May Maturity 10: Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (Outro)

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The Intro blog didn't really do Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds justice. Not because it didn't adequately cover the way the game looks or plays, but how there's a certain point around four or five hours in (which was after the Intro ended) that the true hook of the game comes into play and it finally starts surpassing its predecessor rather than walking down similar roads to diminishing returns.

The subtitle of the game is the big hint: after exploring the sewer and cave system beneath Castle Britannia, the home of Lord British and his retinue (as well as a lot of major NPCs from Ultima VI and Ultima VII (part one) showing up for cameos and color commentary), you eventually find an odd-looking rock that resembles a compass that's made out of the same "blackrock" material as the barrier encasing the castle. This blackrock compass has eight sides, one of which is lit up when you reach it: the Intro got this far, but because the lit-up side is facing away from where you'd normally approach the gem from the south, I didn't spot it before posting that blog. The lit side, when approached, teleports to you a whole other dimension: one of the "worlds" hinted by the title.

This weird blue rock turned out to be fairly important after all.
This weird blue rock turned out to be fairly important after all.

In the original Ultima Underworld, the game presents this impressive multi-tiered subterranean habitat that once housed multiple races living harmoniously before a calamity destroyed that fragile peace and left many areas in ruin. It was a marvel to explore, because you could clearly see the intent of the designers (both the in-game architects and the real-world developers) in every aspect of the dungeon's creation. Every floor, every corridor, and every room were purpose-built for something, even if that something had become a little obfuscated after decades of neglect. Labyrinth of Worlds builds on that concept by creating nine discrete worlds - Britannia itself and the eight dimensions that the blackrock compass is linked to - each of which not only feels purpose-built in the same way, and occasionally approach the same size and scale of the original's Stygian Abyss, but offer very different purposes for existing. The one commonality every plane bar Britannia shares is that each one had been conquered and subjugated by the Guardian - the Ultima franchise's long-running antagonist - and was a site of major importance to his campaigns. This also meant that most (but not all) of the planes were hostile or difficult to traverse, and featured their own backstories about how the Guardian came to their world and took it over, the telling of which usually had a hint or two about how you might free that world from his control and perhaps foil his current scheme in Britannia. It's an expertly written and constructed adventure and multiverse, and one that shares its predecessor's goal of containing problems that could often be solved through different means: violence, diplomacy, magic, ingenuity, and so on.

Playing a melee-orientated character was perhaps a mistake, in retrospect. Having a character that could hold their own in combat, but perhaps could also cast magic and spent points developing less martial skills like lockpicking, lore, repair, etc., might've meant a more adaptable character that could've resolved issues in a number of ways, some of which less painful than others. It doesn't help that the game's combat is fairly weak; it was one of the earliest to use mouse-based weapon swings and distance as components in combat, though many fights felt drawn out as a result of this approach with little variation beyond swinging and healing occasionally. It's not like the game ever made it clear whether your three types of swing - an overhead chop, a horizontal slice, or a stabbing thrust, which would be triggered by dragging the mouse cursor across the top of the screen, center of the screen and bottom of the screen respectively - were better suited for certain types of enemy. Relying on magic would have its own annoyances, given that each spell needed to be incanted with several runes which meant remembering which runes did what while under pressure, but I think combining the two - perhaps by using a defense buff spell to keep my incoming damage down before going on the offensive - would've really enhanced the many compulsory fights in the game. It also had a few problems that modern games have long since adjusted for, like NPCs that jam your egress in tight spaces or having few places to retreat to in order to restore health between battles.

I'd forgotten that many old CRPGs gave you these little certificates of completion after beating the game. Adorable!
I'd forgotten that many old CRPGs gave you these little certificates of completion after beating the game. Adorable!

However, on the whole I think the game's held up as remarkably well as the previous. It demands a certain perspicacity from the player that most modern action games rarely give us credit for, beyond the multilayered mysteries of something like Fez, and it's definitely the sort of game you need to keep notes on - either on a physical notepad, a notepad file kept open next to the windowed game, or in-game on the annotation-friendly maps. It might be easy for a modern player to grow exasperated from the amount the game keeps from you, from major story puzzle solutions to smaller missing details like the damage you cause with your current weapon or the stats of the armor you just found, but you could generously view that as just having more mysteries to solve. Even the MIDI sound and crude sprite-scaling visuals have their own benefits: the former can create a creepy atmosphere, as you hear footsteps in the distance, while the latter at least gives you a firm idea of how close creatures and NPCs are. The game also benefits from having a lot more people to talk to: in addition to quest NPCs and skill trainers, the people in your castle regularly have comments and advice regarding the new dimensions you've encountered and the current predicament you're struggling with. Overall, definitely a step up from an already pivotal cornerstone for the first-person RPG genre.

Last, I just wanted to elucidate on these eight alternative dimensions in a separate section of this Outro review, if only to show the width and breadth of imagination that went into their construction and the unique challenges each of them presents to the player. I feel these deep dives will rob them of some their impact and mystique should you decide to try the game yourselves, however, so I've spoiler-blocked them just in case:

The Prison Tower of Tarna

I'd capture some goblins standing around, but they're all mysteriously dead. Huh. Whoops?
I'd capture some goblins standing around, but they're all mysteriously dead. Huh. Whoops?

Something about having a creepy prison tower as one of the destinations of your hub world gave me some disturbing Demon's Souls flashbacks. Regardless, the Prison Tower introduces the game's dimension-hopping conceit in a gentle fashion, dropping you somewhere clearly distinct from where you were - the world's green walls are a clear sign that you're nowhere in Britannia's underground - but still similar enough that you don't feel out of your depth right from the get-go.

Tarna is a world that has been thoroughly conquered by the Guardian, like so many others, but only relatively recently. The tower, made up of several small floors, contains a number of imprisoned human combatants that opposed the Guardian's invasion, as well as a large number of goblin guards who joined the Guardian to improve their station in this world. They're initially unsure of what to make of the Avatar: a running theme with many of these worlds is that because the Avatar suddenly appears within these secure locations, people either assume they have permission to be there or are part of the Guardian's invading forces. Thus, you usually have to convince the Guardian's minions you're one of them while simultaneously (though obviously not in the same conversation) convince the Guardian's few remaining incognito enemies that you're secretly on their side.

The initial goal of this world is to reach the goblins' commander (and the prison warden) Borne on the fifth floor, and then rescue the human revolutionary leader Bishop on the top floor. This opens up some beneficial networking in the future - many of your future potential allies have heard of Bishop and the work he's doing - and earns you some useful lore. There's also the universal goal of recovering each world's blackrock gem: a magical crystal that was created on every world after Britannia's blackrock barrier spell, and is used on the blackrock compass to open new pathways. In a subversion of the usual contrivances that involve fetch quests like this, in many dimensions the blackrock gem is within easy reach and doesn't require a whole lot of jumping through hoops to get. In Tarna's case, you simply ask Borne if he has it (he does) and if he can give it you, as the Guardian's emissary.

You could go to Tarna, complete all your objectives, steal all its valuables, and then leave again without killing a single one of its goblins. This involves successfully passing a number of dialogue challenges, but it's not too difficult to stay a pacifist throughout. You could also be made by one of the goblins and be forced to fight them, particularly the smarter-than-average Borne, or you could simply free the enormous troll Garg from the top floor prison who will happily off-screen murder all the goblins in the tower on your behalf. Though a clearly hostile land, there's myriad ways to complete it without ever lifting your sword.

Killorn Keep

The feline Trilkhai are treated like beasts of burden, but they're more like beasts of BLOCKING THE DAMN CORRIDORS. I know you heard me, Tiddles.
The feline Trilkhai are treated like beasts of burden, but they're more like beasts of BLOCKING THE DAMN CORRIDORS. I know you heard me, Tiddles.

Now this place is just eerie. It's a replica of the first floor of Britannia Castle, with a few minor alterations, and features a number of characters that are clearly evil opposites of important Britannia NPCs, most notably the doddering anagrammatic "Lord Thibris". The main antagonist of the game, who shows up in Killorn Keep towards the end of the game, is clearly the Avatar's own doppelganger, moving through dimensions to sow chaos and misery on behalf of the Guardian to the same degree that the Avatar brings peace and resolution.

Killorn's another place where you learn quickly to keep your mouth shut about virtues and Avatars, and I appreciate that this game sort of side-steps the moral proselytizing in lieu of common sense subterfuge and information-gathering. Killorn's another place with very few hostiles if you're playing the game properly, and plenty if you just want to stab evil people and not feel bad about it, but there's a little more danger here considering the Guardian's agents in Killorn are a lot smarter than a pack of goblins. The guard commander Relk, for instance, sees through your ruse almost immediately, and tries to isolate you somewhere to kill you easier. He's also the one who found the blackrock gem and hid it, making its recovery a little more of a puzzle this time around.

In some ways, though, Killorn feels like a second hub town for gathering information, earning skills, and buying from (and selling to) vendors. You have to be careful establishing contact with this world's friendly NPC - the mage Altara, who is being watched by the local busybody Mystell - and she sends you on a quest to find multiple components for a staff that can disrupt the power being channeled through the blackrock walls to the Guardian's barrier spell in Britannia: using the staff in the correct place of each world becomes the second ongoing quest in the game, along with recovering the blackrock gems.

Visually, Killorn looks just like Castle Britannia only more... sinister? I guess? Overall darker, and with less friendly colors adorning the walls. Oh, a whole lot of banners with the Guardian's face on it. Very disquieting. There's also a bunch of telepathic leopards prowling around, but we don't have to go into them; they prove surprisingly inessential to the plot.

Anodunos

There's something foreboding about visiting a world suffering from a massive climatic disaster, especially in recent years.
There's something foreboding about visiting a world suffering from a massive climatic disaster, especially in recent years.

This is the first dimension that's visually distinct from what you've seen previously in Labyrinth of Worlds, if not the series. A frozen world, Anodunos is encased in ice and involves a lot of sliding around and occasionally dropping into the water. You don't take severe cold damage from swimming for too long, but it can be annoying to get suddenly dunked because it means putting your sword away and leaving yourself open to nearby enemies, who are considerably more adept at navigating the ice than you are.

Eventually, you find signs of life by way of a massive dam and eventually a city of dilapidated buildings. A plaintive spirit named Beatrice fills you in on how the Guardian visited the world, couldn't conquer it easily through manipulation and force, and so magically changed the world's ample supply of water into ice, starting with the fountain in the city square. It's a sad fate, and clearly one that occurred many centuries ago, making Anodunos a cautionary tale for the apocalyptic chaos that the Guardian brings with him wherever he goes. It's also an annoying world to navigate, so I tried to spend as little time as possible here. The blackrock gem is just hanging out at the very bottom of the world, past a bunch of snowball-throwing yetis and ice-sliding puzzles.

Talorus

With this decor, this is either an alien dimension or some tech start-up in San Francisco.
With this decor, this is either an alien dimension or some tech start-up in San Francisco.

If Anodunos was a visually distinct world, Talorus is distinct in every sense of the term. Truly alien, Talorus has this insane color scheme (you can see it in the accompanying screenshot) and is populated with Talorians, who resemble enormous amoeba and have names related to their sole functions, like Data Integrator, Historian, Futurian, and Eloemosynator (don't ask; the mystery of this Talorian's function is a running joke throughout this section of the game).

This is another world that relies less on combat and more on figuring out what you're meant to do and solving puzzles. The Talorians were effectively reprogrammed by the Guardian into building supplies for his armies, switching from semi-independent entities with their own desires and dreams into single-minded workhorses performing singular tasks with little knowledge of what everyone else around them is doing. This made them the perfect slaves for the Guardian's war machine, but at least a few of them are cognizant of what has happened to their race and willing to assist you in repairing the damage. You're sent from one Talorian to the next to complete a set of objectives, and it's easy to lose track of what you should be doing and who you should talk to next if you don't pay attention.

It made me wish that Ultima Underworld 2 had something like the Elder Scrolls's quest log (something that series didn't actually have until Oblivion) to help me keep track of the quest chain here. At any rate, once you've helped "fix" the Talorians, which eventually causes the once-docile "vorz" creatures to turn hostile after the Guardian sends a missive to the Talorians to stop you at any cost, they let you have the blackrock gem and send you on your way. Talorus, then, has no shortage of annoyances but it's a really weird and cool looking place with a robotic species of sapients that felt more science fiction than fantasy.

Scintillus Academy

A cute touch: this academy has magical vending machines for its students on almost every floor. All I got were apples.
A cute touch: this academy has magical vending machines for its students on almost every floor. All I got were apples.

A ruined mage school long-since destroyed by the Guardian in order to prevent its intelligent alumni from banding together and opposing him, the Scintillus Academy is still set up to test new students in a final exam that challenges their wits as well as their skills. Naturally, you begin in the starting area and must complete the entire exam to access the rest of the school, which has the blackrock gem you need as well as access to the vein of power you're there to disrupt.

Each stage of the exam can be solved either through a particular spell or two or through your own obstinate will. They include two mazes of teleporters (always some trial-and-error fun, though having an annotated map helps, and there are hints for the second one), a large arena filled with moving platforms and creatures with necessary keys in its far corners, another sheet of sliding ice to navigate, and two separate column-jumping puzzles that would be way easier to resolve if I had access to a levitation spell. Once you reach topside, there's nothing but bones and pristine mage quarters, and a desk sat opposite the maze that was clearly meant to congratulate those that had passed the exam.

These exam challenges are all in suitably imposing chambers, with each floor being so tall that you can never see the ceiling. That, coupled with the absence of any people bar an applicant so timid that he's waited 63 years in the holding area rather than attempt the final exam, makes Scintillus a melancholy place that demanded much of its graduates though still couldn't prepare them for the Guardian's coming. Man, if that doesn't say something about higher education in general...

