Nerd Fuel: Mystic Monk Coffee – Snickering Monk Candy Bar

In my quest to sample a wide variety of K-Cups, I occasionally come across some rather obscure coffees. A good example would be the Butter Moon variety by Ugly Mug Coffee – I’ve never seen it on the shelf since the fateful day I discovered it. Ugly Mug is a little known company, but one that makes some really incredible coffee. When deciding to branch out a bit for this review, I knew that my first stop was going to have to be Mystic Monk.

Being a Roman Catholic, this is a brand of coffee that’s been on my radar for quite a while. I had seen ads for it in my local Catholic bookstore or occasionally in newsletters that come in the mail. This company is actually ran by a cloister of monks out in Wyoming. Coffee brewing is how they support their monastery. They prepare and roast the beans themselves. The coffee is then sold via mail order or online. I’ve tried a few of their offerings over the years and found them to be pretty tasty. This last Christmas, I was given a box of their Snickering Monk Candy Bar coffee as a gift. So, what other option do I have but to review it here!

Snickering Monk is a medium roast coffee that is flavored to taste like a Snickers candy bar. Of course, it’s not a licensed product so they can’t come right out and say “Snickers”. Nonetheless, the flavor does indeed taste very similar. I’m always a bit weary any time I try a flavored coffee. More often than not, flavored coffees end up tasting very fake or have a funky aftertaste. It’s few and far between to find a flavored coffee that doesn’t suffer from one of these two complaints. Thankfully, Snickering Monk does not have either of these problems. This coffee does not taste like grinds that have been over-saturated in a low quality syrup. In fact, it has a very mild and natural flavor profile. You can taste the quality of the coffee blend itself as well as the balanced flavor of chocolate, caramel, and peanuts. I’m not sure how they managed it, but it’s very well done.

The packaging for the coffee seems a bit amateurish when compared with big companies. The pods themselves are not branded. I’m sure these are some sort of empty “fill-and-seal” pods that they load up and then package. At first, this struck me as a little odd. But then, once you think about it, you come to realize that’s an example of how “boutique” this coffee really is. This is not just some outsourced product with a label slapped on it. This is real craft coffee that was roasted and handled by a person who dedicates themselves to their work. That’s something I find admirable and it really shows in the quality of this product.

This is one of the few flavored coffees that I found to be worthy of raving over. It’s perfect for a chilly winter morning or even for a snuggly night in front of your favorite movie/game.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would buy again?: YES! I cannot rave enough about this coffee. Everything from the quality of the coffee itself to the amazing flavor is top notch. I can’t wait to try some of their other offerings. If you like coffee and Snickers bars, there’s really no reason not to try it.

 

 

Announcement: Streaming Starting Soon!

Due to popular demand, I’m happy to announce my intentions to enter the world of livestreaming!

Starting next month, I’ll begin getting my feet wet by streaming some gameplay on Twitch and posting “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for some time, but I didn’t really know where to start or how I wanted to make my entrance.

These days, Twitch streamers are a dime a dozen. Most play eSports related titles like Fortnite, Hearthstone, etc. I knew that if ever started sharing my gameplay with the world, I’d want to do something different. So after much consideration, I’ve decided to approach things from a different angle and stay true to my moniker: retro style gaming.

Now, notice I didn’t say “retro gaming”. Instead, I said “retro style”. These days, the game market is filled with nostalgia. Developers are making 8-bit throwback games in droves. There’s even a number of old school CRPG clones on the scene making a low buzz for all those with their ear to hear it. My plan is to explore the world of these throwback games on my streams. Having just finished my review of the classic Ultima series, one of the first new “old” games I plan to stream is Shroud of The Avatar – Lord British’s spiritual sequel to the Ultima franchise.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m shifting my focus from written reviews to streaming. Not at all. In fact, I’ll still be making written reviews for every game I’ll be playing. Including those I share on stream. I’m just going to be adding an option to watch me as I explore some of these retro-esque titles.

Another thing I would like to incorporate into my streams is what I call “blind playing”. This means when I start a game, I’ll actually be playing it for the first time. I’m not going to be some expert trying to speedrun my way through things. Instead, I would actually like to seek advice from my viewers and make decisions together. In a nutshell, instead of doing a “watch me play this game”, I want to do a “let’s play this game together”. I hope this will bring a new a refreshing dynamic to those of you who like to watch livestreams.

Over the last month, I’ve been purchasing some new equipment (a second monitor, microphone, etc) and designing graphics and animations for my upcoming stream. I also have my fingers crossed for a change in my work schedule that might allow more time for this new endeavor. Regardless, I’ll be sure to make a more concrete announcement once things are about to start.

Review: Ultima IX – Ascension

At last, we have arrived. I’m proud to present my review for the final game in the main Ultima series, Ultima IX: Ascension. This is probably the most divisive game in the entire Ultima saga. It has a reputation for being almost universally hated. Knowing this, I was very curious to see just what I was getting myself into. Yes. This playthrough is my very first experience with Ultima IX.

If you’ve been following my journey through the Ultima franchise so far, one thing should be clear. With each new chapter in the Ultima saga, the developers always attempted to showcase the latest in PC technology. This rule remains true with this entry. Originally released in 1999, Ultima IX is the first and only game in the series to feature 3D accelerated graphics. It is also the first entry in the series to run natively under Microsoft Windows.

Even though Ultima IX showcased the latest technology of its day. It suffered from a number of bugs at release. Including a few that were downright game-breaking. Of course, a number of patches were eventually released by the developers to correct the majority of these issues. But, an equally number of serious problems remained unaddressed. This left players feeling abandoned by the game’s developers. Sadly, this had become a bit of a trend with the later games in the Ultima series. To make matters worse, the game was largely unoptimized and had some very stringent system requirements. As result, even players with some of the best computers of the day struggled with performance issues. These woes were bad enough to make the game nearly unplayable. (When playing the game on modern hardware, this is largely a non-issue, of course).

