the mainland and the Isle of Fire. Even if you didn't finish the expansion, this already makes the game a lot easier because it saves you from buying a ship (admittedly, if you grab the magic carpet early, it hardly matters), not to mention all the stuff that its holds are stocked with. The king also gave me a "focused magic crystal" that's supposed to do something on the island.
The healing potions are nice, but why did Lord British have so much hooch stashed on his ship?
I was originally going to save my visit to the Isle of Fire for late in the game, but an organic reason to visit came up earlier: I can't defeat the demon guardian of the blackrock generator. Mages, friends, people I love, are suffering migraines so bad that they're going insane, and I need to stop it as soon as possible. If I can't defeat the guardian with my current skill set, that means powering up as soon as possible. And although the Avatar doesn't know exactly what he'll find on the Isle of Fire, his experience in the past has been that most shrines confer some benefits, as do the former lairs of evil overlords. 
Just so I can say I sailed a ship briefly, I land the magic carpet in Vesper and take the Golden Ankh to the Isle of Fire. You sail a ship in this game by boarding it, double-clicking the gangplank to raise it, double-clicking the mast to prompt everyone to sit down, and double-clicking the sail to unfurl it. Then you can go in any direction with the regular movement keys; you don't have to worry about wind direction or speed as in some of the earlier Ultimas. I guess the Avatar finally learned how to tack. You reverse this process when you arrive. You have to pull the ship up to some place that has accessible land on the other side of one of the gangplanks and then drop one of them. 
The Isle of Fire has no dock, so I pull up to a marshy area and let everyone off there. The arrival area is a small inner bay with a half circle of land around it. At its apex is a ruined fortress covered with ash and ruined iron, although somehow torches are burning. There's a moongate nearby, and entering deposits me outside the entrance to the Lycaeum. I reload and continue into the keep.
Looks a bit different from when we last visited.
The entry hall leads back to a room with three statues: a maiden, a knight with a sword, and an old man in a robe. I temporarily leave them to scout the rest of the structure, which has a number of portals and dragon statues.
In a western bedroom, we find an old blind man named Erethian. He knows who I am immediately, recounting my victories against the triad of evil in the first three games. He claims to be a researcher, recently arrived, which starts to explain why his food, furnishings, and books aren't hopelessly waterlogged, but then he goes on to claim he's found many interesting books in the keep. He gets tetchy when I question how books are useful to a blind man.
Almost immediately, he confirms that "the machine that [I] destroyed was Exodus's means of communication with and control of the world," not Exodus himself. The computer was a bridge between Exodus's psyche and an evil database called the "Dark Core," which blended mundane information with knowledge of taking over the world. He confirms that the gargoyles imprisoned Exodus's psyche in the Statue of Diligence. A book in his room called The Dark Core of Exodus elaborates on these theories. (The Books of Britannia entry has been updated with two books by Erethian: Converting Moongates to Thine Own Use, The Dark Core of Exodus, and one by "R. Allen G.": Ethical Hedonism.)

Erethian suggests several times that he knows me better than makes sense; that he saw me defeat the triad close-up; that he knew them personally. He makes asides about Iolo's bardic abilities and the Avatar's tendency to steal artifacts for his own use. At the same time, he seems unaware that the gargoyle world is gone, and he suggests that it was never daemons with which gargoyles were confused but balrons. I believe the creatures last appeared in Ultima IV.
Canon in the making.
Erethian is the putative author of the expansion's manual, A Guide to the Isle of Fire. I'd have mentioned this book at the beginning, but it's unclear exactly when the Avatar is supposed to have acquired it, so I'm assuming we found it in Erethian's room. The book deals with a few of my "retcon" objections. It claims that Lord British built the shrines to the three principles of virtue on the Isle of Fire at the same time he created the eight shrines of virtue. (Previous sources have suggested the Great Council created the shrines, but the statements aren't irreconcilable. I assume it was a collaborative effort; that Lord British directed the project and the Council did the work.) While the shrines of virtue were meant to help produce the Avatar, the three shrines to the principles were to help serve the Avatar, and thus were protected by beasts and traps that only the Avatar could solve. As for the Isle of Fire sinking, I guess I was relying on a faulty memory. Nothing at the end of Ultima III says that it sank, and neither does anything in the backstory of Ultima IV. Thus, it could have sunk days before the Avatar arrived for the fourth game. Erethian thinks it sank because of the gargoyles' removal of Exodus's psyche, although he doesn't specify the mechanism by which this would happen.
Yeah, when I need them to save the world.
Erethian claims in the manual to have started studying the Isle of Fire using an enchantment that allows him to breathe underwater. After he found Exodus's Dark Core, he used the lenses to view the Codex and see how to raise the island from the depths. Thus, Erethian takes responsibility for the events of the expansion.