Pits of Carnage

The Pits are already an inhospitable place, the last thing I need is this disparaging graffiti. The Avatar has feelings too, you know.
The Pits are already an inhospitable place, the last thing I need is this disparaging graffiti. The Avatar has feelings too, you know.

A gladiatorial oubliette, the Pits are where the criminals of this world are thrown and abandoned, left to form their own society based on survival of the strongest. Prisoners are free to challenge each other at any time, usually to the death, in a number of elemental-themed arenas. The top dog of this place is Dorstag, who is deadly up close or at range with his crossbow, and naturally he took possession rights of the blackrock gem as soon as a weaker warrior found it.

The Pits also extend below several floors, filled with dangerous creatures and traps, and is generally where "losers" who have displeased Dorstag have ended up. There's no shortage of corpses down there, but the lower floors also have a certain mage named Zoranthus who is using the seclusion away from the bloodshed to conduct his experiments to find a weakness in the Guardian's armor. He's the third critical friendly NPC you meet off-world who has something you need to dispell the barrier, though it's a hell of a task reaching him through the traps he himself set.

Ultimately, you need to entreat Zoranthus for his aid and also figure out how to get Dorstag's blackrock gem away from him. Like the prison, there's two ways to do this: anger him to the point where he challenges you, at which point you can pick an arena he has less of an advantage in, or find another troll (this one's called Blog, coincidentally enough) and convince him to strongarm Dorstag on your behalf. Trolls are unexpectedly useful in the world of Ultima, it seems.

Rhiannon

Gotta love dungeons with these weird monster face carvings. Very
Gotta love dungeons with these weird monster face carvings. Very "Romeroesque", as the art world might put it.

I have to assume this place was named after someone. Presumably someone the developers didn't like, because Rhiannon is the location of the eerie tomb of King Praecor Loth, which completely dominates this particular plane. Praecor Loth was defeated by the Guardian's troops many years earlier, but his loyal subjects still exist in a varying states of undeath and sanity, and the Avatar's goal is to make it to where the King is interred and convince him to pass on - and with him, the courtiers and servants that are trapped between life and death.

Praecor's tomb is truly labyrinthine; though it lacks an Egyptian theme, between the grandosity of the tomb's chambers and traps and the amount of servants that were apparently buried alongside him, I'd have forgiven the game for going the sand and hieroglyphs route given how apposite it would be to this mausoleum of a dungeon. Many of the ghosts and skeletons are friendly enough, the notable examples being the King's three closest advisors who have determined to protect his resting place from thieves and interlopers at any cost. They collectively make up a difficult three-part gauntlet of boss fights that the player can either take on legitimately, or find various ways of mitigating to some extent by exploring the tomb and following up on hints given by the restless spirits patrolling the corridors. A map broken up into eight parts, for instance, has to key to skipping one of those three boss fights completely.

Of all the game's alternative dimensions, Rhiannon feels the most like a classic dungeon crawler, filled with traps and mazes and hostile undead and a big flashing "here be treasure" at the end of the road. It has the best gear to find and many of the hardest opponents to fight, a suitable place for the penultimate region of the game.

Ethereal Void

This place is just weird. Like I fell into an Excel spreadsheet.
This place is just weird. Like I fell into an Excel spreadsheet.

The Ethereral Void, as I am to understand it, is a recurring concept in the Ultima universe and works similarly to The Fade of the Dragon Age franchise. It's a metaphysical realm formed of ideas and dreams, and a place where many of the realm's most dangerous creatures and born and subsequently find their way into the real world. It makes a brief appearance in the first Ultima Underworld, as a passageway between worlds that the Avatar escapes into to elude the final boss of that game, but you get to explore more of it here.

It's a truly bizarre place, filled with colored pathways surrounded by an endless void, containing many strange monsters that either present a significant threat - like the beholder-like Gazers, magical imps, and psionic floating brain creatures that cause visual glitch effects to disorient you (as well as sap all your mana away, which made me feel a little better that I had a character that didn't depend on magic at all) - and a central "Shrine of Spirituality" that was impossible to reach without connecting the world's neural pathways. Oddly enough, to complete each of the four color-coded "zones" of the Ethereal Void, you had to paint every floor tile of this pyramid structure in what I can only assume is a Q*Bert reference to follow the previous game's Pac-Man reference. Who says CRPG developers can't have a sense of humor? Or appreciate arcade games, for that matter?

Befitting the final plane of the game, navigating the Ethereal Void can be a real headache and its more combat-focused red zone is filled with enemies that will quickly murder you, between its psychic brains, incinerating fire elementals, and buff demons. The final blackrock gem of the game requires that you figure out how to send yourself to a vivid dreaming state after restoring the pathways, which means eating a special kind of herb and taking a nap. Fortunately, sleeping is something I'm fairly good at.

That's all eight, but the game's masterstroke is in how you slowly piece together how each dimension is linked to the others and the role each plays in different questlines. The very last mission of the game involves figuring out how to destroy the binding ritual that created the blackrock barrier around Britannia and linked these multiple dimensions together, which involves visiting the Pits of Carnage, Anodunos, Talorus, and the Void in that order to make the necessary preparations. It's one of the major reasons you need to take notes to keep track of everything you're doing: most planes also have side-quests that require visiting other planes, and you still have to drop back to Britannia every so often to drop off valuables where you can recover them, or to fix some problem that requires your intervention. (Admirably, they also fix their own issues on occasion; there's hints around the mid-game that there's going to be a water shortage the trapped citizens will have to deal with soon, but when you come back you find that one of your former party members has taken it upon themselves to visit Anodunos and bring back ice to melt.)

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Saturday Summaries 2018-05-19: Millennial Edition

Hey peeps, and welcome to another weekend update. It seems like I passed the 1,000 blogs milestone earlier this week - I'm not quite sure how I should be feeling about that. Proud? I guess? But it's also the culmination of eight years' worth of constant blogging, throughout which I seem to have improved my craft very little. Since I made watching more TV and movies this year a priority, maybe I should read more next year and get a better handle on this written text business. Couldn't hurt.

Anyway, while I'm evidently not one to toot my own horn if I can help it, I've got nothing better to write about for this week's intro so let's break this quadruple-digit "back catablog" into some bite-sized statistics:

The first game I ever wrote a blog about. Man, they should really make a sequel to this...
The first game I ever wrote a blog about. Man, they should really make a sequel to this...
  • Approximately 225 of those 1,002 blogs were miscellaneous: that is, they were standalone blogs or part of short-run features, covering all sorts of subjects. I have since supplanted this "bullshit on a random topic for a couple thousand words" blog approach with these Saturday Summaries intros for the most part. Though, looking back at a few of those 225, there are some ideas I wish I'd extended into longer features. Well, there's always the future.
  • 151 of the remaining number collectively comprise of my various "May M_____" features, which started back in 2012 with the first May Madness and would run daily throughout the month in question. Including the handful of games I've reviewed for May Maturity 2018 so far, I've appraised 135 games in total across all the May features, the vast majority of which were Steam Indies. Yet, surprisingly enough, I still have more unplayed games in my Steam library than ever. Strange how that works.
  • 123 of those blogs are... well, what you're reading now. This feature started as "Sunday Summaries" back in 2016, and has settled into this Saturday slot ever since. It's a weekly fixture that I've yet to skip an episode thereof - a benefit of writing it over relatively quiet weekends.
  • It took 75 blogs to complete last year's The Top Shelf feature, which covered all 185 games in my PS2 collection (plus another 10 un-owned "honorable mentions", in brief). Those numbers kinda sound way too big to me. That blog feature definitely took place over a single year, right?
  • Indie Game of the Week, another of my recurring blog series from last year, is now 70 entries strong as of this week. My secret shame is that it's only actually covered 68 games so far: I split Tales from the Borderlands into three separate entries, which isn't something I intend to do again the next time I play an episodic game (but probably will do anyway with future episodes of Odysseus Kosmos and Bear With Me).
  • 66 of the remaining total were dedicated to that most radical of consoles: NEC/Hudson's TurboGrafx-16 (and its CD sibling). That's across three sub-features: TurboMento, which was a monthly series, and Octurbo and Octurbo-CD, which were daily series across October 2013 and October 2014 respectively. Taking out a couple of "intro/contents" blogs, that's 64 TurboGrafx and PC Engine games I covered - barely the tip of the iceberg.
  • Last, a few smaller but still substantial series: I estimate I've made 49 screenshot LP blogs based on 25 games, there's 34 blogs written in 2015 that were dedicated to my beloved Atari ST with the Estival Festival and ST-urday, 26 blogs that covered the core Metal Gear Solid games and Deadly Premonition in the form of incredulous bullet-point "observations", 24 blogs spent creating goofy MS Paint comics to thank the Giant Bomb user who gifted me a couple of years of Premium, 23 blogs that expounded on my various Wiki Projects elsewhere on the site, 17 blogs that covered Desura games when that marketplace was still a thing, 16 on "Scenic Routes" which dug into games like Super Mario 64 and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII in greater detail, 11 blogs spent going though every game in various bundles I'd bought, 9 blogs handing out GOTY awards from 2010-2017, 9 blogs in my "Old vs. New" feature which was the first long-form series I ever created on the site, 8 blogs for my Soulsborne "Bosswatch" review series, and the 6 blogs for good ol' Rainy Days and Mundis, which I more or less abandoned earlier this year because hidden object games aren't easy things to write about in an entertaining fashion.

If you want any links to any of the above without going through all 100 pages of my blog here, I'd like to point you towards this convenient Blogspot round-up. One of these days, I'll probably put together an enormous Google Doc on every game I've ever written about and where, but that's going to have to wait for another day. Maybe when I have an entire week free. At any rate, all this introspection is making me feel a little queasy so let's instead talk about... oh, right, more of my blogs:

  • The Indie Game of the Week was 2012's Offspring Fling, a track & field game with licensed music where you have to toss the hammer, the javelin, and the discus far enough to earn the "Pretty Fly" ranking. Actually, it's a puzzle game featuring a species of little rabbit things, and the goal is to get all your children to the exit without letting them, or yourself, be killed by the stage hazards. Despite having 100 stages, they're all Super Meat Boy compact and fly by quickly, especially when you get into the game's flow and memorize the few rules it has. After that, it's all about doing all those levels again just slightly faster - I tapped out at this point, but throwing babies around is a fine way to spend an afternoon.
  • I'd be remiss not to mention the ninth entry in my The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past randomizer LP. Now that Dan Ryckert is taking up the randomized mantle and it's become totally mainstream, it's probably for the best that this run is close to bowing out. A Randomized Link to the Past: Episode IX: The Fattened Ilk: A Gonzo Death Spell takes place entirely within Ganon's Tower: we found so many items in that monolithic dungeon that I decided to wrap it up as soon as Agahnim was defeated. The next (and last) episode on Monday should cover the final dungeon (Misery Mire), the remaining overworld items, and then the final fight against Ganon himself.
  • Going one higher than ninth, SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode X: Birdman of Alca-Blaz is the newest entry in the SNES-focused series, which reviews a couple of SNES games every fortnight for their suitability for a modern rerelease. This time we covered HAL Lab's Alcahest, a top-down action-RPG with more arcade-like aspirations that felt like a 16-bit Gauntlet with Kirby music, and Ukiyotei's Skyblazer, a great-looking linear platformer with some appealing traversal abilities (like wall-climbing and a horizonal charge) and boss fights.
  • Finally, there's this week's sole May Maturity update, an Intro to Looking Glass Studios's Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, the sequel to the classic dungeon-crawler spin-off I played last year. Labyrinth of Worlds expands on the original's concept of a single dungeon with an elaborate ecosystem, instead creating multiple dungeons across various dimensions, some of which are more alien than others but all share the commonality of being under the thrall of series antagonist The Guardian. It's a fascinating, weird and well-designed RPG, one that - like its predecessor - rewards ingenious non-violent solutions as much as it does displays of martial prowess.

Addenda

TV: My Hero Academia (Season 1)

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My Hero Academia, or Boku no Hero Academia as we refined weebs would have it, is a superhero show that is set in a world where almost everyone has superpowers but perhaps not the heart of a champion, and was an anime series that garnered a whole lot of positive word-of-mouth a couple years ago. For this reason, it was one of several anime series I noted down when researching what to watch with this year's focus on new TV shows. However, I'm still not quite sure if I'm really into it, especially when you compare its earnest superhero story to the more humorous and tightly-paced One Punch Man.

I mean, that isn't to say that certain aspects of My Hero Academia aren't objectively excellent. The animation for its action scenes evidently involved a lot of effort, and I really like the unusual character designs and how expressive they can be: this show does determined grimaces really dang well. However, the plodding nature of the show's first season - which has the unenviable task of setting up the origin story for series protagonist Izuku Midoriya, including his motivations for becoming a hero and his relationship with the ne plus ultra (a term the show uses a lot) superhero and "Symbol of Peace" All Might - makes it a fitfully entertaining show to watch. For instance, it takes about six or seven episodes before we start meeting members of the extended cast: Izuku's fellow superheroes-in-training at the titular educational facility, and their eccentric teachers. The other superheroes and their weird powers are where the show mines a lot of its more comedic moments, and doesn't spend whole episodes on staring contests between Izuku and Katsuki Bakugo, the arrogant jerk rival with an explosive temper.

