Monday, October 14, 2013

Alack, how dost one play Ultima VII?

at 6:58 PM
Sure it has one of the most insanifying, reality-breaking perspectives every created, but I knew that going in. In fact, it didn't take long to get over the culture shock and accept that the game is set in topsy turvy world.

And sure it has the choppiest animation I've seen since the Atari 2600 era, despite a 1992 release date that makes it a contemporary of A Link to the Past and other games that have more than two frames per animation. But, ya know what, I got the hang of completely animation-free first-person RPGs like Etrian Odyssey and Guadia Quest, so I'll take any movement at all as a luxury.

And sure, there's no control guide in the game OR EVEN THE MANUAL explaining how to interact with items, pick things up, use expendables, equip gear, talk to people, see your partners' inventories, and enter combat, but the Internet was happy to answer those questions and even provide me with a list of hotkeys to keep in a window next to DOSBox.

And, sure, not an hour went by before the quest required me to break out the packed-in cloth map and turn the manual to the decoder page to understand the runes used to label it, but heck, I guess that's quaint in a '90s PC game kinda way. 

Yes, surprisingly I made it through the first town of Ultima VII in high spirits, drinking in the adventure and puking out the grandeur. While the driving murder mystery seemed transparent, I was intrigued by the use of a Scientology stand-in for the plot's villains-to-be, ready to track down the leaders to see what they were hiding. And from a meta perspective, I was pleased both by the humanism of the story and that it'd managed to capture my interest by keying on a combination of overblown tropes and more subtly unraveling ones. I'd even already had the chance to role-play a bit, choosing which characters were allowed in my party, how to outfit them, and how to interact with the townspeople.

It's not just acclaim that makes me want to keep going with Ultima VII - despite the thorny interface, it shows a lot of promise. Rather than an introductory dungeon or a plodding cinematic montage, the game starts with a puzzle-driven investigation requiring the player to inspect a crime-scene and interrogate witnesses and suspects. This is straight adventure game stuff that would fit just fine in Zork or Monkey Island, which is exactly what makes these old WRPGs unique; they're a purer form of what BioWare's been hacking for fifteen years now. I know I'm not alone in seeing the allure of this combination of brain-teasing puzzles with open-world and dungeon exploration, even if it's not a popular style anymore.

Yet as soon as I set out into the world, free to wander the fields and find my destiny, Ultima VII lost me. I don't have any scathing indictment or obvious flaws to point out - all I know is that I lost interest real fast. And yeah, it may have largely been a visual thing. With such a confined field-of-view, it is extremely difficult to gauge my position even in my immediate surroundings. It's hard to tell how far in any direction I've gone, how far I've yet to go, or even whether I've been to the same area before. It doesn't help that the characters' walking speed is so lethargic that it takes ages just to get from town to town. "Running" makes travel times more manageable, but it also makes the screen scroll so quickly that the already difficult to parse scenery becomes a complete blur - not to mention it makes it extremely easy to run straight into an enemy and quickly lose a fight. And it certainly doesn't help that the perspective doesn't work outside of the towns. The problem with the game's POV is that the buildings and characters are rendered from an angled 3/4 type view, while the ground and landscape is shown eagle-eye. You can kinda forget this in the towns where the isometric buildings obscure most of the view, but in the field, where standalone plants and trees appear to be growing sideways, it looks like the sprites are falling off the world. There are times when certain characters walk upside down because of how weirdly the angles work out.
No, the world isn't tipping over. That's just what it looks like.
And of course I only managed to make it through two battles (lost two as well), as, as difficult as the controls were to learn, there's a whole new set of mechanics that play out automatically in real time once battle starts. So really the big problem is that all of this unpleasantness is just setup for me to try (and fail) to learn the battle system.

I want to keep at Ultima VII even in spite of the messy prototype feel that the outside areas have. I'm kinda taken aback, as by 1992 I figured it was just a given that there would be passable walk-around-and-hit-stuff mechanics and comprehensible graphics (this game came out the same year as Soul Blazer and just a few months before Secret of Mana). By comparison to tabletop DnD, I'm sure it seemed amazingly advanced, and the mystery/dialogue/story stuff is sophisticated and immensely appealing, but it's not a particularly video gamey game. I really hate to put this down as yet another inapproachable WRPG (along with Baldur's Gate 2, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment), so here's hoping it starts growin' on me.

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