Retro Review: Ultima VII: Forge of Virtue

Ultima VII’s expansion is great in many ways, but it has an unfortunate tendency to ruin the challenge of the main game. It is an old-school expansion, with its content accessible almost immediately, and the rewards are far too powerful to be available so early in the game. Complete Forge of Virtue, and your Avatar will be an unstoppable wrecking machine even if he’s still level 3.

On the upside, Forge of Virtue does fix one problem with the leveling system of Ultima VII – since the Avatar is the only party member who can use magic, he is the only party member who needs Intelligence and Magic training, thus splitting his limited training points among five stats instead of everyone else’s 3. As a result, you are either going to be generally underpowered, or very bad at certain things. Forge of Virtue, however, makes training irrelevant by giving you max stats. For this reason, and the balance issues I mentioned earlier, the whole expansion works a lot better if you do it at the end of the game rather than the beginning.

As for the content itself, this is very much an expansion you’ll only fully enjoy the first time. There are major puzzle aspects to all three of the Tests of Principles which make up the bulk of the expansion, as well as the final quest, and figuring out what to do is most of the fun. One test is a simple puzzle involving conversation, a bit of reading, and a tiny bit of exploration. Another involves a huge and complicated maze with many false finishes. The only puzzle that involves much beyond simple reasoning skills is the aptly named Test of Courage.

The only reason you may not be able to complete the expansion early in the game is because of the Test of Courage, a dungeon whose denizens are only rivaled by a handful of dungeons in the main game. You’ll have quite a bit of fighting to do, along with a little simple puzzle solving (find the switch, find the key, etc.), but the main appeal of this test is the real prize of the Forge of Virtue: the Black Sword.

I won’t spoil what the Black Sword is if you haven’t played the game (well, it’s a sword, duh), but suffice it to say, it’s a fun weapon. In addition to being quite powerful, it has special powers, and you even get to forge it yourself (to a degree) using the instructions available in the main game, which don’t actually work anywhere but here.

As far as the story of the Forge of Virtue goes, there isn’t much plot, but what’s there is kind of interesting, especially if you’ve played Ultima III. The only human NPC in the expansion is quite amusing, and has a lot to say about all of the interesting (albeit evil) artifact you’ve destroyed in your career as the Avatar. And the daemon in the mirror is quite fun as well. But this is a story wholly detached from the main plot of Ultima VII – you come to power yourself up, not to expand the story, which is a bit disappointing.

All in all, the Forge of Virtue is a pretty good expansion, which is a good thing since it’s almost impossible to find a version of the game without it these days. The only downside is that the Isle of Fire it adds to the world map takes up quite a bit of space on the open seas, and can be a pain to sail around. If you’re looking to play the game in “easy mode,” this is a good way to do it, and if you’re not, it’s simple enough to put off your adventures here until later. Just don’t expect much of an RPG experience.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Ultima VII: The Black Gate

The Ultima series began as nonlinear, almost open world RPGs. It ended with a series of linear, story-driven games. In the happy middle, a few games in the series – starting with Warriors of Destiny and ending with The Black Gate – managed to really nail both the open-world and story aspects of this evolution. But Ultima VII is special because not only was the design in nearly perfect balance, for the first time the technology was advanced enough to offer really immersive gameplay – and not yet so advanced that the illusion of the truly open world was shattered.

Truth be told, taken as a story compared with your typical novel, Ultima VII isn’t all that special. It is 200 Britannian years after the events of Ultima VI, and the world has for the most part moved on the Eight Virtues. A new organization called the Fellowship hopes to unite the people of the world, but it quickly becomes clear that they are not so benevolent as they would have you believe. But the story works not because of its originality or narrative strength, but because it really involves you (as the Avatar) in the world. Sure it’s obvious the Fellowship is up to no good, but even within the context of the game, there isn’t much you can do about it aside from figuring out what they’re up to and putting a stop to it. You do it because you care, not because someone tells you to.

