Well, it's the moment everyone hs been waiting for. Well, only a few oddballs who love this game. I for one, do not love this game, and I was going in with such low expectations that if it had electrocuted me, I would have been impressed. Actually, that's Ultima IX--Ultima VIII would impress me by merely kicking me in the shins.
In all seriousness, as I play the game (this blog is also retrospective, but on the advice from the Serpent Isle posts I will not specify how retrospective) I can get a pretty good idea what a really cool game with the same premise and world would have been like. The first thing you notice, from a modern perspective, is how absolutely desperately his game wants to be 3D, from the jumping and climbing, to the excessive frames in the character art, to the fact that the walls are so huge that it's easy to randomly lose objects behind them. But the fact that it's decidedly not 3D leads to some of its biggest drawbacks...
1) The isometric perspective where you and monsters are constantly hidden behind walls and other objects
2) The hideous character art. Faces are like smudges. Beren looks like Gumby with his weird parabolic arms. They're all like really low-res 3D models
3) The fake 3D models require huge numbers of animation frames, wasting space that could have been used for more monsters, weapons, more everything
As far as plot goes, this day was spent wandering around Tenebrae. The place is mostly empty except for generic peasants and guards, sometimes in pairs, spouting the same lines about paying taxes over and over again. Let me see if I can remember everyone inside the city walls...There's the tempest, her manservent, her bored girlservent, Orlock the bartender,his waitress, the goth buffoon with the giant axe and no clothing, the trainer, and...oh yeah, the blacksmith. That's eight. I guess it's better than the typical town in Savage Empire, but yeesh. Beyond that we've got three guys living around tenebrae, four tempests, five(?) sorcerers, and a necromancer. And an old hermit. So the whole word is pretty tiny.
I forgot Bentic, the dude who is unable to rise from his chair! He is at least colorful-looking.
Like I said, my first day was all wandering around--I found a pit that as I recall leads to a magic mace, but for the life of me I can't figure out how to climb into the hole; the Avatar merely walks around it. I also talked to Mythran, the old hermit, who gave me an item that recalls me to various locations (with the inventive name "Recall Item"). He also makes potions and has a bunch of physics-defying, endlessly rolling spiked balls in his foyer. I'll save my floating platform/sinking stone/etc. bashing for later, when it becomes extremely absurd. But suffice to say you end up feeling like you're stuck in Castlevania in this game.
None of this is to say that the game is necessarily bad, but the first impression when you play is, "Holy crap, what did they do!?" Most of the cool features that have been hallmarks of the game since Ultima V have vanished, some of the best features of the latest game (the paperdoll inventory, the awesome character portraits) have been eliminated, or in the case of the paperdoll inventory, made so non-functional that it might as well not exist.
Now I feel compelled to list some high points of the gameplay.
1) Being able to climb and jump allows for some quick navigation. In Serpent Isle, there was this ridiculous walled-in area east of Monitor with teleporters inside, and it was simply insane that you couldn't just jump over the section of wall that looked about 1 foot high. Here, you eel less absurd because you can.
2) I'm having trouble thinking of anything that isn't plot or concept related instead of an aspect of the gameplay or construction of the world itself. I know a lot of people love the music, but I find almost all of it forgettable. I enjoy breaking out tunes from Ultima VI and Ultima VII outside of the context of the games now and then, but in Ultima VIII they seem like mood music that is uninteresting outside the game context.
So this blog is a downer. I will be nicer when I actually get involved in the plot. I thought it was ironic, though, that Ultima VIII included a parody of a competitor, the description of which might apply to this game ("a pale imitation").
Man I don't look forward to playing Ultima IX. Oh, I should add that I looked up ways of improving DOSBox performance, and found that you can set the CPU core and cycles to "Auto" and the improvement is shocking. The game went from barely playable with slow movement and skipping music to almost too fast. Why, why, was this not the default!?