May Maturity 02: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (Outro)

Oh wow, where to even start with this one? Let's re-establish what we learned in the Intro blog to Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss:

  • The game was one of the first, if not the first (technically, Drakkhen beat them to it), dungeon crawlers to switch from the fixed four-directional movement of games like Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master to fully panoramic exploration. With this also includes a lot of very fancy (for the time) sprite-scaling for its environments, as well as a handful of loose polygons for basic shapes like boulders, chairs and benches. It's just enough to make it feel like a real 3D environment you're exploring.
  • The game is part of the Ultima franchise, which often tests its player for the nebulously defined "eight aspects of Virtue" as it does their martial or spell-casting abilities. These pillars of Virtue are invariably important to the Avatar - the recurring protagonist of the series, thought to be the player themselves who teleported to the series's fantasy world of Britannia through a "moongate" - and the quest they're on. True to that model, a lot of Ultima Underworld's puzzles involve the Virtues in some shape or form. (Though it should be noted that the game doesn't really have any kind of sophisticated morality system beyond that.)
  • There are strict inventory limits to observe, and while Ultima Underworld does have a system for bartering with NPCs and a couple of mercantile skills that govern your success at same, it's actually a very minor part of the game. You're not so much scrounging up all the loose treasures and equipment you can find to sell off to the nearest vendor, in part because you don't really need the money and also because the money itself is almost as heavy. Instead, you trade whatever is nearby and accessible for whatever you might need, and try to keep your held supplies to the barest minimum - with, perhaps, a few caches left behind here and there for food and material restocking in case you run out.
  • The game's combat is all in real-time and involves slashing at enemies in melee range and then getting out of their range before any of their reprisals can land. Before each swing, you have to hold down the attack button to gather strength, so it becomes a game of backing away, building up the next attack and then stepping into range just long enough to deliver it. I didn't use missile weapons or magic, but I imagine a similar practice of keeping your distance applies. It's also important to know what's behind you - if you're going to be constantly backing away from incoming enemies to whittle them down, you don't want to walk backwards off a cliff or into another enemy coming from the opposite direction.
Also, while the game has hunger and tiredness gauges, neither of them drains particularly quickly. You only have to sleep after about eight hours of game time, and each time you do the game gives you hints from the fallen wizard Garamon here in case you had been running around in circles until you collapsed.
Also, while the game has hunger and tiredness gauges, neither of them drains particularly quickly. You only have to sleep after about eight hours of game time, and each time you do the game gives you hints from the fallen wizard Garamon here in case you had been running around in circles until you collapsed.

All right, so let's talk about the game's structure, like we did last time with Toonstruck. The game has a total of eight dungeon floors, but they're not discrete in the same way that Dungeon Master's are (or Legend of Grimrock, as a more recent example). Rather, all eight floors constitute an open, living world that are all connected to each other in specific ways, and you'll often find yourself needing to go a floor down or above to complete an objective before returning. The last two floors in particular involve a lot of going up and down stairs to reach new areas of both, leading to situations where forward progress is impossible without moving between floors.

What's also impressive about the dungeon is that it makes sense. Not necessarily in the micro - some areas are confusing tunnels just for the sake of being confusing video game tunnels - but in the macro: the whole dungeon was colonized by a legendary priest, Sir Cabirus, who believed he could make a Utopian settlement by bringing together Britannia's sapient races and having them work together in harmony. Throughout the first six floors, you'll find settlements for each of these races and groups: the knights, the goblins, the seers, the mountainmen, the ghouls, the trolls and the outcasts, the latter group having entered the Stygian Abyss years later as either punishment for criminal activities (like the protagonist, who was convicted on a case of mistaken identity) or found their way in as adventurers. Likewise, the non-settlement parts all appeared to have former roles before they were taken over by wandering monsters or the minions of the antagonist, Cyball the Mad Wizard. The natural rock-walled bottom floors were once mines, upper areas with more masonry were clearly once churches, academies of learning and gathering places for the tribes, and you could frequently see the ruined remains of a convenient central staircase that once connected every floor. With one delightfully dumb exception, each floor of the Stygian Abyss has some logic behind its level design, explaining what it once was and why it might be a monster-infested pit years after the colony's failure.

The
The "delightfully dumb exception" being this mine, which is filled with floating blue ore called "Zanium" spaced equally apart in a maze filled with multi-colored ghosts. (Fortunately, I was able to cut down the ghosts without the need of power pellets.)

Of most significance, however, is the game's puzzle design. You realize early on that the chief goal is finding all of Cabirus's eight "talismans" - each representing a different Virtue, and filled with enough pure energy to greatly increase the Avatar's chances of survival. These include non-interactive McGuffins like "The Book of Honesty" and "The Wine of Compassion", to useful items like "The Taper of Sacrifice" (a candle that never goes out) and "The Sword of Justice" (one of the best weapons in the game). Each one involves its own puzzle: some are as basic as completing a quest for a certain NPC, while others involve interacting with the dungeon in some way, usually after being given a hint. The sword, for example, is found in two parts - one from draining a pond via a secret panel, and another is found in a tomb area accessible after a puzzle - and then those two parts need to be taken to a Dwarven (sorry, "mountainperson") blacksmith you first meet several floors up in order to be reforged. One talisman plays with the game's "mantras and shrines" system of levelling up - if you intone a specific mantra at a shrine, you gain points in the skill it pertains to. You can do this a certain number of times per level, and figuring out which mantra increases what is part of the game-wide hunt for information. However, were you to figure out the special mantra that relates to this talisman, it would summon it into being for you after you speak its name at a shrine. There are a few more talisman puzzles that are equally clever, and it took some working out (and a careful attention to hints) to find all eight.

I can say, definitively, that this game is remarkable for both its technological advances and for its approach to a more puzzle-focused dungeon adventure. The latter means that it hasn't aged horribly, because while many other games since its release have used the same advances and innovated upon them, very few present such a compact, cleverly-designed and thoroughly cerebral trek with those same tools. Maybe that speaks as much to the Ultima franchise in general, which often has the player exemplifying the Virtues as much as running around chopping giant spiders to pieces. The other Ultima spin-offs were also equal parts RPGs and graphic adventure games, which included Jules Verne-inspired stories where the Avatar and Warren Spector (the real one, as far as I can tell) discover an island still trapped in prehistoric times or fly to Mars with an all-star cast of Victorian-era celebrities.

One of the game's smartest puzzles, of the
One of the game's smartest puzzles, of the "notepad and pen" variety, is learning the friendly lizardmen's language in order to communicate with them. You could only do this by recording words, asking a mute human prisoner what they mean, and interpreting his charades for their definitions. Through trial and error, I can tell you that this guy is saying "Friend human. Visit Ishtass for assistance." - the standard practice of any standard non-named NPC is to direct you to the nearest named one.

I am curious to eventually play Ultima Underworld 2, which I hear has aged even better, and the clearly derivational Menzoberranzan, which transplants the format to the Forgotten Realms D&D setting and features our ol' pal Drizzt Do'Urden. I might not get around to them this month - I'm spacing them apart, since they're all quite similar - but it doesn't seem like I'm done with panoramic dungeon crawlers by a long shot yet.

Next time, though, we're heading back to the land of point-n'-clicks to embark on another first game of a long-running series. It's probably not the one you think it is.

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