Review: Ultima V – Warriors of Destiny

Next on the list of Ultima titles is one of the most underrated entries in the series; Ultima V – The Warriors of Destiny. This is a game that often gets overshadowed by its predecessor. But in my opinion, it is worthy of just as much attention. This title takes all of the advancements that made Ultima IV such an enthralling game and continues the trend, evolving the genre even more.

In this game, the Avatar is summoned back to Britannia by several of his old companions. Some time after the events of the last game, Lord British has gone missing. In his absence, Britannia has come under the control of the nefarious Lord Blackthorn, a tyrannical ruler who has twisted and corrupted the eight virtues into rules of terror. He enforces his version of the virtues with the help of some mysterious beings called “The Shadowlords”. It is up to the Avatar to unravel the secrets behind Blackthorn’s rise to power, discover the whereabouts of Lord British, and bring Blackthorn’s rule to an end.

This entry of the series also marks the first time players can carry over their progress from a previous game. That’s right, if you’ve managed to complete Ultima IV, you can import your character into this new chapter. Doing so will grant you a bit of a boost, giving a small reward to loyal fans. (I should note that enabling this functionality can be a bit tricky with modern versions of the game due to the way DOS Box is configured by default. But it’s still manageable – more on this later).

As I mentioned above, this game takes much of what made Ultima IV great and improves on it ever so slightly. For example, there is now more interactivity with both NPCs and the environment, more commands at the players disposal (ie: search, push, jimmy, etc). Also, the game now incorporates an active clock. This means that time passes in Britannia as the game progresses. As a result, NPCs “live out their lives” according to the time of day. This adds a whole new dynamic for the the player to consider when exploring and gathering information. For example, some NPCs may only be available during certain times of the day.

The Shadowlords mentioned above also play an integral part in the game. They will appear at various times, often changing the behavior of nearby NPCs.  Learning their schedule and how to determine their whereabouts becomes important at later stages of the game.

All of these tweaks and advances help transform the world of Ultima V into a living, breathing place. This, combined with what might be the best storytelling in the series thus far, really make this game one of the more engaging entries in the franchise. I don’t say that lightly. On more than one occasion, I found myself in awe of what I was experiencing. This was true the very first time I played the game years ago, as well as with my recent playthrough for this review. Some parts of the game’s storyline were so far ahead of its time that it is literally jaw-dropping.

On the technical side of things, Ultima V also brings a graphical boost to the franchise. But oddly enough, the DOS version is still absent a proper soundtrack. Thankfully, the fan community rectified this with an unofficial patch. As mentioned in my previous Ultima reviews, the “Ultima Patcher“ restores the MIDI soundtrack found in other versions of game. It also contains optional fixes for bugs that were never corrected by the game developers. Plus, this patch was designed specifically with the GOG version of the game in mind. This means that is provides an easy solution for importing your previous Ultima IV file.

All in all, Ultima V is a great evolution in an already legendary series. But, for all its advancements, the interface still stays stubbornly rooted in what has come before.  The alphabet-soup control scheme is starting to feel even more cumbersome with the addition of so many new commands. But, in the grand scheme of things, this complaint does little to detract from just how good this game actually is.

When it comes to classic CRPGs, I hold Ultima V is just as high esteem as the legendary Ultima IV.

Difficulty: Hard –  Out of the entire series so far, I’d say Ultima V is by far the most difficult title. This is especially true in the early part of the game. Players who import their character will have a slightly easier time, but the challenge still remains. Taking notes and drawing maps is a must. Even then, the game can throw some pretty mean curveballs.

Story: Again, the storyline is where this game shines. I really like the direction Richard Garriott decided to take with this title. The concept of someone corrupting Lord British’s virtues and perverting them for their own gain is both original and exciting. Players who enjoyed the earlier titles in the series will also find some nice ties to the original trilogy (but I’ll say no more or risk spoiling it).

Originality: By this point, the Ultima series has settled into a time-tested formula. Yes, there have been advancements made to the game. But, we’re starting tread into territory that feels familiar. So far, this is not really a big complaint. But it wouldn’t take much for things to start to feel a little tired.

