Ah, Ultima VII. Where to begin.
With The false prophet ends the so called Age of Enlightenment trilogy (Ultima IV, V and VI), centered on achieving enlightenment by following the virtues principles. You just had to become a better guy, no evil masterlord's ass to kick. That was pretty unusual (probably still is), and was one of the defining traits of the saga.
The black gate begins the Age of Armageddon trilogy (Ultima VII, VIII, IX), where a more classic good guy vs bad guy approach is taken. But that's the only thing classic about The Black Gate. Everything else is just plain groundbreaking stuff, most of which is still unequalled nowadays. So no more running around looking for that damned runestones, right?
But first things first. Who's the bad guy in this new chapter in the Ultima saga? Well, it's one of the most memorable, manipulative, irritating, subtle bad guys ever to pop out of a computer screen. Because pop out he does in The Black Gate intro sequence; The Guardian: his red, ugly, stony face emerges (from a blue moongate?) and speaks right to you, the player, in full digitized speech (talk about pioneering stuff and breaking the fourth wall).
Avatar! Know that Britannia has entered into a new age of enlightenment! Know that the time has finally come for the one true Lord of Britannia to take His place at the head of His people! Under my guidance, Britannia will flourish. And all the people shall rejoice and pay homage to their new... Guardian! Know that you, too, shall kneel before me, Avatar. You, too, shall soon acknowledge my authority - for I shall be your companion... your provider... and your master!
I still get chills down my spine thinking about that intro.
But who's the Guardian? Well, hes' a sly bastard. He's a master deceiver, always trying to lead the Avatar to some kind of misstep, to stray from the path of the eight Virtues.
He's also a red giant/titan who's trying to find a way to get into Britannia. Because right now he's somewhere else, just reaching out to people with some kind of telepathy, just like he did with you in the intro. He apparently provides people with some kind of spiritual guidance, but only to manipulate them for his own purposes. Just talking to people he was able to build the Fellowship, a powerful and shady religious/spiritual organization (maybe reminiscent of Scientology?) that somehow managed to gain official recognition by Lord British himself. That's some achievement, if you ask me.
By directing his Fellowship minions, the Guardian is making all the preparations that will allow him to set foot on Britannia ground. And guess what your task is? Yep, you guessed right.
What I wrote here is just the tip of the iceberg of a plot so complex an deep that will take you months of play to get through. And you'll never get tired of it.
So, what makes The Black Gate such a memorable gaming experience? Lots of things.
First of all, it sports the most immersive, interactive, alive world ever seen in a CRPG. Not exaggerating here.
NPCs are not there just for your entertainment, they've got their lives: they go to work, they go to the pub, they do all things of shady stuff. Often you'll have troubles finding the NPC you're looking for, because he's not at his shop/home, he left to have a beer or to sell his stuff at the market.
Same goes for the furniture. You enter a bakery and have a sudden urge to bake some bread? You can do that. Want to milk a cow? Be my guest. Paint a portrait? There's the brushes.
Some guy even took this freedom to the extreme doing some crazy stuff here. Just in the first minutes of play, he takes a bucket of young Spark recently-murdered-father's blood, uses it to bake some bread and feeds him to the poor boy. He later kills Lord British in many creative ways, loads a cannon on a flying carpet, has Shamino go around just in his underpants, and manages to be really annoying to the general population (and to Lord British in particular). Kudos for the creativity and the nutty sense of humor.
Time for von Blubba's retro-moments ™, where yours truly reminisces about a particularly anecdotal moment going back to the first time he played the retrogame on topic.
After careful examination, I pick three.
The first one is the Hoe of destruction moment.
Whoever played The Black Gate probably knows that the Hoe of Destruction is one of the most formidable weapons in the game, created by mistake
by a magician on request from a Cove farmer. Unfortunately, it is locked in the farmer's shed, and guess what, he lost the key. After some cursory investigation, you find out that the key was lost somewhere near Lock Lake. That should make things easier, right? Wrong. Because Lock Lake is now a dumping ground for any kind of garbage (yes, Britannia has pollution issues). And the key is right in the middle of that garbage. So, to find it you have to sort through it. All of it if you've got bad luck. How fun.
The second one is the Armageddon moment. Again, whoever played The Black Gate knows that the most powerful and useless spell in the game is the Armageddon spell. Why is it useless? Because it kills every living being on Britannia. And how useless is a lifeless Britannia?
Well, there are some people who can survive the Armageddon, apparently. Among them, lord British (of course) and Batlin. And you can go talk to them after you cast the spell, for some fun moments.
Number three is the ultimate weapon moment, when you discover the most powerful weapon in the game: the dirty diaper. Not kidding here. In the final battle, use a diaper on Elizabeth, Abraham or Hook and you will see them running away screaming. Basically anyone will run away screaming from a dirty diaper. Even dragons. Forget glass swords, go for the diaper. If that's not a fearsome weapon, I don't know what is
Let's talk about quests. One of the main annoyances with modern CRPGs is that quests are often plain simple boring to death: go there and kill that guy; go there and get that item; just go there. You don't even read the quest description.
Nothing of this in The Black Gate. Every quest has its own subplot which fits nicely in the main plot. It adds to the main plot, it's not there just to add a few hours to the game length.
From a purely technical point of view, the retrogame was an incredible improvement over The false prophet, not only in terms of graphics and sound. The game interface is now entirely mouse-driven: dialogues are tree-based, inventory uses popups that allow the player to arrange items. That kind of inventory may look clumsy nowadays, but at the time it was pioneering stuff.
The game is now also completely in real time, with the option to pause when needed. This means a major change in the combat system, where party members are now AI controlled (this was probably the change I liked the less).
But all that innovation took its toll in terms of minimal system requirements. I remember that at the time I upgraded from a 286 to a 386 system just to play this game (one of the craziest things I've ever done).
The Black Gate was probably one of the games that marked the start of the PC dominance and the decline of commodore Amiga in the gaming industry. As a commodore fan and nostalgic, I can't think about this without a little sadness.
Nowadays you can still play The Black Gate on modern systems with some improvements (mainly regarding the screen resolution) thanks to the guys at Exult. And you can (should) buy the retrogame on gog. 5 euros for the full game complete with expansions is a bargain.
So, what's in the box? Well it's Ultima, so a lot. Here's the list:
- Britannia cloth map, of course. 40x40 cm. It also works as a copy protection device this time.
- Game Manual. Juicy as usual. Particularly interesting is the part were Batlin, leader of the Fellowship, tells his tale.
- Install Guide.
- Fellowship medallion.
- Player reference card.
- eight 5,25" (yay!) floppy disks. That's a lot of floppies.
- Registration card.
Worthy of note is the game box, which is completely black and has no front cover art, so to resemble the titular Black Gate.
Needless to say, this retrogame belongs in any respectable retrogaming collection.