Sunday, October 29, 2023

Game 495: Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale (1993)

Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale
United States
Mindcraft Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 23 October 2023
I was completely surprised when I downloaded and fired up Bloodstone. I had this idea in my head that it was a strategy/RPG hybrid using a completely different interface than The Magic Candle series. I had clearly confused it with Siege (1992), a pure strategy game set in the same world. From my comments at the end of The Magic Candle III (1992), I clearly knew that Bloodstone used the same engine, but I somehow forgot over the intervening years. There's always a certain amount of pleasure in familiarity even when the engine isn't perfect.
"They traded ore for Vitamin D supplements."
Bloodstone is set before the events of The Magic Candle series, though I'm not sure I would know that if I didn't read it somewhere. The only hint I can see in the backstory is that it (at least partly) concerns the magic axe Khamalkhad, which the characters find in The Magic Candle III. Bloodstone takes place in a land called Tarq, and I have no idea where it is in relation to the continents of the first three games. (I spent half this session searching my own entries and other Magic Candle materials to see if any of the proper names had appeared in previous games.) The dwarven tribes in Tarq have fractured and gone to war with each other, upsetting Rohrkhad, the "Dwar-Father," god of the dwarves. Their division has weakened them, making them vulnerable to Taldor raiders. ("Taldor" seem to be a kind of goblin.) Rohrkhad has his eye on a young warrior from the Asarene tribe who might have the right stuff to "penetrate Castle Entemar, retrieve Khamalkhad, and use it as a symbol to unite the warring dwarven tribes." This warrior is, of course, the PC, who by default is named Danat McLagh.
Thank the gods for that loincloth.
After the player selects a new game, some introductory images explain that Taldors have attacked the Asarene caverns. Danat's father shoves a magic axe (called Aroten) and a "spell totem" into his hands and tells him to take three warriors and flee. The player is then asked to choose his companions from a list of eight. Four of them are dwarves--one female and three males. There are two "Amazons," one human, and a "Tlengle," which I take to be the lizard-looking guy in the back. I don't believe Amazons and Tlengles (nor Taldors) have appeared in Magic Candle lore before.
The potential starting companions.
As with the Candle games, each character starts with a set of equipment (including the series' signature herbs and mushrooms), attributes (bravery, strength, dexterity, endurance, agility, loyalty, charm, intelligence, and resistance), and various current and maximum scores in a large number of skills, including "Axe," "Magic," "Stealth," and "Lockpicking." These skills include tradecrafts like "Carpenter," "Metalsmith," and "Tailor." A quick comparison suggests that there are no changes in the attribute and skill list from The Magic Candle III except that the "Hunter" skill no longer exists.
Given the subtitle of the game, I decided to go with a full dwarf party. I chose Makana Tal (Maka), a strong melee character; Ranakaratel (Ranak), a strong magic character; and Entor Glag, a balanced character. The game gives you 30 points to allocate to their attributes and skills. I thought I remembered that skills level pretty quickly on their own, so I used the points mostly for attribute increases.
Some of the game's statistics.
You have the option to rename the characters, including the PC. An amusing thing happened here. I thought about the most "dwarven" looking person I know (short, swarthy, long beard) and I planned to use a combination of syllables in his first and last name. Then I laughed. My friend's name isn't "Aidan Attenborough," but it's something like that. The most obvious combination of syllables makes . . . "Danat." I decided that was fate and kept the default names.
This doesn't feel very heroic.
The game begins with the party ignominiously fleeing the caverns, which they cannot re-enter. We find ourselves in a courtyard littered with skulls (from this battle, or do we just leave skulls around our home?) and one exit. Here, we observe that the interface is identical to The Magic Candle III except for a different font. I suppose it looks a little more "dwarven." The commands in the lower right can all be called three different ways: by typing the first letter of the command; by arrowing to the command and hitting "Enter"; and by clicking on it. Similarly, the player can move around the game window by using the numberpad or by clicking in the window itself. The game thus simultaneously supports everybody's preferred style of play. This is exactly what an interface should be. I'm thus surprised to find myself complaining about it in the III "summary and rating." We'll see if I have the same issues here, but it's a breath of fresh air after the controller interface of Warriors of the Eternal Sun and the icons of Ambermoon that I'm always stumbling over.