And therein lies Ultima VII’s single greatest flaw. If you don’t care, either about the story or about your role as the Avatar, the game loses focus quickly. The immersion of this game is built on a house of cards. If you’re not particularly interested in tracking down those responsible for the gruesome murder that starts the game, and aren’t very good at The Game, it may be quite some time before you stumble on to the actual plot. It’s all there, and it’s spelled out quite explicitly if you look for it, but you do have to look for it. This is a game where very nearly the entire world is open to you from the start (and you’re only an easily accessed flying carpet from opening the rest), and aside from the starting plotline, there is no handholding here. The game requires you to buy in, but pays off in spades if you do so.

So far all I’ve really done is criticize the game, which may make my score seem surprising. Flaws aside, Ultima VII is the best western RPG I’ve ever played. I enjoyed it when it came out and had no contextual background in the series, I loved it in college when I played through with a better understanding, and loved it even more when I played it again, for the first time having played every previous game in the series. The game just keeps getting better.

So what’s so great? Well, I’ve mentioned how immersive the game is. The engine, despite being old enough to vote, is still great at what it does. For the first time in the series, the game is entirely mouse-driven, with no static on-screen UI at all. You can poke and prod things, and most behave as you would expect. Hell, you can even bake bread. (Just don’t try to forge a sword…) People react to what you say and do, and if you kill someone, they stay dead. Of course, the game is not great at reacting if you do something unexpected. Aside from calling the guards if they are a witness, NPCs won’t react if you kill a random townsperson. (Though they usually react if you kill someone for plot reasons.) Not that you should be killing random townspeople. That’s not very virtuous!

Combat is a relatively weak point of the game, but it’s also not really the point. You’re only forced into one dungeon with especially tough enemies, and all you need to do while there is walk in and walk out. You’ll gain the majority of your experience points through (non-violent) quests. But the combat isn’t actually bad per se, it just has a number of annoying flaws. The biggest of these is that ranged weapons are terribly inaccurate and if you give a party member a powerful weapon like a juggernaut hammer, they will likely kill you more often than the monsters. This is greatly alleviated by using the “flank” attack mode, but that encourages your party to stray far afield and possibly get themselves killed without you noticing. They will also drop items when fleeing from combat, which is annoying at best, and game-breaking at worst. The general rule of thumbs is never to give your companions plot items. And the game is stingy with information on how combat actually works, which isn’t helpful if you, like me, are used to the twinked out character customization that makes JRPG’s so enjoyable.

That said, if you’re prepared to deal with its flaws, combat can be a lot of fun. There are numerous dungeons and treasure caves across the world which have no plot relevance, but are great places to earn experience and treasure. There is a wide variety of spells which are quite a lot of fun to play with. Many dungeons feature devious traps and puzzles (though I’m not sure if “infinitely respawning dragons” counts as a trap per se). Areas off the beaten path are filled with interesting tidbits about the world, and there’s more Ultima fan service than you can shake an ankh at.

But all in all, Ultima VII is just good. It’s not easy to put the exact reasons into words, but this game has everything I want from a western RPG. You can as easily follow the plot with gusto as spend an afternoon reading books in the Lycaeum. Sure, the game is dated, and modern RPGs handle many aspects of it with more technical proficiency, but as games have grown more complex, worlds have become less interactive. Ultima VII predates the times of generic townspeople you can’t speak to – everyone in U7 not only has a place of work, they also have individual homes, eat dinner at the local pub, and so on. The world exists without you, but you can still interact with it, and that’s a feeling I haven’t had in a game since. Well, since Ultima VII Part 2, at least.

Review Score: A+

Retro Review: Ultima VI: The False Prophet

Ultima VI is a crossroads in the Ultima series. It is the first game to include a mouse-driven interface, as well as the first to do away with differing scales between the world map and towns and dungeons. It tries very hard to be something new and unique, and it succeeds – but it takes a long time in getting there.

More than any other game in the series, Ultima VI allows you to abuse foreknowledge of the game. The main culprit in this regard is the Orb of the Moons, an item you get at the start of the game which lets you instantly teleport to the majority of important locations in the game. It’s not hard to start relying on the Orb, even without a guide, and this has the effect of making the world seem very small. In a way this is a good thing, as the single-scale world actually is quite small, but the Orb’s ability to replace travel can make it seem physically larger even though getting around quickly is no problem.

