Wednesday, June 29, 2022

BRIEF: Ultima: Runes of Virtue (1991) and Ultima: Runes of Virtue II (1993)

This is, specifically, the Rune of Spirituality.
Ultima: Runes of Virtue
United States
Origin Systems (developer); FCI (publisher)
Released 1991 for Game Boy
Rejected for: Insufficient character development
Ultima: Runes of Virtue II
United States
Origin Systems (developer); FCI (publisher)
Released 1993 for Game Boy, 1994 for SNES
Rejected for: Insufficient character development
The Ultima series has been such a big part of my life for 40 years that exploring new territory offers a certain thrill, even if I suspect the game is going to suck. I watched some footage of Ultima IX the other day, and even knowing its reputation, it was all I could do not to download and install it. Knowing it was too soon for that game, and also too soon to jump into Ultima VII, Part 2, my mind dredged up this Runes of Virtue from 1991. I've seen it described as "non-canonical," but Origin made it themselves, which is more than you can say about either Ultima Underworld. David ("Dr. Cat") Shapiro led the design team, Richard Garriott is listed as "creative director," and Dallas Snell produced it. That's a pretty solid set of bona fides.
Is the loss of the runes really that bad? Can't we just make new ones?
Both games use characters from Ultima VI: The False Prophet; even in the sequel, you won't find any references to the Guardian. (For more on the timeline, see the discussion below.) The (refreshing) surprise is that the Avatar is nowhere to be found. The hero is one or two of the Avatar's companions (you can tether two Game Boys together to play it cooperatively) from among four selections: Mariah, Iolo, Dupre (described as a fighter rather than a paladin), and Shamino. Each starts with different values in strength, intelligence, and dexterity, and with different weapons. Shamino's evenly-balanced statistics (15 each) and magic throwing axe lured me right away. 
Character selection.
After specifying the character, you input your initials and then choose a difficulty level from "easy," "medium," and "hard." These are differentiated by what happens when you die. On "easy," you just get kicked back to the beginning of your current level; on "medium," you respawn out on the surface of Britannia; "hard" is the same as "medium" except that you lose all food, potions, and gold. I played on "medium." The game otherwise autosaves as you transition areas, so it's essentially impossible to lose your progress.
The backstory is simple: A villain called the Black Knight has stolen the eight Runes of Virtue from Lord British's castle. You have to head out and recover them. I don't see any problems with canon there, particularly if we interpret "castle" to mean the museum at the castle, where the runes canonically ended up after the events of Ultima VI. We might even imagine that the donation to the museum took a while, and they were kept in the castle in the meantime. I've never heard of the Black Knight before, but then again I'd never heard of Blackthorn or gargoyles until the games had need of them.
Alas, our ability to merge the game with previous canon doesn't last any longer than the map on Page 12 of the manual. The game has the main continent, Verity Isle (Moonglow and the Lycaeum), the Isle of Deeds (Serpent's Hold), the Valorian Isles (Jhelom), and the Isle of the Avatar (Abyss), just like Ultima VI, but the main continent is shrunk and compressed so that it's no larger than any of the other islands. Beyond that, everything is in roughly the same positions. The dungeon names, which were always meant to contrast with the associated virtues (e.g., Deceit, Wrong) or at least evoke such contrast (e.g., Destard), have almost all been renamed to more obvious versions of their original names: Deceit (the only one to stay the same), Hatred, Cowardice, Injustice, Dishonor, Selfishness, and Pride.
This map is just unsupportable.
The game begins outside Lord British's Castle. Chuckles is in the foyer, telling me not to listen to Lord British and that I can go to any cavern I want. What he means becomes clear when I speak to Lord British, and he tells me to seek the Rune of Compassion in the cavern of Hatred due north. My guess is that Lord British gives the suggested order to recover the runes but you don't necessarily have to follow it.
The game begins outside the castle in a horizontally-squished main continent.
The castle is only one small level, but it has up and down ladders. Upstairs, Sherry the Mouse tells me that you can shoot webs to get rid of them, but tough ones need a Wand of Fireballs. Penumbra, standing next to a secret door, alerts me that they look similar to walls. They're easier to spot here than in Ultima IV. The basement seems to have no purpose at all. 