We return to the statue room and speak to the old man in front of us, assuming he represents truth. He introduces himself as the Keeper of Truth and asks if we seek the "wisdom and boon" of Truth. We say yes and are teleported to a small room with a moongate and two plaques. The plaques read: "Truth is truth" and "Only appearances are deceptive." The south wall of the room turns out to be illusory.  It leads to a series of invisible corridors through which we have to travel before we come to a door operated by a switch. On the other side is the Talisman of Truth. Picking up the artifact, we are teleported back to the statues, where the Keeper of Truth says that we have "mastered the path of truth." He raises the Avatar's intelligence and magic to 30 (the maximum), warns us that "the psyche returns to the core," and falls silent.
Guys, did that seem a little too easy to anyone else?
The statue of the woman tells us to enter the portal to the south for the Test of Love. We find ourselves in a valley with a small hut. A logbook written by the hut's former owner, Astelleron (mentioned in Erethian's history), tells of how he lived on the island and created two golems to protect the shrine. The golems were originally unthinking machines, but Astelleron managed to use some artifact called the Stone of Castambre to imbue then with intelligence and reason. Astelleron has apparently died; a gravestone behind the hut reads HERE LIES BELOVED FATHER AND MASTER.
I don't know. Was he a confederate general?
We find the golems, one of them dead and broken in a circle of stones, the other standing mournfully over him. The intact golem, introducing himself as Bollux, pleas for help. He explains that a wall fell on his brother, Adjhar, destroying him. He hands us one of Astelleron's books, which explains how the Stone of Castambre can be used to animate golems and other inanimate objects. It outlines a process:

1. Find the Stone of Castambre, which should be located in the center of a group of five boulders, with a tree growing out of it.

2. Place something (it was smudged) within the chest of the creature

3. Use a pick-axe to strike the tree and fill a bucket with the tree's blood.

4. Set down five rocks in a pentagram shape around the creature. Anoint each with blood from the bucket.

5. Cast VAS FLAM UUS on each puddle of blood while chanting some sacred words. Fortunately, VAS FLAM UUS is contained within the book.

We grab a bucket at Astelleron's old well. A mountain pass leads into an old mine, where we find a pick-axe. At the end of the pass, a teleporter brings us to a separate valley, where we find the Stone of Castambre and the tree growing out of it. Then next step takes a while because I'm first convinced I have to get up to the level of the tree, so I waste a lot of time trying to stack powder barrels to make stairs (this works with regular barrels but not powder barrels). I then equip the pick-axe and try attacking the tree in combat instead of double-clicking on it to use it. Finally, I figure it out and get my bucket of blood.
The deer was tempting, as I was low on food, but I figure you don't kill helpless forest creatures during the Test of Love.
I still don't know exactly what to place in the golem's chest, so I start the ritual without it, pouring blood on each of the five stones that someone (Bollux?) has prophetically placed around the body. I then cast VAAS FLAM UUS. As I do so, Iolo remarks that we'll need a heart, and Bollux immediately volunteers his own, digging it out of his chest and collapsing to the ground.
Technically, this qualifies more as "sacrifice."
We place the heart in the body and finish the incantation, which causes Adjhar to awaken. Adjhar, created second, is the more articulate of the two golems. Seeing Bollux's body, he demands to know what has happened. When we tell him, he asks for our assistance in restoring Bollux to life. At first, I'm worried I'm going to be stuck swapping hearts and collecting blood for eternity (Iolo even makes a joke about this), but it turns out we can fashion a new one with a chunk from the tree.
Too soon, Iolo.
Back we go to carve the heart and collect the blood. (The tree is looking a bit sickly by this point.) We repeat the ritual, and soon both golem brothers are standing before us. Adjhar happily gives us the Talisman of Love, as we have demonstrated an understanding of the principle. That raises a question: Was Adjhar really injured in a fall? Or was all of this just a test? If the former, what did the original test look like?

