Friday, 6 February 2015

Ultima VI: The False Prophet - PC (MS-DOS) - 1990

At last!  Ultima VI: The False Prophet is one of the reasons I started this blog and is one of the games I had been looking forward to the most.  I became bit concerned when I dismissed Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny as I found playing it a bit of a chore and was worried this instalment would be more of the same.

I first played Ultima VI on my Atari ST back in the early 90’s.  It was one of my favourite games and I spent hours meticulously mapping all the towns and most of the dungeons onto graph paper.  The game ran direct from three floppy disks and one day a gamers worst nightmare happened when one of the disks corrupted resulting in all my progress being lost.  I haven’t touched the game since.

Now in 2015 it’s time to get reacquainted.  I had already purchased Ultima: The Second Trilogy from and still have my old physical manuals and map from the Atari ST days.  More importantly, I kept my 20-something year old notes and hand drawn maps.
Boy, I must have had a lot of free time.

I have elected to play the PC version of the game mainly due to the 256 colour VGA graphics.  The Atari ST and Amiga display 16 colours, run slightly slower and require disk swapping.  Ultima VI also supports sound cards on the PC but I switched the sound off as the music becomes irritating very quickly.

The game starts off with an intro sequence setting the scene – you are drawn to a moongate that appears outside your house on Earth.  Picking up the moonstone and stepping through you find yourself bound to an altar about to be sacrificed by a gargoyle priest.  Suddenly Dupre, Shamino and Iolo appear through another moongate, slay the priest and cut your bonds.  The party flees via the moongate to Lord British’s throne room having collected the priest’s sacred text.  Three gargoyles manage to follow you before the moongate closes.  Somewhere in the mix you also put in an appearance in a gypsy caravan to establish your attributes by answering some ethical dilemmas – your character class is given as Avatar.

The first thing that strikes you is the quality of the graphics.  Previous Ultima games used the Apple II as the primary development machine.  The Ultima VI engine was developed on the PC meaning the mostly black graphics of the previous games have been replaced by vibrant colours.  Although still tile-based the variety of terrain has increased dramatically.  Another change is that the towns and villages are now blended in seamlessly into the main world – they are no longer a single tile that changes in scale when you enter them.  Additionally, your party and enemies are shown in full and not as a single tile that only expands in combat.  Dungeons are now viewed from above allowing for a more varied design – a very welcome addition in my eyes.  The final main engine change is that the interface has become more user friendly with a big reductions in the number of keys required and the addition of icons for mouse control.  The game can be fully controlled by mouse, keyboard or a combination of both.

Your initial task is to defeat the gargoyles that followed you through the moongate.  By default your party members are not under your control in combat but this can be changed from their respective menus.  Like previous Ultima games, combat is turn based.  Whilst slugging it out with the gargoyles, Lord British, guard captain Geoffrey and Nystul the mage just stand by and watch.  With combat over you can speak to each of them and receive their respective quests.  All NPCs respond to Name and Job with Bye ending the conversation.  Key words are highlighted and can be used to expand the conversation tree.

  • Lord British states the gargoyles have started appearing in Britannia and have taken control of the shrines.  He also explains how to use the Orb of the Moons I picked in the intro.
  • Geoffrey says a patrol was sent to defeat the gargoyles at the Shrine of Compassion.  The soldiers were defeated and he suggests I should talk to the survivors in the village of Cove. 
  • Nystul advises I speak with Mariah at the Lycaeum and ask about the holy book that was taken from the gargoyle priest.

    As I can’t remember much of the plot I will be ignoring my notes but will consult my old maps.  I intend to systematically visit each town and speak to the populace, liberating the shrines and picking up clues and quests along the way.  What I do remember is that to make life easier my first two tasks will be to visit Yew to purchase a few pairs of swamp boots then Minoc to buy a ship.  I will note my experiences below….

    • In theory the Mayor of each town should have in their possession the mantra and rune needed to free the shrines.  In practice the runes have invariably been lost, hidden, stolen or given away resulting in a side quest to retrieve them.  In Minoc I had to go through a long winded process of joining a guild before they would help me out.  I’m trying to save the world, people!
    • The appropriate rune and mantra are needed to liberate a shrine.  The gargoyles have placed a force field over each shrine and once freed this disappears revealing the associated moonstone.  The gargoyles guarding the shrines can usually be defeated but at the Shrine of Justice they were particularly tough cookies and I couldn’t defeat them in combat.
    Combat can be avoided using the invisibility rings.
    • Meditating at shrines allows you level up once you have enough XP.  Depending on the shrine, this also raises one or more of your attributes of Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence.
    • Damn my younger self for not annotating my maps properly.  I have listed the treasure from level 2 in Dungeon Destard but failed to mark it on the map.  Not that I was aware I’d be playing the game twenty-odd years in the future.