Near the castle is a couple of shops, both run by a guy named Gnu Gnu. You buy items just by walking into them. Most of the controls in the game are simplified like that: you open doors, open chests, speak to NPCs, trip levers, and push objects simply by walking into them. The only reasons you have to use the buttons are to attack and/or cast a spell; the two buttons essentially represent your two hands. There's a Zelda-esque (or perhaps I should say "hydlike") quality to the game, but it's important to remember that Shapiro was making this kind of game all the way back in 1982, with Caverns of Freitag.
However, the victory screen you get when recovering each rune is clearly referencing Zelda and Link's recovery of each piece of the tri-force.
Outside, I head to the dungeon Hatred. I'm not at all prepared for what follows. The dungeon has multiple levels, though each level is not much larger than about four game screens. In addition to enemies, it is absolutely chock full of puzzles: switches, teleporters, pressure plates, barrels and boulders that you have to push, keys, ladders, secret doors. Some examples of the puzzles in this one dungeon alone include:
  • A lever that turns various "Xes" on the ground into boulders. A second lever turns them into portals. You must use the first, then push the boulders into a couple of dead-ends, then use the second lever so you can portal through those dead ends.
Pushing boulders into corners so I can later turn them into portals. Dr. Cat looks on.
  • A set of portcullises that open and close at intervals. Nearby, a demon throws javelins at you. You have to avoid the javelins while staying near the portcullises for when they open.
  • Entire lines of teleporters with arrows indicating the direction you'll be sent. You have to interpret these and enter the right points to wind up at the right destinations.
  • Mushrooms that change objects into other objects when you eat them.
Nonsensically, the NPCs you meet in towns and castles often show up at various points in the dungeon to give you hints. Sherry the Mouse and Dr. Cat usher you through Hatred, for instance. There are also occasional signs to give you hints.
Why are you even here?
In one large area, Hatred has an "arena" that seems to have no purpose except to allow the player to watch different enemies fight each other. Enemies wounding and killing each other is possible in this engine, and indeed some puzzles seem to assume you're going to let them kill each other while you dart out of the way.
Many of the puzzles are clever, and although I had trouble with a few of them, I had some fun figuring out the solutions. What I had a lot less fun with were the enemies: bats, giant rats, skeletons, reapers, trolls, and tigers. They reduced my health (represented by hearts) shockingly fast, and I found the weapon controls maddeningly unresponsive. There's a pause after you turn before you can successfully attack. Worse, the magic throwing axe turned out to be a horrible idea, because until it finds its target, you can't attack again. Miss an enemy, and you're standing there defenseless until it hits the nearest wall.
I hesitate before stepping on a pressure plate. A reaper fires a missile in the corridor below me.
There are hearts strategically located in the dungeons to replenish health, and stars to replenish magic, and coins to let you purchase better items at the shops. On one reload (outside the cavern), I went and bought some leather armor, but it didn't do much good.
I got stuck on a particularly difficult puzzle just before acquiring the Rune of Compassion. There were three rows of obstacles in my way: closed portcullises, stone heads, and water. Nearby pressure plates turned some of these items into other items, like open portcullises or grass, but I couldn't find a combination that "opened" all of them, and I kept getting hit with projectiles fired by reapers on the other side. Finally, I realized that some of my flailing around had caused a corridor to my north to collapse, allowing passage to a new area. There, I found a mushroom. Eating it turned stone heads into grass. So I had to just find the pressure plate combination that left me with nothing but stone heads, then go eat the mushroom.
This puzzle was fiendish--and it was early in the game.
On the other side, I found the Rune of Compassion flanked by two reapers. By this point, I was on Level 4 or 5 of the dungeon and had abandoned any pretense of following the game's normal reloading system. I was using save states to ensure I didn't have to travel the entire dungeon again every time I died. But even that wasn't enough. I got killed by a reaper, managed to hit the key combo for "save" rather than "load," thus saving my state on the "game over" screen. About this time, I decided this game wasn't for me.
Upon the Plains of Hesitation bleach the bones of countless millions who, upon achieving the threshold of victory, sat down to wait, and there waiting, died.
I had an "out" anyway--Runes of Virtue is not an RPG by my definitions. Improvements to the character only come from finding runes (which give you attribute boosts and health), allowing the player no control over the "rate or details" of development. Except when they drop the occasional heart or coin, killing enemies does nothing for you except get them out of your way. As I noted when I coined the term "hydlike," many of the games in this sub-genre fall on the "non-RPG" side of the line.
The attributes on the character sheet increase, but only at fixed intervals over which you have no control.
To fill in the rest of my knowledge about the series, I watched YouTube videos of completed runs and shamelessly grabbed a few screenshots. (Credits go to spoon shiro's coverage of Runes of Virtue, Tork110's playthrough of Runes of Virtue II on the Game Boy, and GamingWith Zack's series on Runes of Virtue II on the SNES.) I was mostly looking for bits of dialogue that added lore to the series, and the exercise was mostly a waste of time. The NPCs you encounter . . . I was going to say they're the least "believable" of the series, but perhaps a better way to say it is that they have the least gravitas. They include Sherry, Chuckles, Dr. Cat, Finn (the vagrant who claims to be Lord British), Zoltan, and Klip-Klop, the two-headed horse. They're somehow more cartoonish here than in Ultima VI, where they were already pretty silly. They say things like, "One door leads to a beautiful lady, the other to a fierce tiger!" or  "The Xs in the cavern will teleport you back here!," not "Lord British is Shamino's illegitimate son!" or "Mondain was a Lord of the Sith!"
