Retro Review: Ultima VIII: Pagan

It’s very hard to say nice things about Ultima VIII. There are actually a number of good ideas at work here, but without exception they are brought down by other aspects of the game. The story is interesting, but undermines the whole idea of the Avatar. The gameplay mechanics are well-intentioned, but barely work. The multiple magic systems are very cool, but a dated UI makes them frustrating to use.

The thing about Ultima VIII is, it should be really fun. You are stranded on a strange world, and given a mission to master its varied magic arts. Each of the four magic systems you learn operates differently, and by the end of the game you have a huge variety of spells (on par with previous Ultimas). Though the system differences aren’t actually that major, they really work conceptually. It’s nice to have healing and utility spells that don’t require reagents, attack spells that are pre-prepared, and so on.

Of course, calling the way you actually use these spells “annoying” would be a massive understatement. Ultima VIII has a lot of problems, and they almost all come down to UI. Not only is the UI fundamentally flawed, it’s flawed in two different ways. Spells (and consumable items, such as flaming oil) fail because of the terrible inventory management system. It’s like they took Ultima VII’s inventory system and removed anything good about it. And let me tell you, there wasn’t much good about cluttering the screen with windows full of crap. U8 doesn’t pause the game when you have inventory open, which in theory lets you react quickly with items or spells, but in practice just clutters the screen. Having to search for tiny icons to double click in the heat of battle is a terrible idea. Plus, buff-type spells you really want available to recast usually close all windows when they’re cast, thus defeating most of the advantages of the system.

To add insult to injury, the windows aren’t even well conceived. They tend to waste too much space trying to look good, and you close them by double-clicking on an empty spot instead of clicking a check mark as in U7. This sounds like a good idea until you realize that it means if you mis-click a tiny icon, you close the whole damn window. And closing one container’s window closes any containers inside it, so if you want to organize your backpack with bags (a virtual must), you still need to keep the backpack open at all times. WTF?

Unfortunately, the controls aren’t any better. There’s a lot of jumping and such in U8, but provided you didn’t manage to find a pre-patch version, the jumping puzzles are the least of your worries. The most annoying thing in the game to do is try to climb on things. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you just can’t, and you have no idea why. Perhaps it’s because the isometric view gives no indication of height, or maybe the game just hates you. And god forbid you try to navigate an edge. Things are even worse in combat, which works like an early version of Diablo where they hadn’t yet figured out how to make the click-fest remotely fun. Monsters tend to stun-lock you, and the two best strategies when fighting anything beyond a ghoul are “use an invincibility item or spell” and “run away.”

And the grandaddy of all my complaints is the dreaded combination of UI and inventory: in-world item interaction. No longer can you pick things up or open doors from across the screen. While this adds something to the realism, it adds a lot more to the frustration. There’s no 3D camera to rotate, so it’s impossible to pick up things hidden behind your character. And since the distance required to move things is incredibly small, this can be a serious problem. But the worst design decision in the entire game is to have items on the ground act as terrain. Not only do bodies block your way to an obnoxious degree, if you get too close to any small item you tend to climb on top of it, and thus you can’t move it or pick it up. This problem isn’t too bad for most of the game, but once you start performing Sorcery, which involves laying out up to 14 items in a small area, you will want to kill Richard Garriott.

Honestly I feel like Ultima VIII is really a “B” game – it certainly doesn’t rise to the heights of the U7 games, story-wise, but it’s a cool concept and when things work, they’re very cool. Climbing around buildings in town is pointless but very fun, and the magic systems are great. The lack of a party makes discovering magic arms and armor more exciting. But dear god the flaws! I thought Ocarina of Time’s controls didn’t age well, but they have nothing on Ultima VIII. It wouldn’t be that hard to fix U8 – a shortcut bar a la U9 would go quite a ways. But as it is, this is a game that has to be wrestled with rather than played, and that’s not a good thing.

Review Score: C