Gamers who are interested in experiencing this title today still have a little work cut out for them. First of all, even though Ultima IX is a Windows title, it was designed twenty years ago for technologies that are no longer readily available. In order to play the game on modern systems, I highly recommend obtaining a copy from GOG. To start, the GOG-version of the game comes complete with the final official patch and a special Glide wrapper that allows moderns computers to handle the game’s legacy 3DFX instructions. But, the prep doesn’t end there. If you really want the best experience from this title, I recommend that you download and install most of the updates included in the “Ultima Patcher“ utility. This includes an unofficial patch that allows the game to run in Direct 3D mode (enabling players to enjoy the game at higher resolutions). This patch also contains the “Forgotten Worlds” fan-made update. This corrects a number of the game’s notorious remaining bugs and fixes several quests and loose ends. These fixes may not be 100% official, but they are widely considered by many to be largely essential.

The story of Ultima IX was supposed to begin immediately after the end of the previous game. In the finale for Ultima VIII, The Avatar passed through a portal that was to deliver him directly to Britannia. However, somewhere during the development process this ending was inexplicably retconned. Instead, Ultima IX now begins with The Avatar back in the safety of his home on Earth, where he is mysteriously beckoned back to Britannia. It also seems that The Avatar has somehow suffered from a bout of amnesia, as he has to be reacquainted with the some of the series’ most basic lore and concepts as part of the game’s tutorial.

Of course, when you consider that EA wanted this title to appeal to both new and old players alike, this “starter level” is certainly understandable. But I can’t help but feel that the company could have simply asked the player if they were new to the series or a veteran Ultima player at the start of the game. Then, given a starting experience in accordance to their answer. Now, as a result of this oversight, there is a major lore disconnect between this game and the previous entry in the series. Regardless, once you’ve made your way through the game’s introduction and actually enter the world of Britannia, the storylines once again fit back together perfectly.

Once back in Britannia, The Avatar learns that in his absence, The Guardian has began his plot to take over the world by stealing the legendary Runes of Virtue and erecting a series of tainted pillars across the land. These pillars radiate foul energies that have caused life in Britannia to deteriorate at a rapid pace. To restore balance, The Avatar must seek out the Runes of Virtue from The Guardian’s hiding places in hopes that he can discover a way destroy the pillars and defeat The Guardian once and for all.

One of the first things that fans of the Ultima series are likely to notice about this title is the radical new way the game is presented. Until now, every entry in the Ultima franchise has been played from a top-down view. For this outing, the perspective is now in 3D chase-cam style. Today, this type of presentation is not very unusual. But at the time, it was still a bit of a novelty (especially on the PC). As such, there was no universally accepted control scheme for a game laid out in this way. The result is that Ultima IX features an awkward combination of both keyboard and mouse controls. It feels like a funky amalgamation of Tomb Raider and every RPG you can imagine. Naturally, this is a completely different playcontrol experience in comparison to any other Ultima game. On top of such a big change, the default controls are not intuitive at all. Yes, like anything else, it is possible to become acclimated to them over time. But in my personal opinion, they leave a lot to be desired.

Another big gripe I have with this game has to do with the combat system. Mixed in with an overly funky control scheme are equally convoluted combat mechanics. Like in Ultima VIII, combat is again action based. It’s not quite the mess that was seen in the previous game, but it still feels out of place with the rest of the series and take a bit of getting used to.

Looking past the radical new presentation, there’s actually a few aspects of the gameplay that will feel familiar to fans of the series. Ultima IX retains a bit of sandbox style gameplay that made the later games in the series so popular. Players can interact with the world around them (move and manipulate objects, converse with NPCs, etc). But, gone is the open-world feel that made the series so famous. Yes, Britannia is still full of great places to explore. But this time, there’s a very obvious “on rails” feel the gameworld that was never present before.

So, I’ve been a bit hard on Ultima IX so far. But, one of the most important things about any RPG is the storyline. Thankfully, this is where the game shines. The story contained in this game is very worth experiencing. Not only that, but the way it is presented is very well done. Ultima IX features some of the most memorable NPCs in the series thus far, and it is through them that several of the game’s best plot points unfold.

I can’t help but feel that Ultima IX is a game that suffered considerably due to a lack of attention from the development team. During most of Ultima IX’s development time, Electronic Arts undoubtedly gave more attention and resources to Ultima Online. The end result is a game that feels more like a red-headed stepchild than the conclusion to an epic series. That being said, there’s still a lot to love about Ultima IX if you’re really willing to work for it. The sad truth is, most people weren’t.

Ultima IX received scathing reviews at the time of its release and therefore earned a stigma that sticks with it to this day. Admittedly, much of the negative press was deserved. But, there’s still an enchanting story hidden amidst all the rubble that litters this game’s legacy. They say that patience is a virtue. And while it may not be one of the eight outlined in the Ultima series, it is certainly one that will pay off for players who are willing to exercise it on this game. So if you’re a fan of the series, don’t be so quick to dismiss this final chapter in the saga just because of bad things that you’ve read online. Instead, take a moment to accept that even though the experience may be far from perfect, Ultima IX still offers an adventure worth remembering.

Difficulty: Medium –  Most of the challenge in this game has less to do with the actual content and more to do with technical hurdles. The combat in the game is laughably simplistic. But some of the dungeons and puzzles are tricky at times. Overall, the difficult level of the game feels pretty well balanced.

Story: Undoubtedly, this is the best reason to play Ultima IX. Legend has it that the original plot to Ultima IX was nothing short of a masterpiece that ended up being gutted and taped back together as a shallow mockery of itself. Perhaps that is true. But even so, what’s presented here is nothing to sneeze at. I found myself very happy with the level of storytelling found in this game. If anything, it is one of the game’s few redeeming qualities.