Inventory upgrades seem to be a major part of gameplay, including some that are necessary to get through the dungeons. For instance, a magic rope, for some reason, lets you walk on water. Like NPCs, enemies are mostly drawn from Ultima canon. Wisps become enemies again for the first time since Ultima V. Mimics, sea serpents, seahorses, and squids are all back. Gremlins are here, stealing your food again, and slimes do their dividing trick. Dragons act like they do in Dr. Cat's Caverns of Freitag, lurking in alcoves and breathing fireballs down adjacent corridors. I think the only completely original enemies--sounding exactly like something Dr. Cat would come up with--are "eep eeps," infuriatingly annoying foes who do nothing but stand in your way and take you to a dialogue screen that says "Eep? Eep eep!" if you happen to bump into them.
Fighting a dragon in a roomful of pressure plates.
The puzzles and enemies naturally get more difficult as the player moves forward, but so does the strength of the character and some of the resources. A lot of the puzzles involve mazes of directional teleporters that you have to interpret, manipulate (changing the direction of some of the teleporters), or block. At least one puzzle requires you to shoot something while you're being teleported across multiple pads.
An extreme version of this kind of maze.
Except for the first two dungeons--Hatred and Deceit--Lord British sends the player to the dungeons in the standard virtue order. Each one holds one of the runes. You transition between islands via ships at fixed points. The final dungeon, the Abyss, is accessed from the bottom of Pride. Pride weirdly has the Rune of Spirituality, while the Abyss has the Rune of Humility. Once you get the Rune of Humility, the game ends automatically. You get a brief message, and then you get a quick scene of Lord British knighting the victorious character. I suppose if you regard Dupre as the canonical hero of the game, it explains how he was knighted between Ultima VI and Ultima VII.
It doesn't explain why Mariah isn't called "Sir Mariah," though.
Shapiro didn't return for Runes of Virtue II; design and programming were assumed by Gary Scott ("Gnu Gnu") Smith, but most other personnel remained the same except for the addition of Amanda ("Penumbra") Dee.
You don't defeat the Black Knight in Runes of Virtue, which explains why he's back to menace Britannia in Ultima: Runes of Virtue II. The opening shows the Black Knight complaining of boredom and deciding to kidnap Tholden, the mayor of Britain, just to annoy Lord British. 
The Black Knight hatches his plan [Game Boy version].
There are worse reasons to do things, I guess [SNES version].
Lord British's reaction to the kidnapping is, predictably, to "summon the Avatar." A moongate opens and a figure steps out--except that you've already chosen to play the game as Mariah, Dupre, Shamino, or Iolo. (Iolo, incidentally, is a very young man in the SNES version.) The box also seems to suggest that the hero is the canonical blond Avatar. It's a weird bit of confusion right at the beginning of the game. Either way, Lord British assigns the hero the quest of finding Lord Tholden in the dungeon Hatred. Once the player accomplishes that, Lord British announces that the Black Knight has now kidnapped Whitsaber, the mayor of Trinsic. 
It's one kidnapping. You don't have people to handle one kidnapping?
The order of rescue here is more random than the first game, with the dungeons going Hatred, Dishonor, Injustice, Selfishness, Deceit, Cowardice, Pride, and the Abyss. Once again, the developers messed up the last two dungeons so that the mayor of Skara Brae is held in the Cavern of Pride and the mayor of New Magincia is held in the Abyss, although to be fair it was never clear why Hythloth should be the anti-spirituality dungeon and the Abyss the anti-humility dungeon in the first place. The names of the mayors are all identical to those in Ultima VI except that Quenton (a murdered ghost in VI) is still the mayor of Skara Brae instead of Trenton. As the hero rescues each mayor and escorts him back to his home city, the mayor bestows his associated rune as a gift.
The sequel takes place on a more familiar landscape.
The world uses the canonical map of Britannia, with the continents set to the proper sizes. There's more to explore, including towns and keeps, and a lot of optional areas, but otherwise it's a similar setup to the first game--one dungeon per rune. The puzzles are similar, employing the same sorts of mechanics, inventory items are similar, and the enemy list is identical except that eep eeps have mercifully been forgotten. Enemy AI is improved, to include fleeing when wounded. Nystul, Cooper the Blacksmith (an original character, I think), and Mandrake the Bard join the list of NPCs.
Mariah confronts the Black Knight in the sequel.
As with the first game, players can tether their Game Boys to play cooperatively (there is one optional dungeon that requires it). There is no such option with the SNES version of the game, something that the version makes up for with significantly better graphics and sound. Some sites disparaged the graphics, but to me they're better than anything we've seen in any other Ultima game to date. Alas, it also lacks the character development that I require to call it an "RPG." As with the first game, killing enemies contributes to a nebulous "score" but not to any experience or leveling.
The SNES hero contemplates a mimic.
A parade follows the restoration of each mayor. At the end of the game, Lord British gives you a final congratulatory message for defeating the Black Knight, after which you can continue to play.
The parade you get after each rescue is better than the endgame screen.
The victory screen, in contrast.
A few words on the timeline. You're going to tell me that neither game is "canon" and that it's not worth over-thinking it, but overthinking things is kind of what this blog is about. Anyway, I would submit that Runes of Virtue II is actually a prequel to Runes of Virtue. This works if you assume that when the Black Knights says, "I have not had fun since I terrorized Britannia!," he's referring to some previous event that we haven't seen, not the events of Runes of Virtue. Putting II before the first one explains why Iolo looks younger, Quenton is still alive, and the runes are still with their associated mayors. Putting the first game after VI explains why the runes are gathered in one place for the Black Knight to steal and why Dupre is knighted in Ultima VII.