We haven't taken more than a few steps before we're ambushed by a party of eight Taldor. Combat also doesn't seem to have changed from Candle except that there's no "whisper" command. I don't even remember what that did. Most battles have clearly-defined battle lines, the players on one side and the enemies on the other, and there's a pre-combat round in which you can position yourself, draw your weapon, bring a particular spell to mind, look at the enemy, and try to parley with them. Ambushes are an exception, though, with characters thrust immediately into the thick of combat. 
The first battle.
I'll cover more about combat later as I refresh my memory about how it works and what the best strategies are. For now, the basic facts are that it's turn-based. Except when ambushed, the characters always go first, followed by the enemies. Each character has a set number of actions, usually two or three, that he or she can perform in a turn, including drawing a weapon (if you were clumsy enough to enter combat with it sheathed), move one or more spaces, use an object, cast a spell, look at a foe, or attack. Moving into an enemy automatically executes an attack, which is nice. I always have to remind myself that you don't have to exhaust a character's actions before moving on to the next character; you can jump among them and thread your actions in a way that makes the most sense.
This battle goes poorly for us, and Ranak is killed before we manage to dispatch the Taldor. Rather than try to figure out resurrection this early in the game, I reload and try again. This time, Danat senses the ambush before blundering into it, so we don't start at such a disadvantage. We manage to kill the enemies and search their bodies for a few coins and an iron helmet. Most characters' weapons skills go up a point during the course of the battle. 
Character development!
We leave the caverns and find ourselves on an outdoor map in the middle of a valley. An "ominous gateway" opens on the other side of the cavern entrance. The manual--which gives you a tiny walkthrough for this part of the game--says to enter it, so we do.
Should have made it a "welcoming gateway" if you wanted us to enter.
The gateway leads to a little dirt patch with a single dwarf NPC. His name is Mantar. I'm not sure who he's supposed to be, and he doesn't really give any background. But he says that he's sorry the Taldor destroyed our tribe. He warns that all of Tarq will suffer the same fate if the dwarves don't unite. He suggests we find magical artifacts and strategically give them to the chiefs of the two major dwarf clans, Tamar and Morin, as well as smaller tribes "in the wastes of northern Tarq." I miss a bunch of his speech the first time because of an irritating part of the interface. Only a few lines of text appear on the screen at a time, and there's a "Cont" command in the window to the right. The logical thing is to read the text in the window and then hit "Cont" to continue. But there's actually more text below the window. You have to arrow down to it and then "Cont" when you reach the end. The authors should have picked one or the other. Fortunately, everything is recorded in a notebook that you can search, which is another awesome interface addition. You can even add your own notes.
Why are you talking about him like he's long dead? I literally just left him. He could still be alive.
Mantar mentions that the Tamar are to the north and the Morin to the south. I'm not really sure where I am on the game map until I realize that Danat has a map object in his inventory. Using it brings up a map of the area, and it's enough for me to see that I'm on the east side of the large main island. The map shows the city of Haraza to my north and the city of Kafari to my south, both of which are mentioned in the backstory as being the homes to the respective tribes. 
The world map.
I head for Haraza first, crossing a bridge and fighting a battle with Taldor on the way. I notice that a few things have changed:
  • To memorize spells, the character must have a "spell totem." I think these take the place of spell books from the Candle games. I have the one that my father gave me, but the other characters don't have any.
  • Stamina doesn't deplete as you explore. In the Candle games, I had to rest or chew a Sermin every 10 steps. This is a very welcome change.
We hold the line on a bridge.
  • Bloodstone seems to have done away with food. We didn't start with any; there's no "Hunt" command; and as previously noted, the "Hunting" ability is gone. I guess we're just assumed to have food when we need it.
Eventually, we make it to the city of Haraza. The town is larger and more spread out than I remember from previous Candle games, though that might just be my memory. As usual, it is full of shops, services, and NPCs who appear and disappear at various times of day depending on their schedules. 
Talking to a generic kid.
NPC dialogue is, I believe, the same as in the other Candle games. It wastes time by offering both G)reet and T)alk options. Some NPCs are named and some are not. Once in dialogue, you have generic keyword choices like NEWS or ADVICE and options where you can type your own keywords, like OTHER and PEOPLE. New keywords given by NPCs are highlighted in red or green and then automatically appear in the pane.  
