Shroud of the Avatar

 

When it comes to classic CRPGs, few games can compare to the heralded Ultima series. It was a franchise that helped define a genre of games for generations to come. Crafted by the legendary Richard Garriott, each game that bore the Ultima title attempted to break new ground in nearly every aspect of gameplay. For many years, the series was successful at doing just that. However, corporate deadlines and economic pressure caused the later games in the series to suffer from a number of quality issues. Meanwhile, Ultima Online, the original ground-breaking MMO, saw unprecedented success. In fact, it still operates to this very day and continues to have a respectable-sized playerbase. But for fans of the single player games, time has not been as kind. It has been twenty years since the release of Ultima IX, and there’s little hope that fans will ever see another game that bears the Ultima name.

All is not lost. Longtime fans of the Ultima series should take notice! In 2013, Richard Garriott re-emerged with an announcement. He had started a new development studio and he planned to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a new game that would be the spiritual successor to Ultima. This game is Shroud of the Avatar. His plan was a bold one. Over the course of several years he would release a total of five episodes bearing the Shroud of the Avatar name. The first entry, Forsaken Virtues, entered alpha testing in 2014.

Being a Kickstarter project, the game was initially funded by fan-made donations. Backers would receive both early-access to the game as it was being developed, plus a final copy once the game was completed. Also, depending on the amount pledged, backers would also be rewarded with a number of exclusive perks (both digital and physical). The campaign was a success and Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues saw an official release in the spring of 2018.

On a personal note, I became aware of this game shortly after it was announced. But I did not contribute to the Kickstarter campaign. Instead, I chose to purchase the game once the early-access version went public on Steam. During those early days, I only spent a scant amount of time checking things out and getting a feel for how things worked. The game was changing drastically from month-to-month so I decided to put it on the back burner until things stabilized. (However, I could not resist logging on during the “end of the world” party, right before the game officially went live.) I didn’t give this game my full attention until fall of last year.

So, now that we’ve had a brief history behind Shroud of the Avatar, just what is this game all about. Well, that’s not such an easy question to answer. SotA is a very unique game. It’s a new game with an old feel. Even a cursory glance will reveal this to be a modern title. But, once you take a closer look, it becomes obvious that this game wasn’t designed with most modern players in mind. This is a very niche game. And its one that’s really only going to appeal to a very specific type of player. First of all, it doesn’t hold your hand. With a few rare exceptions, there’s no big obvious on-screen cues telling you where to go and what to do. Once you’ve completed the very short introductory level, you’re plunged headfirst into a vast open world – and you’re on your own.

The premise behind the game will be familiar to anyone who has experience with the Ultima series. You are “The Avatar”, a human from Earth who has come to a long-forgotten land. In this game, you find yourself in the world of Novia. Upon entering this new world, players will meet with a mysterious being known as The Oracle. The Oracle poses a series of questions to the player. The answers provided will determine which “path of virtue” the player will undertake. Essentially, this determines the player’s starting zone and first round of quests. Again, if you’ve played any of the old Ultima games, this will make you feel right at home.

One thing that modern players may find odd about this game is the amount of reading that takes place. Like the Ultima games that came before it, players are able to have conversations with NPCs. This means there’s lots of reading and even writing involved. Players will need to listen closely to the information provided by NPCs and even ask questions in order to uncover plot points or quest hooks. Aside from a few important breadcrumbs, almost all of the game’s sidequests will need to be uncovered through deep NPC interaction. It’s easy to miss most of the sidequests in the game if you ignore the NPCs. This may be off-putting to some, but personally, I really enjoy this sort of thing.

Also, unlike most modern RPGs, players are not assigned a specific class. Instead, experience points can be doled out to level up whatever abilities a player sees fit. Let’s say you have no interest in magic. Well, you can ignore magic all together and focus on just melee combat. Let’s say swords and axes are not your cup of tea, there’s always ranged weapons. Or, you can decide to mix and match – and go with a combo spellcaster/archer. It is entirely up to you, the player, on how you wish to develop your character. Again, this is something that I think is lacking from most modern games.

This open-ended feel is a main theme that permeates the majority of the game. SotA is very much a sandbox style game. You can loot corpses, pick up stray arrows, break barrels, steal food from the local tavern, whatever you like. Of course, actions have consequences (albeit weak ones).