These sorts of hydlike action-puzzle games aren't really my thing, but for those who like the genre, the Runes of Virtue games seem well done. They're a lot closer to what I expected on the Game Boy than games like Wizardry: The Suffering of the Queen or The Final Fantasy Legend, both of which seemed to be replicating a PC experience on a handheld device.
The Japanese Game Boy box shows the Avatar fighting the Black Knight.
Reviews of the first Runes of Virtue were mostly negative, with most of them noting the difficulty. "The excitement of the game soon grows stale," GamePro wrote in the April 1992 edition, "after two or three caverns of mindless wandering and fighting." Nintendo Power gave it only 3/5 stars. The sequel only improved slightly, with Nintendo Power giving it 3.5/5. The same magazine gave only 2.5/5 to the SNES version in October 1994, along with a comment that I don't understand: "Fans of the excellent Game Boy title will recognize the areas, plot, and even the dialogue of the original game, but the graphics clearly don't belong on the smaller system." How is the SNES a "smaller system" than the Game Boy? 
Modern reviews also tend to talk about the difficulty, as was the case of a blogger who said, "This game is mindtwistingly, headsmashingly, Game-Boy-thrown-across-the-room-and-putting-a-hole-in-the-wallingly challenging." I didn't see a single YouTuber try the game on anything other than "easy." Estimations of completion time average around a dozen hours for both games, something I was unlikely to achieve even if I liked the gameplay.
This is probably the longest "BRIEF" I've ever written, technically unnecessary as I have no obligation to play console games in the first place and thus no obligation to document why I rejected them. But they're the only two games for the Ultima series that didn't have a PC release, and thus I thought it was important to at least learn what they were about.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds: Summary and Rating