Maybe this is an anime thing or maybe it's a superheroes comics thing (I'm not actually super familiar with either, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was both), but the show spends an awfully long time on setting up superhero fights and talking about the ramifications - in dramatic internal monologues - of a character's next move as they stand there grimacing for five minutes. The show does this is a lot, and while it's perhaps good for building tension it means the story moves extremely slowly. Around five or six things ever happen during the first season of My Hero Academia - which is thirteen half-hour episodes long - and it feels like the show's creators weren't quite sure if they were going to make back their budget, and so made sure that any big active scenes with a lot of in-betweens and effects would be short and meaningful. Hopefully that, and the fact each episode wastes five minutes at the start and end on recaps, is something that is rectified in the second season. Given the approbations the show received, I'm sure they have the confidence and revenue (as well as the benefit of getting the origin stuff out of the way) to improve on the pacing.

I do think it's an exceptional show, its reputation well-earned, but I'm hoping for more out of its subsequent seasons - more goofy character moments, more action scenes, and really just more stuff actually happening instead of stuff threatening to happen in the near future. I could probably do without that uniquely anime thing of someone being so emotionally wrought that their nose runs as much as their tears do - I can barely recall a scene when Izuku wasn't in that state, or horrifically injured by powers he can barely control. Kind of a weenie hero, but as the protagonist he's clearly got the longest arc ahead of him. At least he's better than that horny Mineta guy.

Movie: Deadpool 2 (2018)

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Talking of horny heroes though, Deadpool's back after a surprisingly solid first outing (canonically, anyway) for the merc with a mouth. Combining R-rated violence with R-rated raunchy comedy, the original Deadpool was a breath of fresh air for the more superhero-fatigued, offering something MCU-adjacent that didn't have to behave itself once it signed up for that universe's regular crossover events. It also gave smartass Canadian Ryan Reynolds a vehicle that played to his strengths, and a dream role that was something he clearly fought hard to make happen and to do right, which is the sort of dedication to the source material that is commendable regardless of how you feel about the character in question.

Deadpool 2 succeeds by giving the titular wiseacre some more foils to bounce off than just poor old Colossus; not least of which is the utterly humorless Cable, a grizzled time-travelling mercenary who - ironically but understandably - has zero time for Deadpool's bullshit. The sequel pulls off its own Days of Future Past storyline, forcing Cable to come back and prevent a disastrous timeline from occurring by putting down a troubled mutant teen who would eventually develop a taste for murder and mayhem after rightfully torching the abusive orphanage (a not too subtle stand-in for sexual conversion therapy, tying into X-Men's legacy of examining bigotry in all its ugly forms) that raised him and several other mutants. A better partner than the cowardly TJ Miller (who is unfortunately still here), this sequel really works as an introduction to Cable and the rest of the X-Force - a vaguely derivative team of (mostly) mutant mercs that also includes the lucky Domino and Mojoworld's own celebrity gladiator Shatterstar - as much as it is a vehicle for more of Deadpool's fourth-wall-breaking nincompoopery.

While your tolerance for Deadpool's Bugs Bunny-esque hijinks might vary, I will say that Deadpool 2 is a marginally better film than the first. While its story is a little more meandering - things just kind of happen, and many scenes feel like extended skits rather than something that might further the plot - the jokes are better, the supporting cast is superior (they also did more with Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead too, both characters I liked here), the violence is ramped up even further with John Wick's co-director David Leitch at the helm (seriously, his Atomic Blonde movie had one of the most brutal melees I've ever seen), it can be really cathartic if you hated most of Liefeld's contributions to the 1990s comics universe, and (this one's vaguely spoilerish) the one questionable decision that happens early in the movie is not only lampshaded but reversed. It also has the best mid/post-credits sequence I've ever seen in a superhero movie; less cliffhanger-y hints for sequels or other MCU movies, just more Deadpool being Deadpool. If you hated the first or didn't want anything to do with it after watching the trailer I doubt Deadpool 2 is going to win you over, but I'd eagerly recommended it to anyone else.

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Indie Game of the Week 70: Offspring Fling

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Eschalon: Book I, which I wrote about around a month ago, was the oldest game I had covered in this weekly feature. Offspring Fling, conversely, is the "Indie Game of the Week" entry that's been in my collection the longest: I bought this in a Humble Indie Bundle way back in the halcyon era of 2012, a few years past the point when the Indie market had truly landed but early enough that you could still follow all the major Indie releases. Even so, I never did find a spare moment to get around to playing this cute little puzzle-platformer from Kyle "KPULV" Pulver (who most recently worked with Team Meat on Super Meat Boy Forever levels) with music from Alec Holowka (who most recently composed the soundtrack for Night in the Woods).

The premise is simple enough: as the "Momma" creature of a vaguely rabbit-like species (which remind me way too much of the bunnies of Trip World, possibly by design), your nest is disturbed by an enormous dinosaur predator and your many babies are scattered to the winds. Each stage requires that you get all your babies, and yourself, to the exit. Babies don't wander around on their own - it's not Lemmings, mercifully - but will stay put until you pick them up. You can also throw them, as per the name of the game, which sends them flying horizontally across the screen until they hit something. The game's 100 stages continually introduce new hazards and obstacles to overcome, and their completion times generally range from a handful of seconds to a minute in length once you know the stage's solution. Even if you were to struggle on some of the later stages for a while, you're looking at a lean two or three hours of total game time if you just wanted to see the end.

I like the game's look. It's hand-drawn, but it also has a certain 16-bit vibe to its color palette and small game window.
I like the game's look. It's hand-drawn, but it also has a certain 16-bit vibe to its color palette and small game window.

However, the game's big longevity-expanding idea is reaching specific completion times on each of its stages: you can earn a gold flower for getting in below the par time, and a rainbow one for completing the "go perfect or go home" time set by the game's developer. The latter requires knowing every time-saving trick in the book, such as constantly jumping through narrow tunnels and catching your offspring mid-leap to increase your vertical height (running and jumping while holding offspring produces a lesser effect due to their weight, and this penalty increases with the number of offspring carried). The game does at least throw you a bone for those punishing rainbow score times: as well as the ghost of your best attempt to race against and learn from, earning a gold flower causes the ghost for the ideal rainbow flower run to appear, which means if there's any tricks involved you can observe this ghost to learn them. These time trials are extremely tight and reflexes-dependent, but at least it won't leave you in the dark about some miracle sequence-breaking approach, and you're rewarded with some diabolically difficult bonus stages should you sweep the board with golden and rainbow flowers if that's the motivator you need.

That's really all there is to the game, though. As befits an Indie title released in 2012, the concept's simple but the design expands on it with as many permutations as it can find without producing multiple instances that feel too similar. You'll tangle with hungry crocodiles, tenacious bees that follow you around the screen, venom-spitting frogs, rising pools of acid, switches which toggle the on/off states of colored blocks in the vicinity, very precise throws as you jump and fling your offspring through narrow gaps, and the emotional trials that come from the frequent imperilment of adorable baby creatures. I was ready to walk away after completing the original 100 stages (including a final boss fight and an ending cutscene), as I rarely see any merit in time trials in puzzle games - it's like retaking a quiz to see if you can complete it faster, despite already knowing all the answers. As a throwaway (so to speak) Indie puzzler from the medium's Bronze Age, its straightforward mechanics and 16-bit aesthetic still hold up well.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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The SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode X: Birdman of Alca-Blaz

The SNES Classic had a sterling assortment of games from Nintendo's 16-bit star console, but it's hardly all that system has to offer a modern audience. In each installment of this fortnightly feature, I judge two games for their suitability for a Classic successor based on four criteria, with the ultimate goal of assembling another collection of 25 SNES games that not only shine as brightly as those in the first SNES Classic, but have equally stood the test of time. The rules, list of games considered so far, and links to previous episodes can all be found at The SNES Classic Mk II Intro and Contents.

Episode X: Birdman of Alca-Blaz

The Candidate: HAL Laboratory's Alcahest

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Kirby, one of the most enduring mascots from the 8-bit era, is capable of creating a massive vacuum that little can escape. Sometimes that feels like it could describe the relationship between Kirby and their developer HAL Laboratory, who are best known for producing an endless procession of Kirby platformers and spin-offs. Of course that wasn't, and isn't, the case: HAL is also responsible for Super Smash Bros., BoxBoy, the Mother/EarthBound series (with Ape), the Adventures of Lolo, a number of Pokémon spin-offs like Snap and Stadium, and Picross 3D. The SNES era saw most of their more unusual output, helping to convert Maxis's SimCity and SimCity 2000 for the console, as well as developing the card-based first-person dungeon crawler Arcana and the Mode 7 tunnel shoot 'em up HyperZone. One or more of those might end up in a future episode of this feature.

Their 1993 game Alcahest (developed in the gap between Kirby's Pinball Land for GB and Kirby's Dream Course for SNES, just to reiterate how much of their time is occupied with the little pink blob) also embodies that pioneer spirit: a top-down action RPG with an arcade shoot 'em up sensibility in the vein of a Pocky & Rocky or Gauntlet, where you'll still navigate dungeons and collect treasure, but do so while picking up power-ups and earning enough score for an extra 1-Up to keep you afloat. The story is the same old pablum you've heard a thousand times - an evil star heralds the return of the eponymous demon lord, and only a swordsman chosen by fate and wielding the four Guardian Blades of legend can hope to stop it - but it's enough of a hook upon which to hang an uncommon merger of RPG and shoot 'em up attributes.

The flow of the game is fairly straightforward too. You are railroaded to the plot-relevant locations, each given a level name and numeral, and tasked with recovering the Guardian Blade housed there while perhaps foiling whatever schemes the antagonistic empire and/or the underworld envoy Babilim have concocted to sow chaos or halt your journey specifically. You can destroy monsters in your path, but they respawn immediately once you leave their part of the screen, so your best bet is to keep moving and keep making progress. Most items are temporary boosts - consumables, mostly, that restock your health, magic, and a partnership-based "SP" stat - but there's just enough permanent ones hidden around (maximum health and magic) that you owe it to your future struggles to not leave any stone unturned. Each level also has four "stage items": Zelda-like progression items needed to move ahead, but lost once the stage is complete. These might be direct progress items like keys for doors or hammers to destroy rock barricades, but could also be items that make life easier such as lavaproof boots or a pair of crystal glasses that let you see previously invisible enemies. You invariably need all four to reach the end of a level, taking a circuitous route around to pick them all up, whereupon you'll then fight a boss or two.

Sure, fighting four undead knights at once is tough, but with Princess Gams here I'm too Alcablessed to be Alcastressed.
Sure, fighting four undead knights at once is tough, but with Princess Gams here I'm too Alcablessed to be Alcastressed.

Alcahest has a few neat ideas to go with its simple premise. The first is how its lives system works: extra lives are gained from reaching score milestones, with tougher monsters earning you more points. However, the milestone score you need to reach changes depending on the number of lives you currently have; if you're down to just one or two lives left, the next milestone to hit is relatively small and attainable, but it's almost insurmountable if you've been walking around with a healthy buffer. With this, the player rarely has enough lives that they can waltz through the game, but shouldn't struggle to recoup their losses after a particularly vicious boss. The player can also switch between the elemental Guardian Blades they've found so far, each with a different associated spell and charge-up attack. The charge-up attack is the best means of causing damage to bosses without relying on a finite supply of mana, but it does mean having to wait a few seconds and then carefully aiming the attack for maximum benefit. The spells, meanwhile, can range from summoning helpers to temporary invincibility. Some bosses have Mega Man-style weaknesses to exploit too, expanding the necessity of experimenting with what you have. Last, there are the partner characters: for most of the game, they join and subsequently leave your side as the story demands (usually to let someone else take over), but all five will become available towards the end of the game and can be switched around at any time. They operate similarly to the options in shoot 'em ups, adding their own attacks to yours (with various output modes, from homing shots to three-way spreads), and can be used for co-operation abilities that, again, give you some amount of variation to play around with if you're struggling with your current strategy. Princess Elikshil, for instance, will heal you as her co-op ability, making her invaluable for protracted boss battles but less apposite when mounting an all-out offensive to take the boss down quickly.

There's a lot more to say about Alcahest, but in order to keep this appraisal within a sensible character limit it might be prudent to get some P.O.G.S. action in:

  • Preservation: Alcahest can feel a little dated, but only because I could see how a modern Indie developer - who might've played this game in their youth had anyone thought to localize it for an international audience - could iterate on the formula. We've seen a number of recent ARPGs that drift a little closer into all-out arcade-style action games (a recent favorite of mine was CrackShell's Hammerwatch, but you also see it in roguelites that go for a more real-time focus like The Binding of Isaac). Its pedigree, level of design ingenuity, and firm difficulty, means it's aged better than most. 4.
  • Originality: There were only a handful of games that picked up where Atari's Gauntlet left off in the 1980s, merging traditional RPG and shoot 'em up gameplay. Alcahest's definitely novel in that respect, but its true originality is in adopting various different modes to switch between on the fly for a level of customization rarely seen in the 16-bit era. It's not quite Super Metroid or A Link to the Past in terms of its adaptability, but it feels like there are a number of different skill loadouts to explore. It's a bit of a shame that it takes a while for the game to give you full access to all the Guardian Blades and companions. 4.
  • Gameplay: For the most part, Alcahest is a breezy - if not easy - action game with the occasional traversal puzzle to overcome and detours to take. Its boss fights are both the highlight and its lowest point, depending on which boss you happen to be fighting; most are fun to work out and strategize around, but there are a few that feel a bit "battle of attrition"-like in how little space you have to work with and how frequently your attacks leave you open for collision damage. Add to that the occasional annoying flying enemy that proves hard to hit with the game's adherence to eight-directional movement or how it can be slightly confounding the way floor hazards track the small hitbox where your character's feet are rather than the sprite's center, and it's far from perfect if still overall quite good. 3.
  • Style: While it doesn't look much like a HAL game (its large, realistically-proportioned character sprites actually remind me more of a Produce RPG like 7th Saga or Brain Lord), it unmistakably sounds like one thanks to the involvement of longtime HAL composer Jun Ishikawa. In fact, there are certain tunes in this game (like this boss track) that resemble something out of Kirby Super Star. At the same time, there are plenty of tracks that befit the game's medieval fantasy sensibility, as well as a few for when the game inevitably heads into the ruins of the customary long-dead super high-tech civilization. 4.