The Keeper of Love bestows 30 dexterity and combat on me and warns me about an evil stirring in Britannia.
Yes, I'm sure two golem brothers encompass "all that is love."
Third comes the Keeper of Courage, who again asks me to enter a teleporter. On the way, I happen to pass a mirror full of swirling colors. I double-click on it. A demonic face appears and calls me "master" before realizing that I'm not, in fact, his master. Recovering from his faux pas, he introduces himself as Arcadion. He says that he's served Erethian for 200 years, and he clearly hates the mage. Erethian, meanwhile, is clearly up to something he hasn't let on.
Give it a few minutes.
We return to Erethian, expecting to somehow "expose" him, but he agrees freely to possessing the creature, saying that he is "sometimes useful." Apparently, Arcadion is keen to possess the Ether Gem, which he thinks will free him, but Erethian insists that it will just confine him to a "more mobile prison." In any event, a dragon apparently burst into the castle and stole the Ether Gem some time ago before disappearing into the Test of Courage. This accounts for the damage and debris in the rooms leading to the teleporter.
Yes, it's too bad you don't have a better relationship with your demon.
We take the teleporter to the Test of Courage, which turns out to be the hardest of the tests--hard enough that I probably would have done less reloading if I'd just stayed at the Tetrahedron Generator and kept trying to defeat the guardian. The hardest part is near the beginning--a large room full of the remains of previous adventurers, in which skeletons and headless spring to life, a mage casts spells from the center, and a lich casts spells from an area to the north. Even worse, the lich is protected by some kind of ring of candles, so he can't be engaged.
The mage has in his possession the key to the next door, so his body must be identified and looted before progressing to the next section of the dungeon. Meanwhile, flames are burning everywhere for no reason and there are two red moongates in the lower corners of the room.
Trying to get through this room with my entire party alive reminds me why people hate combat in this game. In previous entries, I suggested it wasn't so bad, but I recant those statements. The primary problem is that you cannot keep your party in any kind of sensible formation. The moment combat begins, they go storming off in every direction. Party members with missile weapons become convinced they need more room and go tearing off in search of a better vantage. Anyone with combat settings for "hardest foe" or "easiest foe" or "random foe" will go charging after distant enemies--sometimes ones on another screen entirely. The only way you can keep people remotely together is to have everyone target the "closest" enemy, but even then, some party members have an odd idea of "closest." Then they decide to flee when they take too much damage--sometimes--but they have no discernment while fleeing and often flee right into the path of other enemies or into patches of fire, where they enter a never-ending cycle of falling unconscious from the fire damage, slowly regenerating health (characters don't take damage while unconscious, even if they're sleeping in fire), waking up, taking damage, and immediately falling unconscious again.
This room has a lot happening.
Enemies in this room seem to spawn more or less continually, so I'm trying to herd everyone through the room while still killing the mage and anyone else who's a direct threat. The only way I can do this is to periodically exit combat, which causes everyone to rush back into formation, and then enter it again.

