Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Guest Review - Ultima VII: The Black Gate

So, one of these last days, while cruising through the endless seas that are the internet, I came across (again) upon a discussion between fans of the western rpg community and the eastern or Japanese rpg fan community base, as to which one of these was the better type of rpg and why. While I may add that this debate was as civilized and rational as you'd expect it to be coming from a bunch of 13 year old basement dwellers, what really grinded my gears was that the western rpg fans had no knowledge whatsoever of good examples to complement their own opinions with. Well, to put it into simpler terms, fallout 3, oblivion and mass effect, while good games, ARE NOT "THE BEST RPGS EVER CREATED SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME" AND YOU'RE AN IMBECILE IF YOU THINK OTHERWISE. Seriously, it pity's me to see that these newer generations will be marking these 3 games as the pinnacle of western rpgs, when there are so much more important tittles (and more entertaining too) to be found throughout these last decades. And to show you I'm not just shoving dust into your eyes, I'm going to prove it by reviewing this little gem right here, so just try and stop me! (Update: It came into my attention that you can close your web browser by clicking on the little cross on your right upper corner, so in a way, it's actually possible to stop me by ignoring me. Well, you win this round!)


Typical answers you'll be finding on the JRPG's side.
It saddens me to see how these people are allowed access to a PC and internet connection.
  


There are only 3 reasons that I might find reasonable for you not to enjoy this game: Either you're graphical whore and the graphics might turn you down (not that they're bad, they're just outdated unfortunately), the game might take you a while to get into and you'll eventually just move on to something else, or you're not a fan of rpgs. So yes, when I say this is a good example of one of the best western rpgs to play, I really mean it, and if by the end of this review you don't understand why then just find another hobby, because you don't like games, plain and simple.

Gameplay:

If you've ever seen any screenshots from this game, you can guess that it takes the form of an isometric rpg (in fact, these whole series were one of the pioneers in adopting this system, followed later by all of black isle studios rpgs, as well as all D&D spawned adventures that came around the time), and if you want a good example of how it plays, think about an early Diablo with party management. The whole movement, interaction and combat is based purely on mouse control only (of course you have several shortcut keys assigned for inventory access, or move into combat mode, etc), so at first, it might be hard to get into it because of this outdated control system, especially trying to move your badass party through Brittania, since you have to move the mouse pointer over where you want to go and then keep the right mouse button pressed for them to keep moving (Yeah, I know, by my previous remarks you were probably thinking you'd have to shove the mouse into your nostrils or something, but since many of you will rant about every detail they can find, I decided to give you the "heads up").


The lack of sanitary complements in this house doesn't seem to disturb our heroes.  



But apart from outdated controls, gameplay is awesome and very entertaining. Let's start with interaction and the world itself; See that little screen where the game unfolds? Well, close to 98% of all the objects you'll see there are interactable. So yes, if you suddenly have the urge to give up on the plot and become a baker, just assassinate a bakery owner and start making delicious cookies and selling them to the inn. Feel like becoming a drug dealer? No problem, find a secret stash in of the mines and sell the drugs to the apothecary. The world's limitations are only based on how far your own imagination can go (well ok, don't expect cook up a space ship and fly away into the ends of the universe: the only space ship on this world belongs to a farmer, and he's very attached to it).



Seriously, I want you to picture this: During your travels, you find a very concerned mother whose baby has been kidnapped by harpies. Well, as you're probably a goody good shoes, you'll want to save the baby, not only in order to receive delicious exp, but in order to have the everlasting gratitude of a woman (Believe me, such thing only exists on fantasy worlds such as this). But what if I told you that babies hold one of the most powerful weapons in this game? That's right, their own poo. Yes, you heard me well. Keep that baby bagged on your backpack, find some diapers, use the diapers on the baby, throw the shitty diapers into someone's face, and they'll flee from you like teenage punk girls run away from good music. Even dragons and liches cannot withstand the power of shit. Now tell me another game where you can do this. I dare you!