Total: 15.

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The Nominee: Ukiyotei's Skyblazer

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Like Alcahest, Skyblazer is a fantasy-themed action game with just a few flirtations with RPG mechanics and non-linear progression. Unlike Alcahest, Skyblazer had the fortune of being officially localized and released in English-speaking territories, and yet... well, let's suggest that there's a good chance that both of these games sound equally familiar to you. It's a little unfair really: Alcahest is a decent game from a major Nintendo-affiliated developer with very little text to translate that nonetheless stayed in Japan, while Skyblazer deserved way more success and acclaim than it ever saw. Easily the rival of Capcom's Demon's Crest or Konami's Super Castlevania IV, Skyblazer has the player (as Sky) tackle a series of platforming-intensive levels and the occasional aerial shooter stage in their pursuit of Arianna, a sorceress that was kidnapped by the seemingly invincible henchman Ashura (in the Japanese version of the game, every character was named for a Hindu/Buddhist deity) and taken to be sacrificed to his dark god Raglan.

Despite being trounced in one of those unwinnable story battles during the prologue, Sky's far too eager to catch up to Ashura. An old man takes him aside and shows him the error of his ways, sending him on a roundabout quest through all the major dungeons of the world in order to build his strength and obtain all the abilities he might need, including the blessing of the mythical phoenix. While the game has a world map, there's no variation in which levels to tackle in which order: rather, the map exists so you can retrace your steps to the old man and the password generator, which the game uses in lieu of saves. The game's big draw are the upgrades Sky can attain, which include expensive "boss killer" nukes as well as a healing spell and the traversal-enabling Comet Flash, really make the later chapters of the game stand out with the level of mastery over the ground and skies that you eventually attain. I'd liken it to the way you end up shine-sparking and screw-jumping your way through Super Metroid's Planet Zebes towards the end of the playthrough as you head to the final area or backtrack for a few missing items. It's a slow burn, but that's an intentional part of the design: you factor your new acquisitions into your repertoire as you find them, experimenting with what kind of abilities work best where, and using that knowledge to take down Skyblazer's reasonably challenging rogue's gallery of bosses. The game also has a lot of fun Mode 7 stuff, if that's what appeals to you most about the SNES library: the flying sequences that occasionally break up batches of regular platforming levels are breezy bonus stage cooldowns, and there's at least one boss that spins the arena around itself, forcing you to navigate through gaps in the crushing walls.

This is a level you fly through, but isn't technically one of the flying levels. They're totally different, honest.
This is a level you fly through, but isn't technically one of the flying levels. They're totally different, honest.

Skyblazer's long been one of my secret favorites for the system, ever since a stupidly long guide printed in my preferred SNES magazine convinced me to try it, and I'm happy to sing its praises whenever the opportunity arises. That said, there's only so far any subjective affection can go under the strict, methodical judgement of the P.O.G.S. system:

  • Preservation: It passes the usual qualifiers - great pixel art, fluid and responsive controls, and a few novel ideas that haven't been done to death - but some respects have dated it a little. You have a lives system, for one, though you always start at the last exit you passed through and only get tossed back to the password screen if you should lose them all. There are 1-Ups and gems (with the usual Mario currency-to-lives exchange rate) aplenty though, so it's usually only an issue if you crash and burn on the same boss one too many times. Let's say it uses lives in a way that doesn't feel too outmoded. 4.
  • Originality: Skyblazer's traversal upgrades and wall-climbing/jumping mechanics have been seen before, though rarely together, but the game does separate from the crowd a little by entrenching itself in Hindu/Buddhist mythology and architecture. Beyond the character names, the various locations and the soundtrack all have a South Asian feel that most games, not even Japanese ones, attempt too often. The Mode 7 shoot 'em up stages are a nice touch too. 4.
  • Gameplay: What I appreciate most about Skyblazer is that it's tough without being overly difficult in the way older games can be. The worst that can happen to you is that you get kicked out the current stage after losing all your lives, giving you a chance to restock on 1-Ups and perhaps find a secret area you missed before. The wall-climbing/jumping right off the bat is a nice thing to have, and the way you can incorporate the charging Comet Flash to cross gaps or get around enemies helps considerably. Bosses can be a little bullet-spongey if you're not using the strongest spells in your arsenal, and sometimes you aren't feeling the flying stages, but it's a well-crafted and varied game from a level design perspective. 4.
  • Style: Skyblazer looks great. It showed up in the middle of the SNES's lifespan, around the point where most developers were comfortable working with the 16-bit color palette and graphical limitations of the SNES, and Skyblazer has some nice parallax scrolling and Mode 7 in its favor. The game has some smaller touches too, like the way Sky's baggy clothes billow when he idles or falls. 4.

Total: 16.

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A Randomized Link to the Past - Episode IX: The Fattened Ilk: A Gonzo Death Spell

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It's time to bid our Garfield-head/Link-body abomination good fortune as he stands outside Ganon's Tower poised to put the kosher kibosh on the mad pig wizard's schemes. However, if you happened to join us this close to the end of the adventure, you'll probably want to retrace your steps to this first episode and the explanations therein for what a The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past randomizer run involves.

I had to split the remaining screenshots into two final episodes, but don't be mistaken: we have entered endgame here, and the only reason I went long was because I had to collect everything. What's a good Zelda playthrough without getting obsessive over heart containers and items we evidently didn't need?

All right, let's get this treasure haul started. Ganon's Tower is sort of a lost and found repository for the roads not travelled; if you've gotten this far, you can complete the game, so most speedrunners end up not using anything they find in here (unless it's a better sword or armor). That often includes less useful items like the shovel.
All right, let's get this treasure haul started. Ganon's Tower is sort of a lost and found repository for the roads not travelled; if you've gotten this far, you can complete the game, so most speedrunners end up not using anything they find in here (unless it's a better sword or armor). That often includes less useful items like the shovel.

Side-Note: Starting the first of many of these side-notes this week, the Shovel can be used to dig up rupees and hearts if you're really desperate, and is used to collect two other items: one from the digging mini-game in the Dark World, and to dig up what was previously the Ocarina from the clearing in the woods - the transformed Flute Boy in the Dark World is who gives you the shovel in the first place. Definitely not an item I needed much, so I'm not torn up that it took this long to find.

Remember that Garfield strip where he straight up murders Odie and buries him in a shallow grave?
Remember that Garfield strip where he straight up murders Odie and buries him in a shallow grave?
Item #2, and it's this familiar looking chap.
Item #2, and it's this familiar looking chap.

Side-Note: The Red Shield, or L2 Shield, is... whoa, déjà vu. All right, so while you can buy the Red Shield from the store - as I did - it's also part of the progression chain for the shield series. You start with the basic Fighter's Shield (given to you by your dying Uncle, usually), then upgrade to the Red Shield via a fairy fountain or store, before finally finding the Mirror Shield (or L3 Shield). In other words, I needed to find this before the Mirror Shield could become available.

I wasn't sure where to find
I wasn't sure where to find "Garfield with a shield", so here's Izanuma Eleven's Garshield instead.
I wasn't kidding about how many items you can get here. Ganon's Tower has *twenty* miscellaneous item chests - normally rupees, bombs or arrows, but also the Red Tunic - which means you can find a lot of the items you were missing in Ganon's clutches.
I wasn't kidding about how many items you can get here. Ganon's Tower has *twenty* miscellaneous item chests - normally rupees, bombs or arrows, but also the Red Tunic - which means you can find a lot of the items you were missing in Ganon's clutches.
Like some light reading over here. I spent half the game looking for this so I could enter the Desert Palace...
Like some light reading over here. I spent half the game looking for this so I could enter the Desert Palace...

Side-Note: The Book of Mudora, normally in the village library where you'd expect to find books, is used (but not required) to get into the Desert Palace by decoding the entrance incantation. You can also use it to get two of the game's magical Medallions, and there's a few other spots where there's text to translate: the Master Sword pedestal in the Lost Woods, for example. It's a fun item for added context, but rarely a necessary one.

There are approximately 150 strips about Jon Arbuckle's highschool yearbook, and they're all this depressing.
There are approximately 150 strips about Jon Arbuckle's highschool yearbook, and they're all this depressing.
Man, talk about redundant.
Man, talk about redundant.

Side-Note: The Magic Boomerang, or L2 Boomerang, is obtained by throwing the original into a fairy fountain (in the standard game at least) and can... fly a little further than the standard boomerang. Later Zelda games either added extra properties, like being able to cut grass, or just cut out the enhanced version completely. The hookshot's better in almost every way, besides aiming at things diagonally.

I'm just going to post The Only Boomerang Garfield Comic again and hope you dumb clucks don't even notice. Sorry for my language.
I'm just going to post The Only Boomerang Garfield Comic again and hope you dumb clucks don't even notice. Sorry for my language.
Oh hey, a heart piece. That's something a bit more normal. Now there's only three left of these in the entire game.
Oh hey, a heart piece. That's something a bit more normal. Now there's only three left of these in the entire game.
There's two more of these out there as well.
There's two more of these out there as well.
One, now.
One, now.
Better late than never, I guess.
Better late than never, I guess.

Side-Note: The Golden Sword, or L4 Sword, is the second-most powerful weapon in the game after the Silver Arrows, but there's far fewer creatures that are immune to it. Because of the way the randomizer works, you have to find all three weaker versions of the sword beforehand, which makes the Golden Sword one of the last items you're likely to collect. That's true to the core game experience also, where the Golden Sword only becomes available after completing the fifth and sixth Dark World dungeons. Of course, theoretically, you could find all four swords almost immediately, such is the magic of the randomizer.

This is the first time I've ever seen Garfield's foodbeard and I hate it.
This is the first time I've ever seen Garfield's foodbeard and I hate it.
Trying to think if there are any laser rooms left in which I might need this. Ah well.
Trying to think if there are any laser rooms left in which I might need this. Ah well.

Side-Note: The Mirror Shield, or L3 Shield, is the strongest shield in the game. What that means is that it can deflect the most stuff: the basic Fighter's Shield can block solid projectiles like rocks and arrows, the Red Shield can block magic, and the Mirror Shield can block lasers. It has a few uses, especially in the dungeon rooms with those eyes on the wall, but it's mostly there to make your character sprite look even more boss.

I feel like this is someone's fetish. All three of them.
I feel like this is someone's fetish. All three of them.
The Magic Cape. This would've been a fun item to get early. As it is, I'll barely ever use it.
The Magic Cape. This would've been a fun item to get early. As it is, I'll barely ever use it.

Side-Note: The Magic Cape, found in the graveyard inside the grave surrounded by black rocks, is a magic-consuming item that turns Garflink invisible. This allows him to sneak past most obstacles unmolested, including spikes. You need it for exactly one item, and don't need it all to actually finish the game, but it can be handy if you're, say, speedrunning and need to quickly skip a lot of hazard rooms.

"The Caped Avenger" is the level of imagination I expect from Garfield.
Ah, the last bottle. Filled with even more Green Potion. I'll just dump that out and find a fairy real quick...
Ah, the last bottle. Filled with even more Green Potion. I'll just dump that out and find a fairy real quick...
Just two more heart pieces to go!
Just two more heart pieces to go!
The last item in the dungeon is the Quake Medallion. Which is, conveniently, the last item I needed to enter Misery Mire. Well, I know what we're doing next week.
The last item in the dungeon is the Quake Medallion. Which is, conveniently, the last item I needed to enter Misery Mire. Well, I know what we're doing next week.

Side-Note: The Quake Medallion is one of three magical medallions found across Hyrule. It's the only one you don't (normally) obtain from a tablet: instead, you have to toss garbage into some giant catfish's home and he'll throw it at you in retaliation. You need it to enter Turtle Rock in the standard game, but the medallions needed to enter a dungeon are randomized along with their locations, so instead I need this to enter Misery Mire.

I didn't snap the Agahnim fight while it was in action, but if anything this one's even easier because there are three Agahnims casting magic. That means you have a good chance of hitting him multiple times per round.
I didn't snap the Agahnim fight while it was in action, but if anything this one's even easier because there are three Agahnims casting magic. That means you have a good chance of hitting him multiple times per round.
Agahnim's defeat means the way to Ganon and the final boss fight of the game is now open. But first! I've got some loose threads to tie up!
Agahnim's defeat means the way to Ganon and the final boss fight of the game is now open. But first! I've got some loose threads to tie up!
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This was a relatively short update in terms of progress made, but we found so many items (with accompanying comics) that I'm calling it here. Let's review our progress one last time:

  • Ganon's Tower sure was hiding a lot of stuff from us. Today we found: the Magic Boomerang, the Mirror Shield, the Golden Sword, the Quake Medallion, the Magic Cape, the Shovel, the Book of Mudora, two heart pieces, two full heart containers, a quiver upgrade, and the final bottle.
  • The conclusion of Ganon's Tower means there's only one dungeon left in the game: Misery Mire. We now have everything we need to get inside too. Of course, it's not strictly required given Ganon's right here, but I do want a full collection...
  • Still missing: just the Ether Medallion and the Mushroom. Oh, and there's two heart pieces and one full container left out there somewhere. Ganon's Tower really filled in a lot of missing inventory slots.

Next Time, on A Randomized Link to the Past: One last sweep of the overworld, and then it's time for the grand finale...!

