The Ultima series began as nonlinear, almost open world RPGs. It ended with a series of linear, story-driven games. In the happy middle, a few games in the series – starting with Warriors of Destiny and ending with The Black Gate – managed to really nail both the open-world and story aspects of this evolution. But Ultima VII is special because not only was the design in nearly perfect balance, for the first time the technology was advanced enough to offer really immersive gameplay – and not yet so advanced that the illusion of the truly open world was shattered.
Truth be told, taken as a story compared with your typical novel, Ultima VII isn’t all that special. It is 200 Britannian years after the events of Ultima VI, and the world has for the most part moved on the Eight Virtues. A new organization called the Fellowship hopes to unite the people of the world, but it quickly becomes clear that they are not so benevolent as they would have you believe. But the story works not because of its originality or narrative strength, but because it really involves you (as the Avatar) in the world. Sure it’s obvious the Fellowship is up to no good, but even within the context of the game, there isn’t much you can do about it aside from figuring out what they’re up to and putting a stop to it. You do it because you care, not because someone tells you to.
And therein lies Ultima VII’s single greatest flaw. If you don’t care, either about the story or about your role as the Avatar, the game loses focus quickly. The immersion of this game is built on a house of cards. If you’re not particularly interested in tracking down those responsible for the gruesome murder that starts the game, and aren’t very good at The Game, it may be quite some time before you stumble on to the actual plot. It’s all there, and it’s spelled out quite explicitly if you look for it, but you do have to look for it. This is a game where very nearly the entire world is open to you from the start (and you’re only an easily accessed flying carpet from opening the rest), and aside from the starting plotline, there is no handholding here. The game requires you to buy in, but pays off in spades if you do so.
So far all I’ve really done is criticize the game, which may make my score seem surprising. Flaws aside, Ultima VII is the best western RPG I’ve ever played. I enjoyed it when it came out and had no contextual background in the series, I loved it in college when I played through with a better understanding, and loved it even more when I played it again, for the first time having played every previous game in the series. The game just keeps getting better.
So what’s so great? Well, I’ve mentioned how immersive the game is. The engine, despite being old enough to vote, is still great at what it does. For the first time in the series, the game is entirely mouse-driven, with no static on-screen UI at all. You can poke and prod things, and most behave as you would expect. Hell, you can even bake bread. (Just don’t try to forge a sword…) People react to what you say and do, and if you kill someone, they stay dead. Of course, the game is not great at reacting if you do something unexpected. Aside from calling the guards if they are a witness, NPCs won’t react if you kill a random townsperson. (Though they usually react if you kill someone for plot reasons.) Not that you should be killing random townspeople. That’s not very virtuous!
Combat is a relatively weak point of the game, but it’s also not really the point. You’re only forced into one dungeon with especially tough enemies, and all you need to do while there is walk in and walk out. You’ll gain the majority of your experience points through (non-violent) quests. But the combat isn’t actually bad per se, it just has a number of annoying flaws. The biggest of these is that ranged weapons are terribly inaccurate and if you give a party member a powerful weapon like a juggernaut hammer, they will likely kill you more often than the monsters. This is greatly alleviated by using the “flank” attack mode, but that encourages your party to stray far afield and possibly get themselves killed without you noticing. They will also drop items when fleeing from combat, which is annoying at best, and game-breaking at worst. The general rule of thumbs is never to give your companions plot items. And the game is stingy with information on how combat actually works, which isn’t helpful if you, like me, are used to the twinked out character customization that makes JRPG’s so enjoyable.
That said, if you’re prepared to deal with its flaws, combat can be a lot of fun. There are numerous dungeons and treasure caves across the world which have no plot relevance, but are great places to earn experience and treasure. There is a wide variety of spells which are quite a lot of fun to play with. Many dungeons feature devious traps and puzzles (though I’m not sure if “infinitely respawning dragons” counts as a trap per se). Areas off the beaten path are filled with interesting tidbits about the world, and there’s more Ultima fan service than you can shake an ankh at.
But all in all, Ultima VII is just good. It’s not easy to put the exact reasons into words, but this game has everything I want from a western RPG. You can as easily follow the plot with gusto as spend an afternoon reading books in the Lycaeum. Sure, the game is dated, and modern RPGs handle many aspects of it with more technical proficiency, but as games have grown more complex, worlds have become less interactive. Ultima VII predates the times of generic townspeople you can’t speak to – everyone in U7 not only has a place of work, they also have individual homes, eat dinner at the local pub, and so on. The world exists without you, but you can still interact with it, and that’s a feeling I haven’t had in a game since. Well, since Ultima VII Part 2, at least.