Originality: If fans wanted something different after Ultima VIII, they got it. Ultima IX is a whole different beast compared to any entries in the series that came before it. With that in mind, I feel like the UI was largely inspired by games like Tomb Raider and Soul Reaver. But, it somehow manages to keep its RPG roots buried deep in its core. Ultima IX is nothing if it isn’t unique.

Soundtrack: A second high point for the game. This title features a wonderfully composed score. Gone are the days of crude midi files. This game boasts a fully orchestrated soundtrack, and it is nothing sort of amazing. Ultima IX also features a considerable amount of voice acting. By today’s harsh standards, the voice acting is pretty bad and doesn’t keep well with Ultima’s “old english” lore, but it was still pretty impressive for its time.

Fun: The game’s technical issues and all-around sluggishness really do have a pretty considerable impact on enjoyment. This is true even with today’s faster computers and a number of fan-made patches that address just this issue. I can only imagine how infuriating it would have been to play this game at the time of release. Even so, if you’re willing to take a deep breath and overlook many of the frustrating aspects of Ultima IX, there’s a lot of enjoyable moments to be found.

Graphics: Today, the game looks a bit dated and blocky. But this is par for course with PC games from this age. In truth, Ultima IX boasted some pretty impressive graphics for its time. Even today, the game retains its beauty.

Playcontrol: This is my chief complaint. I really feel like the developers did not know how to design controls for a PC game with a third-person 3D layout. To be fair, many similar PC games from this age suffered from stubborn and awkward controls (Heretic II and Tomb Raider, to name a couple). But when mixed with a sandbox-type RPG, the whole thing ends up feeling like one big mess. Yes, it’s possible to customize the control by editing a few text files (and doing so can really improve the situation). But this was not a solution that was intended by the developers.  As a result, it’s not one that is taken into consideration when scoring this part of the game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Mature themes, fantasy violence.

Value:  At the time it was released, there’s no way the price justified the sub-par experience that this game provided. These days, this game can be purchased for $6.00 on GOG and is frequently on sale for as low as $1.50. At these prices, it’s easy to recommend the game even with its less-than-perfect reputation.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – As I said in my review above, much of shade that’s thrown at this game is deserved. But, as with most things, there’s always a little light at the end of the tunnel. Players who are willing to grit their teeth and suffer through some of the bad aspects of this game are sure to find a pretty memorable experience. In truth, it really is a travesty that a series as influential as Ultima had to receive such a tarnished ending. I know it would never happen, but if any game deserves the second chance of a remake, it is this one.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Ultima Online

Ultima Online. The grandfather of all MMOs. We are now to the point in my Ultima series playthrough where I’m going to take a moment to discuss this iconic title. While technically not the first MMORPG, Ultima Online is the one responsible for bringing online gaming to the attention of the masses. It was originally released in 1997, and as a testament to its legendary status, the game is still online and playable nearly twenty-two years later.

UO was my first MMO experience. I remember reading articles about the game in the months leading up to its release. I was no stranger to the Ultima series, and the prospect of playing online with others was certainly enticing. But, I had sworn to stay away from it since it operated under a pay-to-play model. At the time, this was something that I objected to. I felt that if I was to shell out $50 or more for a game, why should I have to continue to pay in order to enjoy it. Of course, that train of thought was very backwards. In later years I came to understand that MMO subscription fees are not based in greed. But, they help fund maintenance for the game as well as provide development cost for new content. Needless to say, despite my initial reluctance, I finally succumbed to my curiosity and purchased a copy of Ultima Online. I spent about a month with the game before deciding it wasn’t for me and moving on to something else. This did not happen because I found fault with the game itself. But, at the time, I don’t think I was in the correct mindset for an online game. The whole concept was relatively new to me and I think I didn’t have the patience required to properly enjoy a game of this type. After revisiting the game again, many years later, I wish I had given the vanilla release more of a chance. There’s no doubt that I missed out on something big by turning my back on this title so early on.

The original release of Ultima Online was very similar in aesthetic to Ultima VII and VIII. The game is played from a birds-eye-view in a sandbox-like environment. Players are able to interact with objects, NPCs, and of course, other players. Many UI elements from some of the later Ultima titles were somewhat present as well (ie: the paperdoll inventory scheme and dragging and dropping objects into your inventory).

Screenshot from the early days of Ultima Online.

When Ultima Online was initially released, the game had a very open and lawless feel to it. In many ways, this was a very exciting aspect to the game. But it also had its drawbacks. For example, I remember player killing being an issue for many new players, myself included. Eventually, Origin Software addressed this gripe with the second expansion to the game; Ultima Online: Renaissance. This add-on created two separate worlds for players to enjoy. One that was strictly PVE while the other kept the PVP ruleset that the game had at launch.

Over the years, Ultima Online continued to expand. New versions of the game were released. With them came new classes to play and new areas to explore. Occasionally, these expansions even resulted in new game clients. Some of these, like the Third Dawn (or 3D) client, have long been retired. Today, players can choose to enjoy the game using either the UO Classic Client or the UO Enhanced Client. It’s important to remember that regardless of which client you select, the game itself is the same – but the way it is presented to the player is slightly different. For example, the Enhanced Client has slightly better visuals and some pretty impressive quality of life tweaks. But, it doesn’t maintain the retro feel that many gamers yearn for when playing Ultima Online. Generally speaking, most veteran players tend to prefer the Classic Client, while many of the game’s newer players, tend to prefer the Enhanced Client. It’s truly a personal preference and you can switch back and forth at will.

The Classic Client on a modern system

From a lore perspective, Ultima Online takes place in an alternate version of Britannia. One that is separate from the rest of the series. But, the world of Ultima Online will still be familiar to longtime fans of the franchise. The game features many locations and characters from other Ultima titles. In fact, in the early days of the game, it was not unheard of to see Richard Garriott actually playing as his Lord British character.

