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!