The first half of the game works like previous Ultimas: you go from town to town, talking to the people and solving their problems. Your main quest is to free the eight shrines, and the process for each is basically the same. Though it’s a familiar process, it feels tired and old, and you just want to get to the point after a while.

Of course, Ultima VI does get to the point (eventually), and that’s when it begins to shine. Suddenly the world-shrinking Orb of the Moons is enabling quests spanning the world like they do in no Ultima before or since. Several times you are asked to create something and will require the help of craftsmen and scholars from many towns, based on the information gathered talking to them previously.

The plot also comes together at this point. The game begins with your abduction at the hands of a group of gargoyles intent on ritually sacrificing you, and your primary goal is to defeat their race. As time wears on, though, it becomes clear that the gargoyles are not evil, and perhaps not even wrong, and you’re caught between obeying your liege and doing what is right. Your climactic journey to the gargoyle city is enabled by one of the more interestingly heroic acts I’ve seen in a video game.

While Ultima VI has its touches of brilliance, it has its flaws, and it most definitely shows its age. The game introduced NPC portraits, but they are low-res and often quite ugly. The mouse interface barely works (though thankfully it is optional), and some simple actions are a chore. Combat ranges from simple to extremely difficult with little ground in the middle, and its strange turn structure can be confusing.

These flaws hold Ultima VI back and make it the weakest link of the Age of Enlightenment trilogy (4-6), but U6 is a game worth playing if only because it nicely bridges the storyline of the series between the superlative games, Ultima V and Ultima VII. Ultima V started the series off towards a more narrative story, and Ultima VII is well-constructed but linear, but Ultima VI strikes a perfect balance between the two. Sadly it only strikes this balance after quite a bit of flailing around seeking its own identity.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny

Ultima V’s subtitle has always bothered me. Each other game in the series has an obvious and meaningful title: “Quest of the Avatar” is self-explanatory, “the Black Gate” is an actual object, and so on. ”Warriors of Destiny” never seemed to mean anything, even after finishing the game, until I gave it a good deal of thought. The heroes of the previous Ultima games were not connected (until later revisions in continuity), and Ultima V marked the first time you were returning to Britannia as the Avatar. The plot couldn’t be simpler: Lord British has gone missing during an expedition to the underworld, one of his trusted associates has become a corrupt king in his absence, and you need to find and save him. To do this, you will form a band composed largely of your companions from Ultima IV, plus a few newcomers, and adventure across the land and back again searching for clues and then finally your liege lord. It is from this that the name “Warriors of Destiny” comes. In Ultima IV you became the Avatar, but in Ultima V you save the world and fulfill your role as a champion not only of virtue, but of Britannia (a theme which is central to all of the games that follow).

The story of Ultima V harkens back to a very different time in RPG design. Even western RPGs tend to be very linear these days, with the concept of choice often coming in the form of moral decisions. Ultima V eschews choice entirely – you must be virtuous, and you have a singular mission – but instead leaves the story itself up to you. There is a short list of things you must do, but in what order you do them and even how you find out that you need to will differ depending on what you do. Your primary method of advancing the plot is by speaking to townsfolk, and most of the major towns are open to you at the start of the game. Indeed, you can beat the game very quickly using a walkthrough, but more so than any modern RPG, doing so entirely defeats the purpose of playing the game.

Another interesting aspect of Ultima V that sets it apart from other games, even within the Ultima series, is that of consequences, both good and bad. If you are captured by the corrupt Lord Blackthorn, he will put you to the question, and both giving in and resisting will have serious consequences (in the latter case, the permanent death of a party member). But also, one of your primary goals in the game is to defeat the three evil Shadowlords that corrupted Blackthorn in the first place, and your incentive to do so is more than just plot. On any given day, each Shadowlord will be in one of the eight main towns, influencing the people and making quests difficult or impossible to complete, and threatening you with nigh-unwinnable combat. This can be extremely frustrating, but it makes the defeat of each Shadowlord that much more satisfying.

