Cue the dragon-burning cutscene, which I've already discussed in the previous article. At the end of that cutscene, Hawkwind manages to bring the Avatar to Stonegate right on top of a teleport receiving pad, which is actually the destination for the teleport pad on the roof and might have functioned to teleport the player to the roof in a prior version of the plot.
For the rest of the introduction, we thankfully only receive a couple of minor fourth-wall breaks with using magic, and the hand-holding is reduced partially in that Hawkwind doesn't tell you how to proceed at every step.
Our first action is to collect everything we can excluding the books but including the dagger-sized short sword, and this is where we run into the first sign of the level of managed progression we should come to expect from the game. We open the chest in the corner and what is the Avatar provided: slightly better than what he currently has and that he will be able to buy or find within the first or second segment of the game. The Fighter gets a scimitar, which any player can get as soon as they kill the Wyrmguard outside. The Tinker gets a buckler, which can be bought in Britain for less gold than you pick up before reaching LB's Castle. At least the Bard gets a target bow, which you don't get for a while, but the Paladin and Druid get fairly minor items easily found during the Humility path. The weapon and armor progression in this game really reminds me of Final Fantasy 6 and Dungeon Siege, wherein the level of the armor and weapons are artificially limited to what stage of the plot a particular town or dungeon is located. There is no point to even bother returning to certain shops in the game because there is nothing worth buying especially since you will often find everything you need for free in the dungeons or wilderness or occasionally in people's houses.
There is no item ownership in Ultima IX, so there is no impact for stealing stuff. But I suppose the citizens just don't care. After all, you are trying to save their lives and their minds, so they should be happy that they have something that the Avatar finds useful for his quest. Note the sarcasm here. It is just amazing what common staples of RPGs were cut. Ultima practically made stealing penalties in computer games popular and the last game in the series doesn't even have karma loss for stealing. And since stealing is not part of the game, I won't bring it up any further.
Next up we come to the spellbook. This item is fortunately part of our GUI rather than something we have to keep track of in our inventory, and we can even quickkey spells by placing them on our toolbelt. In fact, after playing Ultima VII, I realize how useful that toolbelt can really be when facing puzzles, but at least it was possible to pause the game in U7 unlike in Ultima IX, which makes inventory organizing a time-consuming event in-game. The spellcasting itself is actually much easier than in U7 since you can quickkey spells, use hotkeys for quickly accessing a spell circle, and you don't have to worry about maintaining reagent levels. However, there are certainly details about spellcasting in Ultima IX that are more difficult: your target has to be within a certain range otherwise the spell is stuck on your reticule (at least the escape key allows you to unstick the spell), and you must be able to place your reticule over the object of interest, which means you must have an unobstructed view of the target. In effect, no using telekinesis to flip switches behind walls like I did so often in U7.
After progressing through the tower, you will find yourself outside facing some nasty surprises. For non-strength classes, the wolves prove very deadly and the Wyrmguard Colando is not easy. It doesn't help the situation considering that Wyrmguard have 50% resistance to all attacks. Range works best here unless you have a scimitar or the Crook of Charming. Unfortunately for the Bard, wolves are resistant to arrows, but a trusted fallback spell for all classes is the Stone spell especially when dealing with predatory fish. In fact, it is the one of the few spells that you can cast while swimming giving you a distinct advantage when swimming with these fishies. Although, I think I read where spells aren't supposed to be castable when swimming, so this is probably a bug. Now this bug I like.
You soon find the teleporter to LB's Castle behind the Wyrmguard, which is really strange. The teleporter here is just too contrived for any player to just accept, but for Forgotten World, I have a much better idea in mind for getting the Avatar to LB's castle upon leaving Stonegate that doesn't involve a teleporter pad in the open wilderness.
Now we arrive at the discussion of spells. As is already well known, spell-casting in Ultima IX is quite different from previous games in the series. In many of the main series Ultimas, reagents and a spellbook are key components to magic usage; however unlike traditional Britannian magic, the casting of a spell in U9 doesn't use up any reagents. To be more specific, magic in prior Ultima games usually involved learning a spell or transcribing it (either magically or non-magically) into the spellbook or you mixed it manually. Then subsequently, each casting of that spell used up associated reagents per use. In Ultima IX, however, spells are bound into the spellbook magically in a ritual involving a scroll, reagents, and a pentagram with candles. This ritual not only strongly differs from even the magical transcription in Ultima VII, but also involves a pentagram, which is rarely used in Britannian magic. In fact, the pentagram is a key component to Pagan fire magic wherein spells are prepared in advance using candles and reagents placed at specific positions on a pentagram. Upon further examination, it would appear that the magical system in Ultima IX is a combination of all 5 magic systems in Ultima VIII. One wonders whether this magic for the Avatar was planned to work differently since becoming the Titan of Ether or whether the columns had altered magic to work in a manner similar to Pagan or maybe whoever coded the system used U8 as a guide for how magic works.