The issue isn't that it's hard to win; it's that it's hard to win while keeping everyone alive. The more characters you have, the stronger your party is collectively, but the greater chance that someone doesn't survive a tough combat. Not for the first time, I wonder why ORIGIN allowed you to select individual party members in Ultima VI but not VII. With that option, I could hustle some characters across the room while others fight. I could leave most of them around the corner and send one character forth to lure enemies one-by-one. Instead, I'm reduced to a lot of reloading. I can't tell you how sick I am of hearing the Guardian say, "Poor Avatar. Poor, poor Avatar" before waking up in Paws.
At least there's some good equipment in the room.
All of this complaining should be tempered, of course, by the knowledge that I'm in Forge of Virtue a bit earlier than the game probably intended, so the particular difficulty of this dungeon is by design. Eventually, I do get everyone through the room, picking up a lot of valuable magic armor from the corpses on the way. We unlock the door and continue down the corridors.
The rest of the dungeon has a few switch puzzles, giant spiders, giant scorpions, and other creatures before we reach the end. There are a couple of puzzles in which you have to sacrifice magic gear (although you find the gear in the same dungeon, so it's really a draw).

There's a room with a couple of dragons before the final room with the dragon. I think I'm being clever by using a Potion of Sleeping and a vial of sleeping powder on the dragons, knocking them out long enough for my party to administer a couple of coups de grâce and then looting their corpses for gems. Then I encounter a locked door that requires the same key used on the first door, which I left behind. By the time I return, the dragons have respawned and I have to defeat them "for real" this time.
I thought I was so clever.
In the final room, we meet the dragon Dracothraxus, who indicates that he's the final test of courage. We're plainly meant to defeat him with a glass sword found on a charred body within the chamber, but I don't find it until after we've won with regular weapons. This only takes one try, which surprises me given how hard the first room was.
The true Test of Courage.
For our victory, Dracothraxus gives us the Ether Gem and says that we won't have passed the Test of Courage until we defeat him for good, which will require an artifact that doesn't exist. This doesn't make a lot of sense given that Dracothraxus forced his way into the test, but whatever. We have to walk back through the dungeon--fighting the dragons a third time--to return to the castle.
Back in the fortress, Erethian tells us that the artifact of power we're looking for is probably a giant blackrock sword, which he once attempted to make but lacked the strength to properly forge it. He waves his hands and magically summons a blacksmith's workshop in the entry hall of the castle, including a well and bucket, a trough, a hearth full of coal, a hammer, an anvil; a bellows, and the sword blank he'd previously attempted. It's not that I don't appreciate the help, but this part seems far too easy. I think I might have preferred if I'd had to take the sword back to the mainland, find a forge, and figure it out for myself.
Erethian, acting as the deus ex caminus.
There's a lot of trial and error in the ensuing process. The winning sequence goes: Fill the bucket a few times at the well and dump it into the trough; put the sword blank across the hearth; pump the bellows until the sword is glowing bright; put the sword on the anvil; beat it with the hammer; repeat the process until the game tells you you've done as much as you can; heat up the sword one last time; douse the sword in the trough. For a game that allows you to do so much with the environment it is unnecessarily finicky with the controls during this process. You can't manually pick up the sword and move it to the anvil; you have to double-click on it and then click on the anvil. You can't equip the hammer and then attack the sword as in combat; you have to double-click the hammer and then click on the sword. And the first few times you heat it up and pound at it on the anvil, there's no encouragement that you're doing the right thing.
The Avatar hammers the blackrock sword.
When it's all done, the game tells us that the sword is too heavy to wield, so back we go to Erethian for advice. He suggests binding Arcadion to the Ether Gem and then binding that to the sword. This is supposed to be as easy as holding the gem in my hand and smashing the mirror, but here I run into significant problems. It turns out the Ether Gem is about the size of a marble, nearly impossible to find in my backpack, and at the same time I never really looked at the gem that Lord British gave us. I confuse that gem for the Ether Gem and keep trying to use it, which keeps causing it to shatter. It takes loads of time and a YouTube video to figure out what I'm doing wrong. Afterwards, I do it right--but what the heck is the purpose of the gem Lord British gave us?
