A huge push in the last week and a half has brought me back to the point I lost all my game data for Ultima 4. About six hours of game play has led to attainment of all eight virtues, the three items required to enter the abyss, the eight stones of virtue, and the three keys to open the access the Codec. Rushing through the game has also provided more frustration by laying bare its inner workings. The enjoyment of Ultima 4 comes from exploring the world and talking to its inhabitants. This naturally leads to acquirement of virtues, experience, and items. When rushing through the whole thing, these tasks are reduced to menial actions such as donating blood over and over, giving away money over and over, praying at shrines over and over... It's sort of like when you are driving to a new place and don’t notice traffic or other things going on besides your destination rather than being bothered by other drivers and minor delays when you know EXACTLY where you want to go. Fortunately, I had trained myself well to complete these tasks and was only mildly annoyed.
Gathering the masses
Before being so rudely interrupted during my other playthrough, I was just getting ready to collect the rest of my party. I visited the other cities to recruit the characters I had not taken into the dungeons (Minoc, Skara Brae, Jhelom, and Magincia) and put them in my party. I have three big problems now:
1) These characters have almost no experience and couldn’t hit the ground if they tripped and fell
2) The new followers need better weapons to make them useful in the Abyss
3) Combat is now TORTUROUSLY long as I have to complete eight moves instead of two or three
Just walking around the world has become a chore since any weak monsters that attack me will require at least two to three minutes of fighting. The new followers are almost no help and cannot hit anything. I was going to level them up initially, but now I think I will just make some resurrection spells, let them eat it, drag their bodies to the last part of the abyss, and resurrect them for the reading of the Codex of Infinite wisdom. I was at least able to equip them all with mystic armor and magical weapons to give them a small chance of survival.
My three strong companions, four underwhelming partners, and I board a boat to set sail for the final battle on the Isle of the Avatar.
Reaching the Island
Here we are again, invoking the power of the HMS Cape to strengthen the hull of the ship before engaging the pirate blockade. Using the same strategy, I simply move next to each ship and eliminate the crew to disable them. After reaching the shore, our expedition hikes through rocky terrain into the volcano itself to destroy Mondain’s Skull and open the Stygian Abyss.
The abyss is just like any other dungeon in the game except it blocks the player from casting Up or Down making traversal of every level necessary. At the end of each level is an altar that asks a question about each virtue that must be answered and its matching stone be deposited on the altar opening the ladder down to continue. The upper levels are quite easy and have only minor combat and puzzles in each room. As the party progresses deeper, things become a bit more ominous.
[The abyss looks like other dungeons to the naked eye. Just kidding, it looks identical to other dungeons.]
Around level five or six I hit a room full of Reapers around a corner that did nothing but put my party to sleep. I can honestly say that this is the most annoying part of the entire game. It is even more annoying than finding secret walls or touch plates in the rooms as in those cases it is possible to at least move around. While asleep, I had to simply watch the screen as it spammed the spell over and over while hoping at least one of my characters would awaken. It was very common for almost all of the party to put to sleep and any stragglers who remained awake were blocked by the bodies of their sleeping buddies. I had to wait for the sleepers to wake up, move them out of the way, let the others through, and hope that no more sleep spells were cast. At least I had some Tremor spells to soften everything up so that the first character to make it around the corner had an easier job.
[A common sight: everyone is asleep.]
The eighth and last level of the dungeon had one of the most devious collection of rooms I had encountered. The first group of rooms are full of false leads that look easy but lead into the middle of the map and only emerge where the party first entered. To progress, it is necessary to walk through lava, fight more sleep casting enemies, and find not one but TWO secret doors in a room. (One opens with a touch plate, but this is not the right way. ANOTHER touch plate is revealed allowing the correct direction to be traveled.)
[The final level of the Stygian Abyss!]
The second room group is much easier with a disappointing battle against an evil party matching mine. Hal cast two tremor spells eliminating all but one member of the opposition who was easily mopped up afterward. I completed the last combat room without even knowing it. After finding the touch plates to open the secret door, I approached the final altar nervously and offered the last stone I had: that of humility.
The Real End
After entering the password I learned from the castles (Veramocor), I entered the last chamber.The final part of Ultima 4: Quest of the Avatar is a quiz about all of the virtues and principles learned throughout the game. It makes sense in the story, but it reminds me of John Galt's bloated speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It's almost as if to say "Well, if you haven't been paying attention to the themes and messages of this piece for the last twenty hours, let me ram it down your throat." (Although this quiz is admittedly MUCH easier than reading that part of Atlas Shrugged) Simply answer the questions with the eight virtues and the principles they combine to form (Love, Courage, and Truth) to form the symbol and reach the final question:
Infinity encompasses everything. The only way to learn this word is to translate the cryptic symbols that appear after each virtue you ascend. If the player didn't learn to do this when the game came out, I bet he or she would be pretty upset. I'm not sure you can even see them again after the initial showing. In any case, after answering infinity, the symbol of the virtues cracks open revealing the infinity symbol and returns our digital Avatar back to Earth.
Even though the ending may be underwhelming by today's standards, the slog through the final dungeon certainly makes it feel like the climax. Although the final dungeon is not very hard and is a little frustrating, it does well to inform the player this is it and brings some closure to the game. And that's it. I've FINALLY finished Ultima 4; the game that has eluded me for so long.
My thoughts after finishing
After finishing the game, I sat quietly and stared at the final screen for several minutes. I am in my home by myself, sitting on the couch with my dog next to me. All I can think is that "I've finally done it." Even though it is not nearly as important as my actual progress in real life, it is a concrete and satisfying way to quantify recovery. This program that brought me so much frustration and inappropriate stress has been completed and brought me happiness. I cannot even fathom how the game made me so frustrated in the past. Sure, some of the mechanics are dated such as the combat flow and the constant sleeping spells, but they are not nearly annoying enough to inspire anger, stress, or hopelessness I felt while playing it previously. It is obvious that I was projecting my own life into the game. Even though this is obviously what Richard Garriott intended, he wanted it to be what it is now: a feeling of hopefulness and contentment rather than frustration and rage.
I feel like the game has almost symbolized my own transformation into an Avatar in my own right. Instead of focusing on honesty, compassion, and the other virtues of Britania, I am a paragon of patience, understanding, empathy, and love. Just like the unnamed protagonist in the game, I certainly understand what it is like to be out of control of my own life and not sure where to turn next. But I have learned that relying on others is not weak or 'cheating', it is necessary to live a happy and healthy life. In a way, after finishing Ultima 4, I have finally returned to my own life's grassy meadow. I am laying comfortably and contented with where I am in my life with my wife and career. Even though the world may be imaginary, I am well aware that I can always return to Britania (my path to recovery in real life) to strengthen my resolve and be the hero that I need to be. A true Avatar ready to help others at any time. Is that a Renaissance fair I hear...