In Pagan Sorcery, spell casting requires a pentagram, a red or black candle placed at each outward point, several reagents dependent on the spell, and a focus for receiving the spell such as a wand or staff. Once all of the components are placed, the caster need only ignite the candles and incant the correct words of power. Here different foci can contain one or more charges of certain spells. It is unclear from the Codex Wiki if the wrong incantation or set of reagents results in the loss of any of the components.
In Pagan Necromancy, spell casting involves placing the appropriate reagents into a bag and then incanting the correct words of power while applying a Key of the Caretaker to the bag, which results in a talisman that can be used at any time. If the incantation or reagents are incorrect then the reagents are lost. Similarly in Pagan Theurgy, an initiated member of Theurgists need only gather silver ore, have it formed into a particular foci, and charge it at the monastery. Afterward, the focus can be used at any time as long as the caster has mana. And finally, in Pagan Thaumaturgy, a mage only needs a spellbook, the associated reagents, and the correct Words of Power. Incanting the words while holding the spellbook and reagents will result in the spellbook being powered up with the spell and the reagents vanishing. At this point, the caster can cast that spell without needing reagents or recharging the spellbook.
There are clear similarities between Sorcery magic and the binding ritual with the "binding" of a spell to the spellbook requiring specific reagents placed within a binding pentagram of 5 candles and the appropriate incantation. Like Necromancy, if the reagents or words are incorrect, then the reagents are lost. And finally, like Thamuargy, if the ritual is completed correctly, then the caster can use the spell at any time and as often as needed.
It would appear the magical system used in Britannia during Ultima IX is more or less a combination of the spell casting mechanisms from the schools of Pagan magic with much of the structure, spells, and reagents taken from Britannian spell casting.
This actually makes some sense when you consider that the Guardian has brought beings not unlike the Titans to Britannia who are contained within the Abyss, and that he has been affecting Britannian magic for 20 years with those columns. It is just a pity that none of this was even brought up in Ultima IX. In fact, the spellbook implies that Britannian magic has been the same as in Ultima IX for many years save for a relatively recent locking of spell circles by the columns.
In any case, now that we have discussed the theory for magic in U9, let us delve into the practical side with a discussion of the various spells available to the caster. First, I will present what I feel are the most useful spells in the game. I will break this category down into three tiers based on how often they are used and their general effectiveness.
- Stone, Lightning, Fireball, Bolt of Flame, Light Heal, and Full Heal
Notice the focus on the cheaper and more direct attack spells. This is because throughout much of the game, your opponents are usually in small groups where it is faster and more favorable to kill them one by one with rapid attacks. In the early game, Stone is a very effective spell able to kill rats, spiders, and the occasional wolf with a few rapid casts. In addition, this spell does not cost any mana, so even low intelligence casters can overwhelm opponents magically. The low damage quotient is a key downside when facing tougher targets like goblin sergeants and pirates. The Lightning spell is, therefore, an excellent upgrade in damage potential without too high of a mana cost. You will also find that crustaceans and goblin sergeants are particularly sensitive to electrical-based damage. Fireball is another major upgrade because not only does it do more damage and tracks the target like a missile, but there are also a fair number of monsters sensitive to fire attacks including mimics, ghouls, creepers, icehounds, and sea serpents. Unfortunately, the spell comes with a much higher mana cost, so orange potions and higher intelligence are a prerequisite for regular use. After finding the Arms of the Magi in Moonglow, Lightning and even Fireball spells become much more effective tools in your arsenal.
Similar to Fireball, Bolt of Flame is a heavy damage fire spell that, rather than being a single target attack spell, unleashes a stream of fire that does continuous damage over several seconds for any enemies in the path of the flame. The Light Heal spell is a very useful spell throughout the game because it can be cast easily, rapidly, and repeatedly during combat and heals greater numbers of hitpoints with each circle unlocked. While the extremely common yellow potion has a similar effect, these require a lot more of your valuable inventory slots especially during the early portion of the game, and they do not scale with your level. Full Heal is also a great spell for use following difficult battles because orange potions are much easier to obtain than Serpentwyne even during the later stages of the game. In addition, you can usually cast Full Heal at least twice for every orange potion imbibed at the later stages of the game when you have Full Heal available, so it is much more economical for your inventory than a bag of Serpentwyne.