Episode I: Lasagna Kitten: The Fell Depth Oozed
Episode II: Pasta Fiend Tale: Hell-Zonked Ghetto
Episode III: Lazed Feline Goal: Pet the Dank Thots!
Episode IV: Odie the Dog: Last Theft? Kennel Plaza!
Episode V: Egad!, PhD: Little Fez Hat on a Skeleton
Episode VI: To Fat Knight Zone: Help Delete Salad
Episode VII: Please, God, No: The Zealand Kilt Theft
Episode VIII: TalkFleet: An Elephant-Sized Hotdog
Episode IX: The Fattened Ilk: A Gonzo Death Spell <- You Are Here
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May Maturity 10: Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds (Intro)

May Maturity is back with our third game this month (sorry for the delay; Eurovision sorta happened, and I'd rather not talk about it). Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds is continuing a trend set by The Legend of Kyrandia Book 3 earlier this week in delving into the sequels of games we covered last year. Part of the once-immensely popular Ultima series, which up and vanished some twenty-ish years ago along with its developer Origin Systems with the conclusion of Ultima IX: Ascension, Ultima Underworld are spin-offs that dabble with a lot of innovative first-person dungeon-crawler tech instead of adhering to Ultima's traditional top-down perspective.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss felt a bit detached from the rest of the Ultima mythos - which invariably has the Earth-dwelling "Avatar" travel to Britannia via a moongate to save it from whatever crisis it is currently facing - due to the odd circumstances behind its development. This article goes into more depth, but the short version is that the first Ultima Underworld wasn't meant to be an Ultima game, but Origin were interested in funding and publishing the game and suggested the Ultima link, including having the Avatar as the protagonist with the main quest of gathering various symbols of Virtue. The sequel, conversely, is an all-but-canonical addition to the Ultima universe deeply entrenched in its ongoing story, set one year after the conclusion of Ultima VII: The Black Gate (but before Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, its second "half") and featuring many of the franchise's recurring characters: Creator Richard Garriot's regal proxy Lord British, faithful companions Dupre and Iolo, and the villainous Guardian who became the series's antagonist through most of its run.

While I never did find my way into the Ultima series back when it was popular, I was impressed last year by how well the original Ultima Underworld held up. As the earliest "panoramic" first-person dungeon crawler, and also one of the first games to use sprite-scaling and the occasional polygonal rock to create a 3D environment, it had no shortage of clever applications for this new tech and some excellent level design to accentuate it. Its titular dungeon felt like a real place, not so much in terms of realistic graphical prowess (while the graphics were impressive in its day, no doubt, they haven't aged particularly well) but in how every room and floor of this dungeon felt like it had been constructed to serve a specific purpose, and long since left to rot by the time the player finds them. Areas carved out of the subterranean tunnels for living quarters, or rivers and mushroom farms used for food production, or meeting places for the various races living harmoniously together, or how there's an immense vertical pipe visible at the center of each dungeon floor which uses the lava pits below to keep the entire structure warm. It was the sort of dungeon design that felt considered, rather than a loose collection of puzzle rooms and corridors, and that made it a joy to explore as you put the pieces together of where was supposed to be what. The Underworld games were developed by Looking Glass Studios with Origin's blessing, and they would later become even better regarded for the System Shock and Thief franchises: 3D exploration-heavy games that parlayed what L.G.S. had learned from Underworld to create these immersive settings that felt logically constructed and realistic, in a design-focused way, that most video game environments did not.

I'm hoping this sequel realizes the strengths of this experimental forerunner and maybe improves on some of its more obtuse shortcomings: from a small amount of snooping around, it sounds like most people do indeed prefer the second game. Of course, I'd have to play it to know for sure how improved it is, so let's get on with it already:

Never a Good Sign When the Game has "Labyrinth" in the Title

As already mentioned the story picks up right after the conclusion of Ultima VII: The Black Gate, a game I've never played. This bodes well.
As already mentioned the story picks up right after the conclusion of Ultima VII: The Black Gate, a game I've never played. This bodes well.
So does the fact that we're all celebrating the anniversary of the Guardian's defeat. I'm sure, wherever he is, he's not taking it personally.
So does the fact that we're all celebrating the anniversary of the Guardian's defeat. I'm sure, wherever he is, he's not taking it personally.
Which is why this enormous
Which is why this enormous "blackrock" shield that has trapped us all inside Lord British's castle is entirely a coincidence.
Looks like it's time for Lutima the Avatar to come out of retirement and sort this mess out. I've left her mostly as-is, though I did restart after this screenshot and made sure she was a Ranger again. Not that Rangers have skills I could use, but consistency is important.
Looks like it's time for Lutima the Avatar to come out of retirement and sort this mess out. I've left her mostly as-is, though I did restart after this screenshot and made sure she was a Ranger again. Not that Rangers have skills I could use, but consistency is important.
Unlike the Stygian Abyss, which started me in a dank cave, I have a fairly comfortable room at Lord British's castle. It's full of random gear that works as starting equipment, and I can sleep here to recover health if need be.
Unlike the Stygian Abyss, which started me in a dank cave, I have a fairly comfortable room at Lord British's castle. It's full of random gear that works as starting equipment, and I can sleep here to recover health if need be.

Side-Note: Just pausing the action here to get some interface stuff out of the way. Ultima Underworld II works almost identically to its forebear in terms of its GUI, with the character paper doll in the top right, inventory in the spaces underneath, health and mana gauges represented by colored potions, and a list of adventure game-like context commands: draw weapon, use item, pick up item, speak, look at, and the options menu, respectively. The there's the compass beneath the viewing window (very important) and the scroll for the information to game provides.

To go into more the weeds about a few of these features: Yes, you only have eight inventory slots. However, you can pick up a lot of containers that let you carry any number of items in a sort of tiered Matryoshka doll system. Your true encumbrance adheres by your weight limit instead: it's the number next to the paper doll, determined by the character's strength. Those four slots around the paper doll are for weapons and other hand-held items like torches, and the smaller ones at her knees are for rings. Armor items - like gloves, leggings, breastplate, helmet, etc. - are placed directly onto the paper doll.

Finally, if you ever need to look at your stats, you just pull that chain near the potions and it flips over to character details like your level, experience, and a list of skills with your proficiency level for each. It's an elegant solution to creating an interface that gives the player all the feedback/management they need, while ensuring that there's still a big enough game window to squeeze in all the fancy sprite-scaling visuals.

The annotated map makes a comeback also. The first floor, which works as the
The annotated map makes a comeback also. The first floor, which works as the "town floor" for this particular dungeon-crawler, comes pre-annotated already. This tells you where most of the useful NPCs can probably (but not always) be found as well as some important areas. You might have to squint to see them, but there are hints of gaps around the outer walls too.
As the blessed embodiment of the eight Virtues and the greatest hero Britannia has ever known, I immediately get to stealin'. Anything in your room is yours by right, but the rules around other items are a bit more complex. Basically, items will have a
As the blessed embodiment of the eight Virtues and the greatest hero Britannia has ever known, I immediately get to stealin'. Anything in your room is yours by right, but the rules around other items are a bit more complex. Basically, items will have a "you see a [blank] owned by a [blank]" on occasion, and if that [blank] happens to be nearby they might decide to attack you for stealing.
Boxes are a good way to carry more than your inventory limit allows, but the issue is that the box itself can be fairly heavy. It's why I generally stick with sacks if I can help it, as conspicuous as it is to run around with a bunch of sacks over your shoulder.
Boxes are a good way to carry more than your inventory limit allows, but the issue is that the box itself can be fairly heavy. It's why I generally stick with sacks if I can help it, as conspicuous as it is to run around with a bunch of sacks over your shoulder.
It took me a little while, but after checking the map there's clearly a secret room inside your own quarters. True enough, you've been given the room that would be the easiest for an assassin to sneak into. I'll just assume Lord British forgot all about this door.
It took me a little while, but after checking the map there's clearly a secret room inside your own quarters. True enough, you've been given the room that would be the easiest for an assassin to sneak into. I'll just assume Lord British forgot all about this door.
Can't stay mad for long, because this secret room is where you pick up a huge number of runes as well as the rune bag in which to store them. UU's spell system, which I will be mostly ignoring once again, requires you to combine runes into specific chains to cast its spells. All you need is the right combination of runes and the mana to cast it: though what tends to happen is the runes for the strongest spells are only found way further into the game.
Can't stay mad for long, because this secret room is where you pick up a huge number of runes as well as the rune bag in which to store them. UU's spell system, which I will be mostly ignoring once again, requires you to combine runes into specific chains to cast its spells. All you need is the right combination of runes and the mana to cast it: though what tends to happen is the runes for the strongest spells are only found way further into the game.
Every NPC tells you to speak to Lord British first, so I'm just going to do that again. Nice catching up with you, Miranda. Whoever you are.
Every NPC tells you to speak to Lord British first, so I'm just going to do that again. Nice catching up with you, Miranda. Whoever you are.
Lord British has a plan to get around this blackrock wall around the castle, though it's mostly just relegating tasks to the brain trust of adventurers he invited to his rebuilding festival shindig. My task is to explore the castle to look for a way out, and report back to Miranda if I should find anything.
Lord British has a plan to get around this blackrock wall around the castle, though it's mostly just relegating tasks to the brain trust of adventurers he invited to his rebuilding festival shindig. My task is to explore the castle to look for a way out, and report back to Miranda if I should find anything.
Oh yes, and the Guardian stops by to taunt us for a while. He also makes what I assume will be a plot-important proclamation: anyone who decides to serve him will be allowed free. Not that I don't trust any of my fellow prisoners, but... well, it would help if I knew who any of them were.
Oh yes, and the Guardian stops by to taunt us for a while. He also makes what I assume will be a plot-important proclamation: anyone who decides to serve him will be allowed free. Not that I don't trust any of my fellow prisoners, but... well, it would help if I knew who any of them were.
Having checked in with the plot, my larceny rampage continues. The castle library is full of these real-life books: I can only assume the Avatar brought them over for light reading material the next time they were forced to spend a few weeks in a world with no TV. I'd love to see some medieval Merlin wizard try to parse
Having checked in with the plot, my larceny rampage continues. The castle library is full of these real-life books: I can only assume the Avatar brought them over for light reading material the next time they were forced to spend a few weeks in a world with no TV. I'd love to see some medieval Merlin wizard try to parse "Neuromancer".
The Avatar's starting chamber had a few pieces of armor, but you can take more from the guards. The armory's locked, unfortunately, so the best weapon I've found (that I'm proficient with) is this shortsword I'm holding in the wrong hand.
The Avatar's starting chamber had a few pieces of armor, but you can take more from the guards. The armory's locked, unfortunately, so the best weapon I've found (that I'm proficient with) is this shortsword I'm holding in the wrong hand.
Dupre's my old buddy from way back, and in the core games works as the party's meatshield. Both he and Iolo will tell you that there's monsters in the sewers, which is a fine place as any to start an adventure. The way down is in the secret tunnels behind the walls.
Dupre's my old buddy from way back, and in the core games works as the party's meatshield. Both he and Iolo will tell you that there's monsters in the sewers, which is a fine place as any to start an adventure. The way down is in the secret tunnels behind the walls.
Dupre brought half his weapon stockpile with him to a festival (typical Dupre!) but I'm disinclined to pick anything up if it belongs to a non-hostile NPC. Knowing the last game, I'll probably find way more stuff than I'll ever need.
Dupre brought half his weapon stockpile with him to a festival (typical Dupre!) but I'm disinclined to pick anything up if it belongs to a non-hostile NPC. Knowing the last game, I'll probably find way more stuff than I'll ever need.
The only enemy on the first floor of the castle is this rat, and its not a particularly tough foe. Combat controls work the same way as last time, and as they do in the Elder Scrolls series: you simply hold the left mouse button down and drag in the direction you want to swing. Best to avoid swings that will hit the nearby walls if you can, since items have durability in this game and I've yet to figure out how to fix anything.
The only enemy on the first floor of the castle is this rat, and its not a particularly tough foe. Combat controls work the same way as last time, and as they do in the Elder Scrolls series: you simply hold the left mouse button down and drag in the direction you want to swing. Best to avoid swings that will hit the nearby walls if you can, since items have durability in this game and I've yet to figure out how to fix anything.
This isn't the only exit downstairs - there's a pantry by the kitchen, but you can only move so far in before you find a locked gate - but it's fair to say that this is the entrance to the dungeon. Given the title of the game, however, I suspect it won't be the game's only dungeon.
This isn't the only exit downstairs - there's a pantry by the kitchen, but you can only move so far in before you find a locked gate - but it's fair to say that this is the entrance to the dungeon. Given the title of the game, however, I suspect it won't be the game's only dungeon.
The sewers are surprisingly un-sewer-like. There's a large chamber you start in filled with rats, bats, and these giant worm things, none of which are formidable. You then have a long corridor that terminates in this larger room full of these appearing and disappearing platforms.
The sewers are surprisingly un-sewer-like. There's a large chamber you start in filled with rats, bats, and these giant worm things, none of which are formidable. You then have a long corridor that terminates in this larger room full of these appearing and disappearing platforms.
Falling off here drops you in a pool with a Lurker. Lurkers are very tough enemies to deal with this early on, so it's best to get the heck out of there quick. Fortunately, the relatively soft landing means you don't take damage if you fall (but will from that Lurker if you aren't quick).
Falling off here drops you in a pool with a Lurker. Lurkers are very tough enemies to deal with this early on, so it's best to get the heck out of there quick. Fortunately, the relatively soft landing means you don't take damage if you fall (but will from that Lurker if you aren't quick).
Our palindromic friend here was a thief who snuck into the castle to steal stuff - back of the queue, buddy - but was trapped by the blackrock wall along with the rest of us. We can arrest him, in which case he fights us for a bit and then surrenders to the prison, or I can just let him roam free down here. I let him go, but I'm hoping it won't mean that more of my stuff goes missing.
Our palindromic friend here was a thief who snuck into the castle to steal stuff - back of the queue, buddy - but was trapped by the blackrock wall along with the rest of us. We can arrest him, in which case he fights us for a bit and then surrenders to the prison, or I can just let him roam free down here. I let him go, but I'm hoping it won't mean that more of my stuff goes missing.
Fissif is kind enough to warn us away from the chamber next door, which has two of these Headless enemies. I met these fairly late into Ultima Underworld last time where they weren't too much of a problem, but like the Lurkers they're really tough this early on.
Fissif is kind enough to warn us away from the chamber next door, which has two of these Headless enemies. I met these fairly late into Ultima Underworld last time where they weren't too much of a problem, but like the Lurkers they're really tough this early on.
Still, there's a lot to be said for persistence. I'm nearly dead, but immediately jumped up a level of experience. I'm in no state to take on the other one in here though, so away I run.
Still, there's a lot to be said for persistence. I'm nearly dead, but immediately jumped up a level of experience. I'm in no state to take on the other one in here though, so away I run.
This is what Level 3 looks like so far. (What happened to Level 2? Well, that's where the pantry is.) Fissif is in his own little corner of the map, the Headless are roaming around that complex in the middle, and the disappearing blocks are at the top right. The dark smudge is a staircase - that's to get back up from the Lurker pit should you fall down. Looks like I've got some magical platforms to navigate if I want to keep going...
This is what Level 3 looks like so far. (What happened to Level 2? Well, that's where the pantry is.) Fissif is in his own little corner of the map, the Headless are roaming around that complex in the middle, and the disappearing blocks are at the top right. The dark smudge is a staircase - that's to get back up from the Lurker pit should you fall down. Looks like I've got some magical platforms to navigate if I want to keep going...
There's a portcullis you can reach if you luck into the right pattern of blocks, and through there we can open this way back. This lets us skip the whole disappearing blocks part in the future, thankfully. Keep that puzzle in Mega Man where it belongs.
There's a portcullis you can reach if you luck into the right pattern of blocks, and through there we can open this way back. This lets us skip the whole disappearing blocks part in the future, thankfully. Keep that puzzle in Mega Man where it belongs.
There's a little maze that follows the porcullises (portculli?), with exactly one pitfall trap. These spiders aren't so bad, but there's like five of them down here and nowhere to retreat to.
There's a little maze that follows the porcullises (portculli?), with exactly one pitfall trap. These spiders aren't so bad, but there's like five of them down here and nowhere to retreat to.
Yeah, won't be the first time I'll see these guys today. I died, by the way.
Yeah, won't be the first time I'll see these guys today. I died, by the way.
Another of the maze's exits leads to an area that drops you down a lip, meaning you can't get back up, which eventually leads to this huge dark pit room with some kind of magic-flinging beastie on the other side. Just one shot is enough to kill me. I swear, the map annotation system could use a skull icon for cases like these.
Another of the maze's exits leads to an area that drops you down a lip, meaning you can't get back up, which eventually leads to this huge dark pit room with some kind of magic-flinging beastie on the other side. Just one shot is enough to kill me. I swear, the map annotation system could use a skull icon for cases like these.
At last, we find an exit to the maze that won't kill us. These blocks rise up and down, which means we can use them to cross over to the other side or explore the bottom of this huge cave area. The bottom is full of water incidentally: you apparently lose life if you swim for too long, I guess from exhaustion but possibly also leeches, but there's an exit to the fourth floor around there too. (If you're wondering what's across the bridge, it goes around in a circle and surrounds a room with about four locked doors. Gotta be something good in there.)
At last, we find an exit to the maze that won't kill us. These blocks rise up and down, which means we can use them to cross over to the other side or explore the bottom of this huge cave area. The bottom is full of water incidentally: you apparently lose life if you swim for too long, I guess from exhaustion but possibly also leeches, but there's an exit to the fourth floor around there too. (If you're wondering what's across the bridge, it goes around in a circle and surrounds a room with about four locked doors. Gotta be something good in there.)
Level 4 has some friendly goblins, who are just hanging out after they too were blocked by the blackrock barrier. You can get some trading done here, but none of them appear to have anything worthwhile.
Level 4 has some friendly goblins, who are just hanging out after they too were blocked by the blackrock barrier. You can get some trading done here, but none of them appear to have anything worthwhile.
There's a little swamp area that had some promising looting potential until Treebeard here decided to be a jerk. I made like a tree and left.
There's a little swamp area that had some promising looting potential until Treebeard here decided to be a jerk. I made like a tree and left.
This giant grey rat was very protective of their food, but didn't mind me grabbing a few items from its treasure trove. I think as long as I leave the cheese alone I'm golden. I wasn't even aware rats could own things, but my health is too low to argue the point.
This giant grey rat was very protective of their food, but didn't mind me grabbing a few items from its treasure trove. I think as long as I leave the cheese alone I'm golden. I wasn't even aware rats could own things, but my health is too low to argue the point.
So that leaves us with half of Level 3 and half of Level 4 explored. It bugs me to leave dungeon floors half finished, but that might well be by design.
So that leaves us with half of Level 3 and half of Level 4 explored. It bugs me to leave dungeon floors half finished, but that might well be by design.

