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+