- Ignite, Douse, Light, and Ring of Fire.
While Ring of Fire is a powerful spell that is not too costly for higher intelligence casters, said caster will rarely find themselves surrounded by enemies where this spell becomes more economical than Bolt of Flame or Fireball. Still, if you find yourself surrounded by creepers or goblins, several casts of this spell will thin the numbers arrayed against you since both creepers and goblin grunts are sensitive to fire attacks. Ignite and Douse are included at this tier as puzzles commonly require their use. In addition, Ignite is required for binding spells. Light is also a common spell for usage throughout Britannia as some dungeon areas can get quite dark, and stormy nights are often nearly, pitch black. The mana expenditure is also fairly low allowing you to cast this duration spell and forget about it. Even so, the Flame or Frost sword are still better alternatives unless you find yourself needing a greater diversity of weapons.
- Day, Charm, and Meteorite.
While Day does provide greater light, it also costs more mana for the initial casting and I've found that the spell has a much greater tendency to bug out when indoors. Meteorite is an Earth-based magical offensive spell, so it definitely has a niche in the conflagration of higher damage offensive spells. Still, the spell can only be cast outdoors and I have found little need to use it. Finally, the Charm spell is an effective and bug-free, little duration spell that allows you to gain a quick ally in a fight or even just as a means of forcing your opponent to stop attacking you while you continue to hack them to pieces. The only problem I have with this spell is that it is rare that I feel outmatched enough to use it even when fighting a party of Goblins. Still, it adds an extra layer of variation to the gameplay especially when facing the dungeon Wrong. Next to Freeze, this spell is the fasted way to get past guards in that dungeon without killing them.
That is only 13 of 36 spells.What about the other 23? Well I feel that they fit into three different groups: spells of limited application, crippled spells that usually fail, and spells made unnecessary by gameplay.
In the multiple times I've placed Ultima IX, I've found that Gust, Telekinesis, Teleport, Ethereal Sight, and Time Stop are rarely needed or even applicable. Gust and Telekinesis are really only applicable in a couple of places throughout the game if even that many. Time Stop, while on paper sounds like a great spell, is only obtained during the second to last dungeon where it is needed for exactly one room in that dungeon. Also the spell has a very high mana cost, and so its duration is only a few seconds making the spell almost crippled from a design standpoint. Ethereal Sight is a spell that has its uses, but they are fairly rare: Killigan's hidden note from Blackthorn, the Lightning Sword puzzle teleporters in the Air Plane of the Abyss, and finding nightshade. Finally, the Teleport spell's potential is hampered by its limited range, uselessness for upward movement, and the rarity of having obstacles to surmount with the spell at the late stages of the game when you can cast it.
The crippled spell category is much smaller than the previous, which is a good thing for Ultima IX. Even so, two of these spells are crippled because they don't function like they should. The spells of this category are Death, Create Reagents, and Levitate. Death is a spell that I have found no use for because it is really only applicable for fights with really tough opponents who often have resistance to this type of damage anyway, so the spell fails. In addition, the cost of half your maximum health cripples a caster's staying power in combat. Levitate is a spell crippled not by design but by a bug. Apparently, this spell worked during one of the versions of Ultima IX because I've seen walkthroughs specifically mention using it. I have, however, never even once seen it lift me more than a few inches off the ground momentarily and sometimes the spell fails to be cast. So I'm guessing somewhere during the patching process, something got changed that shouldn't have and by version 1.18f it doesn't work. Or perhaps this is one of those things that only works for some systems. Another spell that was screwed up during the patching process was the Create Reagents spell, which I distinctly remember being able to use in the 1.18f version but not in the 1.19f version. Essentially, the problem with this spell that is it rarely spawns the correct reagents and will for almost all terrain types produce a black pearl. I have also observed in the past a strong tendency for this spell to result in a crash. A recent graphics card upgrade seems to have cured this particular crash. This particular spell bug is probably the most annoying for players as it prevents a very effective means for obtaining rare mandrake roots and nightshades in the vanilla game. Of course, the economy patch adds additional sellers for mandrake and nightshade, it was still was annoying during my first several playthroughs.