Eventually, Garriott parted ways with Origin/EA and his influence on Ultima Online went with him. As the years went by, certain elements were introduced to the game that distanced it from Garriott’s original vision. Today, very little of Ultima Online resembles those earliest days that veteran gamers are likely to remember. But, that doesn’t mean its not worth a look. Even in today’s world where MMOs are a dime a dozen, there’s something very appealing about UO. As tarnished as it may have become over the years, it’s still a unique gem that shines bright enough to attract adoration and attention.

So, what makes UO so different from almost every other MMO on the market? Well, to start with; the design. Most MMOs are presented in either a third-person/chase-camera style, or a classic first-person perspective. Ultima Online differs in that it features an isometric overhead view. Also, the game maintains a very “sandbox” aspect to it. Players can venture out into the world and cut down trees, build structures, and to a minor extent, manipulate the world around them. Items in the game do not just exist in player’s inventories, but rather can be placed in the world itself where they can be seen and handled by other players. Even now, twenty years later, Ultima Online is a living, breathing virtual world.

The Enhanced Client on a modern system

As the years have passed, the development of the game has changed hands a number of times. Today, the game is owned by Broadsword Online – a division of Mythic Entertainment. Under their supervision, Ultima Online has opened a free-to-play model called Endless Journey. Now, curious players can enter the world of Britannia for free and see what all the fuss is about.

The legacy of this game is undeniable. Without Ultima Online, MMOs as we know them today would not exist. But, it is a title that has not aged very well. To say it is archaic is a bit of an understatement. I suppose that older gamers like myself would have an easier time getting their feet wet with a game like this. But, I admit that it is difficult to recommend UO to a new player. That being said, if you are curious, dive in. The world of Ultima Online is still vibrant and active. If you’re not satisfied with the contents of the free-to-play version, there’s a number of unofficial servers on the internet that host the game as well. In fact, a large number of these replicate the game as it was in the late 1990’s. So no matter what type of UO experience you desire, there’s something out there for everyone.

Despite the fact that I never got into Ultima Online, I am fully capable of understanding just how much this game has meant to thousands of players. For me, Final Fantasy XI was my MMO of choice. That game and the experiences I had in the world of Vana’diel meant more to me than I could ever accurately put into words. The same can be said about Ultima Online. For so many players, Britannia was a more than a virtual world to explore, it was a second home. Friendships were made and lifelong bonds were forged. If you’re curious to learn more about the impact this game had on both the industry and its players, I recommend the following book, Braving Britannia: Tales of Life, Love, and Adventure in Ultima Online.

 

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

Review: Ultima VIII – Pagan

My Ultima series playthrough is nearing its end! This time, I’m going to review what is probably the strangest entry in the franchise, Ultima VIII – Pagan. What makes this game so different than all of the other entries in the series so far? Well, for the first time we have an Ultima title that doesn’t really feel like a traditional RPG. Instead, Ultima VIII ends up being more of an overhead action game with some light RPG-esque elements. This makes for a vastly different game than what fans were used to.

So far, each Ultima game has consistently built off of its predecessor. That is not the case at all with Ultima VIII. When trying to understand why this game is radically different, it is often accepted that Lord British had very little input into the construction of this particular game. His lack of supervision certainly shows in the final product.

For some odd reason that I don’t remember, I actually possessed a copy of this game back in the nineties, before the release of the Ultima Collection. (I think it came bundled with a CD-ROM drive that I purchased.) I remember spending quite a bit of time tinkering with my system so that I could get this game to work correctly. In the end, I did manage to get it up and running. But I never got more than an hour or two into the game before I got distracted by something else. When the Ultima Collection hit the shelves, I had moved from DOS to Windows and I never could get the game to a functional state again. So, this review marks my first time really playing through this title from start to finish.

In this game, the story picks up right where we left off in Ultima VII – Part Two. The Avatar has been snatched up by The Guardian and banished to the mysterious world of Pagan, The Guardian’s home world. It is up to The Avatar to figure out how to escape this world and return to Britannia so that he can confront The Guardian once and for all.

On a technological level, this game was nothing short of cutting edge when it was released. The world of Pagan is beautifully presented. Like every entry in the Ultima series, this chapter features a massive graphical upgrade. In fact, it is probably one of the best looking PC games pre-1995. Ultima VIII included a full MIDI soundtrack for PCs equipped with sound cards and there was even an optional speech-pack was sold alongside the game that enabled spoken dialogue for several of the game’s key scenes and characters – something that was unheard of at the time.

Despite being a very advanced game in terms of technology. Ultima VIII suffers from some pretty awful design decisions. First of all, in a radical departure from the series’ roots, combat in the game is action-based. The Avatar does battle by striking, blocking or kicking. To make matters worse, the whole affair is extremely clunky.  To add insult to injury, a large portion of the gameplay relies on platforming. Many of the game’s dungeons and the overworld environment require The Avatar to leap over running water or hop from stone to stone. The terrible thing about this is that the playcontrol in this game is horrendous. Jumping is sluggish and often unresponsive. This, combined with a UI that is completely mouse-driven, makes for quite a terrible experience.

Needless to say, the playcontrol for this game is pretty bad. But if that were my only complaint, I think I could overlook it. Sadly, it is not. Like Ultima VII – Part Two, this game also suffers from being largely unfinished. The storyline is disjointed and contains gaping plot holes. Several parts of the game elude to certain events and locations that simply do not exist. The game even includes a special doorway meant to lead into an whole new area that was to be included in later expansion. But, despite being fully completed, the expansion (The Lost Vale) never saw the light of day. What a poor experience.

So, yes. I have some pretty serious problems with this game as a whole. But on the other side of the coin, Ultima VIII also has some good points. First, the game is very atmospheric. The world of Pagan is extremely well presented and proved to be awe-inspiring enough to keep me playing. Also, playing a weakened version of The Avatar brings back a real sense of danger to a series where the main hero was beginning to feel slightly overpowered. In this game, a majority of the enemies are much stronger than the player so choosing to either do combat with them or run away is very important part of the gameplay.