Denial to acceptance in a few words.
Arcadion is at first delighted to be freed from the mirror. He then swiftly goes through the five stages of grief as he realizes he's trapped in a gem. In the resulting conversation, I order him to bind with the sword, which then becomes usable as a weapon. I can talk to Arcadion at any time by double-clicking on the sword in my inventory. It allows me to call up on special abilities titled "magic," "death," "fire," and "return," all of which I need to experiment with more.
We return to the Trial of Courage, fight our way through the monsters a second time, and confront Dracothraxus again. He and Arcadion have some dialogue indicating that they're old enemies as the battle commences. I defeat the dragon without much trouble and he departs, giving us access to a northern room with the Talisman of Courage.
A little smack talk before the rumble.
We are teleported back to the room with the three statues, where the Avatar's strength is raised to 30. The Keeper of Courage then demands that the Avatar seek the Talisman of Infinity.
Erethian again fills us in: If we focus the convex and concave lenses on the combined Talismans of Truth, Love, and Courage, it will call the Talisman of Infinity from the void. "Once here," he says, "it would seem that its sole purpose is to coerce a powerful force into the void." He suddenly realizes what that "powerful force" might be and shuts down, but Arcadion pipes up and fills us in on how to perform the rest of the ritual.
The persistence of NAME and JOB when talking to a sword belie the Avatar's newly-increased intelligence.
We have to take the Golden Ankh to Britain to grab the two lenses from the museum, then head back to the Isle of Fire.
These don't really belong in a museum anyway.
Back in the fortress, we arrange the Talismans as instructed on top of the Dark Core. (Until this point, I didn't even realize it was the Dark Core. I thought it was just a pedestal.) The Talisman of Infinity appears long enough to snatch the Core into the abyss. Erethian teleports in, enraged, and tries to cast VAS ORT REL TYM, which means something like "through great magic, change time," but his spell backfires and reduces him to some bones scattered across the floor.
The Talisman does its job while the bones of Erethian litter the floor above it.
We sail back to Vesper, board the carpet, travel to Britain, wake up Lord British, and tell him the news. As a reward, he doubles my strength to 60. And thus the Forge of Virtue ends.
What if Exodus had returned and the Guardian invaded at the same time? That would have been interesting.
I have to say, as much as I've enjoyed Ultima VII so far, there wasn't much that I liked about the expansion. The backstory started out promising, but then the game started playing me instead of vice versa. There was too much exposition from Erethian, his instructions were too explicit, and the resolution of his story was unsatisfying. I had hoped that it would turn out that he was Exodus--or at least his psyche--trying to figure out how to reunite with his "Dark Core." Something needed to explain the mage's familiarity with Mondain and Minax and other mysteries in his backstory.
If Lord British is going to keep to one side of his king-sized bed, I don't see why I shouldn't crawl in next to him.
Finally, while it's nice to leave an expansion with some improved stats and gear, this one goes way too far. The Avatar's dexterity, intelligence, magic, and combat all doubled, and his strength quadrupled. There's no point in any further training or development for the Avatar, except for leveling so he can cast higher-level spells. And honestly, if you have a weapon this powerful, is it really necessary to make it capable of a "Death" spell, too?
My character at the end of the session.
But of course I knew most of these things going in, so I can't complain too much. The trip serves its purpose. After our visit to Britain--where we return the two lenses, as well as cash in our accumulated gems and gold nuggets--we return to the Dungeon Deceit and the Tetrahedron Generator. The Avatar goes in and its guardian dies in a couple of hits from the sword. The Generator is destroyed.
You'll have to take my word for it. I would trade every spell that sword is capable of casting for a permanent "Light" spell.
We cap this expedition with a return to Moonglow. Mariah is her old self, no longer confused or insane, although her character graphic still suggests she hasn't slept, bathed, changed, or combed her hair in a while. She thanks me for restoring magic, as does Penumbra.
The way you know is that no one else ever solves any problems in Britannia.
I think it's finally time to move on to Jhelom and Dupre, and to test out our new sword in the Dungeon Destard.

Time so far: 40 hours