So let me finish off this discussion with a look at spells that are rather unnecessary. Several of these spells are just redundant. Infernal Armor, Invisibility, Mana Breath, and Cure spells are not often required during gameplay, and the corresponding potions are either fairly common in the game or cheap to produce yourself. Cure is especially limited as you can't even bind it to your spellbook until after you have obtained Swamp Boots, which also have little use outside of Paws and Hythloth. In addition, poisonous monsters do not inject enough poison to warrant the casting of this spell except to get rid of the annoying green haze. Infernal Armor does make you partially immune to fire damage including reducing lava damage to 1 hitpoint per second. Still, this spell is of limited use outside of the fire plane of the Abyss and a few areas around the columns. Invisibility is a highly useful spell except you only get the spell at a much later stage of the game, and black potions are almost as cheap as white and yellow potions to obtain. Mana Breath is only needed on a few occasions, and it doesn't help when traversing oceans.
Another group of unnecessary spells are the overkill spells. These are spells that you only get late in the game and do much more damage than is needed to kill the occasional pack of goblins. These spells are Lightning Storm, Frost Storm, Searing Rain, Earthquake, and Inferno. In addition to these overkill spells, most creatures in the Britannia are too weak to need the following spells: Crystal Barrier, Freeze, Summon Skeleton/Demon, and Fog. While Fog is great for combat on paper since it actually acts like Mass Freeze or Mass Paralysis due to the AI's reaction to the spell, the spell is not necessary unless you are facing creepers where you are better off using Ring of Fire instead. As with Charm, the Summon spells are not necessary as you rarely need an ally in a fight. In fact, once the skeleton is killed or your mana runs out, these allies turn on you just adding opponents to your target list. Freeze is a nice paralysis spell, but the frost sword is a better option as it doesn't require any mana. In addition, if you complete Justice before Sacrifice, then you can't use this spell for getting past the guards in Wrong. And finally, there is the Wizard Eye spell, which is meant for scouting ahead or exploring an area, but advanced notice of an enemy was not that beneficial even in Ultima VII.
So that is magic in Ultima IX. There is definitely a lot of potential for puzzles in there, but very few of the spells are applicable for them. You can bet Forgotten World will attempt to make the spellbook a more useful tool and an effective alternative during normal combat.
Now, I will end this entry with a discussion of the attribute system used in Ultima IX. In my opinion, this system seems like a hybrid of Action-Adventure and RPG elements. In prior Ultimas, there were usually three attributes of Strength, Dexterity, and Intelligence with maybe some other stats or skills depending on the game. The stats would be a broad point system and usually you couldn't max out more than one or two of these. In addition, progression was slow and somewhat random. During Ultimas 4 and 5, stats increased somewhat randomly with the option of getting specific bonuses whereas in 6 and 7, the shrine or trainers determined your stat increase, which allowed for more managed improvement. Often times in these games, stats were improved across multiple attributes. In Ultima IX, stats are based on levels instead of a point range, which departs from the traditional RPG leveling mechanic, and unless you play as a shepherd, all three will be maxed out by the end of the game. While you do level up at the shrines, you only advance with each shrine cleansing and there are no experience points. The attribute levels themselves are actually more in a manner very similar to permanent power-ups from action-oriented genres like first person shooters and puzzle games.
In addition, one major issue with the leveling in Ultima IX is how linked it is with the main plot progression, which is a major departure from every other Ultima game since U4 and even earlier. This results in very linear gameplay that artificially limits your options for combat and spell casting to your stage of the plot and the associated location. While Ultima VII had a very linear plot, your character was not limited in their level or location.
And finally, unlike the stats in prior games, the attributes have less of an impact on gameplay. As there is no combat attribute or hit/evasion chances, Dexterity only acts as a flag for attack technique training. From my previous discussion of the various attack techniques, it is clear that Dexterity has limited value in the game outside of the archery techniques. While strength and intelligence still define your maximum HP and MP, there is no weight limit for your inventory and no magic statistic. Higher strength and intelligence levels, however, do provide bonuses to the damage of your weapons and spells with intelligence improving spell resistance by a small percentage. As a result, your attribute chooses are fairly inconsequential, so you can usually pick whatever as you play. Essentially, strength is a good attribute to focus on early in the game and intelligence for the middle section of the game.
Now that we are largely finished discussing the game mechanics, we can move onto the game proper, which I will start next time with Lord British's Castle Until then, fair thee well.