A dwarf introduces some topics of conversation.
Some findings:
  • The town is ruled by Chief Torongo. An NPC named Tyal tells me that if I want to appease him, I'll have to find a Death Mask created out of pieces of alabaster that rained down from the heavens when Rohrkhad wept for joy at the creation of the dwarves. I can research the subject of the MASK at the library in Morin.
  • The librarian (loremaster) has material on KHAMALKHAD, but none of us have a high enough "Research" skill to access it.
We'll be back.
  • A woman in the tavern named Grep tells me that the loremasters used to have an impressive collection of stone tablets, but raids from the Morin clan have left many of them smashed. Some of the remaining ones talk about TELEPORT combos. 
  • The tavernkeeper warns me about doglike creatures called pennari in the surrounding countryside. They are the pets of the taldor.
  • The adventuring shop proprietor highly recommends that we buy ropes, which we'll need to get over the mountains. I buy enough for everyone and a shovel.
  • Another shop sells snowshoes and sealskin. The proprietor says we won't be able to cross the northern wastes without snowshoes. We buy the shoes but can't afford the sealskin.
  • An NPC named Fazil tells us that the Holy Scarab of Dablaks lies in Pradaga, to the north and west.
  • Other services include a swordplay school, an inn, a weapon shop, an armor shop, a gemcutter, and a metalsmith. As with the previous Candle games, it appears you can leave skilled characters at these shops, earning an honest wage while the rest of the party goes on adventures.
Browsing, but not buying, in the weapon shop.
We find the dwarf chief Torongo in his house in the northeast corner of the map. He says that if we want his help, we'll first have to secure dwarven relics for him: a magic scarab, a brooch, a mitre, a sceptre, a golden bowl, an orb, a crown, a whistle, and the magical Death Mask of Rohrkhad. So that gives me a sense of the flavor of the game: do individual quests for clan chiefs to unite the clans.
Where did the sky and pyramids come from?
I probably miss some other NPCs in the town owing to how they pop in and out of existence at certain time stamps, but I do think to check the tavern again in the evening. New NPCs are present, including a warrior named Volni. She introduces herself as a jack-of-all-trades and offers to join the party. Lacking any other competing offers, we take her.
As we leave Haraza, I find myself with no obvious place to go next. I guess I'll work my way around the continent and see what other locations I find. The Candle games have always offered open worlds, and I'm glad to see that seems to be the case here. It's a familiar game in a familiar engine, and the only way it could go terribly wrong is by being too long. I feel like I've said that a few times this year.
Time so far: 3 hours

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Ambermoon: We Did the Math

We did the monster math.
At the end of the last session I was trapped with the dwarves on Kire's Moon, stranded without a Navigation Stone to get me or the dwarves back to Lyramion. The dwarves had fractured into those who clung to the old ways of stonework and mining, led by Kire in Dor Kiredon, and those mostly born on the moon, who tried to live in harmony with the flora and fauna, led by Kire's son Ketnar in Dor Grestin. Both leaders were worried about Kire's wife/Ketnar's mother, Dorina, who was missing and rumored to be living in a swamp to the south.  
Dorina's domain.
It took me a while, carefully navigating past the battles on the moon's surface, to find Dorina's hideaway. It was much more to the southwest of Dor Grestin than to the "south." The doors opened at the magic word (SCHNISM) that Kentar had given me, but instead of a pleasant "house," we found ourselves in a treacherous, multi-level dungeon full of monsters and traps. Is this how Dorina treats her son?
Jets of fire shooting from the floor just say "family" to me.
The monsters were mostly giant insects called "Gizzeks," occasionally accompanied by a "Gizzek Queen." For the ridiculously low experience points that they were worth (only about 3 for each Gizzek and maybe 80 for a queen) they were annoying as hell, resistant to damage and capable of massive physical attacks, sleep, fear, and lame. Queens were capable of mass-damage spells. I burned through a lot of my spell point potions and slept a lot so I could take them out quickly with mass damage spells of my own, growling each time I saw our experience "rewards." I have no idea why the creators made combat on the moon so unfruitful. 
A bunch of gizzeks and, in the back, their queen.
