The Black Gate: Open Your Eyes

From The CRPG Addict

Having woken up after 200 years, Penumbra really needs to hit the head.
We leave the troubled Vesper behind us–planning to return once we have the “Unlock Magic” spell and some more money–and head east across the channel. It has been long enough since I played an Ultima that I have forgotten the specific configuration of the islands that house Moonglow, the Lycaeum, the Shrine of Honesty, and the Dungeon Deceit, so I decide to start at the top (which turns out to be Dagger Isle) and work my way down.
Piling into a cave.
We land on the island, between the Shrine of Compassion and a small mountain range on the island’s southern tip. As we enter, I realize two things for the first time. First, the dungeons actually exist on the same scale as the outdoor maps, and on the same plane. Previously, I was thinking that we were transitioning to different areas, but now I realize that when we entered the dungeon above Cove, for instance, the corridors wrapped around to the east and south in a perfect imitation of the mountain range that houses them. This is an interesting approach, but it means that the developers were far more constrained in the shape and size of their dungeons than when dungeons were on the -1 plane. I can’t help but woner why they did it this way. Second, the game wastes no space, housing a dungeon in every mountain range–at least, every one I’ve seen so far.
Punny gravestones have long been a specialty of the series.
The small range south of the shrine turns out to have a little cemetery. The gravestones have Ultima‘s usual mixture of the goofy and the sentimental:
  • Here lies Argent, died a sergeant.
  • Targ, a worthy opponent.
  • Lynn. She had the grace of a swan.
  • Here lies Mystral. Shined like a crystal.
  • Rover. Man’s best friend, over and over.
  • Felcore. Age-old love never dies.
At the end of the corridor is a grate with a sign that says “pauper’s grave.” Opening the grate reveals a gruesome collection of skeletons. 
I don’t know what I expected.
North of the cave, we find the Shrine of Honesty, which is in good shape. Based on what we’d heard in Cove, I expected to find the shrines in dilapidation and disrepair, but this one was clear of debris and eve had a little bell on the altar. (Double-clicking it caused it to ring.) As usual in this game, double-clicking on the altar does nothing, which was a bit disappointing.
The Shrine of Honesty looks like someone is taking care of it.
North of the shrine, we enter the Dungeon Deceit. Our explorations are drawn up short by a magically-locked door just a little way down the corridor. We make a note to return later.
We return to the carpet and ride it south to Verity Isle, landing at the northern tip, next to a large building. A plaque on the ground invites us to “hammer here to enter,” but we lack a hammer, so we continue south into Moonglow. During our explorations of the city, several characters remark that Moonglow and the Lycaeum have “merged” over the last 200 years. But it isn’t so much that as that Moonglow has spread out. Where once “Moonglow” was six buildings clustered in the south end of the island, now it’s the same six buildings all over the island. The island has changed shape, too, now further east than it was before, its various peninsulas shortened and blunted, making the island look fatter.
Thanks for sharing, Shamino.
The two-story Lycaeum is in roughly the same place. It’s run by Nelson and his assistant Zelda. Zelda is in love with Nelson’s twin brother, Brion, who runs the observatory, while Nelson pines for Zelda. In my conversations with them, Brion said he was too busy for love, so I convinced Zelda to accept Nelson as a “second best.”
You might, you know, not call him that.
A scholar named Jillian increases intelligence and magic. She’s married to Effram, a stay-at-home father to baby Mikhail, and he’s angry about it. 
Does divorce exist in Britannia? I don’t believe anyone is ever described as somebody’s ex-spouse.
Mariah is in the Lycaeum, addled like all the other mages, though not too addled to sell spells and reagents. She doesn’t recognize me and keeps complimenting the furnishings of the building. 
Is this supposed to be some kind of hint?
The Lycaeum has so many books that I begin to seriously regret my “Books of Britannia” entry, but I update it with all of them. Some highlights:
  • The book The Complete History of the Lute has a foreword by Iolo in which his last name is given as “Arbalest.” This contradicts the material for the last couple of games which give his last name as “FitzOwen.” On the other hand, an arbalest is a type of crossbow, so perhaps it’s meant more of a sobriquet than a last name.