The nitty gritty ends up being a very mixed bag. Yes, Ultima VIII feels broken and unfinished. But, at the time of its release, it was also groundbreaking enough that it could easily captivate its audience. Even today, I found myself drawn into it despite its flaws. Regardless, this game is likely to be a tough sell to anyone but the most devoted fans of the series.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima VIII is one of the harder entries in the series. Many enemies are very challenging. This is especially true in earlier parts of the game. But combat aside, the game’s jumping puzzles are likely to provide plenty of frustration and headaches – not so much due to the challenge they were intended to provide, but more so because of the game’s horrid playcontrol.

Story: Despite suffering from some pretty big loose ends, the overall storyline for this game is very well done. Taking The Avatar out of Britannia and thrusting him into a new and unfamiliar world (where he is forced to break his own rules to survive), really brings some excitement to the series.

Originality: If anyone was worried that the Ultima series was starting to get a bit repetitive, this game will almost certainly change their minds. Ultima VIII looks and works NOTHING like any other game in the franchise. Whether you consider that to be good or bad, you can’t argue that Ultima VIII isn’t a fresh offering in the series.

Soundtrack: This game features a full MIDI score as well as an optional voice patch. Both of these are very well done. The music isn’t particularly memorable per se, but it does a great job at setting up the game’s atmosphere.

Fun: This is a game that can be pretty tough to get into. It has received more than its share of harsh criticism over the years – much it warranted. But I also got quite a bit of enjoyment out of it. Without a doubt, it is certainly an acquired taste.

Graphics: There was nothing quite like Ultima VIII at the time it was released. The graphics were the cream of the crop. Even today, in a world where 3D acceleration rules, Ultima VIII still manages to look pretty darn good.

Playcontrol: This is the game’s biggest weak point. Everything from the UI to the game’s actual control scheme is nothing short of a hot mess. The entire game is controlled via point-and-click, something that is traditionally hard to mess up. But somehow Origin managed to really botch this one. Combat is sluggish and cumbersome – and don’t get me started on the jumping. To make matters worse, the game also suffers from a slight input lag as a result of the DOS Box emulation on modern systems.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Mature themes, fantasy violence.

Value:  Ultima VIII is currently available in its “Gold” package (the base game bundled with the speech pack) on GOG for a mere $5.99. Even with a number of glaring flaws, I feel the game is well worth a price this low.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Ultima VIII certainly suffers from its share of issues. But, it’s by no means one of the worst games I’ve played. In fact, there’s really quite a bit to like about it if you’re willing to set aside any expectations and just enjoy it for what it is. But fair warning; If you are looking for another Ultima VII, you will be let down

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Review: Ultima VII The Complete Collection

     

My Ultima series playthrough continues with a review of Ultima VII: The Complete Collection. This bundle consists of the following titles: Ultima VII: The Black Gate (and it’s expansion The Forge of Virtue) and its direct sequel Ultima VII: Part Two – Serpent Isle (and yes, its expansion; The Silver Seed).  That’s a whole lot of gaming! In fact, it took me nearly a month to complete these two titles (and that was with me clocking in every single hour of free time at my disposal). There’s a lot to digest here, so let’s begin with a plot summary.

Ultima VII – The Black Gate: Like most of the games in the series, the player assumes the role of The Avatar. The game begins several years after the events of Ultima VI. One day, The Avatar is minding his own business on Earth, playing a game on his personal computer when he receives a message from a mysterious being who identifies himself as “The Guardian”. The Guardian declares that he is the new ruler of Britannia and taunts The Avatar into returning. Just then, a portal to Britannia appears in its usual spot behind The Avatar’s house. Upon arriving in Britannia, The Avatar learns that nearly two hundred years (in Britannia time) have passed since his last visit. All is not well. Recently, there’s been a number of ghastly murders. Magic has become hard to control and a new shady organization known as The Brotherhood has been slowly gaining control of various parts of the kingdom’s political structure. The majority of the game itself revolves around The Avatar’s investigation into the mysterious murders and his plot to learn the secrets behind this new organization.

The Forge of Virtue: This add-on is really nothing more than one massive quest that integrates itself into the main game. Over the years it’s become inseparable from the main scenario.

Ultima VII: Part Two – Serpent Isle: Despite what the title suggests, this entry is not merely a second chapter to Ultima VII, but actually a completely separate game. The storyline for this title actually pulls from some pretty deep Ultima lore. In this game, The Avatar is tasked with chasing The Guardian’s second-in-command to an area known as Serpent Isle. (Fun Fact: For those that have played some of the earlier games in the series, you may actually recognize Serpent Isle as the part of “Sosaria” once known as “The Land of Danger and Despair”.) It is here that The Avatar must seek out his adversary.

The Silver Seed: Like the Forge of Virtue, this is an add-on that incorporates a new story-arc to the main game. Sadly, due to time constraints a number of plot points were left incomplete and this add-on ended up feeling a bit rushed. These days, it is included in nearly every distribution of Ultima VII: Serpent Isle.

I want to start off this review by stating that I owned these games back in the 90’s as part of the Ultima Collection. However, unlike the earlier entries in the series, these games required a special DOS-based memory manager. Getting this configured under the old Windows 9X environment was quite a task. In fact, I never managed to get it to work without affecting my Windows installation. As a result, I never got see what these games were all about until now. Luckily, GOG has masterfully pre-configured DOSBox to handle the unusual requirements for Ultima VII. Thanks to them, I was actually able to play through these games for the very first time.

Let me start off by saying that quite a bit has changed since Ultima VI. As always, each new entry in the Ultima series serves as a showcase for the latest in technology at the time of its release. This game is no exception. The graphics are leaps and bounds above what was seen in Ultima VI. The same is true for the game’s soundtrack and user interface. While Ultima VI featured mouse support, Ultima VII was obviously designed with mouse users in mind. Every element of the game’s interface is designed for point-and-click. But the developers didn’t rest on their laurels once Ultima VII was completed. Ultima VII: Part Two boasts a few nice UI tweaks over what is seen in the original Ultima VII. It seems that Garriott and his crew never tire of improving their games – which is a very good thing. Of all the Ultima titles in the series so far, Ultima VII is the easiest and most intuitive to play.

