Retro Review: Ultima VII Part 2: The Silver Seed

Making an expansion to an RPG that doesn’t simply continue the plot after the end is tricky business. Ultima VII’s Forge of Virtue did a clunky job solving this problem, by making you super-powerful as a reward. The Silver Seed does a much better job as an expansion to Serpent Isle, though. Not only have the rewards been toned down while still being worth it, there’s actually a story this time, and it’s not completely lame!

The Silver Seed takes place hundreds of years before the events of Serpent Isle, during the Ophidian conflict that eventually led to their disappearance from the land. While involving time travel is not inherently problematic, the fact that you’re stymied by minions of the Guardian and speak to a Monk from modern day Serpent Isle are both head-scratchers. Those strange events aside, the Silver Seed is interesting because you get a look at the Order side of the War of Imbalance through more than just books. It does a good job fleshing out how the war actually went on and why it ended as it did.

Of course, the actual plot of the expansion is pretty basic. You need to delve four dungeons searching for magic items so you can plant the Silver Seed, yadda yadda yadda. Not the most amazing stuff. But those four dungeons, and the treasures within them, are what make this expansion shine.

While Forge of Virtue rewarded you with a super-powered Avatar, the Silver Seed instead gives a series of items that improve your combat statistics. This is great because anyone can use them, which has the effect of making your training point expenditures more interesting instead of completely irrelevant. You also get a magic keyring at the start of the expansion, which is basically an apology from Origin for having way too many keys in Serpent Isle. The keyring effectively combines every key you ever find into one, and adds a hotkey for it to boot. It’s good stuff.

There is one ridiculously overpowered reward to be found here, though it’s also the toughest find in the expansion. The ring of reagents completely nullifies the need to use reagents to cast spells. In any previous Ultima game, this would be amazing but not game-breaking. However, Serpent Isle not only introduces new reagents, but several reagents are in very limited supply. One of them is even somewhat plot important. By adding the ring of reagents, they’ve turned every reagent cache from potentially exciting treasure to useless garbage. Not that I don’t mind not having to carry a bag full of reagents, but it does sort of feel like cheating. Of course, nothing’s stopping you from not using it.

On the upside, the dungeons you must clear in the Silver Seed are quite challenging, so you won’t be getting any of your rewards without a fight (at least, not any of the combat-related ones). You can visit this expansion quite early in Serpent Isle if you want to, and doing so many be worth it just for the keyring, but actually clearing the dungeons is no trivial matter. It pays to wait until you at least have a spellbook to take on these dangers.

The Silver Seed is fun, informs Serpent Isle’s plot without interfering with it, and has great rewards. And it doesn’t introduce any huge islands that interfere with sailing, unlike some other expansions. What more could you want? (You know, aside from 60 Strength.)

Review Score: A

Retro Review: Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle

The only game in the main Ultima series to share an engine with one of its predecessors, Serpent Isle is a bit of an enigma in the series. Engine re-use was not unprecedented for Ultima games, as the two Ultima VI spinoffs were similar in some ways to Serpent Isle, but those games are not relevant to the greater series plot, while Serpent Isle very much is. The engine improvements lead to significantly better gameplay than Ultima VII, but despite the two games looking so similar, they are quite different.

Ultima VII (part one) was notable as the Ultima game that best nailed the feeling of a living world. Serpent Isle, on the other hand, is a very linear and story-driven game that stops feeling like a real world less than halfway through. It doesn’t help that SI was rushed to market, and the cracks in U7’s world are outright chasms here. Even major plot points are often ignored by characters who by all rights should be central to them, and quest flags can be set at seemingly random times. The net result is that the “immersion” that makes me so fond of its predecessor falls apart quickly in Serpent Isle.

That said, Serpent Isle isn’t a bad game by any means. The Ultima VII engine was already good, and the advances made in Serpent Isle are fantastic. The obvious additions like hotkeys and the awesome paperdoll equipment system are nice, but even more subtle improvements in game scripting and conversation flow really help Serpent Isle work. The game also features a smaller party, which helps inventory management and combat both flow better.

The real strength of Serpent Isle, being the first highly linear Ultima game, is the storyline. Like any video game story, it won’t be winning any writing awards, but it definitely keeps you interested and wanting more. Not to spoil anything, but events play out quite a bit differently than you might expect. Where in the Black Gate the actual plot involved less than half the world and could be resolved fairly quickly, here practically everything on the map is important in some way. Whether this is a strength or a weakness depends on what you like in your RPGs.

Serpent Isle really shines in large part because it does not take place in Britannia. Without the burden of a dozen towns that must exist, Serpent Isle keeps things simple with only three major cities. The ruins of a lost civilization are scattered across the island, and discovering their secrets is a large part of the game. There are important references here to both Ultima I and Ultima III, but the world stands well on its own.

As good as it is, Serpent Isle is a flawed game. Many of these flaws probably would have been fixed had the game gotten more development time, but that doesn’t make them any less game-breaking. There are quite a few events that, if done out of order, can result in an unwinnable game. There are even a few bugs you’re relatively likely to run into unless you specifically avoid them. If you go off exploring too much, you risk causing problems – for best results, stick to what people tell you to do.

And therein lies the problem, for me. One could certainly argue that Serpent Isle is a better overall game than the Black Gate, but the forced linearity really ruins it for me. The game is chock-full of events that clearly only happen to steer you towards a given event, and the game’s final quests require a whole lot of hunting for random items for no particularly good reason. If thereare any notable optional sidequests, I don’t remember them.

But don’t let me steer you away from Serpent Isle. If Ultima isn’t really your “thing,” Serpent Isle just might be, because it’s a very different type of game (at least, outside of the opening few quests). It’s certainly excellent, but it is unfortunately a harbinger of things to come – both of its sequels are even more restrictively linear (perhaps partially because of how poorly Serpent Isle handles things when you do go out of order). It’s just too bad neither of those sequels could live up to Serpent Isle’s story.

Review Score: A−