You actually thought I was joking didn't you? And yes, that's the baby in the middle of the bag.
Besides having a very compelling and interactable world, another thing that really gets you the first time you play this game is how good the AI can get (never forget that this game was made in early 90's, so they might as well have used rocks instead of programming, because it wouldn't make any difference). You'll be surprised to find out that every npc in every city and every backwater village follows a specific daily routine and this routine even affects the world surrounding them (unlike, I don't know, OBLIVION). Get into a blacksmith, and he'll actually be crafting the swords he sells you and dropping them on a stand to display them. Around noon, he'll interrupt to head over to the inn for a drink and, get this; HE'LL ACTUALLY HAVE A WAITRESS SERVING HIS DRINKS AND YOU CAN SEE HIM DRINKING THEM, WOW BETHESDA, YOU'VE BEEN OUTSMARTED BY A 20 YEAR OLD GAME. In fact, instead of having me detailing the differences, why don't I just ask these 2 randomly picked npcs from both games how their days unfold?

The life and death of a pixelized person:


Let's start with Wilbur from Oblivion, the proud owner of an Inn and daily sustenance to the 2 npcs whose path finding allows them to find their way over there:
Interviewer: So Wilbur, describe us a little of your daily routine.
Wilbur: Oh my friend, if only you knew how fantastic and compelling my life is! There isn't a single day I don't thank the gods for the opportunity to leave a legacy in this world and to be part of something that transcends every puny ambition I might have! As a proud owner of this Inn, I start the day by standing behind the counter, waiting for the first client to arrive. By midday, I'm still standing behind the counter, waiting. Then, during dinner, something terrific happens! I enact in the process of using my legs to sustain the weight of my body, complemented with gravity's own force as well, while being physically nearby a balcony which is used to separate me from my imaginary costumers. During this time, 2 persons suddenly teleport into their seats and start eating imaginary food, and no matter how hard I try to tell them that I have fresh food just waiting to be eaten, they just continue biting their empty hands. This lasts for 2 hours, then they suddenly teleport back to wherever they came from. Then I wait in the same spot during nightfall for the sun to come, and another glorious day suddenly awakes with new opportunities in its reach! Then nothing happens, and the day just repeats itself again.
Interviewer: ...Wilbur... are you even paid for your services? How can you even survive if you don't eat or sleep?
Wilbur: SILENCE MORTAL! Serving Sih'birilath, the God of standing behind counters gazing at infinity is enough sustenance for both body and mind!
Interviewer: Er... ok... I guess I'll just be leaving through this door now...
Wilbur: You mean you have mastered the ability to transcend beyond this point into the unknown? I beg of you! You must partake of this knowledge! Oh glorious one, I beg of you!
Interviewer: Er... I... well... fine.


Onto Polly's interview then:
Interviewer: So Polly, why don't you describe us a little about your life?
Polly: Oh Milord, I don't really have much time to babble, regardless, I start the day by preparing the inn for possible newcomers, then start serving the first meals around noon. By that time, the mill man comes around dropping some flour for my cooking, and we have a chat. I really fancy that man; I wish he had the courage to propose me already. I then clean the tables, do some sweeping, and get ready for another sermon from the fellowship branch. They usually come around by evening with all their preaching and whatnot, I really don't give it much attention, but I politely await for them to finish, because they're usually very good customers and I do not wish to lose them. I then serve the night meals and attend some costumers with their overly drinking, and afterwards, get ready to retire for my chambers. All in all, it's not a bad life; I get enough income and have a satisfying and compelling life.
Interviewer: Sounds like an interesting life indeed, thank you for your cooperation, I won't rob more of your time.

But interaction, dialog and investigation aren't all that you'll be doing, for what good would a rpg be without combat? And believe me, there'll be plenty of it, enough to satisfy your lustful desire for head pounding. Combat in this game unfolds almost automatically: when you meet a bunch of enemies, you press the C button to enter into combat mode, and your party rushes over to the enemies to attack them. Like almost every rpg, how you perform in combat will depend part on how good are your stats and part on your own equipment. Said stats affect how much damage you deal, your chance to hit with the weapon you're currently wielding, avoidance, and they can usually be upgraded with trainers on the major cities (different trainers exist for different stats, so you'll have to find which one you want to invest your money and experience points into). Magic also plays a part in combat, but unfortunately, only avatar (your character) can use it. There are plenty of spells and almost every single one of them has a use, even outside combat, but they require reagents to be used (which are very common as well, and you can even buy them from magicians if you want).