The box is a bit misleading. It seems to depict the ice caverns, but it suggests that there's a teleportal gem to be found here.
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds
United States
Looking Glass Technologies (developer); Origin Systems (publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS, 1995 for FM Towns and PC-98
Date Started: 2 April 2022
Date Ended: 18 June 2022
Total Hours: 54
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 63
Ranking at Time of Posting: 456/460 (99%)
Ultima Underworld II uses the same interface as its predecessor--a revolutionary engine that allows for three-dimensional, continuous movement, vertical navigation, and realistic environments. It sets the game more firmly in Ultima canon than the first Underworld; you have to have played Ultima VII: The Black Gate to understand key backstory elements like the Guardian, the Fellowship, and blackrock, as well as the dynamics of the castle that serves as the hub of gameplay. Some of the story elements don't make sense, and some of the interface elements don't work well, but these can be easily ignored amidst a sea of successes. The Underworld series remains a key transition point in the history of RPGs, both technically and thematically.
When wrapping up a game that I really like, I have an unfortunate tendency to focus on negative things. This isn't because I'm naturally pessimistic or critical. It's because I'm holding up those games against the best in the genre. When rating most games of the 1980s and early 1990s, I try not to be too harsh because I don't really see them as contenders. I treat them like a mediocre painting done by a child. You make allowances: She hasn't really learned composition yet; vanishing points are easy to grasp but tough to master; realistic anatomical details will come with practice. You focus on the positives and trust she'll get better. But once a game crosses a certain line, I no longer feel like it needs paternalistic praise; the author is clearly a master and I'm evaluating him against other masters. Nonetheless, I'll try to maintain a positivity in this summary because I'm very positive about the game.
Except for some minor quibbles, there's almost nothing negative I can say about the Underworld interface, which saw only minor changes from the first game. I would have liked more spell "shelves" and the ability to select runes by typing their letters. The way one screen slides out of the way and another slides in when you transition from inventory to character sheet or inventory to rune bag is fun once or twice, but there should have been some way to make it instantaneous, particularly in the heat of combat. Beyond that, expecting the developers to do any better with the interface would be expecting them to travel through time. In an era in which customers would have been happy with only two or three of their innovations, they offered dozens. Even today, long after advanced graphics and sound have come along, there's something amazing about casting "Fly" and moving upwards and downwards in cavernous spaces, or jumping from pillar to pillar with lava flowing beneath.
I didn't need to watch this animation as often as I did.
I'm less enamored with the story--although, again, it has more detail and logic than anything else being offered in its era. While I love the Underworld engine, I remain unenthusiastic about its setting in Britannia. In the first game, that setting was forced--the game had clearly been developed for an original setting and later shoehorned into the Stygian Abyss when it was purchased by Origin. For II, the plot always seems to have been set in Britannia, but that didn't necessarily make me like it any better. This is an engine made for a dungeon crawl, multiple levels deep and dark. Starting on the first level of the Abyss with no resources, no idea what you're going to face around the bend, is so much more delicious than starting in the friendly confines of Castle Britannia. Despite the subtitle, I never got the impression I was exploring a "labyrinth of worlds" so much as a bunch of small, discrete worlds. But a few of them did rise to the quality and visceral thrill of the first game, and I appreciated them.
A few final things I discovered after winning: First, if you lose the air daemon, or just release it in the wrong place, Zoranthus gives you another one without complaint. Apparently, you can also find one in the Ethereal Void somewhere, allowing you to bypass a large chunk of quest. 
Handing out djinn is just a Tuesday for him.
Second, I was unable to find a path of dialogue that got me the blackrock serpent from the goblins in the Britannia sewers. They don't drop it if you kill them, I verified. If you are able to get it, it comes with this dialogue:
[The goblins] have agreed that we should give over to thee one of the secrets of our tribe. Over a century ago, a human appeared near our home in the rocky Serpent's Spine Half-starved he was, and there were wounds on him which seemed to have been made by arrows! . . . Before he died, he gasped out a single world to those who found him: "Pagan!" We know not what this might mean, or where he came from--our trackers traced his spoor to the foot of a sheer wall of stone. He carried this with him, though.
If you don't crash Killorn Keep like I did, Altara flees the keep when Mors Gotha arrives, leaving you a note. In discussions with Mors Gotha, but continuously choosing curious or non-threatening options, you can get to a point where she offers to let you join the Guardian's forces, and you can agree! She then says, "Thou hast only to hand over thy weapon, Avatar, a sign of thy decision, and we shall away, off to the palace of the Guardian in the Pagan world." I didn't realize that the name of the Guardian's homeworld was determined this early, and cited in two conversations. Anyway, if you hand over your sword, Gotha just attacks you and the game continues as if you'd never agreed to betray Lord British. But you know.