Now would be a good time to mention another very interesting aspect to this game. When playing Shroud of the Avatar, you can choose to either play in a single player mode or with a multiplayer experience. Single player mode, is just that. You experience everything that game has offer by yourself. There’s no other real-world players to help you. Of course, this also means there’s no other players interfering as well. For some of the game’s harder content, you can recruit AI-controlled NPCs to join your party. It’s a nice touch, But, multiplayer mode is really the way this game was designed to be played.

SotA works best when played with others. You can interact with other players, form parties, join guilds, – everything you can do in other MMOs. Also, SotA features player-owned land. This is something the game really gets right. Taking a page from Ultima Online, players can build houses almost anywhere in the game world. These houses can be visited and seen by anyone playing the game. Aside from that, it is also possible for players to build entire towns and cities. These appear on the overworld map and can be entered by anyone. Many of these player-owned towns are designed with newbies in mind. (For example, The Outlander Welcome Center – a city designed to help gear up and teach new players the basics of the game)

Community is a very big part of Shroud of the Avatar. In fact, it sort of has to be. The game itself is… and, I hate to admit this, but it’s lacking in a large number of areas. The storyline content is pretty simplistic and easy to breeze through once you’ve gotten your feet wet and your head wrapped around the basics. The combat in the game may seem complex at first, but in reality, its mindless. On top of that, most of the enemies pose little challenge to experienced players. In a nutshell, at the present time, there’s really not a lot of “game” in Shroud of the Avatar. Most players engage in community driven activities to pass the time; dance parties, role playing, etc. It seems like the developers have caught on and actually embrace this. The new content being added to the game tends to focus on just this very thing.

When SotA initially launched, it operated on a buy-to-play model. But recently, the game has switched gears and is now completely free-to-play. Anyone can experience the full game at no charge. Of course, that means micro-transactions have been introduced. Thankfully, much of the paid DLC is social in nature; emotes, housing decor, etc. (Interestingly enough, all of which is available for free in the single player game). But there are a few exceptions. Additional character slots cost $5, you can purchase a special item that allows to participate in the Universal Chat channel for $3, just to name a couple. SotA has also become famous for some its insanely expensive cash-shop items. Want to change your character’s name? That will be $25. Want a deed to a fancy player-owned town? That will be a whopping $500!

I understand that something as unique as owning persistent virtual real estate is going to come at a cost. But, some of the pricing just seems over the top. Many players have also expressed concern over just how money-hungry the development team seems to be. What worries me most about the situation is that it doesn’t seem to stem from greed. But rather from necessity. If we’re being honest, the company behind Shroud of the Avatar is not doing so good. When Portalarium Inc. first announced the game, they were rolling in donated cash. They did the right thing and took that money and invested it into the game. However, slow development and deteriorating public support has taken its toll on the company. First came the layoffs, then the developers announced they had shuttered their physical offices and now work on the game exclusively from home. If we’re being completely honest, this is NOT a good sign. It’s taken five years to bring the SotA to its current state. There’s supposed to be four more episodes of content in the coming years… I really don’t see that happening. In my opinion, this is a game that’s on life support. I would not at all be surprised if by the end of the year, development on the game ends completely.  Thankfully, if that actually occurs, there’s always the single player mode – so it won’t be a complete bust.

So, with all that being said, is Shroud of the Avatar worth your time? Well, if you’re an old Ultima Online grognard, or a fan of classic CRPGs, then yes. You owe it to yourself to take a look. The game is free so there’s nothing at all to lose. But, if you grew up on MMOs like World of Warcraft, you’re going to be in for a shock. Shroud of the Avatar will prove to provide quite a steep learning curve. The only other real obstacle this game presents comes in the form of technical issues. SotA does have a tendency to be somewhat crashy. How much so varies greatly from release to release. Also, the game feels largely un-optimized. Players with older machines should expect to suffer from poor performance. Despite these issues, there’s actually a lot to enjoy with this game. My recommendation is to forget everything you think you know about fantasy RPGS and go into the experience with an open mind. Take your time, don’t rush. Explore the in-game lore. Read (or even write!) books found around the game world. Participate in the community events and get to know other players. Despite from rather iffy game design, SotA offers some very unique community-focused gameplay. This what online interaction was like back in the old days. And I have to admit, it is something a part of me missed greatly. In that regard, my hats are off to Portalarium. I hope my concerns are wrong. I want this game to be successful. Despite its flaws, there’s a lot to love in the world of Novia.