As far as gameplay, Ultima V takes the Ultima IV engine and tweaks it, adding a lot of detail to the world and giving you more power to interact with it. The party size is reduced from 8 to a more manageable six, and there are a number of potential recruits across the world in three different classes (fighter, bard, and mage). The game adds a number of mechanics that would become Ultima staples, chief among them the Words of Power for spells. Because you actually cast spells in combat using these words, you actually find yourself referring to them as An Nox or Vas Flam instead of Cure Poison or Fireball, which is pretty cool.

The game, while amazing, is not without flaws. While combat in Ultima IV was not terribly difficult, you will learn to hate daemons and dragons in Ultima V. Nearly impossible to defeat without the use of a certain plot item (an item, I might add, that there’s no guarantee you’ll get before meeting any in combat), even with their nastiest powers negated they are still brutal foes. I found myself using An Xen Ex (Charm) on dragons in the last few dungeons not only to thin their numbers, but because a single dragon can dish out more damage than the rest of my party. And while the power of Magic Axes is much-heralded by U5 fans, I found that ranged weapons in general (including two-square weapons like halberds) were often more trouble than they were worth because they frequently target the wrong square, sometimes even hitting allies.

The largest failing of Ultima V is in its early game, which will quickly turn off many modern gamers even if the ancient graphics do not. In an old Ultima tradition, you will spend the early game broke and starving, except this time you will often run into Shadowlords in town who make it impossible to achieve anything. If you’re familiar with the game mechanics, you’ll know that the best solution is to simply spend all day resting (which oddly does not consume food), but if you’re like me you may just give up on the whole thing. To do so would be a mistake, though, as playing this game is a fantastic experience you don’t want to miss out on.

Brutal combat and early game woes aside, Ultima V is a masterpiece. I’ve always loved Ultima IV despite its regimented and repetitive structure, but Ultima V takes everything good about that game and applies it to a worthwhile story. For the first time in the series, Britannia feels like a real living world rather than a contrived set of towns that exist only to educate you about the Eight Virtues. And it’s a world you can easily lose yourself in, looking for just one more clue in your quest to save Britannia.

Review Score: A+

Retro Review: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar

Ultima IV is in every way the defining game of the series. It introduces the concept (and if you ignore the revisionist history, the character) of the Avatar, along with the eight virtues, Britannia, and a host of other concepts that do not change for the remainder of the Ultima saga. And best of all, it’s been released as freeware, so you should go play it right now!

On the gameplay front, Ultima IV is fairly similar to Ultima III, with a few major revisions. The stats and leveling are finally codified, as is Ultima’s propensity for giving you most of your xp through quests. But most importantly, Ultima IV introduces conversation trees.

The conversation trees are actually quite limited in implementation, but despite that they provide for one of the deeper storylines of the era. You can only ask any given NPC their name, job, or health status, or one of only two other concepts per NPC. (To the point where you can actually use an NPC that has limited conversation options as a hint that you will need to go back to them later.)

The plot of Ultima IV revolves around the eight virtues: Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor. You spend most of your conversation time learning about the virtues, and upholding them is vital to your success in the game. The systems in place to determine your virtue range from interesting to incredibly silly (honesty is judged entirely by whether you rip off blind shopkeepers, for instance). The result is that you can cheat, but doing so will only make it harder to win – especially since combat is not particularly difficult.

The problem is that, beyond the differences in the virtues, the actual tasks you are assigned get a bit repetitive. You visit eight towns to find the eight mantras to use the eight shrines, and delve the eight dungeons to find the eight virtue stones, and so on. The details differ, but the information gathered in each town starts seeming familiar after a while.

Perhaps the aspect that most sets Ultima IV apart from other RPG’s is the final “boss.” After delving the longest dungeon in the game (and the only one you can’t avoid most of, even if you’re clever), you’re faced with a test of sorts. Not only on the virtues, but on the three principles they are derived from, and other concepts that are hinted at throughout the game but not explicitly made important. Pass, and you are anointed as the Avatar, embodiment of the eight virtues. Fail, and… well, shit, I don’t know, I wasn’t going to fail at the bottom of the freakin’ stygian abyss just to find out what happens!