It occurs to me it’s been a long time since we heard the “master bard” play anything.
  • Nicodemus’s Pathways of Planar Travel notes that while so far, all visitors to Britannia from other planes (like Lord British and the Avatar) have been benevolent, we must consider the possibility of a malevolent entity coming through. This naturally foreshadows the plot of this game. 
  • A Short Treatise on Britannian Society by someone named Clayton is an obnoxious book that suggests a natural social order, starting with Lord British and moving to the Great Council. Interestingly, the book puts winged gargoyles next in the social order, followed by the Britannian masses, followed by wingless gargoyles. 
  • Landships of War suggests using the tactic of firing missile weapons from carts at enemies, since the same enemies cannot climb up on the cart to reach you. This works with the magic carpet, too.
  • A History of Stonegate suggests that the former Shadowlords’ keep passed from the cyclops family to some wingless gargoyles before Lord Venelon of Jhelom evicted the gargoyles and kept the keep in his family for a few generations before it was destroyed by a natural disaster. It’s now a swampland inhabited by trolls and an ancient wizard. It makes me curious to visit.
  • Apparently, Spark’s father, the man whose murder kicked off my quest, authored a book: The Blacksmith’s Handbook.
  • The Forest of Yew gives a hint about the furry Emps living there.
As for the rest of Moonglow, there’s a Fellowship Hall run by Rankin. Carlyn runs Carlyn’s Clothes. Chad, a weapons trainer, increases dexterity and combat. Phearcy, the bartender at the Friendly Knave, has gossip about everyone. There’s a farm owned by two brothers: Tolemac and Cobalt. They have a farmhand named Morz. Tolemac is enchanted by the Fellowship while Cobalt hates it; he thinks it’s a perversion of the eight virtues. I am unable to convince Tolemac to abandon it, but I am able to convince Morz not to join. Morz has a stutter, the result of falling off a wagon as a toddler. He doesn’t like to talk about it. I thought there would be some quest related to this, but nothing developed.
Ultima VII offers the meanest dialogue option in any game so far in my chronology, perhaps ever.
There’s a dock to the south of town. Crates left on the docks have stacks of reference books, presumably for the Lycaeum. There’s no shipwright or dockmaster to ask about the Crown Jewel.
Earlier, when I clicked on a cat, my party started yelling things like “Here, Kitty!” and playing with it. So when I see a fox gamboling about, south of the Lycaeum, I think I’ll see what they do when I click on him. To my surprise, he starts talking. He introduces himself as Frank. Frank has come to mistake bluntness for honesty, and he manages to insult all of us before I kill the conversation. No explanation is given for the episode, but my head canon is that it’s somehow Chuckles.
Shamino, I think killing a small animal for insulting you would rather be proving his point.
Brion runs the two-story observatory in the northeast of the island. He has a telescope which can be used to scan the entire world. Moving east from Verity Isle takes you across the ocean . . . and then wraps around to Skara Brae. So the idea that Britannia is flat existed for only one game–Ultima VI–and even there it was subverted by the fact that sailing a balloon does cause you to wrap around, once you cross the void. That opens the question: if the world doesn’t have an “other side,” where did the gargoyles come from?
Skara Brae looks in bad shape.
Meanwhile, Brion’s orrery clearly shows every planet in the system–nine of them–to be round. On the other hand, Brion’s orrery also shows the nine planets in orbit around a blue orb while the yellow sun just sits there above all the planets’ orbits. So, really, I give up trying to understand the geography or astronomy of Britannia. 
How is the orb in the middle blue? What does that even mean?
I can’t actually see the real orrery yet–it’s in a second building that requires a casting of “Telekinesis” to enter–but Brion gives me a viewer that I can use to observe it at any time. (I have to run a quick side quest to purchase a crystal from a traveling peddler at the tavern.) Brion is excited about an upcoming alignment of the planets. 