Meanwhile, the levels had jets of fire that blocked corridors and instantly killed me if I wandered into them. I had to find switches to turn them off, usually behind illusory walls. I got a lot of use out of my ranger's "Map View" on these levels. I had noted last time that none of the earth-based mage spells worked on the moon. Neither, it turns out, do "Word of Marking" and "Word of Recall"; if they did, we could just warp back to Lyramion. Other fun features of the levels included holes in the floor that dumped us back to the beginning of the levels and plants that tore us to pieces if we got too close. I found one room with eight switches that I was clearly supposed to turn on in some combination. I couldn't figure it out and couldn't find any hints, but fortunately I was able to get past the carnivorous plants with the adventurer's "Jump" spell. 
The plant intelligently targets the only person who can cast "Raise Dead."
We finally found Dorina in a "comfortable room" full of potted plants. She was surprised to see us and demanded to know what we were doing there. We gave her Kire's letter, which brought her to tears--apparently, he admitted that he had been wrong for the first time in over 100 years. She resolved to visit him in his city and packed her items.
The party plays marriage counselor.
The game returned us to Dor Kiredon automatically, where Kire and Dorina had a tender reunion. The overjoyed Kire gave us two keys, one to his treasure room and the other to the "test mine" that the dwarves had sunk into the dirt. He confided in me that they had found a mysterious metal door in the test mine but had been driven away by tornaks. Dorina, for her part, gave us a brooch that added 15 to spell points and 35 to luck. The treasure chamber mostly had adventuring equipment that we didn't need, but it also had 30 pieces of amber, a bunch of other gems, and a bunch of potions. I'm not sure what use the gems are, but I took them.
"Thou art wasting it!" -- Dupre and Shamino from two universes away.
With the key from Kire, we entered the mine in the northwest corner of town. A dwarf named Gadrin stood guard on the inside. He opened the gate reluctantly, warning us of the tornak beasts down below. 
Imagine living to 267 years and only achieving warrior Level 15.
A couple of ladders led to Level 2. The first one we took brought us almost immediately to a tornak queen guarding an egg. Tar "Dissolved" it in the first round of the ensuing combat. We grabbed the egg it was guarding. For the rest of the dungeon, tornaks avoided attacking us because we had the egg. This was good because there were a lot of them.
There were a number of places to pick-axe through the wall and several places in which the game told us we found amber but then did not, in fact, deliver any amber. I'm not sure what was up with that.
No, there doesn't.
On Level 3, we found the door that Kire was talking about. There was no way to open it, but we could cut through some nearby walls with the pick-axe. The damned thing broke after a couple of walls, so we had to go all the way back to the surface for another one, then return. (This is where I discovered that "Word of Marking" and "Recall" didn't work on the moon.) The caves brought us to a room with some man made walls and some kind of receptacle with an open "mouth." Given how much amber we were finding, or supposedly finding, I tried putting some in the receptacle, and it worked. A message said that we had powered something and that we heard a hissing noise in the distance.
"Antique," surely, but "antiquated?"
We returned to the door, which now seemed to be lit up, and tried using it. "Which number?" a pop-up box asked. I had no idea what it was talking about, so I started searching around some more. Another nearby wall yielded to the pick-axe and showed an image of four triangles of various colors. I sighed and went to bed. The next morning, Irene told me that the triangles were yellow, orange, orange, and red. This didn't do anything to help.
With my vision, almost any of these could be green, orange, yellow, or red.
I looped around the dungeon a couple more times, looking for anything that might help, but found nothing. I tried the door again and saw the numbers maxed at 99. Figuring that with a decent TV show on in the background, I could work my way through 99 numbers, I started at the top, working backwards. The door opened a few minutes later at 71. I'd be grateful if someone could tell me how I was supposed to get that. [Ed. I figured out the answer in the next session, which I haven't written up yet. There's a dungeon in the northwest part of the moon where you find the code key, essentially. More next time.]
Trying the possibilities.
As I passed beyond the door, the game noted that the air "has not been breathed by a living being for thousands of years." A hole dropped us to a small area in front of another door, this one also lacking power. Nearby walls gave way to the pick-axe, leading me to another amber device that powered the door--and a deadly electrical trap in front of it. Fortunately, I found a switch behind another wall that deactivated the trap. This door opened with no number code.