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 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

 

 

Review: Ultima VI – The False Prophet

My review of the final chapter in the second Ultima trilogy is finally here! Yes, it took a bit longer than initially expected. But I’m proud to finally share my thoughts on Ultima VI: The False Prophet. As mentioned above, this game serves as the final entry in what is often known as the “Age of Enlightenment Trilogy” (the sub-series that began with the classic Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.)

So far, every entry in the Ultima series has always managed to showcase some of the most cutting-edge technology of its day. The same is true for Ultima VI. But this time, we actually see the biggest advancement in the series so far. This is largely due to the fact that Ultima VI was developed specifically for the PC. All other games in the franchise were first developed for Apple and then ported to other platforms. The end result of this decision is a title that features full VGA graphics, a native MIDI soundtrack (for PCs equipped with soundcards), and even a revamped UI -Complete with mouse support! Like Ultima V, this entry also allows players to import their character from the previous scenario.

Back in the day, only the very best PC would be able to experience Ultima VI in all of its glory. At the time of Ultima VI‘s release, sound cards were not standard issue in PCs. So a vast number of players never got experience the game’s soundtrack . Thankfully, players today are able to experience the game as originally intended if acquiring a copy from GOG. As always, GOG does a great job of configuring DOS Box emulation so that the game is delivered almost flawlessly.

This game takes place several years after the events of Ultima V. Once again, players assume the role of The Avatar – a man from Earth who found his destiny in another world known as Britannia. Typically, The Avatar travels to Britannia using a magical blue-colored portal that appears not far from his home. However, one night during a mysterious storm, lighting strikes the site where the portal appears. The Avatar ventures to the scene to investigate and finds an unusual red-colored portal waiting for him. Upon emerging on the other side, The Avatar is accosted by a band of monstrous gargoyle-like creatures. Just as he about to meet his doom, he is rescued by companions from the previous Ultima games and take refuge in Castle Britannia.

The Avatar learns that the Gargoyles have only recently appeared in Britannia. In the short time since their arrival, they have captured several of the world’s Shrines of Virtue. The Avatar is tasked by Lord British to determine the reason behind the invasion and to help restore order to Britannia. Over the course of the game, they player will learn the truth behind the gargoyle’s presence and discover that not everything is as it seems.

As you can see, Ultima VI continued the series’ trend of excellent storytelling. As usual, this game takes what seems to be a black and white scenario and surprises the player with a level of insight and morality that simply just wasn’t seen in games at the time.

As I mentioned earlier, this game showcases a huge advancement in technology when compared with its predecessor. We now have a game world that is virtually seamless and maintains a constant scale. That’s right, no more zoomed-out overworld map. No more first-person dungeons. Everything is now presented in a colorfully rendered birds-eye view. But the enhancements are not just visual. There’s a number of revamps that make this Ultima much easier to play and control. For example, managing equipment has never been easier. Items possessed by characters now appear visually and can be clicked on and manipulated. This is important because for the first time in the series, we also have a new crafting option. Items can be combined and merged to create new, different items. Being able to do this via a point-and-click UI is a must. But that’s not all. Even talking to NPCs has been enhanced – there’s now an animated headshot of the character you are interacting with and keywords in the conversation are now highlighted and clickable. All of this may sound basic these days. But at the time, these were some really revolutionary advancements.

Since the game can now be controlled via mouse, the UI has evolved to accommodate this change. A panel of action buttons appears across the bottom of the screen. These allow players to execute any number of commands; such as drawing their weapon, picking up objects, inspecting objects, etc. Of course, players can still use the keyboard if they choose – and in fact will need to do so occasionally when talking to NPCs. But no longer will players have to memorize a slew of hotkeys and commands. This, in my opinion, is the best thing that could have happened to the Ultima series.

Like some of the previous games in the series, Ultima VI is largely an open world game. But this time, the level of “openness” is taken to a whole new level. Now, players can pretty much venture anywhere they see fit and experience the game at their own leisure. This is a good thing because Ultima VI is beast of a game. Being open-world makes it much easier to tackle a game of this size without it feeling like an endless grind.