    • Initially I didn’t use the Orb of the Moons.  It is basically a fast way to get around but I preferred to travel on foot for the first part of the game.  Depending where you ‘use’ the stone you can quickly travel to all the major towns and shrines in Britannia plus the gargoyle shrines of virtue.  I used it more than once to teleport to Lord British’s throne room for free healing when on low health at the bottom of a dungeon.  And to follow a certain errand…
    • Aside from the initial quests from Lord British, Nystul and Geoffrey, Chuckes the Jester tells you to look in Nystul’s chest.  This leads you to look under a plant in Serpents Hold, then under a bee hive in Minoc, then in a harpsichord in Moonglow, then in a jail cell in Yew.  I eventually gave up as I had a feeling it was red herring and I would end up speaking with Smith the talking horse.
    I checked a walkthrough and was right.
    • The good thing about moving about on foot is you have encounters you don’t get with the Orb of the Moons.  On my initial trek to Yew I came across some wisps who said they required knowledge.  I met them later after I borrowed a few books from the Lycaeum.   My reward for this information (it was ‘The Book of Lost Mantras’ that did it) was all I could carry in gold nuggets.  This was a nice bonus as it’s easy to burn through any gold gained from combat.
    "Likewise, I'm sure"

    • Currency is pretty well controlled in Ultima VI.  Despite the above I never really felt rich and didn't have to leave masses of gold lying about (unlike the Gold Box games).
    • Magic has changed from earlier games in the series.  Spells now have to be purchased and placed in a spell book which must equipped before the spell can be cast.  Each spell still requires reagents but they no longer need to be mixed in advance – you just need to be carrying them.  Spells in the higher circles use more magic points and require you to be a higher level.
    Dispelling a poisonous field.

    • The best spell caster in my party is the Avatar himself with 38 Magic Points.  Iolo and Shamino have a measly 9 Magic Points apiece whilst Jaana has lost the ability to cast spells altogether. 
    • I'm not quite sure how combat is calculated in Ultima VI.  I freed the Shrine of Compassion from the gargoyles easily with four very low level characters.  When I got to the Shrine of Humility with eight level five characters, I often went a couple of rounds of combat without getting a single successful hit.  This was with the whole party targeting a single wingless gargoyle.
    • After freeing the shrines it is time to assemble a treasure map.  The map was split up and divided between nine ex-pirates who reside in various places around the land.  The hoard contains a silver tablet that is needed to translate the Book of Prophesies that was take from the gargoyle in the intro.  It's then off for a trek through dungeon Hythloth to the land of the gargoyles on the other side of the world.
    That is one big map.

    • The gargoyles reveal that since the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom was taken into Britannia, their land started collapsing into the void until just one city is left.  Their prophesy says that only by returning the codex or the sacrifice of the false prophet (the Avatar) can prevent their world being lost.  They go on to say that I must visit the Temple of Singularity to receive a holy quest in order to reach the codex.  Needless to say, the temple is surrounded by mountains and I won't be able to reach it.  I couldn't figure out why a gargoyle hadn't simply flown to the temple for the holy quest and then gone on to recover the codex.
    • A balloon was needed to reach the temple and plans were found in Blackthorn's old castle in which a crazy wizard called Sutek was busy making two headed animals and killer bunny rabbits.  I guessed they were located here as this was one of the few places I hadn't mapped - I had drawn the outline when the game crashed on my Atari.
    Using the magic fan to guide the balloon over the mountains.

    • Upon reaching the Temple of Singulariy, the shrine says the Avatar needs to visit the gargoyle shrines of Control, Passion and Diligence to learn their mantras.  The shrines are statues representing the antagonists from the Age of Darkness Trilogy.
    Weren't you supposed to be a computer or something?

    • Combining the these mantras gives you the mantra to speak to the Shrine of Singularity.  This then grants a holy quest which allows you to pass the guardians that block access to the codex.  The codex gives instructions on how to send it back into the vortex from whence it came.  It can still be viewed from both worlds using the respective lenses that were used to retrieve it.

    The End....

    Like UltimaV I initially found playing Ultima VI to be a bit of chore and found myself doing other stuff to put off playing it.  Eventually something clicked and I got into the game as enthusiastically as I had the first time around.  I did find the interface to be a bit clunky and awkward when managing inventories.  The new icons also take up more of the screen reducing the main viewing window to 9 x 9 tiles from the 11 x 11 of Ultima IV and Ultima V.  This and the changed scale has the negative effect of making the play area feel slightly claustrophobic.  The game world cannot be faulted offering a freedom not seen in many games before or since.  Britannia is a truly open world where you can go almost anywhere straight away without being hemmed in by artificial barriers or impossible encounters (I'm looking at you Final Fantasy).  Most objects, however mundane, can be picked up or handled.  I can't think any other games where you can pick up items such as a shovel, a frying pan or a rolling pin let alone use them as weapons.  I can't say that Ultima VI: The False Prophet has aged well but it is still worth playing and another game I can tick off my list, albeit almost a quarter of a century later than expected.

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