I'm curious if this game will have the back-and-forth level-hopping of its precursor, or if I just missed the way to explore more of each floor. If it's the latter, that's a concern because I don't want to get too deep too quick if the enemies are only going to get tougher. As long as I leave the Lurkers and Headless well enough alone, I suspect I'll do fine. No clue if I'm collecting Virtue artifacts again or what: I'm just going to keep on moving forward.

At any rate, I'm done for today. That's more than a brief look at the first few hours of Ultima Underworld II, which looks to continue in the same vein as the first in most respects. I do appreciate that I have a more comfortable hub to work from, though it's going to get irritating to walk all the way back up there every time to report in and get some uninterrupted forty winks. Maybe I'll check to see if any of the other NPCs can help: I've met a few trainers who will increase your skills with weapons and "charisma", and there's presumably more they can do. I really should figure out if there's a way to fix equipment too: I found some chain boots I'd like to hang onto, and I'd rather not go without a better sword for much longer.

For now, though, I'll leave the blog here and check back with you all within a week's time for a more thorough appraisal with this game's "Outro" blog. I probably made a tactical error putting too many big CRPGs in this year's batch - I'm still no closer to finishing World of Xeen either - but at least they're faring better than the adventure games. Until then, stay mature my friends.

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Saturday Summaries 2018-05-12: Odds and Ends Edition

Sort of a miscellaneous intro section this week, since I've covered most of the topics I usually talk about - RPGs, backlogs, Indies - far too recently.

First, I want to talk about what some of my blogger peers are up to on this site. ArbitraryWater's getting into Tales, and I couldn't be happier for him and the long yellow brick anime road that stretches out before him. Talking of Namco joints, JeffRud's been busy chronicling early Namco games in his sequential NamCompendium blog and on the wiki alike, and I'm looking forward to when he starts making heads or tails (or Tales) of the Tower of Druaga, its expanded franchise, and its many callbacks in future Namco games - action JRPGs owe a lot to that game, as does Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda. Meanwhile, ZombiePie is still grappling with the androgynous colossus that is the Final Fantasy franchise, recently covering the very first (and horribly dated) game in the mainline series and soon to be putting together his more detailed take on the divisive Final Fantasy XIII. He and Gino "ThatPinguino" Grieco will presumably have more to say about Hope, Snow, Lightning and the gang on their semi-regular podcast also.

I'll admit, my chief motivation for considering the GBA for my next wiki project is due to how many SNES ports it saw early on.
I'll admit, my chief motivation for considering the GBA for my next wiki project is due to how many SNES ports it saw early on.

In another area of the site, the extraordinarily busy head engineer Will "wcarle" Carle and his team have rolled out the new wiki submission tools, creating a system that lets you review all your individual edits before sending them out to go live like baby birds leaving the nest. I've been waiting for this new system to arrive, which not only makes large full-page edits easier to compartmentalize but also fixes a number of outstanding issues with the old wiki, and I'm planning on starting a new Wiki Project in the near future to commemorate it, probably once E3 (and my ridiculous E3-related features, like that Trailer Blazer thing I do every year) is over. I'm still trying to narrow down what I want to focus on next: my gaze oscillates between the Mega Drive/Genesis, the Game Boy Advance, the Nintendo 64, and the rest of the Japan-exclusive PC Engine CD-ROM library. I'd also like to revisit some of the circa 1989 NES pages I worked on years ago before I was mod, and maybe give the SNES section of the wiki another once over. I'll have more to say on all this once I decide on a project a few months from now.

Did I seriously blog every day this week? You betcha. I have proof, damn it:

  • On Monday, we had the first of two episodes of my ongoing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past randomizer playthrough for this week, starring Garflink the Hero of Pierule. Because food. Eating. The cat is morbidly overweight. Episode VII: Please, God, No: The Zealand Kilt Theft was a return to form for the flabby tabby, having found the run-revitalizing Titan's Mitt in the previous update. This allowed us to take on Turtle Rock, and from there a wealth of new opportunities presented itself.
  • On Tuesday, we continued exploring some of those opportunities in the second half of this week's randomizer double-bill. Backed with the formidable Silver Arrows and the level three sword, Garflink quickly made short work of most of the remaining dungeon bosses. Episode VIII: TalkFleet: An Elephant-Sized Hotdog puts us close to the end of this entertaining (for me, at least) playthrough with various ideas of what to try next. But first! We have to defeat Ganon! And Garflink knows exactly what to do with giant pig wizards: probably porkchop sandwiches. Because food. Eating. The cat is grotesquely corpulent.
  • Also on Tuesday, we appraised the first game of this year's May Maturity feature with an Outro blog for Might and Magic: World of Xeen. Though I'm far from done with the game, I've made a significant amount of progress into the first half - which, let's not forget, was originally released as a separate fully-fledged game and is otherwise known as the fourth mainline entry for the Might and Magic franchise - and intend to pop back in whenever I have a gap between when one May Maturity game ends and the next begins. The appraisal goes into what I like about these older CRPGs, particularly the specific rhythm or cycle that you have to perpetuate, and the colorful and humorous appeal of this game and franchise in particular.
  • On Wednesday, we followed up World of Xeen with the first classic graphic adventure game for May Maturity 2018: An Intro to The Legend of Kyrandia Book 3: Malcolm's Revenge. I completed the first two games in this series last year, and was disappointed that I couldn't quite finish the whole trilogy at the time. Instead, I made it a priority this year to see the whole franchise concluded. Early impressions were positive enough, even if it didn't feel like I was making a whole lot of progress. The reasons for that became evident as I played more of the game after that blog went up.
  • On Thursday, I took a brief hiatus from evil (but not really) jesters to play an evil (but not really) knight in the great if a little underwhelming Plague of Shadows add-on campaign for Shovel Knight as part of my regular Indie Game of the Week feature. Adapting the original game for a new protagonist, with his own unique moveset and collection of arcane relics, there's a lot of smartly modified level design for this expansion and a cute little story about the sardonic but shy Plague Knight and his comely assistant Mona. Not quite to the level of its forebear or successor (the excellent Specter of Torment from last year), but is still a middle child that shouldn't be overlooked.
  • On Friday, I forced myself to conclude The Legend of Kyrandia Book 3: Malcolm's Revenge in this Outro blog, denouncing its almost antagonistic relationship with the player while still admiring its several clever innovations that it couldn't quite capitalize on effectively. It's a great looking game, dumb pre-rendered backgrounds aside, with a quirky soundtrack and some funny writing, but too much of its core was irrevocably compromised by its insidious puzzles. A bitter send-off to a mostly OK trilogy of adventure games, from a developer that would ascend to new heights just a year later with the first Command & Conquer.

Addenda

Movie: Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV (2016)

No Caption Provided

Hey, I said I was done with Final Fantasy XV, but I said nothing of its movie spin-off. Part of a multimedia storm to promote Final Fantasy XV's release, Kingsglaive wasn't so much intended to follow Final Fantasy XV and cash in on its success, like most video game movie adaptations, but to support it narratively with some missing backstory before the game even arrived. What that means in practice is that the movie makes little sense without the context the game provides, and vice versa, creating the sort of extremely irritating and dimly-received "jigsaw" model of narrative delivery that I'm hoping no other major multimedia property will ever attempt again.

Without spoiling too much about the movie or the game, Kingsglaive starts shortly before the events of Final Fantasy XV and ends around a specific story moment in-game - I believe it's around chapter three - where something catastrophic happens off-screen and the playable characters only learn about it from reading the newspaper, of all things. It's a huge piece of missing backstory from the game, and the last you hear from several important antagonists until close to the game's conclusion. The developers of the game - and the movie, one assumes - originally planned the story to comprise several games' worth before realizing that it wouldn't be cost-effective for the studio to produce more gigantic JRPGs if FFXV had the the lukewarm reception and underwhelming sales figures that Final Fantasy XIII and its sequels contended with, especially since it had already been in development for like a decade and had essentially become a money-devouring Atomos in their midst that they were in a hurry to push out the door. Instead, they decided to hedge their bets by creating this animated movie to "bolster" a lot of the narrative that they couldn't squeeze into the game, leaving the gate open for subsequent movies and anime OVAs that would continue to spackle the various gaping plot holes the clearly incomplete game left behind. That isn't to say the movie is total chocoboshit, that its CGI isn't generally excellent (though its characters dip into the uncanny valley every so often) or that it can't stand on its own to some extent, just that it would be very hard to care about any of its characters, its worldbuilding, or its half-assed, open-ended conclusion - one that leaves the game to pick up the baton - without having played the game or harboring an intent to do so.