Finally, if you kill the flying eye-brains in Killorn after Mors Gotha arrives, she has some special dialogue as the keep goes down. Essentially, crashing the keep just prevents you from having to fight the first of the two final battles.
Mors Gotha if you crash the keep with her in it.
In a GIMLET, I suspect we'll see something close to a tie with the first Underworld, maybe even a slightly higher score. What this game lacks in ambiance is balanced by a slightly better equipment system, skill development system, and economy. 

1. Game World. Origin knows how to tell a story, even if they don't always make sense in the details. Even though it doesn't always make sense, we've never seen an RPG set in a castle covered by a magical dome. I appreciated references to previous Ultimas, including the notion that Lord Draxinusom was fighting the invasion outside the castle. Although none of the individual worlds were completely fleshed-out, they all had their own lore and backstory, and I liked how references in one world popped up in another, and that there were some places where you could make decisions that reverberated across worlds. Score: 6.
2. Character Creation and Development. A good system that allows for a variety of "builds," some easier than others. I liked the training system better than the "praying" system of the first game. I appreciated that although there's a level cap, you continue to gain skill points beyond it. I appreciated all the different ways that you can approach puzzles, and that the world doesn't have a lot of artificial barriers. I don't think you can quite play it as a stealth game--it would need a "backstab" mechanic or something similar, so you could still get skill points from combat--but it gets pretty close. If I were to play it again, I think I'd try maximizing "Charisma," "Lore," and "Appraise," and then see how far I could get in the game on potions and wands, which you can buy and recharge at the Killorn market. Score: 7.
My final character.
3. NPCs. It was fun doing regular loops around Britannia and seeing what new things the NPCs had to say. The dialogue system is relatively solid, but I think there were more dialogue options and role-playing choices in the first Underworld. No one outside of Britannia really had much personality, either. Score: 6.

4. Encounters. The game has a small but effective menagerie, well described in the game manual, with an interesting set of strengths, weaknesses, special attacks, and special defenses. I don't remember any respawn areas in Underworld, but this one had several optional ones. The game is full of non-combat encounters that aren't designated as such (i.e., no text box pops up with a menu of options) but that still call upon your creativity, knowledge, and skill. I appreciated the role-playing options: the different ways to deal with the servants' strike; the different ways to deal with Dorstag in the Pits; whether to crash Killorn Keep. Score: 6.

5. Magic and Combat. I really enjoyed playing as a mage, and particularly that there are so many useful non-combat spells. There's a common sentiment that real-time combat isn't tactical, but I don't agree when it's integrated into the larger game world. An open environment offers opportunities to create chokepoints, fly or jump out of enemies' reach, shove them into lava, or just sneak or run past them. As with the first game, it's too bad that combat wasn't just a bit harder, thus requiring the full use of such options. Score: 6.
I try out "Flame Wind."
6. Equipment. A great variety of weapons, armor, magic items, and utility items, suitable to just about any build and play style. The wear-and-tear system works well. The identification system works well. The crafting system isn't really necessary for a mage, but it also works well. Encumbrance is set liberally but not generously. Other than everything is always found at the same fixed locations, I don't have much in the way of complaint here. Score: 7.

7. Economy. There ought to be more shops, but the presence of someone who will take gold to identify and recharge items, as well as sell potions, adds a lot to the gameplay. I thought the bartering system worked pretty well in the first Underworld, but in II you could really make it part of your overall gameplay strategy. Because of my particular build, the economy mostly stopped being useful to me about 3/4 of the way through the game, but that isn't inevitable. Score: 6.
8. Quests. A clear main quest with a few minor choices along the way, plus a few side quests to add flavor and role-playing. There are no options or alternate endings for the main quest, but there are alternate options for close to the end of the main quest. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Not much different from the first game. Graphics are state-of-the-art for the era and more than acceptable today. Sound effects are effective if not spectacular. Music is moody and well-composed even if I did turn it off. I'm not sure we've ever seen a better approach to automapping. The mouse/keyboard combo works well, though I noted a few issues during this session, most having to do with magic, that I didn't flag last time. Score: 7.

10. Gameplay. A strong final category. It's about halfway between "linear" and "open," though perhaps leaning slightly towards the "linear" side. It's reasonably replayable if you're excited to try different character options. I think it could have been a little harder and a little shorter, but only a little. Score: 7.

