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.