Some of the biggest refinements in the game come from just how interactive the environment is. For example, players can grab and move blocks or interact with objects like switches and doors. Players are able to click on chests and drawers to open them. From there, a pop-up window will appear displaying the contents of the container. Players can click on items they want, then drag them to their inventory. Instead of text-based lists, players can now see their inventory visually and manage it accordingly. All of this was pretty impressive at the time. But where this game REALLY broke new ground has to do with the game-world itself. This time, Britannia is a living, breathing world. NPCs have a schedule. They get up at dawn, go to work, go out to eat, and then retire to bed at night. Sometimes, looking for a particular NPC involves knowing a bit about them and where they are likely to be at a certain time of day. Some elements of this were introduced in Ultima VI, but it really takes on a life of its own here.

As if that isn’t revolutionary enough, Ultima VII is also one of the very first sandbox style RPGs. Once you’ve worked your way through the opening scenes and taken a moment to get your feet wet, the whole game-world is wide open for you to explore and progress through at your leisure. Again, this open-world aspect was originally introduced in Ultima VI, but when combined with the new interactive environment – it introduced the world to a whole new level of immersion. Games like Skyrim simply would not exist if it wasn’t for Ultima VII.

As far as these two games go, Ultima VII (and it’s expansion) is simply amazing. Everything about the game, from the gameplay itself to the storyline, is near perfection. Seriously, if you’re a fan of CRPGs, you owe it to yourself to play this classic.  Ultima VII: Part Two, on the other hand, is a pretty big mess. At first, Part Two starts off quite well. The storyline is unique and engaging (especially for fans of Ultima’s lore), but it all goes downhill from there. This is made even worse when you get into the content included in The Silver Seed expansion. In fact, I daresay it is the expansion itself that really makes a muddled up mess of the entire game.

I think what frustrated me the most with this title was the fact that there are so many loose ends left once the game is completed. It’s obvious that a ton of content was cut from this game in order to make its release date. Often times, in cases like these, the fan community will scrounge up enough resources to release an unofficial patch to restore much of the lost content. Sadly, so much was left incomplete that a fan-sourced patch is impossible in this situation. Regardless, Ultima VII: Part Two is still worth a look if you’re a serious fan of the series.

When viewed as a complete collection, Ultima VII gets way more right than it gets wrong. In fact, I think it’s actually one of my favorites in the series so far. I’m ashamed to admit it took me this long to finally sit down and give this game the attention it deserved.

Difficulty: Medium –  For me, Ultima VII is a pretty balanced game in terms of difficulty. If you’re not adverse to being patient and taking notes, there’s really nothing in the game that is exceedingly difficult. For me, the biggest challenge came from aspects like inventory management and food supply. Some of the puzzles are tricky at times, but I never came across anything that just seemed completely unfair. Taking the time to dive into the expansions make completing the main scenarios that much easier.

Story: One of the strongest aspects of the game. The main storylines are masterfully done. If you’re a fan of Ultima lore, you’re likely to get a lot out of these scenarios. Ultima VII features one of the best CRPG storylines of all time. My only real complaint lies with Ultima VII: Part Two/The Silver Seed, many story elements are introduced and then completely abandoned. It’s very obvious that the certain parts of the game were never completed and these loose ends were left behind.

Originality: Ultima VII basically invented the sandbox RPG experience. It is impossible to understate the importance of this title to the genre. Even today, with games like Elder Scrolls, Ultima VII still manages to impress.

Soundtrack: This entry in the series features the biggest soundtrack so far. There’s a number of really good musical pieces in this game, but there’s also quite a few forgettable tracks. To me, it’s decent, but nothing really special.

Fun: Ultima VII is one of the all-time greatest CRPGs. If you enjoy open-world/sandbox RPGS, you’ll have a field day with this title. For me, this game ranks right up there with Ultima IV and V. Once I started playing, I was completely enthralled.

Graphics: Ultima VII featured cutting-edge graphics for its time. Of course, the game shows its age today. The only complaint I have lies with the on-screen text. All of the game’s text appears without any sort of bubble or shaded frame to separate it from whatever is behind it. Most of the time this isn’t really an issue. But occasionally, the dialogue can be hard to read – especially on today’s larger screens.

Playcontrol: This game is almost entirely point-and-click. The control scheme is a bit dated by today’s standards and does take a little while to get used to. But it is very intuitive and worlds well for the most part. On the downside, the default emulation of DOSBox does seem to introduce a little bit of lag to the mouse on modern systems. A little patience is required at first, but eventually it’s fairly easy to master.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Gore, fantasy violence.

Value:  Both of these games and their expansions are available on GOG as Ultima VII – The Complete Collection. The entire bundle is available for the low price of $5.99. This is a ridiculously low price for all of the content included in these games.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – When looked at as a whole, Ultima VII is nothing short of a masterpiece. The second game in the collection does suffer considerably in certain areas, but everything else more than makes up for it. This game is representative of the classic CRPG experience. I recommend it to any serious RPG fan who isn’t afraid to display a little patience.

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

 

 

Nerd Fuel: Barnie’s – Barnie’s Cafe Blend

The quest for the perfect coffee continues. It seems like one of the biggest problems I have with finding new coffees to try is variety. So, for this Nerd Fuel entry, I decided to take my coffee shopping out of town. Instead of my local Wal-Mart, I hopped one town over to the nearest Publix grocery store. I’m happy to report that the trip was well worth it. There was much a better selection than I expected. In fact, I had a bit of trouble deciding what to go with. But in the end, I chose; Barnie’s Cafe Blend.