All of these changes really make Ultima VI shine. Plus, it paves the way for what’s about to come down the pike with later installments.

Difficulty: Medium –  I’ve heard it said that Ultima VI is one of the harder titles in the series. Personally, I don’t find this to be the case. To me, it seemed much easier than most. For example, one of the features in the game is being able to travel around via a magical item called the Orb of the Moons. With this item, its very easy to simply travel to Lord British’s castle for healing pretty much whenever needed. Plus, the game itself just seems to be much more forgiving overall.

Story: The storyline is again one of the best parts of the game. The introduction scenes are masterpieces and it only gets better from there.

Originality: Just when the series was starting to feel a little stale, the developers stepped up and provide an entirely new experience. Everything from the UI to the overall feel of the game is new and improved.

Soundtrack: Ultima VI has a basic midi soundtrack. As such, the quality can vary depending on how your sound card handles MIDI playback. Regardless, the music is catchy and timeless.

Fun: For CRPG lovers, it doesn’t get any better than this. This game has it all: classic RPG elements, engaging gameplay, an open world – you name it. If that’s your cup of tea, Ultima VI is one heck of a ride.

Graphics: Ultima VI marks a drastic upgrade in terms of graphics. Of course, the game looks pretty rough by today’s standards. But when compared to what came before, its easy to see just how far the developers came in such a short time.

Playcontrol: For the first time in the series we now have a point-and-click UI. This makes controlling the game much more intuitive. Unfortunately, the default emulation of DOS Box does seem to introduce a little bit of lag to the mouse on modern systems. This isn’t terrible, but it does take a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Fantasy violence.

Value:  Ultima VI 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 VI is again, one of my favorite entries in the series. It was released in a time when CRPGs were reaching their golden age and it shows. Ultima VI takes everything that made the series great and blended it with a number of new ideas and design changes that really put it in a class of its own.

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 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    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Review: Ultima IV – Quest of the Avatar

Continuing right along with my playthrough of the Ultima series, we’re brought to the fourth entry in the franchise – the heralded Quest of the Avatar. To say that this game was groundbreaking is an understatement. Just as Ultima III set the bar for CRPGs for decades to come, Ultima IV took what was now a tried and true formula and dared to push the boundary even further. For what might very well be the first time in a CRPG, the goal of the game did not revolve around defeating an evil monster or rescuing a princess. Instead, the purpose of Ultima IV is self-improvement. Simply put, to be the best person you can be.

The game is set ages after the original trilogy. After the events of Ultima III, a time of peace and enlightenment graced the world of Sosaria. Now under the gentle rule of Lord British, the world has now been renamed, Britannia. Concerned that citizens of this world might grow complacent, British created a trial of sorts. A quest to obtain the pinnacle of virtue. Whomever could manage to complete this quest would be dubbed the “Avatar” – a model citizen for all others to emulate. It is this quest that the player will undertake.

The game begins with the player answering a series of moral questions. Players are encouraged to answer these honestly, according to their own moral compass. The game then takes the answers provided by the player and assigns an appropriate starting class.

To get the most out of the game, I highly encourage that players read and answer the questions according to their own personal beliefs. Too often, people will look up guides online to try to get the starting class they want. But, Ultima IV is a game that really focuses on spiritual growth and as cheesy as it sounds, you can actually get quite a lot out of the game by following it through to completion. With this in mind, I suggest going into the game as blind as possible (especially for first-time players).

So what does all this mean? Does this imply there’s no fighting or violence in Ultima IV? No. But for the first time in the series, actions have consequences. No longer can you mindlessly steal weapons and armor from shops, or mow down weak creatures for no reason at all. You must approach the game from a standpoint of virtue. Only attack evil creatures or fight in self-defense. If an evil monster tries to flee from combat, let it run instead of stabbing it in the back, etc. By conducting yourself in a moral way, your character will continue to rise in virtue. This is the only way to complete the game.

Like Ultima III, this is a party-based RPG. But you only create a single character at the start, the rest are NPCs that are recruited along the way. As you explore the game and talk to various townspeople, you will meet the rest of your party members over time. In fact, talking to NPCs is really the key to success in this game. Without doing so, you’ll have no way of learning where to go or what to do. Taking notes is a must in Ultima IV.

