Retro Review: Ultima IX: Ascension

Ultima IX caused a bit of an existential crisis for me. Most of the fun parts of the game were the parts that ignored the depth of previous Ultimas, such as the magic system. In fact, aside from the plot, most of U9’s issues revolve around the creators being too obsessed with making a world that felt real. (Of course, it doesn’t help that they fell woefully short, either.) If the game wasn’t so buggy, and the plot not so asinine, this may have actually been a pretty good game.

Of course, those are two pretty big “ifs.” Let me address the major problem with Ultima IX first: the plot is horrendous. Even detached from the Ultima series, it’s pretty stupid. But in context, it’s almost criminal. The game was written like a bad Ultima fanfic – there are a huge number of references to previous games in the overall plot structure, and not in a good way. We’ve seen corrupted virtues before, we’ve had to do a series of eight sets of the same quest before, we’ve cleansed the shrines before. The thing is, repetitive quests like those of the middle Ultima games only manage to not be obnoxious because the game is completely non-linear. Ultima IX is quite the opposite.

And it’s not just the bad structure that gets me. This is a game that makes many references to previous games that are flat-out wrong. Characters discuss factual things from previous games, even recent ones like U8 that don’t need to be ret-conned, and completely make up new facts. It’s bizarre – it’s not like a different company made the game or anything.

The plot is bad, but let’s be honest, you can ignore that sort of thing if the gameplay is good. What is much harder to ignore is constant crashing. The game was so buggy that Origin actually shipped out new install discs with the “final” patch to everyone who bought the game. Which was a very nice gesture, except the final version is still buggy. It doesn’t help that the primary graphics engine is 3dfx’s now-defunct Glide system. No modern computer is using that without some crazy tweaking, and the Direct 3D support is pretty spotty. There are a ton of fan patches to correct these and other bugs, as well as fix gameplay balance issues, but I’m reviewing the official game, not fan patches.

So what about the gameplay? Due to the repetitive nature of the quests, there are basically three aspects of the gameplay: exploration, NPC interaction, and dungeon delving. I’ll cover the NPC interaction first, because it’s pretty bad. Conversation trees are much shorter than they used to be, and options inexplicably disappear so you have to talk to NPCs repeatedly to have a full conversation. This is all, of course, due to the game’s full voice acting, which is a cool feature. Of course, the voice acting is really bad, and the game is a lot less grating if you turn it off. Because everything is voiced, they’ve done away with the traditional faux-Old English “thees” and “thous,” but you don’t miss them. The fact that there is full voice acting is especially impressive when you remember this game came out in 1999.

Exploration, on the other hand, is pretty fun. Britannia has been decreasing in size since Ultima VI, and here it’s downright tiny. They seem to have decreased the Avatar’s walking speed specifically to counter this issue. Tiny it may be, but they’ve packed a ridiculous number of secrets into the landscape. (It’s also very easy to cheat the system and go places you’re not supposed to, but that’s another story.) The only real annoyance with exploring is that overworld enemies respawn, which is dangerous in the beginning of the game, and silly by the end since their drops never disappear. In particular, there are a pair of staff-wielding thieves outside Minoc, and by the time I finished the game there were staffs piled everywhere in the area.

I want to take a moment to mention the combat system, because it’s actually pretty good. The game is fully 3D, but lacks traditional controls. Rather than WASD for movement, you right click and move in the direction the camera is pointing, using Ctrl and Alt to strafe. It’s a weird system, but it kind of works. The game needs to be mouse-driven because you drag-and-drop items in 3D, a cool idea which ultimately doesn’t really work (which is why no one does it anymore). Combat is similar to Ultima VIII, with a lot of frantic clicking, but with five weapon types and potentially four moves usable by each one, it’s actually pretty fun. Better than that is the spell system, which took some of the better ideas from Ultima VIII. You still use reagents, but only to put spells in your spellbook – afterward, you need only mana to actually cast spells, and there is an item that drastically reduces mana costs, making spells more usable than they’ve ever been in the series. And there are a lot of fun ones, too.

And that, finally, brings us to dungeons. I’m torn on how I feel about the dungeons – in many ways, this game is trying very hard to be Ocarina of Time. Some of the 3D puzzles are actually pretty good, although there are plenty of puzzles where there’s no way to guess which button you’re supposed to press first and such. You won’t be moving blocks like in Zelda, but there are plenty of switches, pressure plates, and keys to worry about. But these dungeons are massive and involved, and unlike the rest of the series, you have to fully explore all of them. They are also well-themed, and this is at least one area where they got Ultima tradition right: Wrong is a prison, Destard has dragons and lots of gems, etc. The towns are actually more themed along Zelda lines, and not necessarily in a good way. Yew has always been in the woods, but now looks like the Ewok village, and Minoc has had gypsies a few times, and now consists of nothing but gypsies. I guess having per-town populations under a dozen limits the variety.

I could nitpick U9 all day, and I could find nice things to say just as easily, but what it comes down to is that this game is a mess. It’s buggy, the UI is wonky, the plot is terrible, but the game usually remains pretty fun. There are frustrating bits (especially with early-game inventory management), but in the end it kind of works. Presuming you save every few minutes, at least. It wouldn’t even take that much work to make this game good: restructuring it to give the player more freedom to explore other towns earlier, for instance, would go a very long way. But it is what it is: a sort of fun game that hardcore Ultima fans can pass on, and no one else has any reason to play. It’s hard to recommend even to those fans, since the ending is not only nothing to write home about, it’s really pretty stupid. You may be better off thinking up your own.

Review Score: C

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