Ultima VI is a crossroads in the Ultima series. It is the first game to include a mouse-driven interface, as well as the first to do away with differing scales between the world map and towns and dungeons. It tries very hard to be something new and unique, and it succeeds – but it takes a long time in getting there.
More than any other game in the series, Ultima VI allows you to abuse foreknowledge of the game. The main culprit in this regard is the Orb of the Moons, an item you get at the start of the game which lets you instantly teleport to the majority of important locations in the game. It’s not hard to start relying on the Orb, even without a guide, and this has the effect of making the world seem very small. In a way this is a good thing, as the single-scale world actually is quite small, but the Orb’s ability to replace travel can make it seem physically larger even though getting around quickly is no problem.
The first half of the game works like previous Ultimas: you go from town to town, talking to the people and solving their problems. Your main quest is to free the eight shrines, and the process for each is basically the same. Though it’s a familiar process, it feels tired and old, and you just want to get to the point after a while.
Of course, Ultima VI does get to the point (eventually), and that’s when it begins to shine. Suddenly the world-shrinking Orb of the Moons is enabling quests spanning the world like they do in no Ultima before or since. Several times you are asked to create something and will require the help of craftsmen and scholars from many towns, based on the information gathered talking to them previously.
The plot also comes together at this point. The game begins with your abduction at the hands of a group of gargoyles intent on ritually sacrificing you, and your primary goal is to defeat their race. As time wears on, though, it becomes clear that the gargoyles are not evil, and perhaps not even wrong, and you’re caught between obeying your liege and doing what is right. Your climactic journey to the gargoyle city is enabled by one of the more interestingly heroic acts I’ve seen in a video game.
While Ultima VI has its touches of brilliance, it has its flaws, and it most definitely shows its age. The game introduced NPC portraits, but they are low-res and often quite ugly. The mouse interface barely works (though thankfully it is optional), and some simple actions are a chore. Combat ranges from simple to extremely difficult with little ground in the middle, and its strange turn structure can be confusing.
These flaws hold Ultima VI back and make it the weakest link of the Age of Enlightenment trilogy (4-6), but U6 is a game worth playing if only because it nicely bridges the storyline of the series between the superlative games, Ultima V and Ultima VII. Ultima V started the series off towards a more narrative story, and Ultima VII is well-constructed but linear, but Ultima VI strikes a perfect balance between the two. Sadly it only strikes this balance after quite a bit of flailing around seeking its own identity.