Soundtrack: As noted above, the vanilla DOS version of the game includes minimal audio. However, patches are available to add the midi soundtrack into the game. The game score is pretty simplistic and can get a bit repetitive at times. But, it is fitting and rather enjoyable.

Fun: For gamers who are not used to old-school CRPGs, Ultima V will likely be a tough pill to swallow. But, for those of us who absolutely love the genre, Ultima V is one of the finest examples of a game done well.

Graphics: A step up from prior entries in the series. The game looks ancient when compared with modern offerings – but in its day and time the graphics were bleeding edge.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to figure out. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must. But even with the game manual, there’s a large number of commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima V is available on GOG as part of the “Ultima IV, V and VI” trilogy. The entire bundle is available for the low price of $5.99. For this price, three games of this caliber is an absolute steal.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima V is one of my favorite entries in the series. Like its predecessor, I consider it to be a classic that belongs in the library of any serious CRPG fan. To me, this game defines the classic old-school role playing game experience.

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

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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Review: Akalabeth – World of Doom

Starting off my Ultima reviews with a game that’s not technically part of the series may seem a bit weird. But in the eyes of many, Akalabeth is indeed the prequel to very first Ultima game. In fact, it is often referred to as “Ultima 0” and was even labeled as such when it was included in the Ultima Collection from 1998.

Akalabeth was the first game published by Richard Garriott (aka: Lord British). Originally only available on the Apple II, a fan-made DOS version of the game appeared on the internet sometime in the mid 90’s. A few years later, an official DOS port of the game was included with the Ultima Collection. These days, the game is available for free on the GOG platform. However, players should be aware that both DOS ports of the game come with their own issues.

The default version offered by GOG is the fan-made port. In many ways, this is the version that is most like the original Apple II release of Akalabeth. However, this release of the game also includes a nasty bug that can make the game un-winnable. (Basically, players are never given a bounty to kill. Thus, have no way to complete any objectives. This breaks the game completely). Once upon a time, there was a patch available to fix this bug. But these days it seems to have been lost to the antiquity of yesterday’s internet. Thankfully, the official port of the game does not have this problem. But it does not maintain the randomly generated levels found in the original release. Also, the 1998 version of the game includes the ability to save and reload your progress. This makes the game very exploitable and takes nearly all of the challenge out of the title. Also, the official version of the game includes color and a midi soundtrack that was lifted from Ultima III. These changes make many purists, like myself, cringe. Thankfully, both versions are actually available on GOG. (The 1998 port is included as a bonus download.) For the sake of this review, I did play the default GOG version. But I generally recommend the 1998 version to most people curious about the game.

The story for the game is simple. Not long ago, the world of Akalabeth was razed by an evil wizard named Mondain. A hero by the name of British rose up and drove the evil Mondain from the land. Now, having been crowned king, Lord British seeks adventurers brave enough to help him cleanse the land of any foul beasts that might still remain.

Akalabeth is one of the earliest CRPGs games ever to be made available. And despite appearing to be very basic in its design, it is surprisingly quite complex. When first starting the game, you will be asked to provide a “lucky number”. The number entered here actually serves as a seed of sorts. It helps generate the game’s maps and the character’s stats. Next, you will be prompted to enter a “level of play”. This is essentially the difficulty level for the game. Next up, you will be given a set of stats for your character and you will be asked to either accept them or re-roll. You can continue to re-roll stats for as long as you like until you find a set that seems acceptable, there’s no limit to the number of times you can try.

The game consists of four main screens; shops, the overworld, dungeons, and the castle. After creating your character, the first thing you will see is the shop screen. Here, you can spend your starting gold on a weapon and food. Buying lots of food is crucial in Akalabeth because every step your character takes consumes a bit of food. If you run out of food, you die. Essentially, most players will continue to re-roll their stats until they are given over 20 pieces of starting gold. Then they’ll buy a cheap weapon and spend the rest of the gold on food. If you neglect to buy any food, then you will die the instant you leave town. Brutal.