After talking with everyone in town, I don’t feel that anyone has lied to me, but I decide to go with Elad the Healer as the most honest person in town. First of all, and I know this doesn’t deal with honesty specifically, Elad is just a nice guy. He lets a random traveler from out of town stay with him. When you ask him about the other people in town, his descriptions are charitable, not blunt or gossipy. Elad is struggling with his own ethical dilemma. He wants to see the world and partake in adventures–he even suggests joining the party at one point–but he feels a duty to Moonglow, and he hates the idea of leaving them without a healer. (Note that this is the same choice Jaana faced, but she didn’t even agonize about it. She just ran out the door with the party, leaving two injured patients behind.) Choosing duty is perhaps more reflective of honor than honesty, but honesty is a part of honor, and I like that he’s truthful to himself (and a stranger) about his motivations and inhibitions. I slip the rune into his desk drawer as we leave.
I designate this “surplaying.”
The most important resident of Verity Isle turns out to be Penumbra, the gypsy mage who told our futures in Ultima VI. Several residents of Moonglow remark that she put herself to sleep 200 years ago, and that supposedly only the Avatar can awaken her. It’s her house with the plaque outside the front door calling for a hammer.
The hammer turns out to be the first piece of a treasure hunt that will take us through a lockpick, a golden ring, a spool of thread, and a gold piece before the plaque finally disappears to reveal the key to the front door. These items are all found around town, and while at first I feel bad for taking them, no one objects (not even the owners), and the items are placed oddly, as if they only exist for the purpose of the treasure hunt and not as actual personal property of the residents. As each new item is brought to the plaque, it asks for the next one. The statements are perhaps meant to be cryptic (“Pick item carefully to keep going”; “Grasp not at threads”), but if you interpret them literally, it all works out.
We enter the building and, sure enough, find Penumbra asleep on a stone slab. An orange “awaken” potion is on an adjacent table, so we feed it to her and she perks right up. She’s happy to see me for about 15 seconds before she starts clutching her head and screaming in pain; clearly, the issue affecting other mages is affecting her as well. She says she needs some kind of “barrier.” The only impenetrable substance I can think of is blackrock. She says yes, yes, please go find four pieces.
Why didn’t you put yourself to sleep in the comfortable bed in the next room?
The only blackrock I’ve seen so far is one piece in the Vesper mines, although I suppose there could be more pieces behind that magically-locked door. I return to Mariah, and while she has the “Unlock Magic” spell that I need, she doesn’t have the blood moss or sulfurous ash that I need to cast it. Buying the spell from her takes up all my remaining gold anyway. Thus, the party hops back on the magic carpet and heads for Britain, first to sell our accumulated gold nuggets to mint, and second to see if Nystul has the needed reagents.
Having to buy things via the conversation system is a little awkward.
The mint gives me 190 gold pieces for my nuggets, and Nystul takes half of it for 5 of each reagent. We float back to the Vesper mines and Gideon casts the spell on the door. Fortunately, not only do we get the piece of blackrock we could see from the outside, but a barrel has three more pieces–exactly what we need.
We return to Penumbra, who has put herself back to sleep, and arrange the four pieces of blackrock on convenient pedestals around her room. Another orange potion (she has a second in her laboratory) wakes her up. She’s feeling much better. She does some magical scrying and determines that the source of the problem is some kind of tetrahedron-shaped magic generator in the Dungeon Deceit, which is damaging the magical ether. She says I can destroy it with the Ethereal Ring, which is in the possession of the gargoyle king, Draxinusom, in Terfin.
A player might be forgiven for thinking that this is the main quest of the game, even.
I have to see Draxinusom anyway, so a trip to Terfin doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, but we decide to go to Jhelom first. Following the revelation that the world is round (or at least that it wraps again), Jhelom is just a bit to the east and south.  
But the party needs gold more than anything, which is why I’ve been trying to explore the dungeons that go with each city. It occurs to me that I haven’t explored the one that goes with Britain: Despise. You’ll recall that I briefly walked into the dungeon that the game said was Despise when I got the magic carpet, but that was Shame. Real Despise should be elsewhere in the Serpent’s Spine.