Just the daily life of Avatar: killing spiders and taking care of invisible kids and elderly folks.


Plot:

When I said before that this was one of the best western rpgs created, I wasn't only speaking in terms of gameplay and immersion. Storywise, this is one of the most compelling tales you'll probably come across and the universe created is simply fantastic. Since this is the seventh installment of this game and they are all connected to each other, I'd have to stay here for hours (mines and yours) detailing you every minor fact behind this saga. Instead, I'll pick up from where this game starts, and if you want it, there are plenty of faqs and walkthroughs around the internet that explain this universe and its different characters. You play the role of avatar: champion of Brittania and defender of the eight virtues that guide this world. Immediately upon your arrival upon Brittania, you find your friend Iolo, who has just been witness to a horrendous crime (never before has pixelized life been as brutalized as in this instance) and invites you to investigate it with him.



I guess you could say he just wasn't CUT OUT for the job. Har har har.  


As you pursue the culprits behind this murder, you'll be visiting different locations where you'll discover that there's something very wrong going on and there's an evil entity behind most of the disturbances related to these events (yeah, I know that this sounds like a very ambiguous description, but I really don't want to spoil anything for you, since relating all these events to each other is part of the fun as well). There'll also be plenty of sidequests for you to participate in, many dungeons for you to explore with plenty of goodies to be looted, and thousands of characters with different dialog lines to interact with, so yeah, believe me that you'll never be bored with this game and you'll always find something to do during your voyage.

Ladies and gentleman, I present you: Richard Allen Garriott, creator of the "Ultima" series.
This just proves that there'll always be a thin line between ingenuity and complete utter madness.
 

So now you ask me, yeah this sounds really sweet and all, but, once again, what's the catch? The main problem is that, like all old rpgs, they won't always be there holding your hand during your quest, so believe me, you WILL need a pen and a paper to write a basic description of what you'll need to do next or of how to reach a desired location. I myself don't really mind some additional writing, but most fans of latter western rpgs might find this unnerving, since they're used to the "casual" system of having the quest log point them out immediately where they have to go and what they need to do (most of the times you even have a marker pointing out the direction and how close you are from it). If you eventually get lost and don't know where to go next, don't fret, there's a gipsy in a specified town that, by reading your future, can tell you where you need to go and what you need to do next.
Another thing which might grind your gears is the fact that this world's alphabet differs from our own, so many of the signs outside stores you find will be in their own language. There's a way of knowing what they mean of course, but you'll have to look at the manual and translate every letter from that word into our own alphabet. If you find this to be a chore, there's an option on Exult (I'll explain what this is in the next section, don't panic) that automatically translates all the words. So yeah, it's really up to you how you intend to face this. Picking up on the manual, this game also has "ye old" copyright protection system with a bunch of questions which you'll have to look at the manual to know, so be warned. You can easily find the answers floating around the internet anyway.

This probably translates into "Richard Garriott is about to make you his bitch", or something.

Now just wait a god darned second, this game is from 1430, how the hell am I supposed to run this?!

Now now, hush, I wouldn't be reviewing this game if I couldn't play it, correct? There's an awesome utility which you'll need to download called Exult. Thanks to their work, all you need to do is have your game folder at hand (you can probably find ultima VII on your most common abandonware site, I won't be judging you if you pirate it of course, since this game is almost impossible to find nowadays), download this utility, run the setup, specify in the setup where the ultima installation folder is, and there you go, hours of enjoyment at hand. You can also run "Ultima VII: The serpent isle" using Exult, which is the direct sequel for this game.

Conclusion:

Well, there you go, I hope at least I made you interested enough to try the game. Believe me, in terms of western rpg entertainment, this is one of the best the industry has to offer, I cannot stress this enough. And if you ever find yourself in another argument with a jrpg fan, I hope this time you'll have the sense to actually try to dissuade him with a decent example of wrpg goodness, and if that doesn't work, just do what I usually do and insult his mother. And yes, I'm aware that I haven't dedicated any of my time to a "graphical section" in this review, and if you even felt the need for one to begin it, then go back to your bloom and brown and leave me in my solitude (hey, at least I have good games, something which you DON'T).

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