After leaving the shop, you will find yourself on a very archaic-looking overworld map. The next step in the game is locate a nearby dungeon, enter it, and kill monsters for gold. Each monster you slay will provide you with a few gold pieces. Once you have earned a significant amount of gold or once your food supply starts to run low, you will want to hightail it to the nearest shop so you can replenish your provisions. Once you are able to amass a small hoard of food, it is time to explore the overworld map in search of Lord British’s Castle. It’s also important to note, that each time you leave a dungeon, your character’s Hit Points will increase in accordance with the number of monsters slain.

Finding the castle is where the game really starts. From here, you begin a chain of quests. Each essentially requiring you to venture deeper into a dungeon in search of a specific monster. Once that monster is slain, you return to the castle to receive a new quest. Once you’ve slain all the monsters on Lord British’s list, you win the game.

When first exploring the overworld map, new players are often taken aback by the large number of shops and dungeons. The dirty little secret here is, they are all essentially the same. It doesn’t matter what shop or dungeon you enter, the contents never really change. So the real trick here is to simply find a shop and dungeon that are in close vicinity to Lord British’s castle and use only those locations to complete the game.

The dungeons themselves are where the real action takes place. Dungeons are presented in a crude 3D view, very similar to what you see in the early Wizardry games. Depending on which version of Akalabeth you are playing, the layout of the dungeon may change every time you exit and enter, or it may stay the same. Either way, it’s really not TOO difficult to navigate. The grid itself and the ladders leading up and down are always static. Only the location of the doors and the walls vary from level to level. I always recommend that players map out their journey on a piece of graph paper when playing to avoid getting hopelessly lost.

Being an older game, Akalabeth will certainly seem crude and undesirable to many modern gamers. It is definitely not a game most people these days will want to seek out. Personally, I enjoy older dungeon crawls like this. But then again, I grew up with them. I suspect that for many, this game would only serve as a curiosity. But, if you are adventurous and willing to take the time and patience needed to explore everything this game has to offer, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Difficulty: Hard –  If playing the game as intended, Akalabeth offers quite a challenge. Food management can be downright brutal as can many of the monster encounters. That being said, anyone willing to invest a little time in grinding should be able to boost their character to a point that makes the game manageable. If playing the 1998 version, it’s easy to cheese your way through entire game by exploiting a specific save/reload loophole thus reducing the game’s difficulty to nil.

Story: The game features a very barebones backstory. But considering the entire game really nothing more than a programming project by an ambitious high school student, this is forgivable.

Originality: When Garriott began designing this game, it was 1977. Despite being largely inspired D&D and Lord of the Rings, the concept of an RPG-style dungeon crawler was almost unheard of at the time. Some people like to argue that Akalabeth might actually be the first graphical RPG game ever made.

Soundtrack: The original game is silent and has no sound whatsoever. The 1998 release does include some basic noises and midi music (ripped from Ultima III), none of which are particularly impressive.

Fun: For most, this is a hard game to recommend. It’s random and tedious by today’s standards. Old grognards like me might appreciate it. But for the vast gaming population, Akalabeth is a pretty hard pill to swallow. Regardless, if you have a love for old school RPGs like Wizardry and Zork. This game might be worth a look.

Graphics: The graphics in this game are about as basic as you can get. But, for a game programmed entirely in BASIC, it’s actually quite impressive. The dungeons are white on black wireframe. As are the monsters and overworld map. Players on the Apple II get treated to the classic Apple II color palate. The 1998 remake also adds some basic colors to the text and wireframe models.

Playcontrol: The controls for this game are very antiquated by today’s standards, but they are easy enough to master. You control your character with the arrow keys and execute all other commands with various letters on the keyboard. Reading the manual is a must.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Both versions of this game are available today completely free of charge.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – This is a tough one to score. Personally, I really like this game a lot. It reminds me of the games I used to play when I young. But understandably, it would be very difficult for someone accustomed to modern games to wrap their head around something like this. I first encountered Akalabeth in 1998 when it was released as part of the Ultima Collection and I found it enjoyable then. Revisiting it now, I can still appreciate it. But, even I can admit it has not aged very well. This fact, combined with the technical problems of the fan-created port that is distributed by default make it a pretty tough recommendation.

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

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

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