The game itself is very open-ended. Players are free to explore gameworld as they see fit. One huge difference in Ultima IV compared to other entries in series is travel. Yes, you can travel on foot and sail by ship. But one of the main modes of transportation is by “moongate”. Similar to the time gates from Ultima II, these are basically portals that appear in various locations according to the phase of the moon. Moving through a moongate will warp the player to a completely different area. Learning the locations and destinations of these moongates is also crucial to the success of the game.

Another big change to the series that was introduced in this game is the magic system. In Ultima IV, spells are cast using a variety of reagents. So players must always be sure to keep enough spell components on hand if they want to be able to use magic. Spells and the reagents needed are often learned by talking to NPCs. So again, note taking is a must for this game. This is a concept that is likely foreign to many younger gamers. But for us old grognards, this was a way of life.

Despite many of these new concepts, the rest of Ultima IV will feel familiar to fans of the series. There’s still monsters to fight, weapons and armor to buy, and dungeons to explore. But where this game shines is in its radical approach to character development and storytelling. As a result it remains my favorite entry in the original series.

When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

Difficulty: Hard –  When played as intended, Ultima IV is surprisingly difficult. Players will really need to think before they act, take extensive notes, and think outside of the box. Patience is required to master a game like this. That being said, if you sit down with a walkthrough the game is ridiculously easy.

Story: The storyline is the really where this game stood above all its peers. Throwing out all of the standard tropes and cliques really gave this title a unique and engaging story to enjoy.

Originality: This game is the direct result of Richard Garriott’s willingness to buck the system and do something different. Against the advice of many in the industry, he insisted on making Ultima IV a game that focuses on spiritual growth. By doing so, he created a title that will forever stand out as one of the greatest games of all time.

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: If approached with a patient mindset and the willingness to learn, Ultima IV is a very rewarding and entertaining game. Younger players who are used to the hand-holding of today’s titles will likely have a tough time wrapping their mind around a title like this. But there’s a lot to love in Ultima IV if you’re willing to open your mind to it.

Graphics: The base graphics in the DOS version are very similar to what’s seen in Ultima Trilogy. However, there is a patch that provides enhanced VGA graphics.  My screenshots show the game with these enhancements applied. Patched tiles aside, the biggest change to the game’s graphics come in the form of opening and closing artwork. Even though it appears simply by today’s standards, the full color scenes that are displayed at the beginning of the game were absolutely cutting edge at the time.

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 awkward commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  You’d think that a game as legendary at Ultima IV might still command a premium price. But, you’d be wrong. In fact, Ultima IV is available free of charge to everyone. The easiest way to get your hands on it is through GOG, but it is also available elsewhere online at no charge. With this in mind, there’s no reason not to give this classic game a try.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima IV is the Ultima game to play. This game was revolutionary in a way that’s hard to explain today. There was simply nothing like it. This game captivated me when I was young and I daresay it actually helped make me into a better person. I recommend this game to anyone who is looking for something different and willing to take the time and patience to master it.

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 III – Exodus

My review for the third game in the Ultima trilogy is here! That’s right, today I’m going to be talking about Ultima III: Exodus. This is a game that’s important for a number of reasons (not just important to the Ultima series, but for the entire CRPG genre as a whole). Ultima III laid the groundwork for, and established a number of design concepts that still remain staples in modern RPGs today. It is arguably the grandfather of all modern role playing games.

When playing Ultima III there are a number of ports and versions to choose from. However, most players today will likely end up with the DOS version of the game. This, like all of the games in the series, is available on GOG. The original DOS release is probably one of the better looking versions of the game, but it does not include the midi soundtrack that is present on most other platforms. Thankfully, this is easily corrected via a popular fan-made patch “Ultima Patcher“. This patch offers a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

Ultima III is final title in the original Ultima Trilogy. As such, it brings an end to overall story of the two prior games in the series. In this entry, it is discovered that Mondain and Minax spawned a “child” – a mysterious entity known only as “Exodus”. Exodus has began its assault on the land of Sosaria from its lair. The player is summoned by Lord British to put an end to the terror.