An uninviting entryway.
Unfortunately, a door beyond that does want a code. This one had an image of ("Irene!") a red triangle, an orange triangle, a red circle, and an orange circle, and even more unfortunately, the potential numbers went up to 9,999. I spent some time trying to work it out. Since the first three symbols came to 71, they can't represent separate digits. They can't involve multiples, because 71 is prime, so they must be additive.
A new puzzle.
There are a lot of ways to solve x + 2y + z = 71, but assuming the symbols represent a numerical system and not just a random puzzle, the most logical explanations, allowing for the most operations, would be:
  • Yellow = 1, Orange = 10, Red = 50
  • Yellow = 50, Orange = 10, Red = 1
  • Yellow = 1, Orange = 5, Red = 60
  • Yellow = 60, Orange = 5, Red = 1

The problem is that the new door has circles. What could it mean if the symbol changes? The most obvious explanation is a change in operation. Addition doesn't make sense because you wouldn't need separate symbols. Division will give you 1 no matter what the values of the colors and subtraction will give you 0, so those don't seem the likely answer. Multiplication would result in, depending on which of the bullets above is correct, an answer of 3600, 121, 4225, or 36.
I was sure it would be one of the four-digit numbers since the counter went up to 9999, but I still felt like a damned genius when it opened at 121. Still, there's no way the developers intended the player to reason this out this way.  
On the other side of the door--shades of Might and Magic!--I was attacked by three mechanical "guardians." The animation for them is cool: they start as just balls, but then project holograms (or something) of light around them that look like muscled humanoid figures. I prepared to be exterminated, but they were mostly just physical attackers. They hit hard and absorbed a lot of damage, but nothing we couldn't handle--except for the occasional critical hit that caused instant death. Thankfully, they started delivering a reasonable amount of experience again.
Another fantasy setting ventures into science fiction.
The levels, labeled "Antique Area," had several fights with guardians, force fields that had to be turned off with wall switches, walls that had to be hacked down, and elevators going up and down between the levels. We found a receptacle in one wall that held a book written in an ancient language; I couldn't figure out a way to interpret it.
I'm not sure this elevator meets safety standards.
As we reached Level 2 of the sub-dungeon, the game warned us that equipment was malfunctioning on the level, causing bursts of electricity to roam around freely and zap anyone they encountered. I must have reloaded a dozen times after failing to anticipate or dodge them. 
OSHA would probably have something to say about this, too.
There was a square corridor in which the lightning bolts moved around in counter-clockwise patterns, and I had to walk carefully to stay ahead of them and not run into them, flipping switches on the walls as we passed. There was a door with a three-symbol pattern next to it: yellow triangle, red, triangle, orange circle. Since 121 worked for the last door, orange must be 10 and red must be 1, which means yellow must be 50. Following the pattern of adding like symbols and multiplying them to unlike symbols, this door gave 50 +1 * 10 = 510. The door opened to the code. Inside were four wall receptacles, three with nothing and one with an "ancient object" that looked like a key.
The switches opened a door that led to an elevator, which in turn led to a room with a couple switches on the wall and a teleportation field. One of the switches activated it. I walked through and found myself in a room with six wandering parties of guardians and "guardian chiefs." Winning the successive combats took over an hour, helped by Tar's "Iceshower" and lots of healing and spell point potions. Everyone leveled up at least once.
A "guardian chief" gets right up in my face.
Once I got out of this area, I found myself in a large dungeon area with multiple teleporters, multiple switches, and multiple large parties of guardians and guardian chiefs trapped behind energy fields. This area is clearly going to involve some note-taking and mapping. I had hoped to finish the dungeon before I posted this, but it's already been a while since my last entry, and I'm not sure if I'll be able to finish this dungeon until later this week, so we'll have to get to the conclusion next time.
Switches, teleporters, energy fields, and strange machines dominate this dungeon.
The game is running the risk of doing what Serpent Isle did: introducing new, large areas with complex puzzles when it's long past time that it should have been wrapping up. One major difference, though, is that I enjoy the combat in Ambermoon, while in Serpent Isle it never got better than "farcical."