Kingsglaive stars Aaron Paul as Nyx, a generically attractive member of the titular infiltration squad of enchanted operatives working for King Regis of Insomnia, who granted them all a small amount of the power of the kingdom's magical crystal McGuffin just sufficient enough to sling spells and warp around like Noctis does. Nyx is your classic heroic archetype: highly competent, gregarious, and haunted by past mistakes that motivate his single-minded heroism. He's supported by a team of generic Kingsglaive recruits, including "the earnest fat one," "the preppy smart one," "the callously hostile one," and "the girl one," each of whom finds creative ways to exit the movie. There's also Nyx's bodyguard duties to Lunafreya nox Fleuret, the sweetly self-sacrificing Oracle and former Princess of Tenebrae who also happens to be a major character from the video game, rendering the stakes concerning her frequently imperiled well-being largely non-existent. She's voiced by Lena Headey: a great voice actor whose mature and sharp regal tone developed during her many years playing Queen Cersei on Game of Thrones sounds a little weird coming out of a girl barely out of her teens. Rounding out the cast is the pragmatic Kingsglaive commander Drautos, the imposing antagonist heavy General Glauca, a couple of the sinister Imperial bigwigs who also play more significant roles in the game, and Noctis's father King Regis himself, who is voiced by Sean Bean in case you weren't sure beforehand whether or not he was going to survive this movie.

Like Advent Children, the Final Fantasy VII CGI movie, Kingsglaive spins its wheels for a long time with various characters deemed too uninteresting to even appear in the core game as NPCs who stand around remarking on what a lovely day it is, before it eventually becomes an hour-long action cutscene full of flashy teleporting effects and a ludicrously overwrought swordfight between two indistinct CGI characters projected over a chaotic backdrop. The flips and whizzing around would not make it an easy battle to follow at the best of times, and its not made any easier on the eyes by the fact that both characters are dressed in dark greys and black, fighting at night, on top of black and dark grey buildings, while gigantic dark grey statues fight colossal black daemons in the background.

If you're into visually incomprehensible CGI spectacles and find the Transformers movies too offensively stupid, I might recommend Kingsglaive for that reason alone. I might also recommend it if you've played Final Fantasy XV and are wondering what happened to General Glauca - who, let's just say, might be someone Noctis would have a bone to pick with - or how certain off-screen events might've transpired given that the game was unwilling to fill in any details lest it step on the toes of its various companion media. Frankly, I was left uncertain that I should be supporting practices like these. Every Final Fantasy game since the genteel ninth seems to have been hit by some kind of malady of Square Enix's own doing: whether that's Final Fantasy X's ill-advised bubblegum J-Pop sequel prompted by financial troubles rather than earnest artistic endeavor, or Final Fantasy XI's unappealing and grindy MMO aspirations, or Final Fantasy XII's intense scrutiny during development causing the best game scenario writer Square Enix ever had the fortune of recruiting to toss in the towel due to extreme stress, or Final Fantasy XIII's far-too-optimistic decision of going all-in on increasingly off-kilter follow-ups, or Final Fantasy XIV's one hell of a false start. If I end up watching another middling CGI movie or playing some spin-off mobile card game because I needed to get the full width and breadth of a core Final Fantasy entry's story, then I'll be proving definitively that neither I nor Square Enix deserve nice things.

There's no game addenda section this week - May Maturity is taking up my every gaming moment that isn't going into my regular features. Instead, expect to see the Intro blog for the feature's third game go up later today. (Man, why do I do this to myself every year...?)

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May Maturity 09: The Legend of Kyrandia Book 3: Malcolm's Revenge (Outro)

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Oh boy, that sure was an adventure game created in the mid-90s. The big innovation for The Legend of Kyrandia Book 3: Malcolm's Revenge - as I learned from @arbitrarywater directly in the comments for the intro and indirectly from the game itself - is that it has multiple solutions for its puzzles. These alternative solutions often, but not always, involved different levels of dickery: part of the game's narrative focus was in choosing just how "evil" Malcolm was. You spend the whole game proving his innocence for the murder of the Royal Family, which predicated the very first game in the series, but no such extenuating circumstances are offered for the admittedly relatively minor crimes that followed after Malcolm took over and turned most of his fellow wizards into stone. Malcolm is a bad apple, in so many words, but it's down to the player just how rotten they want to play him.

Unfortunately, while the idea of having multiple solutions for the same immediate problem is a fun idea - one that Double Fine's Stacking utilized to great effect - in practice it made the game very muddled and obtuse, more so than it ever needed to be. The thing is, when you have multiple solutions to a problem, that also means multiple sets items and multiple angles of attack to get there. Therefore - and this holds especially true if you didn't actually know there were multiple ways to complete the chapter - you end up with a full inventory of items that will collectively get you most of way towards any number of different approaches and no idea where to follow through. The first "act" of the game, where Malcolm has to figure out how to leave Kyrandia so he can scheme and recover his magical abilities without being arrested every five minutes, is the one that really emphasizes the game's non-linear puzzle-solving, presenting a number of ways you can complete the goal of leaving Kyrandia by hook or by crook. The route I chose - which involved breaking through a wall in the sewer and recovering a "portal potion" that spirited Malcolm away to a jungle island populated by talking cats and dogs - was the easiest of six different possibilities: the others involved sneaking onto the circus ship by procuring some balls and putting on a juggling act; doing the same thing but with a mime act; disguising yourself and convincing Zanthia to help brew a "Pegasus potion" that allows shapeshifting magicians to fly to and from the island; use the carpet in the sewer to travel to Darm and Brandywine (the wizard and dragon from the first game) and give Darm a sandwich for a hint to "click two 'eels together" to leave Kyrandia; or keep escaping the prison as the Kyrandian authorities find more elaborate ways to keep you incarcerated. The middle part of the game is then much more linear, if still irritating in its own way, before it branches once again near the end based on a choice you can make regarding your Greek chorus of a conscience.

This piscine piece of shit, I swear. How do you have to work to LOSE at Tic-Tac-Toe?
This piscine piece of shit, I swear. How do you have to work to LOSE at Tic-Tac-Toe?

Compounding this issue of being drawn in a half-dozen different directions depending on which route(s) you're inadvertently edging towards is the series-wide insistence on a limited inventory of items that can be respawned elsewhere in the world in case you lose them, but not always conveniently. Certain items might take a lot longer to get together, and when they're accidentally consumed in a failed attempt, the player has to retrace their steps to collect it again. A certain puzzle near the end of the game required that I find sesame seeds, germinate them using eels caught in the sewers (OK?), water them (not wet enough already?), place the resulting plants in the filler pod at the local dairy farm, and then figure out how to get the cream from the automatic milking machine. You need a straight nail to puncture the cream's container, and while straight nails are common enough items I didn't have one on me at the time. When I came back to the dairy farm after finding the nail in the local dump (where Malcolm starts the game), everything had reset - the cows were gone, and the filler was empty. That meant repeating the whole sesame seed process, not particularly richer for having learned my lesson.

The game doesn't stop being annoying there either; in fact, almost true to the spirit of its mischievous protagonist, it will go out of its way to be constantly irritating. There's the prison sequence I showed you in the Intro blog where you have to follow a set of commands to create ten doilies before you can make parole. When you reach the bizarre, metaphysical plane of Limbo it regularly tugs you away from whatever you were doing to play Tic-Tac-Toe with the mercurial Fish Queen. The only way to move on is to let her win - she's an incredibly bad player, so you have to actually make an effort to lose - and then sweet talk her prowess sufficiently before she'll let you go. It took me so long to figure this out that I was stuck playing this ridiculous game for almost half an hour. And then she'll drag you back after five or so minutes have passed, regardless of where you were or what you were doing. The talking cat island I talked about has a no-foolin' complex maze jungle, and you have to hack apart the same five or six ferns every screen in order to move to the next. In addition, there are random piles of snakes that can appear after hacking through a fern, and if you don't immediately deal with them - say, by clicking on another fern instead because you're running on auto-pilot after far too long spent in this confusing arboreal labyrinth - they kiss you to death. There's perpetual aggravation everywhere you turn; I had the mistaken belief going in that the game intended for you to prank and belittle Kyrandia and its ignorant citizens as a depowered but still savvy Malcolm, when really it's Malcolm (and the player) that is at the mercy of Kyrandia's relentless animosity.

The end credits has these cute
The end credits has these cute "Apple QuickTime" quality digitized videos of the development staff reacting to an animated Malcolm in their middle. It's a lot of fun to watch, not least of which because of all the blocky monitors and 90s fashion.

For as clever and experimental as Malcolm's Revenge is in theory, and admittedly has some very amusing writing as a bonus, it's an extremely difficult game to like in practice. It never quite realizes the potential of its Nice/Sarcastic/Lying dialogue tones, the score system makes less sense when you have multiple solutions to puzzles that presumably result in different amounts of points (if I had to guess, I'd say getting the max score means progressing all the routes to the end while only actually finishing one), it's filled with puzzles that require a lot of trial and error and/or endless busywork as you pick through a huge trash pile of knick-knacks for the handful of items that serve any purpose, and replaces most of the beautiful pixel art backgrounds of the prior games with these ugly, early, pre-rendered polygonal models and animations. As what I believe was the last intended game of its trilogy, bringing a hanging thread from the first game back full circle, it feels like the video game development equivalent of trashing your apartment on moving day with the tacit knowledge that the landlord was a jerk and you were never going to get your deposit back anyway.

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Indie Game of the Week 69: Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

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Having played Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment last year, and having no idea when Shovel Knight: King of Cards will arrive this year, I figured there was a sufficiently large enough gap in the schedule to squeeze in Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows, the first of Shovel Knight's three "Treasure Trove" spin-offs. Shovel Knight's developers, Yacht Club Games, has been supporting their debut game on a level heretofore unprecedented: it's something to add new features or characters or release a free DLC bonus campaign post-launch, but it's something else to do that three times over. Anyone who bought the original Shovel Knight or the more recent Treasure Trove edition has access to three additional campaigns starring some of the blackguard Knights of the Order of No Quarter. Of the two I've played so far, Plague of Shadows is the weakest, but only because the ambition of Specter of Torment (and, I suspect, King of Cards) is that much more substantial. If you were told that the DLC campaign would let you play the original game as a separate character, with separate upgrades and controls, you'd probably imagine something like Plague of Shadows. Specter of Torment, conversely, felt like an entirely new game with a handful of reused assets.

That isn't to say Plague of Shadows is bad - it's riffing on one of the best retro platformers of all time - just that it's a little underwhelming after Specter of Torment, which placed high on my GOTY list last year. Plague's a lot more of a remix, keeping most of the stages (and bosses) as-is barring a few Plague Knight-specific side-areas and an alternate route through most of its obstacles. Plague Knight doesn't have Shovel Knight's shovel-bounce, but can instead project himself up and forward with an explosion. This allows him to cross larger distances than a regular double-jump, but requires a small charge-up period that makes it tricky to master in some of the game's more intensive platforming challenges. He also has his own set of Relics, called Arcanes, which compliment his platforming style and include the likes of potions that increase speed, allow Plague Knight to siphon health from enemies, or even create a temporary platform under his feet. The last of those is easily the most useful, having saved my bacon several dozen times, but as was also the case for the accessories in Specter Knight and Shovel Knight the others proved useful in the right context or were fun enough just to experiment with.

Plague Knight's main weapon are his bombs, which have a huge amount of customization potential, from the length of the timer to the explosive effect. All the same, I mostly stuck to the default; every alternative seemed to have a downside to go with its benefit.
Plague Knight's main weapon are his bombs, which have a huge amount of customization potential, from the length of the timer to the explosive effect. All the same, I mostly stuck to the default; every alternative seemed to have a downside to go with its benefit.

The story has Plague Knight and his assistant (and bottle mini-game hostess from Shovel Knight) Mona concoct an "ultimate potion" from the essences of the game's knight bosses - including Shovel Knight, who pops up several times in a mute role and even has his own tough boss fight - as the contrivance required to play through the whole game again. There's romance, there's drama, there's a lot of dancing, there's Plague Knight not taking any of his fellow armored goons even remotely seriously, and there's a lot of neat twists on the conventions, characters, and locations of the original game. One particularly great diversion was visiting the "Hall of Champions" - where the game's big Kickstarter backers are enshrined in portrait form for all posterity - and wrecking up the place, destroying the paintings of all those smug (but very generous!) patrons. A nearby NPC even concurs with how cathartic it must feel. The game's allowed to let its hair down and be self-referential, treating the whole adventure as a "what if" alternative telling rather than the quasi-canonical prequel that was Specter of Torment.

So, that's Plague of Shadows in a nutshell: a fantastic follow-up to the core game if you were looking for some slight tweaks and a new protagonist, but overshadowed by its far more ambitious and confident successor. Kind of like the middle child who doesn't have the academics or athletic prowess of their siblings, but makes up for it with a laid-back attitude and a great sense of humor.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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May Maturity 09: The Legend of Kyrandia Book 3: Malcolm's Revenge (Intro)

I managed to make my way through two of Westwood Studios's comedic fantasy games last year, but didn't quite have enough time to complete the set. Taking elements of Sierra's King Quest and LucasArts's Secret of Monkey Island franchises but mechanically distinct from either, The Legend of Kyrandia games were difficult graphic adventure games to break into due to some odd decisions they - and they alone, from what I've been able to determine playing many Indies since - took with regards to inventory management and puzzles: the two aspects of adventure games that encompass most of the "game" part of their composition. Instead of picking up everything in sight, the Kyrandia games enforce a strict inventory limit of around ten to twelve items: instead, you can leave things scattered around with a more than decent chance that they'll still be where you left them. This also means that you can use up or toss away items, and expect them to respawn elsewhere in the world just in case you really did need them. This, coupled with a lot of magic potion creation puzzles that had you chasing ingredients halfway across the eponymous land, made the games a hard sell from a purely gameplay-respective stance.