Barnie’s coffee is not new to me. In fact, there was a Barnie’s Coffee and Tea in the local mall where I grew up. But it has been many years since I’ve enjoyed their products. I remember being fond of their house coffee, so I figured this was the perfect product to start with.

Being a house blend, this is a coffee that’s designed to please just about everyone. It’s a medium roast that’s smooth, with a rich, yet mild flavor. It’s not as aromatic as many other K-Cups I’ve brewed, but this did not seem to be indicative of the flavor at all.

If we’re being honest, most house/signature blend coffees pretty much taste the same. They are typically blends of the same beans just in slightly different measures. Sure, there are some subtle differences, but most casual drinkers are not able to tell the difference between them. As far as flavor goes, this coffee fits the “signature blend” mold pretty well. That being said, one thing that stands out about this coffee is: quality. Many mass-produced coffees (even my favorite Donut Shop brand), often has a “B-grade” feel to it. This was not at all the case with Barnie’s Cafe Blend. The grinds tasted fresh and the roast was perfect to the point where I think even a casual observer would be able to detect the difference. I was quite impressed with what I found in this box.

This coffee comes a premium price, but if you’re a stickler it may very well be worth it. This is a new favorite of mine.

Score: 4 out of 4

Would buy again?:  Yes. A tad pricey, but a coffee of unparalleled quality.

FFXIV: Version 4.5 Update

Well, the latest FFXIV patch has been out for a few weeks now and I’ve had plenty of time to dive into all of the new content. I know I’ve recently expressed a slight dissatisfaction with the game lately. So, I’m happy to report that this patch has done quite a bit to address many of my concerns. First of all, as I predicted, SE did indeed announce the next expansion for Final Fantasy XIV. FFXIV 5.0, aka: Shadowbringers will become available this summer. As expected, this update begins to build the bridge that takes players from the events of Stormblood to this upcoming chapter in the saga.

To hold fans over, SE has packed this update with plenty of new content. So, let’s a take a closer look at this most recent update to the game.

Version 4.5 delivers the following content:

  • New main scenario and side quests
  • New dungeons
  • New raids
  • New trials
  • New job: Blue Mage
  • New Treasure Hunt content
  • Squadron/Grand Company updates
  • Housing updates
  • New minigame: Mahjong
  • Blue Mage-specific content: The Masked Carnivale
  • Various refinements, balancing changes, items, and Q.o.L tweaks
  • UPCOMING: The ability to switch servers while in-game.

Most of this update seems pretty standard; new dungeons, raids, etc. Of course, the big news here is the addition of a brand new job. Blue Mage is the first “limited job” for Final Fantasy XIV. What does that mean exactly? Well, first of all, the job is currently capped at level 50. Also, players cannot queue for regular duties when playing Blue Mage. However, Blue Mages are able to enter a new event known as The Masked Carnivale. This content is designed specifically for the Blue Mage job. Keeping these odd restrictions in mind, the class itself seems very geared towards solo players – which is not really a bad thing, in my opinion.

Sadly, due to the limited role Blue Mage seems to play, I predict that most players will likely blow through the content and then forget it even exists. Of course, SE can combat this by keeping it relevant with future updates. But with their attention turning to the upcoming Shadowbringers expansion, we’ll just have to see how this all pans out. I would hate the see something as significant as a whole playable job left to rot by the wayside.

Regardless, this patch is packed with enough improvements that it actually rekindled my interest in the game. I’ve found my excitement in FFXIV renewed to the point where I’ve played nearly every day since the update arrived. That’s certainly a step in the right direction.

I give this patch a rating of:  A

Dungeons & Dragons: Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica

Ever since Wizards of the Coast purchased D&D back in 1999, I’ve often wondered if they would ever consider merging it with their flagship trading card game Magic the Gathering. Well, it took almost twenty years, but with the release of the Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica, it has finally happened. That’s right, the lore-rich world of Ravnica is now an official D&D campaign setting. I will admit that while I’m glad to see 5E expand beyond the Forgotten Realms, Ravnica was not exactly what I was hoping for. – Regardless, let’s see where this book takes us.

As you might assume, this is essentially a sourcebook for anyone interested in playing a game set in the world of Ravnica. In case you are unaware, Ravnica is an enchanted city that encompasses the surface of an entire world. Prior to this, it existed only in the lore of the Magic the Gathering universe. The book provides a summary of Ravnica, it’s denizens, currency, guilds, political structure, etc. Due to the massive size for the world itself, the book focuses largely on an area called The Tenth District. This zone is more than large enough to keep players busy for years to come.

A large part of this book details the ten guilds that each strive for dominance in Ravnica. Players creating a character in this world are urged to affiliate with one of these organizations. The book does a great job at helping players choose a guild that suits their playing style and even provides some tips for role playing, etc. For DMs that decide not run a game set in the world of Ravnica itself, it’s still possible to incorporate these guilds into a homebrew campaign if they so choose.

One of the main selling points for this book is the introduction of new playable races; Centaurs, Goblins, Loxodons, Minotaurs, Simic Hybrids and Vedalken. Naturally, several of these races are either exclusive to Ravnica or unique variants of traditional creatures. But, crafty DMs are always able to draw inspiration for their own games using the information found here. This book also offers two new sub-classes that, despite being very Ravnica-specific, could also be adapted to other campaign worlds with a little effort. Aside from the information detailed above, this book also contains a trove of new magical items and monsters.

To me, the majority of the information found in this book is really only useful for DMs and players that actually intend to run a campaign set in this world. Sure, some of the monsters from the bestiary can be plucked out and used elsewhere. But everything else seems tied to campaign setting itself. With this in mind, if you’re a fan of MTG and D&D, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. There’s more than enough information in this book to get yourself started. If not, this might be one supplement worth skipping.

Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition Products:

Starter Set

Core Books:  

Player’s Handbook   –   Dungeon Master’s Guide   –   Monster Manual

Supplements:

Volo’s Guide to Monsters    –   Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide  – Xanthar’s Guide to Everything – Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes   –   Guildmasters’ Guide to Ravnica

Adventures:

Hoard of the Dragon Queen   –  Rise of Tiamat    – Princes of the Apocalypse  –  Out of the Abyss   – Curse of Strahd   –   Storm King’s Thunder  –  Tales from the Yawning Portal  – Tomb of Annihilation  –  Waterdeep: Dragon Heist   –   Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Original Adventures Reincarnated:

Into the Borderlands    –    The Isle of Dread

Record Shop: Nirvana – Incesticide

As some readers to this blog may know, when I was young I was a musician. One of my goals with these “Record Shop” posts is to share the music that served as a source of inspiration for me back when I was learning how to master the guitar. A quick read through some of these entries will undoubtedly reveal Nirvana as one of my major influences. While it’s true, I idolized Kurt Cobain and his songs, one of the main reasons I found Nirvana to be so influential wasn’t because he was some “genius songwriter”. But is it because his music was especially easy to play. Even with only a few months of guitar lessons under my belt, I was able to pick up a guitar and play along with the majority of Nirvana’s songs.

One of my favorite Nirvana albums was actually also their most obscure. I’m talking about Incesticide. This album was released shortly after Nevermind and is actually a compilation of non-album tracks, b-sides, and other rarities. To me, it really showcases a very interesting side of Nirvana. The songs included on this record range from polished pop-rock songs to grimy noise  – I absolutely love this collection. So, let’s jump right into it:

1: Dive – The album starts with this grooving rock track that was originally included as a B-Side for the Sliver single. This song embodies just about everything that I really loved about Nirvana. A driving bass line, grungy guitars, and Cobain’s guttural vocals. If I had to pick a song to serve as the perfect example of Nirvana’s sound, this might just be the one.

2: Sliver – Next up is A-Side to the previous track. The Sliver single was released by Sub-Pop Records during the period between the release of Nirvana’s first album Bleach and their blockbuster hit Nevermind. “Sliver” is a pop song (something that was rare for Nirvana at the time), but it’s one that still manages to maintain that unique feel that only Nirvana could provide.

3: Stain – This is an older track from the Bleach era. It originally appeared on Blew (an EP released shortly after Bleach). As such, it has the same kind of vibe that many of Nirvana early songs provide. It is gritty and dirty sounding. If you’re a fan of Bleach, this is a track will really put a smile on your face.

4: Been a Son – This song was also originally released on the Blew EP. However, the version included on this record is a newer recording. Like “Sliver”, this another fine example of Cobain’s pop-song prowess. It’s a quirky, catchy tune. A fan favorite.

5:  Turnaround – Here we have a cover of a rather obscure Devo song. The interesting thing about this tune for me is just how faithful it is to the original in a number of ways. (Despite being played on guitars instead of synthesizers). Admittedly, one of the weaker tracks on the album, but still very well done.

6: Molly’s Lips – Another cover song – this time by one of Cobain’s favorite indie groups; The Vaselines. The original song had a very lo-fi, new wave sound to it. Nirvana’s version is much harder and driving. This is a very simple song, but one that I’ve grown to love. One of the highlights of the album.

7: Son of a Gun – Another Vaselines song. Admittedly, I had never heard of The Vaselines until I was introduced to their music through this album. Both songs are very catchy and surprisingly pop-ish. Of the two, this is my least favorite. But it’s still a pretty solid track.

8: (New Wave) Polly – Here we have an alternate version of “Polly” from the Nevermind album. This version features the full band and a much faster tempo. It’s a fun listen, but I very much prefer the original version.

9: Beeswax – This is an obscure track that was originally released on the Kill Rock Stars compilation album; a record showcasing talent from the Seattle area. This is a weird, sloppy, grungy sounding track. Cobain’s vocals are screeching and almost indecipherable at times. But it really embodies the raw energy that I found so fascinating about Nirvana. I love tracks like this.

10: Downer – This song was included as a bonus track on the CD version of Nirvana’s first album Bleach. It was included on this collection as well. To be honest, “Downer” is one my least favorite Nirvana tracks but I understand its inclusion.

11: Mexican Seafood – This is another compilation track. It’s originally from a very obscure record called Teriyaki Asthma; a collection featuring tracks produced by Jack Endino. This is one of Nirvana’s earliest recordings. Like “Beeswax”, it’s very loose and gritty – an example of my favorite type of Nirvana.

12: Hairspray Queen – This track is also one of Nirvana’s very first recordings ever, but until Incesticide, it was previously unreleased. This song is a hot mess – but I love it. The vocals are all over the place. The bass line is lazy and funky. The guitar jumps from solid rock to mindless noise – it’s beautiful chaos. This is a not a song for casual fans. But I absolutely love it. One of the beast tracks on the album for me.

13: Aero Zeppelin – Another early track that was finally seeing the light of day. The whole concept behind that song is based on the fact the main riff sounds like something off of an Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin album. It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek track. A decent tune, but one of the low points for the record.

14: Big Long Now – This is an outtake from Bleach. As such, it very much sounds like it belongs on that record. It’s a slow, atmospheric track. But one that doesn’t really shine when put against some of the other tracks on this collection.

15: Aneurysm – The original version of this song can be found on the Hormoaning EP that accompanied Nevermind. This version of the track is a bit faster and a little more polished. To me, this track along with Dive are the highlights of the album. Nirvana at their finest.

While this album is available on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, it suffers from an unusual dilemma. Some of the tracks on this collection are still owned by Sub Pop records. As a result, there is no streaming license on most platforms. This means when streaming Incesticide, a number of tracks will not be available. In some cases, this doesn’t stop at streaming. A few digital music stores even exclude these tracks from purchases. With this in mind, Insecticide is still best experienced on Compact Disc.

When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system, or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. Being a compilation, the order of the tracks is not really that important. But I find the record to be balanced pretty well in its structure.