Time so far: 74 hours

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle: Summary and Rating

Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle
With The Silver Seed expansion
United States
ORIGIN Systems, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released 1993 for DOS
Date Started: 29 January 2023
Date Ended: 3 October 2023
Total Hours: 112
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: 43
Ranking at Time of Posting: 443/508 (87%)
Serpent Isle takes the engine from Ultima VII: Part One - The Black Gate (with a few upgrades) and tells a long, full story worthy of its own game number. The Avatar and his three stalwart companions (Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre) travel from Britannia to the Serpent Isle, chasing former Fellowship leader Batlin, who has ostensibly gone to enact the next stage of the Guardian's plot to destroy Britannia. As a secondary quest, the party hopes to find the fate of Iolo's wife, Gwenno. They arrive to find a land of former Britannian malcontents who have built cities on the foundations of an older race that worshiped Order, Chaos, and Balance. In the end, the party destroys Batlin but unleashes forces that essentially wipe out the people of the island. The Avatar manages to restore Balance for the few remaining citizens, but at the cost of Dupre's life and the Avatar's own abduction into the next Ultima title.
The plot is long and complex, with abrupt, nonsensical, and inept developments balancing the relatively competent backstory and world-building. Like The Black Gate, the mechanics are weak in classic RPG elements. Combat remains more random than tactical; spells are mostly unnecessary; character development is an afterthought. Inventory and lever puzzles adopt far greater prominence than in previous Ultima games. The oblique-angle interface remains fantastic for exploration and character actions, less so for combat, even less so for inventory management. 

The narrative is relatively linear, and most of the game world is blocked off until you hit various plot points. And it just drags on forever. I enjoyed the beginning but was so exhausted by the end that I grew actively angry at each NPC, door, and puzzle.
The Ultima series continues to innovate. Past entries gave us the first CRPG mini-games, the first dialogue keywords, the first recruitable NPCs, the first map included in the game box, the first ability to play musical instruments within a game, and lots of other superlatives. Here, we have the first 100-hour CRPG plot. You understand, I trust, how that's different from the first 100-hour game. A game can take a long time to win but be primarily about mapping (Crusaders of the Dark Savant), or grinding (Disciples of Steel), or both (Fate: Gates of Dawn), or dying and reloading (NetHack, The Return of Werdna). It can exceed 100 hours because it offers a thousand side quests (The Elder Scrolls) or because the game simply has no single ending (MMOs).
But it's rare to find single storylines that cross into three-digit hours. Even today, main quests can usually be wrapped up in considerably shorter time. More important, modern games offer features that weren't available in 1993, such as quest logs, summaries of completed quests, dialogue notes, and quest items that you cannot discard. Long plots tend to be divided into digestible chapters or regular points of return to a central resting place.
Thus, when I say that Serpent Isle is "too long," I don't mean necessarily that it's too long a game (although, let's face it, it is) but that it's too long of a plot, and more precisely that it's too long of a continuous, unrelenting plot in which the player must keep track of hundreds of things said by hundreds of NPCs as well as dozens of quest items, lest he literally lock himself out of continuing. That I only had to use the cheat menu a couple of times is something of a miracle.
I just like this shot.
If I'd liked the plot, I might have minded less, but I just didn't. I liked the plot of The Black Gate. The Fellowship was a sinister organization seeking to usurp everything I'd built, and I enjoyed discovering their hidden motives. In Serpent Isle, the part I liked best was trying to track down the items lost in the teleportation storm. The rest of the plot just didn't hang together well. The history makes no sense (e.g., the rise, peak, and disappearance of the "Ophidian" culture in less than a century). The motives of the Guardian and Batlin are nonsensical. The plot twists are abrupt, and the NPCs don't have enough of a reaction to them; for instance, no one in the party reacts to Dupre's cremation, and the world's NPCs are awfully ho-hum about the deaths of 90% of the citizens. The Imbalance (i.e., teleportation storms) is handled inconsistently. I have to give some praise to the depth of the backstory and the development of the Ophidian virtue system, but I couldn't bring myself to care about it. That's the, what, sixth system of virtues that the Ultima series has introduced? At some point, you have to say enough.