Unlike the other games in the series so far, you do not control a single character. Instead, you now have a party of up to four player-characters to control. When creating new characters, there are a number of race and class options to choose from. Players can select between Human, Elf, Dwarf, Fuzzy, or Bobbit when it comes to race, and Fighter, Paladin, Wizard, Cleric, Thief, Ranger, Barbarian, Lark, Druid, Illusionist, or Alchemist for classes. Each class specializes in a certain style of play. For example, Fighters can use any weapons and armor, but have no spellcasting ability. Other classes, like Alchemist, have access to a limited list of weapons and spells. It’s up to the player to determine what combination of races and classes they find most beneficial. Of course, the key is to strive for balance when setting up your party. A good party will consist of attackers, support characters, and magic users.

Party-based RPGs were not a new concept. The Wizardry games are all based on this idea. But Ultima III was the first game to combine party-based tactics with the overhead exploration that the other entries in the Ultima series made famous. The end result was nothing short of amazing. Bringing together these two styles of role playing games marked the beginning of a new era and set the standard for years to come.

Of course, Ultima III also stays true to many of core concepts that made the series famous. Players are still able to explore the overhead world, towns and various dungeons. This time, dungeons are not randomly generated. Instead they now consist of unique, pre-designed maps. Also, in this game, dungeons actually have a larger purpose! That’s right, for the first time in the series, players will find the practice of dungeon-delving beneficial. Several of the dungeons found in Ultima III contain special items that are required to complete the game. This means that exploring them is a must, but also rather fun. (Better get that graph paper out!).

For many, myself included, Ultima III was the first game in the series that really captured their attention. Of course, the game really shows its age these days. But its impressive just how well it holds up. It’s the perfect blend of dungeon crawler and overhead CRPGs. This is the game that started it all.

Difficulty: Medium –  Ultima III is not nearly as difficult as the prior games in the series if you’re willing to a do a little grinding. They key here is stick to overworld battles in the beginning – as they scale in difficulty with your character level. Then, once you’ve toughened up a bit, you can venture into the dungeons. As long as you’re willing to grind, you can stay ahead of the difficulty  curve.

Story: As always with the Ultima series, the storyline here is fairly well done. The big twist comes with the reveal of what “Exodus” actually is. I won’t spoil it here, but it really makes puts a nice little cherry on top of an already good game.

Originality: This game takes elements from other popular CRPGs and mixes them masterfully with the existing Ultima formula. The end result is a game that quite literally became the template for nearly all other RPGs for the next decade.

Soundtrack: As noted above, the vanilla DOS version of the game does not include audio. However, patches are available to add the midi soundtrack to 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 me, this is the shining jewel in the original Ultima Trilogy. It just doesn’t get any better than this. I used to enjoy experimenting with different class combinations, learning the ins-and-outs of everything. If you enjoy older RPGS, this is one that should provide hours of entertainment.

Graphics: The base graphics in the DOS version are very similar to what’s seen in Ultima I. However, there is a patch that provides enhanced graphics.  My screenshots show the game with these enhancements applied. The biggest upgrade to the game’s graphics come in the form of 3D-style dungeons. This time, instead of being black and white wireframes, the dungeon walls now features colors. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it adds quite a bit of atmosphere.

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, the new classes and abilities make for a large number of awkward commands to learn. It certainly takes a little getting used to.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: None.

Value:  Ultima III is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. This game alone is worth the six dollars.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 4 – Ultima III is nothing short of legendary. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, its hard not admire a game of this stature. While it doesn’t hold up quite as well today as some other titles, it still stands the test of time fairly well. If you’re interested in Ultima, but find the first two entries a little too archaic for your tastes, Ultima III might be the best starting point in the series.

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 II – The Revenge of the Enchantress

After the success of Ultima, the development of a sequel was a no-brainer. This time, Richard Garriott took the concepts that made the original Ultima great and tried to expand them even further. The end result is a very ambitious game, but one that ended up feeling like a bit of a mess in the end. (I’ll explain what I mean in a bit).