As I sailed to Britain from the west, I happened to notice a dungeon entrance just to the west of the city and decided to check it out. It wasn’t Despise, but it had some interesting encounters with gazers and gremlins. Gazers have legs in this game, making them look a bit like giant spiders, and they completely disappear when killed. Gremlins make up for stealing your food in the previous games by dropping lots of food here. I find a couple of Potions of Healing and Cure Poison in a corner, which come in handy when we’re attacked by actual giant spiders further along. A battle with rats caps the experience. The dungeon offers no wealth. I find myself longing for the days when all enemies dropped a bit of gold and you could sell used weapons and armor.
Giant spiders in real life would send me running for the hills.
The entrance to real Despise is north of Lord British’s castle. We walk in and immediately find a corpse with a stack of gold and some swamp boots, so things are looking up already. A switch opens an early set of double-doors, and a key from the corpse opens a second door. A third one remains stubbornly locked. A fourth and fifth require “Unlock Magic,” but between them I find a bag of reagents and the key to the third door.
Lots of locked doors in this dungeon.
A fight with a troll nets us some modest money, a serpent shield, a magic shield, and a lot of food. In a hallway, we run afoul of some caltrops. They suck because although you can move them, you can’t get rid of them entirely. The best you can do is pile them in some out-of-way corner and hope no party member bumbles there.
In continued explorations, we fight giant spiders, scorpions, and skeletons. We find more swamp boots and “love arrows,” which I have no idea what to do with. A mage appears in a room full of traps and attacks, but we kill him. He has an invisible chest that includes a set of plate armor and a lightning whip. Ultimately, we get trapped behind some switch-activated doors that reset (with the switches on the other side) after we pass them. I use the Orb of Moons to escape, and we find ourselves on Verity Isle again, but just jumping back into the moongate takes us to Britain, which works out.
Looting the Dungeon Despise. All those crates and no gold bars.
Miscellaneous notes:
  • If people are sleeping when you want to talk to them, trampling on their beds seems to get them up. Although they scream at you for bothering them, they don’t have any trouble engaging in regular dialogue.
  • A crystal ball in Brion’s place is fixed on some bedroom in some building that looks like a fortress, although it seems to have a swimming pool or bath within it. Brion may not have time for love, but he clearly has time for voyeurism. 
  • Somehow, the Avatar got half a dozen bottles of ale in his inventory. I don’t remember anything happening that would explain that.
  • Normally, when you drop an item on the middle of a character’s portrait, the game shunts the item to the slot in which it best fits–a weapon to the hand, for instance, and a helm to the head. But dropping armor on Jaana’s portrait causes it to go to her left hand. She’s been holding her armor the entire game until I happened to notice it.
  • When you encountered people in sick beds in previous Ultimas, you could usually talk with them and ask them about their injuries. Every time you run into a wounded person in a healer’s place here, he just moans in pain.
Your counterparts in Ultima V were more interesting.
  • You can turn on the mining machines by double-clicking on them. One in the Vesper mines produced endless pieces of lead ore. I wonder if you can take the ore to a blacksmith’s shop and smelt it. That’s the kind of thing that you would be able to do in this game.
  • Would it be asking for too much for the potions to say the color when you click on them, instead of just “potion”? I had to call Irene into my office twice so I wouldn’t accidentally poison Penumbra.
  • My party members keep complaining about being tired (in addition to being hungry) except that the “tired” icon isn’t showing on their character sheets, and I’ve been sleeping regularly.
  • As someone noted in a recent comment, two-story buildings in Britannia are apparently taller than mountains, as you can cross mountains on the flying carpet but you run up against the second floor of buildings.


I think I’ll finish exploring Despise before moving on to Jhelom. It’s time to get Dupre, then go see the gargoyle king. I’m beginning to understand why so many players loot the Royal Mint early in the game and then live off the proceeds, but in some ways finding ways to survive on a less generous economy is more fun. Maybe I’ll start baking bread.

Time so far: 20 hours

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