Commenters have offered conflicting opinions on whether the central problem with the game is that the developers had too much time or too little, were under too much pressure from their new Electronic Arts masters or given too much leash. (Jimmy Maher has an excellent pair of articles on this period in Origin's history, as it was subsumed by its larger partner.) I think a more obvious explanation for the difference between The Serpent Isle and The Black Gate is that the team lost their writer. Raymond Benson, who had done such a great job with the plotting and dialogue in The Black Gate, only worked on Serpent Isle for a couple months before he left Origin to go write Return of the Phantom (1993) for MicroProse. (These facts are attested in a 2013 Ultima Codex interview with Benson.) Replacing him was . . . well, it's not clear. Unlike The Black Gate, Serpent Isle doesn't have a "lead writer" credit. It does have a "Writing Team," but I don't think anyone on it is a professional writer. It's made up of career Origin employees whose talents are in coding, not dialogue.
This part never made any sense.
The team was led by Bill Armintrout, who according to MobyGames credits was occupying the director's chair for the first time. In another Ultima Codex interview, Armintrout indicates that his big break wasn't a sign of confidence from Origin or EA management, but rather a consequence of three project leads quitting the company at the same time. He describes a one-hour briefing in which he had to learn "what an Ultima was." The interview indicates that Richard Garriott was occupied with Pagan while a mostly-inexperienced team worked on Serpent Isle, adapting to changing visions and requirements. In an early draft, the game was going to be pirate-themed.
Armintrout's interview also gives some indications of material that was cut from the game. As commenters have already mentioned, originally the Banes of Chaos (occupying the bodies of Dupre, Shamino, and Iolo) were supposed to take over the three cities of Serpent Isle, not just kill everyone. They would have perverted the values and virtues of the towns. The Bane of Wantonness was to have turned the citizens of Monitor into actual leopards, wolves, and bears; Iolo was to have unleashed a plague in Fawn that made everyone ugly; and Shamino was to have become the new MageLord of Moonshade. The Avatar would have had to evict them all from their respective cities before facing them at the Castle of the White Dragon. These bits of lost plot appear in the game in various forms; for instance, there are leopards, wolves, and bears roaming around Monitor, and there are some notes and dialogues in Fawn and Moonshade hinting at the other lost plots. Overall, it sounds like a slightly better story, but it would have also added unnecessary length to the game.
A scroll in Fawn references content cut from the game.
In contrast to the plot, the Serpent Isle team completely inherited the engine. It has the same strengths and weaknesses of The Black Gate. I mostly like it. No other game was offering an exploration window completely unencumbered by interface elements, and it works great. Single keys call up windows and execute the most important actions. The mouse is used as it should be used, for selection of on-screen objects and positioning them. But we still have the problem with characters needing to be fed and objects getting lost deep in characters' backpacks, including a lot of tiny-but-vital objects like serpents' teeth and keys. Darkness is still too debilitating, and enemies still respawn too quickly when you leave the screen and return.
The addition of the "freezing" mechanic didn't do anything for me, either.
Combat remains underwhelming. I'm not sure if such is inevitable with the interface or whether it would have been possible to do it better. Character development is also lackluster--a few extra attribute points maybe seven or eight times. Equipment rewards are okay but barely feel like they matter. Spells play a minimal role. Much more attention is given to the game's puzzles, leading a lot of people to comment correctly that for much of its run time, it feels more like an adventure game than an RPG.
Moments like this made me want to quit long before the game's end.
I would have loved to see the possibilities inherent with this engine if the script had been less tightly plotted and the areas less gated. I think I said as much when I was reviewing The Black Gate. The engine seems tailor-made for an open world game with plenty of side quests and lots of serendipitous discovery. Origin had been planning an Arthurian Legends title using the engine (accounts differ as to whether it was going to be a Worlds of Ultima game); it's too bad it was canceled.

It's worth reading the cluebook for the game, subtitled Balancing the Scales. Frankly, until you get to the "walkthrough" part at the end, it's less a cluebook and more a supplement to the manual. It clarifies the Ophidian backstory and virtue systems, and it offers information that ought to be open to the player, like lists of spells and reagents, exchange rates, and weapon damage. Even the maps hardly offer more spoilers than the typical automap of today's RPGs. It made me wish there was something like a halfway point between a game manual and a cluebook--maybe a "manual supplement" for players who want to delve deeper into a game's lore and mechanics but not actually spoil puzzles and plot developments. 
It would have been nice to have a map this clear and accurate throughout the game.