Ultima II is a direct sequel to the original. After the death of the wizard Mondain, it is discovered that he had a secret apprentice – a young enchantress named Minax. To seek revenge for her master’s death, Minax travel back to the origin of time and sends armies of her minions to various points in history. The twist here is that she does not seek her revenge in the land of Sosaria. Instead, she decides to turn her attention towards Earth (now revealed to be origin world of both Lord British and the game’s hero). As expected, the player assumes the role of a mysterious hero who agrees to enter one of the time doors in hopes of putting an end to Minax’s reign of terror.

When playing this title today, the GOG version seems to work best with modern hardware. But even then, it is highly recommended that you apply the patches contained in the “Ultima Patcher“. These offer a variety of improvements to the game, while still maintaining the original vision of the developers.

For the most part, Ultima II plays very similar to the original. The majority of the game takes place in the overworld map or in various towns/villages. All of the mechanics from the original game are present. But this time, the player can also travel to various points in history. This is done using special “time doors”. When a player enters a time door, he will emerge in another place and time.  The eras available to visit are as follows: The Time of Legends (the origin of all time), Pangea (approx 300 million years ago), B.C. (approx 1400), A.D. (1990), and The Aftermath (a post apocalyptic era).

The majority of game is simply jumping between eras to find various items. The overworld map is littered with various towers and dungeons, but for the most part they play a very little role in this adventure. Once you’ve reached a certain point, you will also be able to travel to various planets in the solar system. In fact, visiting “Planet X” is crucial to completing the game.  (Important note: a bug in the DOS version of game prevents players from visiting most planets in the solar system. However, this can be corrected via a fan-made patch.)

The one really unique thing about Ultima II is just how open it is. Right from the get-go players are able to explore a vast majority of the game and interact with NPCs. These days, this concept is not particularly unusual. But in 1982, it was almost unheard of.

All of this sounds like the making for a really great and innovative game. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Despite being based on some pretty groundbreaking concepts, Ultima II is largely a big fat dud. There’s just very little in the game that actually engages players. If anything, I think the game is actually TOO open and offers little to no guidance. Even reading the game’s manual doesn’t really point the player in the right direction to get started.

To make matters worse, despite having a plethora of content to explore, hardly any of it is required to actually complete the game. Nor does the character benefit in any real way from participating in any of it. For example, aside from collecting a single item, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever for a player to enter any of the game’s dungeons. The same is true when it comes to exploring the various planets in the solar system. Only one planet has anything of interest, and the player needs only spend about a minute of time there. It’s really a shame. There’s so much potential wasted.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the game just… sucks. When compared with the original Ultima, Ultima II just isn’t even on the same playing field. All of this really makes Ultima II a tough game to recommend to anyone but the most hardcore fans of the series.

Difficulty: Hard –  Ultima II is considerably difficult to complete without the use of a walkthrough or without abusing the save/reload feature. However, as is the case with other games in the series thus far, it’s quite simple to abuse the game’s mechanics – making the game much easier than it should be.

Story: As far as storylines go, Ultima II has a pretty interesting set-up. The idea of merging the gameworld with the real world is interesting. As is the concept of traveling through various eras of time. In my opinion, the story for Ultima II is better than the game itself.

Originality: Despite taking issue with the game itself, I have to admit that when it comes to originality, Ultima II is worthy of praise. So many unique concepts are introduced here, it’s really a travesty that the game ended up being of such poor quality.

Soundtrack: Like the previous entry in the series, Ultima II is limited to basic taps, beeps and bloops. Nothing much to get excited about, but this was par for the course in the early days.

Fun: Even the grittiest, most hardcore CRPG grognards are going to have a tough time claiming that they actually enjoy this game. The game itself is just not very entertaining. For me, I found the various mechanics and concepts introduced to very interesting. But the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

Graphics: If you’re comparing the graphics in this game to the original Apple II version of Ultima, then Ultima II is a notch better. But when compared to the 1986 re-release of Ultima, it’s actually a step backwards.

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:  Ultima II is included in the “Ultima I, II and III” bundle on GOG for a mere $5.99. Despite being an iffy game, the price for this bundle is still well worth it.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – Ultima II is a game with some serious flaws. But, I have to give Garriott credit; He had a vision for the game and for the most part, he was able to achieve it. Even if the game itself is lackluster, Richard Garriott still managed to create something unique and interesting. All that aside, I must admit that Ultima II is a pretty bad game. I can only really recommend it to most dedicated of Ultima fans. Even then, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

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