That gives us a final score of 63. Checking my review of The Stygian Abyss, I find that I've rated the sequel one point higher, landing it among the top 5 games played so far. In my memory, I think of The Stygian Abyss as the better game, but not so much that I can find anything wrong with this rating. I might be mentally giving Abyss points for doing it first, which doesn't really factor into the GIMLET.
It is, in fact, just a dungeon game anymore.
A summary of "not as fresh as the first game, but equal to it, if not better" would apply to many of the game's contemporary reviews. For instance, in the April 1993 PC Review (UK), reviewer Paul Presley writes: 
If Underworld I got nine stars and Underworld II got only eight, is the sequel worse? No. If someone were to hand me £40 and say buy either Underworld I or II, I'd take the sequel any time. The reason the original got nine stars is because it was the first of its kind and it did what it set out to do damn well, causing convulsions in the opposition and showing everyone that the PC is still growing as a games machine. The sequel is essentially just more of the same only different. The various elements that go to make it up are ear-wiggingly better (improved graphics, better plot, more imagination), but there isn't anything that takes it to a yet higher plateau to wait for the others to catch up.
Here's the March 1993 Game Players:
Although Ultima Underworld 2 doesn't provide any new breakthroughs such as above-ground exploration, it remains on the cutting edge of gaming software, if only because there's no other product capable of doing what Underworld 2 does. Looking Glass has listened to the complaints and comments from Stygian Abyss veterans, using their input to craft substantive improvements to the game engine. 
Still, innovation tends to live longer in the memory than raw quality, and it doesn't surprise me that the original Underworld gets most of the nostalgia. 

Computer Gaming World offered a curiously lukewarm review by Doug Seacat in the May 1993 issue. (The whole issue is curious. They reviewed both Legends of Valour and Ultima Underworld II without noting any of their similarities, and they wasted Scorpia on a review of The Magic Candle III.) I suppose it isn't any more negative than my own, but mine is written with 30 years of hindsight. It's odd to see the same complaints in the release year. Where the April 1993 PC Zone reviewer said, "there is really nothing you can do with this game except sit there, dribble slightly, and say 'blimey' every eight to ten minutes," Seacat finds complaints in getting hung up on doorways, redundancy in skills, and the fact that NPCs don't solve their own problems--all complaints that could be made about any modern 3D game. I would have thought there'd be more dribbling.
I do have to appreciate his note that "Lord British wanders around doing nothing." As we've discussed, Lord British's stature takes a series of major blows in the last few games. It started in Ultima VI but really ramped up in Ultima VII and this game. In his attitude towards the Fellowship and a lot of other things happening in Britannia, he is ignorant, negligent, and useless. I had a chance to mention this to Richard Garriott recently. I was curious if there was a deliberate effort to deconstruct the character or whether it was a matter of Garriott being less involved in the games and his employees simply not treating their boss's alter-ego with much respect. "None of the above," Garriott answered. "It was purely to give space for the player to shine!" But he did acknowledge that "perhaps I overplayed, or underplayed, the role of [Lord British]." As someone who once regarded Lord British as an Arthurian figure--the creator of a code that formed my secular religion as a teenager--I've been distressed to see him treated increasingly like a buffoon.
In my "summary and rating" entry for The Stygian Abyss, I covered the history of the development of the series, much drawn from Jimmy Maher's excellent coverage from 2019. Interviews with designer Paul Neurath indicate that Origin barely paid attention to the development of the first game and nearly canceled it out of sheer apathy. Only slowly, as sales spread through word-of-mouth, did Origin realize they had a mega hit on their hands. The sequel was developed under much different conditions, with Origin demanding a more integrated plot and cracking the whip on the timeline. That it has so few errors with only nine months of development time is a credit to the skill of the programmers and designers. According to a 2000 interview with project lead Doug Church, they killed themselves to release the game for Christmas 1992 but missed it by a couple of weeks, ultimately releasing in January 1993.
Labyrinth of Worlds only sold about half the number of copies as the first game, but as Maher points out, that was still considered a smash by contemporary standards. This success makes it all the more puzzling that Origin never commissioned an Ultima Underworld III. Neurath says that Looking Glass pitched several ideas to Origin, all of which were rejected. An internal document made public by the UK blog Pix's Origin Adventures in 2018 suggests a reason: Origin was planning to develop the sequel themselves. The 104-page design document, dated August 1997, suggests a Fall 1998 release--a snack for hungry gamers awaiting Ultima IX: Ascension. As for why develop it in-house, the document notes: "Recent external development of premium Origin titles have not received the critical praise nor met the revenue expectations they deserve."
Origin's plans for a third Underworld game.
The backstory sets the game in a new world called Jaal, far more violent and chaotic than Britannia. As the player progresses through the story, he learns that Jaal is where the Shadowlord Astaroth ended up when he was banished from Britannia in Ultima V. Astaroth intends to reunite with his fellow Shadowlords. Somehow, it serves their plot to kidnap someone from the Avatar's homeworld, who then becomes the PC of the game. The game would have used the Wing Commander: Prophecy engine, and its environments would "run the gamut from desert wastelands, jungles, caves, cramped towers, forests, steep mountains, and some underwater levels." There's a lot of talk about multiplayer options.
Anyway, someone at Electronic Arts said no, as there's no evidence the game ever got past the document phase. Later, an attempt by Arkane Studios to pitch an Underworld III to EA also failed and was turned into Arx Fatalis (2002). In 2013, Paul Neurath founded Otherside Entertainment and made Underworld Ascendant (2018) with permission from EA to use the Underworld title but not the Ultima name. The result is a weird half-sequel, in which the player character explores the Stygian Abyss, but the Abyss is not on Britannia. Cabirus reappears, but so do races that never appeared in Britannia, such as dwarves and dark elves. And, of course, the main character is the "Ascendant" rather than the "Avatar." It looked pretty good to me when I watched some YouTube footage, but I guess it got awful reviews.
Our next Ultima will be Ultima VII, Part 2, coming up later this year. But before then, we'll have a parody and one surprise.

