Posted by: Ben | April 10, 2010

Ultima 3 Part 2: A Short Fantasy Epic

I’ve been playing for a few hours now, just walking around, mapping and getting into the occasional fight. It’s slow-paced, but in such a way as to make you feel like you’re being eased into the action instead of being forced to micromanage everything about your characters from minute one. What the guides say I have to do now is this:

Go to the town of Yew, where there are no guards, and pick fights with the clerics in order to gain experience. I paraphrase.

Hello to yew too.

Now technically I’m supposed to be saving the kingdom rather than ruin it for everyone, but I’ve been pounding the wilderness for hours on end and failed to go up a single level, so it could be time to take it out on some innocent priests.

My priest raid doesn’t start too well. The town of Yew is basically just one big forest, and I’m wandering through the woods when I blunder into a river or possibly a lava pit, and one of my characters nearly dies, which means I need to use my own cleric’s ultra-slow healing skills before I pick any fights. Of course if there were enough monsters in the wilderness to live off, I wouldn’t be forced to fight these clerics at all. I soon discover another annoying feature of Ultima 3, which is that only the character who delivers the killing blow gains experience from fighting. This leads to a series of decreasingly amusing combats where everyone else stands off and watches my least experienced character (who is invariably my own cleric due to his general combat uselessness) in a priest-on-priest ruck not unlike watching two nerdy kids fighting in the playground.

After about six hours of repetitive bishop-bashing, I can afford something other than food, specifically torches. Useful for going into dungeons, these, and dungeons contain (a) treasure, and (b) monsters, which themselves tend to yield (a) treasure.

Everything’s going really well, and I’m convinced that this game is going to turn out to be finishable. Then my whole party died.

It happened on the third level of the dungeon of Dardin. We’d stepped into a few traps, so the party’s health was suffering. We decided to wait it out, and use Shadrach’s magic to heal us. Unfortunately we were ambushed by a group of Manes. Judging by the graphics, Manes are chimera-like creatures with the feet of a lion, the body of an owl and the head of a cat. They are as tough as old boots and can attack from distance and close up. Meet seven of them when your party is weakened and they will deaden you without a second’s thought.

I have now broken Rules 2 and 3, which were the only ones I could break. Rule 1 is a licence rather than a rule, and Rule 4 is just a wispy and ill-defined statement. I am going to need some new rules.

So, according to my rules, time to turn off the PC and go out and do something less boring instead. But I feel like I’ve invested too much time into this bloody game to just leave it there, especially when there might just be a way around it. If I can create another character it might just be possible for him to spend the gold acquired by my four main characters to get some of them resurrected. Let’s give it a go.

Meet Mandy. She’s a female Elf Lark, with stats 13, 13, 13 and 11 (although if I’d read the manual first I’d have realised that a Lark needs wisdom like a fish needs a bicycle.) She’s equipped with the clothes she’s standing in and the corpses of Charity, Cain and Shadrach. This gives her a disappointing 1234 gold. Let’s see if that’s enough. I happen to know where to find the healer in the town of Yew. He’s the one guy I haven’t already killed six times. Sure enough, in exchange for 1000 of my gold, he brings Cain and Shadrach back to life. I loan Cain’s bow to Mandy and we start knocking these clerics around again for cash. Soon I can afford to return Charity to life, too. One cleric-bashing rampage later and I’ve made another 500 gold, so it’s time to send Mandy back to wherever extra adventurers go (making sure she has a little gold, just in case I need her again) and return Marlon to the party. There, that’s not cheating, is it? And it only took half an hour. Let’s hope Marlon doesn’t die in an embarrassing way before all his health points come back.

Once our party is back alive again and healthed-up I send Mandy back to limbo abmd get on with my quest, the next step of which is to talk to the Jester in Lord British’s torture chamber. According to my walkthrough he knows the location of the hidden town of Dawn that people keep cryptically alluding to. Without a walkthrough I’d probably already have given up. Dawn is a good place to go to buy better weapons, letting you get deeper into the dungeons and get more treasure with less resistance. Things progress smoothly for the next 16 or 17 hours.

The depiction of female genitalia as monstrous and threatening is a common theme among some of our culture's less progressive works of high fantasty. Here our party of adventurers, resembling football hooligans on a weekend away, confronts a group of deadly 'snatches'. Observe the shirtless alpha male and the phallic nature of the wizard's staff. I don't need to write an essay on the implications of the crucifix, but the party's female thief appears to be brandishing a dildo.

When some people look at the Time Lord, they see a stick man with a moongate around his neck. Others see a deep-set face with a centre parting and strong cheekbones, and a moongate for a nose. But what do you see?

Then I get stuck. My walkthrough is telling me next, but it’s going to require a boat. I have yet to see such a thing. Well, there’s one in the moat in Lord British’s castle, but that seems to have been put there purely to bombard Lord British from. So I go and stand on the coast for a thousand turns, or twenty minutes of tapping the space bar, until one arrives. So I head for the hidden continent of Ambrosia, where I rather weirdly get attacked by horses. My boat is wrecked getting there, but this presents no significant problem, because unlike the rest of the map, Ambrosia is literally lousy with boats, so having explored and decided I need to come back when I have more money, I hijack one and return to dry land.

Many hours pass. I kill monsters and the occasional innocent. I get money. My plan now is to go back to Ambrosia for more hit points, then go and defeat the Big Bad. That’s when my boat sinks. Off screen. Aaaaargh.

I go and stand on the coast for 3000 turns. This is boring.

I have had a cunning plan. Exodus’ castle is full of nasty monsters, but there’s a convenient piece of grassland just outside where one can park a horse. This I do, which means I can get past most of the creatures without a fight, although I still take a hell of a lot of damage from fireballs of unknown origin. Then I locate Exodus, who turns out to be (spoiler) a computer, which is lucky because characters in the game have been suggesting I insert cards into him and I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that if he turned out to be a horned demon. Still this ends the game, and in only 310915 moves, or approximately 50 hours. I am very tired now.

Total play time: I lost count, but it must have been about 50 hours.

Missions completed:
Defeated Exodus (yay!)

Verdict: Ultima 3 was the most ambitious CRPG to date, and I’m very glad that it exists. I didn’t really get to see enough of Ultima 2 to make a decent comparison, but in comparison with Ultima, the increased complexity of the game and combat engine represents a substantial improvement, but more importantly it feels like a serious effort has been made to clue the puzzles while still rendering obscure the path to victory. Even if you don’t have a clue what you’re supposed to be doing, exploring thoroughly and talking to everyone is likely to yield positive results even if it’s likely to push the play time up to over 100 hours. In an earlier age, where I don’t have 36 games impulse-bought in sales and numerous other freeware titles, webgames, emulated oldies and “abandonware” clamouring for my attention, plus a loose commitment to playing old RPGs and blogging about them, this would be wonderful, and it’s not Ultima 3’s fault that it’s outlived it’s usefulness.

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