Ultima IV set the series apart as more than just your typical hack-‘n’-slash series, a trend that would continue through Ultima VIII. (The less said about Ultima IX, the better.) The lack of RPG staples, like bosses of any kind, can be disconcerting to those unfamiliar with the series, but for reasons that can’t be fully explained, these games are even more satisfying to play and complete. It’s not a coincidence that the ability to make choices in RPG’s has become a big deal lately, but Ultima was doing it in the 80’s (and let’s face it, being evil may not let you see the ending, but it can still be fun).

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Ultima III: Exodus

Despite the name, Exodus has nothing to do with traveling (well, no more than any other Ultima anyway). Exodus is merely the game that put together the mechanics of Ultima, if not the plot, for the first time. And unlike its predecessors, it was a damn good game.

Among the concepts introduced in Exodus were a party system, separate-screen party combat, actual moongates, nonstandard villain, and even whirlpools as a means to reach secret locations. As a whole the game still resembles simplified D&D, with clerics and wizards and a series of random races, but the table has clearly been set for Ultima IV.

The gameplay itself is surprisingly satisfying, with the usual Ultima assortment of quest groups that can be completed at your leisure. The overall quest is to slay Exodus, the “child” of Mondain and Minax (villains of the first two Ultimas). Despite the huge demon on the box art, Exodus is… well, it’s hard to say exactly what he/it is (and it’s a spoiler anyway), so let’s just say Exodus is Ultima’s first non-standard final boss.

The flaws in Exodus stem mostly from its ancient play control (though it suffers from the early Ultima problem of exploitable money-gaining tricks as a primary source of income as well). Your four party members do not share an inventory, or even money, and must constantly trade items and gold between them. This can be very annoying, and is in fact the reason it took me so long to beat Exodus in the first place. Still, after a few hours you learn the key combinations for trading and can do it pretty quickly.

The game also still isn’t pretty, once again being presented in four-color mode, and once again with a fan patch that restores the game’s graphics and midi to their superior non-pc versions. The game world is nearly square, and loops across two corners, making it difficult (and boring) to navigate.

Put aside its interface and the fact that this game was published in 1983, and Exodus is the first good RPG in the excellent Ultima series. Sure, it’s a blatant hack-‘n’-slash, with no virtues or Avatars in sight, but both the gameplay and plot are surprisingly ahead of their time. A curious Ultima fan who’s willing to put up with Ultima IV’s graphics wouldn’t go wrong to try Ultima III (after a few patches, anyway).

Review Score: B−

Retro Review: Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress

Unlike its predecessors, Ultima II’s original version was released on PC, and thus doesn’t have a much-improved PC remake like Akalabeth and Ultima I. It is presented in glorious cyan, magenta, gray, and black, with no sound or frame limiter, and a number of crippling bugs. Fortunately all of this can be remedied with fan patches, bringing it up to snuff with the Apple II version of the game. However, this is still essentially the most technologically limited game in the Ultima series.

Unfortunately, the dated engine is not the problem here. The main problem with Ultima II is that progression relies on random inventory items, such as the Blue Tassle that lets you pilot stolen pirate ships. Any of these items may be dropped by thieves on the overworld, and thus spawning and killing overworld enemies in droves is the general method of play. Even worse, those same thieves can steal any item you’re holding, potentially putting you in a virtually unrecoverable position. The game features dungeons and towers, but they are entirely optional and generally too difficult to be worth exploring.

Ultima II is the only game in the series to take place on Earth, and not Sosaria/Britannia. You travel through different eras via time gates, predecessors to the moongates that appear in subsequent games. (The included map shows where the time gates go, but it is virtually indecipherable and not terribly useful even if you can read it.) How much you can accomplish depends on what thieves have dropped, and it’s quite possible to get stuck with nothing to do for a time.

