By mento 0 Comments
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)