However, the Kyrandia games have some wonderful pixel-artwork in their corner - as is typical for Westwood, creators of the intricate (if silly) Command & Conquer RTS war simulators and the Eye of the Beholder first-person dungeon-crawlers - and tend to be very well-written in a sort of Discworld self-referential fantasy world sense. Malcolm's Revenge in particular seems to be keen to mine that comedic vein, repurposing the mad jester villain of the first game and turning him into a mischievous anti-hero with an ironically minuscule amount of patience for fools. His sarcastic quips, penchant for low-key cruelty, and unorthodox approach to puzzles makes him a more compelling protagonist than the first Kyrandia's milquetoast protagonist (and now King) Brandon, at least, as does the game's story in which he tries to clear his name for the more outright evil crimes he was accused of - namely, the regicide of King Brandon's royal parents before the first game began - and then locate a way to permanently depart the kingdom that fears and hates him.

We'll be getting to some more Book 3 impressions in jester moment, but first - screenshots!

"Book 3: Malcolm's Revenge," a.k.a. "Revenge, Uh, Finds a Way"

Welcome to The Legend of Kyrandia: Book Three! To recap, we've gone from Brandon (Book One), to Zanthia (Book Two) and now Malcolm (Book Three). Huh, and here I thought Malcolm would be in the middle.
Welcome to The Legend of Kyrandia: Book Three! To recap, we've gone from Brandon (Book One), to Zanthia (Book Two) and now Malcolm (Book Three). Huh, and here I thought Malcolm would be in the middle.
The game's introduction, which follows Malcolm as a jerk toddler up to a jerk middle-aged man, uses a lot of early polygonal work. It doesn't look all that great, frankly. Fortunately, the game itself is still mostly pixel work with a few pre-rendered backgrounds.
The game's introduction, which follows Malcolm as a jerk toddler up to a jerk middle-aged man, uses a lot of early polygonal work. It doesn't look all that great, frankly. Fortunately, the game itself is still mostly pixel work with a few pre-rendered backgrounds.
At any rate, the introduction catches up to the thrilling cliffhanger of the previous game, which saw Malcolm be free of the petrification spell that foiled his schemes from the first game.
At any rate, the introduction catches up to the thrilling cliffhanger of the previous game, which saw Malcolm be free of the petrification spell that foiled his schemes from the first game.
It's a little surreal that you're suddenly playing the series antagonist with little reason to expect that he's rehabilitated at all. I mean, he's just woken up after getting this close to taking over Kyrandia.
It's a little surreal that you're suddenly playing the series antagonist with little reason to expect that he's rehabilitated at all. I mean, he's just woken up after getting this close to taking over Kyrandia.
And then there's this guy. Your conscience, split into a
And then there's this guy. Your conscience, split into a "bad" half and a "good" half as is often the way in cartoons, is a constant companion on your journey. He only shows up to make fun of you, though he's also the game's best source of hints (and warnings).
Being a rock for a few years has stripped Malcolm of his once-formidable magic skills, for what are probably obvious reasons if he's going to be the playable character. I don't even get an abilitease period. Well, I don't need magic to give this squirrel a hard time...
Being a rock for a few years has stripped Malcolm of his once-formidable magic skills, for what are probably obvious reasons if he's going to be the playable character. I don't even get an abilitease period. Well, I don't need magic to give this squirrel a hard time...
wait what
wait what
what wait
what wait
All right, fine, so Malcolm's a little weaker than we thought. First things first: we need to find our old stuff. It won't be here though, in King Wiener's castle.
All right, fine, so Malcolm's a little weaker than we thought. First things first: we need to find our old stuff. It won't be here though, in King Wiener's castle.
Naturally, I can't help but aggravate a mime that happens to be in the way. Remember when every cartoon had mime jokes? And how weirdly disproportionate it was to how often you saw mimes in real life?
Naturally, I can't help but aggravate a mime that happens to be in the way. Remember when every cartoon had mime jokes? And how weirdly disproportionate it was to how often you saw mimes in real life?
Oh right, this is a magic world.
Oh right, this is a magic world.
Sensing a pattern here. Good thing this
Sensing a pattern here. Good thing this "second chance" button basically undoes any death - no reloading from an hours-old save like the old Sierra games.
Some more of those pre-rendered backgrounds I was talking about. Honestly, most of these screens just have weird polygonal business and very little other purpose. I recall this being part of the reason adventure games were starting to fall out of fashion: too much focus on visuals, not enough on content.
Some more of those pre-rendered backgrounds I was talking about. Honestly, most of these screens just have weird polygonal business and very little other purpose. I recall this being part of the reason adventure games were starting to fall out of fashion: too much focus on visuals, not enough on content.
See above, really. I do like crowd scenes like this in adventure games, but I can't actually interact with any of these people. They all collectively comprise a single hotspot of
See above, really. I do like crowd scenes like this in adventure games, but I can't actually interact with any of these people. They all collectively comprise a single hotspot of "throng of people Malcolm wants to clear out so he can some damn fish ice cream".
And then there's this little weirdo, who follows you around and speaks a crazy language you can't understand (it's actually reversed in the audio, but the text gives you no hints).
And then there's this little weirdo, who follows you around and speaks a crazy language you can't understand (it's actually reversed in the audio, but the text gives you no hints).
I should make it clear this early on that the game gives you absolutely no direction, save for what you can pick up from interacting with the environment. Goal One is to get back to Malcolm's old apartment back before he was the court jester. Goal Two seems to be convincing Queen Katherine that Malcolm wasn't who killed her. First, though, we need to figure out how to talk to her: a nearby ghost suggests laying a couple of flowers on her grave, but these yellow ones keep running away (fantasy world, don't forget).
I should make it clear this early on that the game gives you absolutely no direction, save for what you can pick up from interacting with the environment. Goal One is to get back to Malcolm's old apartment back before he was the court jester. Goal Two seems to be convincing Queen Katherine that Malcolm wasn't who killed her. First, though, we need to figure out how to talk to her: a nearby ghost suggests laying a couple of flowers on her grave, but these yellow ones keep running away (fantasy world, don't forget).
Exploring the rest of the accessible screens, and I bump into a familiar face. Unfortunately, as the last game established, Zanthia is perhaps the only person in Kyrandia with any sense. We're not going to get past her easily.
Exploring the rest of the accessible screens, and I bump into a familiar face. Unfortunately, as the last game established, Zanthia is perhaps the only person in Kyrandia with any sense. We're not going to get past her easily.

I'm just going to pause the screenshots here to explain how the dialogue system in this game works. Malcolm has three conversational "modes": Normal, which is sarcastic and mean-spirited; Nice, which has Malcolm struggling to be polite and attentive; and Lying, which is like Nice but with more obvious falsehoods. NPCs react differently to each mode, with some only dispensing hints or advice with the right tone. It's the sort of feature I'm usually ambivalent about: on the one hand, it can be funny to have the opportunity to say shitty things to people; on the other, it means having to exhaust three dialogue trees per person instead of one, with very little difference in the responses you get. Take Zanthia, above: she responds the exact same way to Normal and Lying, but tells you about a "Circus Boat" you could use to escape Kyrandia if being Nice.

The Circus Boat. Unfortunately,
The Circus Boat. Unfortunately, "McGruff Trade" the flamboyant sailor dog won't let me on without proof I work for this particular circus. Apparently, walking around in a clown costume isn't enough.
I finally solve an inventory puzzle after a few screens of wandering, using a rusty nail I found to break into this hideous smiling building. Talking of hideous: that Rolling Stones cover art reject over there is a teleporter, one that moves you a handful of screens away and takes so long to animate that you'd be better off walking.
I finally solve an inventory puzzle after a few screens of wandering, using a rusty nail I found to break into this hideous smiling building. Talking of hideous: that Rolling Stones cover art reject over there is a teleporter, one that moves you a handful of screens away and takes so long to animate that you'd be better off walking.
Oh great, so in addition to treason and murder Malcolm is apparently also a workplace sex criminal. This dilapidated toy factory is his old haunt: his apartment is just beyond, behind that door.
Oh great, so in addition to treason and murder Malcolm is apparently also a workplace sex criminal. This dilapidated toy factory is his old haunt: his apartment is just beyond, behind that door.
First though, I can create as many of these little toy soldiers as I want with a pile of infinite firewood just outside of town. Not that I have any idea what they do, or how many I might need. I love adventure games.
First though, I can create as many of these little toy soldiers as I want with a pile of infinite firewood just outside of town. Not that I have any idea what they do, or how many I might need. I love adventure games.
Malcolm's apartment has seen better days, though I'm tempted to believe that it always looked like this. Bachelors, am I right?
Malcolm's apartment has seen better days, though I'm tempted to believe that it always looked like this. Bachelors, am I right?
In the middle of the room is Malcolm's old family album which, if nothing else, helps establish who all the royals are and how they're related to Malcolm - Malcolm does, technically, have a right to the throne. Also, tell me about it, Gunther.
In the middle of the room is Malcolm's old family album which, if nothing else, helps establish who all the royals are and how they're related to Malcolm - Malcolm does, technically, have a right to the throne. Also, tell me about it, Gunther.
You can also take a nice nap here. Not that it does much, but I feel it's earned.
You can also take a nice nap here. Not that it does much, but I feel it's earned.
Anyway, the real reason the game tells us to return to Malcolm's home is to reclaim his Jester Wand. It's not the source of his magic, but it can be used to entertain people with jesterly tomfoolery. I dunno, it'll probably prove to be useful.
Anyway, the real reason the game tells us to return to Malcolm's home is to reclaim his Jester Wand. It's not the source of his magic, but it can be used to entertain people with jesterly tomfoolery. I dunno, it'll probably prove to be useful.
Wandering back to the dump at the start of the game to interfere with that squirrel some more, I'm suddenly jumped by King Brandon's goons and sent to jail. What did I do? ...Oh, right.
Wandering back to the dump at the start of the game to interfere with that squirrel some more, I'm suddenly jumped by King Brandon's goons and sent to jail. What did I do? ...Oh, right.
Whether you put anything in the box or no, it's all still here after you escape. However, you can pick up an inventory item and leave it as your cursor, and this acts as
Whether you put anything in the box or no, it's all still here after you escape. However, you can pick up an inventory item and leave it as your cursor, and this acts as "palming" the object and sneaking it through to prison.
The Legend of Kyrandia has some things to say about the unfair practices of penal labor, most notably how Big Doily gets most of its workforce from enslaved convicts. As true now as it was then.
The Legend of Kyrandia has some things to say about the unfair practices of penal labor, most notably how Big Doily gets most of its workforce from enslaved convicts. As true now as it was then.
I had the foresight to sneak in my bent nail, which I suppose is going to be a lockpick from here on out.
I had the foresight to sneak in my bent nail, which I suppose is going to be a lockpick from here on out.
There's no locked doors between me and the exit, just that guard in the other room and a long fall past the prison bars, but at least I get to see what's inside this box. It's, uh, this guy.
There's no locked doors between me and the exit, just that guard in the other room and a long fall past the prison bars, but at least I get to see what's inside this box. It's, uh, this guy.
You can poke him with the dull scissors for some
You can poke him with the dull scissors for some "meanness points", but I couldn't see what else to do with this man in a box.
You have to complete ten doilies before they let you leave prison, and you'll get thrown back in if you wander back near the castle after a certain amount of time is passed. It's irritating, but I don't think I need to go back there anyway. Instead, I'm using the doily scissors I stole to grab some of these cowardly flowers.
You have to complete ten doilies before they let you leave prison, and you'll get thrown back in if you wander back near the castle after a certain amount of time is passed. It's irritating, but I don't think I need to go back there anyway. Instead, I'm using the doily scissors I stole to grab some of these cowardly flowers.
Which allows me to finally converse with Queen Katherine. As before, with Zanthia, you only get flies with honey here: by taking a Nice tone, she tells me that I should convince the King of my innocence, but can only do so with a
Which allows me to finally converse with Queen Katherine. As before, with Zanthia, you only get flies with honey here: by taking a Nice tone, she tells me that I should convince the King of my innocence, but can only do so with a "royal seance". No idea how I'd go about setting one of those up, but this is progress of a sort.

I'm going to stop here, mostly because I have no idea what to do or where to go next. Adventure games are hard to summarize like that: the last thing anyone wants to read is dozens of screenshots of hint-filled dialogue and me trying every object on every other object, but that is invariably what every adventure game playthrough turns into.

Still, it's evident that Westwood were trying a few new ideas with this last Kyrandia outing. The points system, while hardly new to adventure games as a whole, is integrated into the Kyrandia series for the first time here to - I suspect - encourage experimentation with Malcolm's various conversational tones and buffoonery. You get points for entertaining people, but also for pranking and hurting them, so even if you're not moving the game's story forward by being a dick to some random NPC, you are at least getting rewarded for some cheap laughs at their expense. It feels like the designers put this points system in so you don't accidentally miss any of their mean jokes by constantly taking the Nice route as the most likely means of making progress.

I also wish there more dumb NPCs to play the foil with: Wimpy King Brandon and his grandfather Kallak don't hang around long enough for insults, Zanthia's too sharp, the mime doesn't talk, and the weird alien kid only speaks in tongues. Seems like if you were going to hang a game on the hook that is a surly and sardonic protagonist everyone loves to hate, you'd give them more people to irritate from the start.

All the same, I was already two games into this three game series when I started this year's May Maturity season, so I'm not dropping out yet. It does feel a little more difficult than either of its forebears, largely due to a general lack of direction and some annoying quirks, so I'm intending to at least get past what I hope is an early hump before the rest of the game shows up. Keep an eye out for the Outro later this week, for a clearer picture of where this game goes.

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