Unfortunately there’s even less plot to this game than Ultima I. You take a space ship to the mysterious planet X (you can visit the rest of the solar system, but there’s no reason to do so) in order to find a magic ring, after which you can head to the final encounter. You can also undertake a sidequest the game barely hints at to find the ultimate weapon, a slight upgrade over the best one you can buy. The final boss is incredibly obnoxious, but no more so than the rest of the game.

In conclusion, there’s no really good reason to play Ultima II beyond a need to beat everything Ultima-related. It’s not good when the most interesting part of the game is that the Quicksword Enilno’s name is “online” spelled backwards. On the other hand, it does technically set up Ultima III’s plot, and Ultima III is a good game. But you’re better off reading the Ultima II synopsis in the Ultima III manual than actually playing this brutal game.

Review Score: F

Retro Review: Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness

Although Ultima I is the first game in the series proper, the Ultima series doesn’t really start until Ultima IV. Only later games even start tying together the hero(es) of Ultima I-III with the Avatar at all. The earlier games are similar in engine and design to the later series, but contain a number of elements that would seem terribly out of place in say, Ultima VII. Like space combat against TIE fighters.

The original 1981 version of Ultima (without the “I” or subtitle) is very hard to come by. The version I’m discussing is the 1987 16-color PC remake, which runs quite a bit more nicely than the original BASIC version. Like later games in the series, the box comes with a lot of neat extra stuff. The game manual is basically a fantasied-up description of various things in the game (monsters, races, equipment, and so on), and the game came with four cardboard maps of the four continents.

Ultima I’s world is incredibly vast compared to that of Akalabeth, the precursor to the Ultima series, and unlike that game is not randomly generated. There are four land masses to explore, each with a similar collection of towns, castles, and other notable landmarks. Because each land mass is separated by water, Ultima I introduces the most frustrating early-Ultima mechanic: having to wait for transportation. It’s not as bad as Ultima II, since you can actually buy a hovercar pretty easily, but the game seems quite limited until you do so.

Ultima I introduces a number of gameplay elements the series would become known for. For instance, the actual plot progression in the game does not involve killing anything (save the aforementioned TIE fighters), nor ever entering a dungeon. Dungeon crawling is a great source of treasure and food, however, and is necessary for sidequests to increase your Strength score. Your other stats are increased only through exploration.

Unfortunately, though Ultima I paints a vast tapestry with its world, its mechanics are simple enough that you will very quickly discover how to abuse them, and to do otherwise becomes boring quickly. With the same monsters popping up on the overworld or any dungeon in the game, there just isn’t much depth of combat. The game does end with a satisfying final battle with Mondain the dark wizard, a less straightforward fight than one would expect from such an old game.

Ultima I is a relic of history, and can be fun to play around with, though there’s not much reason to beat it other than “it’s really short.” Dialogue in the game, or even text, is almost nonexistant, and the combat lacks any depth, but despite that the plot is relevant to the Ultima universe: one of the four land masses even makes a fairly accurate reappearance in Ultima VII Part 2.

Review Score: C−

Ultima III Guide

The Ultima III guide has been up for a few days, but I only just finished filling in the various notes.  I’ll probably take a break from Ultima guides for a while because I couldn’t find much really useful technical information about Ultima III anyway.  I’m sure the same would be true for Ultima IV, so I’ll focus on something a bit more useful for now.  For instance, finishing the walkthrough portion of the Final Fantasy VIII guide!

Ultima II Guide, Touch-Scrolling Tables

Two updates today.  The much larger is the new Ultima II guide, probably the most complete guide I’ve added so far.  (Which seems strange since no one cares about Ultima II, and I don’t even like the game very much.)  It has full dungeon and area maps, all of which have interactive features, and even screenshots of enemies.  One of these days I may go back and add the same treatment to the older guides, but we’ll see.  At any rate, it’s the most complete Ultima II guide I know of, so hopefully all three people on Earth who care about Ultima II will check it out!

The smaller but more significant addition is touch scrolling support for tables on mobile platforms.  By default, internal scrollbars don’t function on mobile, so up until now the tables have been less than useful.  Well, now you can scroll with a swipe, which should improve the mobile/iPad experience dramatically.  Enjoy!