Usually when I offer a "summary and rating" as a separate entry, I give multiple paragraphs to each GIMLET category. I just don't feel like doing that here. I already did it for The Black Gate, and any major changes between the two parts of Ultima VII I've already described above. Let's just get this over with:
  • 6 points for the game world. It gets all of it for depth and complexity. It doesn't do as well as The Black Gate (8) because I didn't like much of the material that went into that depth and complexity.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. No change from Gate.
The party's final statistics.
  • 6 points for NPC interaction. I gave it 7 in Gate. The quality of dialogue dropped here, and the classic keywords became more strained. Too much was gated by keyword. You have about the same number of NPCs who will join the party.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. It gets a little extra for the quality of the puzzles in various parts of the game. Enemies themselves are mostly unmemorable.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. The variables are there, but they're lost in random actions and too much luck. Spells are mostly unnecessary and wasted.
The typical cluster@#$% that is this game's approach to combat.
  • 5 points for equipment. Finding upgrades remains one of the better parts of the game.
  • 3 points for the economy. Money is needed mostly for spells and not at all in the second half of the game. Having four different currencies adds nothing.
The last moment that money has any use.
  • 4 points for the quests. There's a main quest, but no alternate ending. There are some side-ish quests and areas. You get a few choices in the order you handle things.
  • 6 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The sound is horribly disappointing, so much that I mostly played it with sound off. The occasional voiced dialogue didn't excite me. I was happy with the graphics and the interface. I'm told the music is very good.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Here's where it suffers most in comparison to The Black Gate. The world is less open. It errs on the side of too easy. It's way, way, way too long, and because of that it's the opposite of "replayable." There are very few games in my chronology for which I'm sure that I'll never, never play them again, but Serpent Isle is one of them.
That gives us a final score of 43, the lowest by far that I've ever given to a proper Ultima title, 7 points lower than The Black Gate. I know some people think it's the best Ultima and improves upon its predecessor, so I'm sorry I can't share your opinion.
I don't think I've heard of "MCGA Graphics." "Make Computers Great Again?"
Just be glad I didn't dislike the game as much as Scorpia. In the July 1993 issue of Computer Gaming--oh, Land of Goshen, when the hell am I finally going to open an issue of this damned magazine and not see an ad for Spear of Destiny on Page 2? I swear it's been there in every issue I've consulted since 2015! It's mocking me with my lack of progress. Sorry. As I was saying, Scorpia didn't care for it much. Choice quotes:
  • "Many threads are woven into this tapestry, and at times, it's easy to lose sight of the pattern as a whole."
  • "Inventory is the same nightmare it was in the previous game . . . Try locating a dark item, such as nightshade or black pearl, when it's against a black background."
  • "Once a party member becomes hungry, he whines and moans about it until you stuff something into his face."
Amen, sister.
  • "Party members . . . cheerfully walk over the most blatant traps, no matter how carefully the Avatar maneuvers."
  • "The whole business of Shamino's background is bogus."
Aside from technical issues that I didn't experience, her biggest problem was with the puzzles, and particularly the gated nature of the puzzles. She noted, for instance, how the Avatar can't get into Skullcrusher until he speaks to the Gwani despite solving the puzzle well before then, and how the Hound of Doskar is still needed to lead you to where you already knew you had to go. She didn't like the inconsistencies in whether you could open doors with bashing and explosions or not, and she mentioned many of the plot holes, such as Wilfrid not noticing the corpses of his family members in the same room. I'm not sure what she means by "an amazing programming oversight that allows you to complete the game without performing what is supposed to be a crucial ritual," but it doesn't surprise me. Overall: "Serpent Isle is likely to provide more aggravation than enjoyment for most players."
To Deruvia, I guess.
We're in the minority, though. Most reviews put it in the 90s. Just a year after it was released, PC gamer rated it #13 (from the top) on a list of the "Top 40 Best Games of All Time." It's the highest-rated RPG on the list, which does not include The Black Gate. (The #1 game is Doom; the next-highest rated RPG is The Elder Scrolls: Arena at #18.) My own readers have shown far more enthusiasm than I've felt. Maybe it will balance out with my loving Ascension. Before then, of course, we'll take a look at Ultima VIII: Pagan, if I ever get to 1994. Chances just got a little better.