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Return of Werdna: Maybe Just a Ziggurat More

Didn't this used to be Werdna's dungeon? He should know about a huge temple in the middle of it.
I remembered Level 7, called "Temple of the Dreampainter" by one of the messages, from my first attempt at the game. In fact, it was the last level that I fully played. The level is shaped like a ziggurat, with some associated weirdness that I'll cover in this entry. You basically have to work your way "up" (north, so nothing to do with the "what's east" clue) to the apex room.
What I didn't remember was the difficulty of foes along the way. The enemy parties are essentially unbeatable at the level you encounter them. It took me less time to map Level 7 than Level 8 (the mine level), but I made less actual progress--which, as covered before, really just means less gold.
The level opens at the stairway in the southwest, which is surrounded by a ring of "dark" squares that you have to feel your way through. The summoning pentagram is only two rooms to the east, but the game has a way of putting enemy parties as fixed encounters on the other sides of doors. I had to reload several times in the last session to make it to the pentagram. It was fortunate then that I was exploring in a "rightmost" path because going the other way, it would have taken me forever to find the pentagram.
My map of Level 7, which confuses "north" and "up."
The game tries to have it both ways with the geography. North is clearly north--you're not climbing or anything. There are no ropes. You don't have to cast a "Levitation" spell. Yet if you move through any of the six doors that take you "outside" of the ziggurat, the game acts as if you're on a ledge. If you then move east from any of these ledges, you "fall" to the lower ledge and take damage.
Even weirder, if you move north from any of the ledge squares, the game has you "fall" back to the square you departed from, as if by moving north you somehow jumped so high that you took damage falling back down. 
Yo, dawg. I heard you liked dungeons. So we put a 10-level dungeon inside your 10-level dungeon!
The two enemy parties that you encounter while trying to map all of this are Sorriman's Sorcerers and Thorin's Tramplers. The Sorcerers' silly battle cry is, "Bubble bubble toil and cuddle!" Of them, only Sorriman is a mage, although he does have a samurai named Zac. The rest are two fighters, a bishop, and a priest. Sajak is probably a reference to the Wheel of Fortune host, and Sorriman is a real last name. The party hits hard, casts hard, and has a ton of hit points, particularly Sorriman and Zac. I was able to kill them all a couple of times, but only at the cost of almost all my party members.
It's not fair that they can cast the same spells I can!
The Sorcerers drop a cloak labeled "USE ME" in the post-combat loot list and a "Cape of Jackal" in actual inventory. Either way, it's cursed and adds 9 to your armor class. Still, I put it in the black box in case someone's looking for it later. I suspect that's going to be a common thing.
That's not a good sign.
Thorin's Tramplers says, "Stomp 'em boys!" when they attack. Thorin, a bishop, has 300 hit points and likes to cast MOLITO (mass damage) and KATINO (sleep), so he can do a lot of damage before you take him down. If you can kill them, you find a "Mordorcharge" card on their bodies. I don't know what it's for. The oracle theoretically accepts "credit" for his clues, but I've had enough cash to pay him. [Ed. As Adamant points out below, the in-game charge card is an analogue to a physical version that came with at least the Apple II version of the game.]
I made the mistake of leaving Thorin alive in a previous encounter.
I discovered a new aspect of the game mechanics on this level: If you manage to defeat an enemy party without technically killing everyone, such as if the final characters are slept or paralyzed, they'll attack you again, but with all of the enemies you previously killed joining as "DEAD." You then just have to fight the ones that survived.
Even individual enemies are tough on this level. Plenty of them are mages capable of LAHALITO and other mass-damage spells. The fighters have a ton of hit points and often last long enough to kill someone (or last long enough that someone flees).
I don't know if it makes sense to list the individual enemies anymore; no one seems to be having fun guessing the source of the names. But I'll do it for at least this one level:
  • AC/DC, an evil mage.
  • Bankis, a neutral mage.
  • Bonis, a neutral fighter. 
  • Cutter, a neutral fighter.
  • Electro, a good fighter. 
  • Flint, a good fighter.
  • Laenger, a good bishop.  
  • Lance, a neutral fighter.
  • Lignin Lord, an evil fighter.
  • Sakura, an evil mage. He carries a Staff of Mogref. MOGREF isn't a great spell (reduces AC for the caster by two points), but it's still a better weapon than a plain dagger.
  • Tele-Vipers, a good mage. She's high enough to cast MAKANITO ("Deadly Air"), which I won't get until the next level.
  • Voltar, a good mage.
  • Warty, a neutral mage. He carries a Staff +2 and a Jeweled Amulet. Unless I'm interested in casting MOGREF a lot, a Staff +2 is a better weapon.
As for allies, the pattern I've settled into since the lowest level is staffing my party with a) one group capable of casting priest spells; b) one group capable of casting mage spells; and c) a melee group, ideally with a special attack like paralysis or level-drain. On this level, there are only two choices for a) and b): priestesses and goblin shamans. (I would think "shamans" would cast priest spells, but they don't and I'm not complaining.) That leaves a lot of options for the third group. Cockatrices, strangler vines, giant toads, and vorpal bunnies all have special attacks (petrify, poison, poison, and decapitate) but they activate so rarely that they're not of much use. Most of the other allies are just interchangeable melee attackers. Towards the end of the level, I started to value blink dogs. Their appearance makes little sense here, as the game's mechanics don't allow for them to use the one ability (blinking) that they're known for. Their attack isn't very strong, either. But they do self-replenish by calling for friends, so they work well as a regenerating meat shield. 
Where are these monsters coming from? Are they created when I summon them? Am I yanking them from their daily lives?
The entire pyramid is composed of 2 x 2 blocks, making mapping somewhat boring and predictable. Most of the west side is a waste of time, as there's nothing to find and it's closed off from the rest of the pyramid. There are multiple paths to the top if you wait until you're in one of the four eastmost bottom squares before you start going north. There's an insidious secret door at 8,13 that I missed the first time I went through the room because I didn't have "Light" active. 
You enter the apex room in the southwest, where a message reads: "Priest's Hole. For emergency use only!" There's a door going west from here. If you take it, you get a message about an orange rod drifting in the air to the west of your location on the ledge. If you turn around, you find the door has sealed behind you and you have no choice but to fall all the way down to the first level, block by block, which you can only survive if you brought some DIOS potions with you (falling costs 8 hit points per block) I eventually stocked up with enough of them that I was able to test every single ledge, on both sides, which is the sort of thing you have to do in this game just in case one of those squares had some special item or encounter. Incidentally, I had to reload the first time I went out this one-way door. I hadn't saved since the pentagram. You can imagine the torrent of profanity that followed. 
There's at least one thing to come back for.
The second time I reached the apex room, I saved there in an alternate slot. (Allowing eight save slots is one of the few ways this game is actually a bit easy.) The southeastern square says, "This way to the scenic vista!," with a silly note about accompaniment needed for "children under the age of 90." Moving outside--the door mercifully does not seal behind you--you get a message about how wondrous the scenic vista looks, and how you can see the ladder to the next level on the ziggurat's roof.
Did Werdna mandate the creation of this sign when he was in charge of the dungeon? If not, who did?
How am I seeing anything in a dark dungeon?
The northwest corner of the top room has an altar. You can offer gold or an item. If you choose gold, half your gold disappears for no apparent gain. In any other game, I'd do it anyway just in case it's important later. Generally, in the early Wizardry games, all progress is measured by inventory. There are no flags for encounters having already been tripped. We've seen that you can return to the same places again and again, so I'm skeptical that donating half my gold trips any switch that the game later consults. On the other hand, the progression of clues given to you by the Oracle isn't based on inventory. Somehow, the game remembers where he left off. So might it not remember other things? I ultimately left without giving half my gold, but if it becomes important later, I'll take a hint.
It's not like I was representing it as gold. I just thought it had some value despite its name.
That leaves items. If you try to give it the golden pyrite, a bolt of lightning strikes and kills you, the message saying that "the gods are not as foolish as you are!" If you put any of the other three treasures from the lower levels--bloodstone, Lander's turquoise, or the amber dragon--a bolt of lightning comes and destroys them. Anything else disappears before it hits the altar.
While unequipping items to make room for more treasures to try, I saw that the treasures can be "invoked." I had missed that earlier, since I put them all right into the black box. Each "glows ethereally" when invoked. After invocation, the altar says that each item "nestles in the depression . . . as if it has become a part of the altar." 
I'm afraid to know what will happen.
Once you've sacrificed all three treasures, three magical swords appear above the altar. A voice says, "Take ye one of these swords as a reward for restoring unto me my sacred temple." Your choices are green, blue, and amber. 
Even without something in my inventory, the game "knows" I've already donated to this altar.
A couple of entries ago, commenter Jeearr warned me that this was a "point of no return," as the choice of weapon determines the ending to the game. I kind-of remember hearing this somewhere else, too. Jeearr recommended I leave it until much later if I wanted to experience multiple endings. Commenter Jon Lundy replied that you could just discard the sword later and go get another one to experience the ending based on it. I tested it by choosing "green" and getting the East Wind Sword. When I returned to the altar, it said that it was bright and resplendent, a post-donation message. I then dropped the East Wind Sword and returned, and it allowed me to choose one of the three swords again. I thought it would make me find and donate the three treasures again first. 
The message I get when I have a sword, so it's clearly reading my inventory.
So clearly, I can change my choice of sword, but equally clearly, the game uses a non-inventory-based flagging system for some of the things that happen. I therefore don't know if a) I can experience multiple endings by changing my choice of sword at the key moment; or b) the game remembers my initial choice and determines the ending based on that. I'd appreciate confirmation either way. In the meantime, I left the swords alone and headed up the stairway to Level 6.
I'll have to come back to this level eventually anyway. There's at least one thing to pick up in the dead space off to the sides of the ziggurat, and there's one 2 x 2 room with no entrance that I can find. MALOR should take care of both issues if I don't find a solution before then.
So far, Werdna has been difficult only in the amount of time I've had to invest, and even to that extent it's not much more difficult than a regular Wizardry. But I did have some memory remnants of the first four levels, and because I knew I had defeated them before, I knew I could do it again. We'll be in uncharted territory when I next write.
[Ed. Apparently, I was mis-remembering, and I actually completed Level 6 and a little of Level 5 back in 2010. I don't remember anything about it, though, so in some ways it will be "uncharted territory."]
Time so far: 20 hours