Ophidian Dragon blogs his way through the entire Ultima series, from beginning to end.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The time has come at long last to tackle Ultima V. I can probably cut and paste my last intro here--it doesn't feel like it's been long since I wrote the last one, time flies, etc. etc. At this rate I won't be done for another year! Then again, I'm not too concerned about that.

I have a pretty mixed view of Ultima V. When I originally played it, after getting the Ultima Collection back in 1994 or so, I found it extremely painful to play. The combat sequences are pretty long, and you get fewer hit points per level than in IV, and it seems monsters hurt more than in IV. Since generally I find combat to be the least enjoyable part of any of the Ultima games, I gave up pretty quickly. I did eventually see the endgame via cheating, but I think that doesn't count!

Since I'm already enumerating downsides, I'll mention another. I felt like the towns in Ultima V were a lot less distinctive than they were in Ultima IV, though it's hard to explain why. In Ultima IV, when I think of any town I can imagine its map in my head today--and the same is true for Ultima VI and VII--but this is not the case for Ultima V. I think it has to do with the fact that almost all seemed to have walls, which limits the space for character per town. Finally, the Underworld was intensely difficult, especially the section which involved very tedious blink spells to go from one small hole in the mountains to another--mapmaking in other parts of the Underworld was actually fairly entertaining, but here it was simply a chore and I never got distances quite right.

Now I can enumerate some of the points I liked. Dungeons were vastly improved, as was your ability to interact and affect changes in the world otherwise--you can move objects and use things, and monsters leave rational treasure instead of just the gold you found in most earlier games. Of course, I exploited game mechanics heavily! I noticed that invisibility rings have the curious side effect of bringing monsters' hit points to near zero so that one hit kills them. I also noticed that leaving one monster alive in a dungeon room brings them all back to life if you return. Thus, an easy way to amass treasure was to become invisible, kill a bunch of dragons in a room, leave one, then exit and return to the room, over and over again! This probably qualifies as cheating, but the game in its initial stages was difficult enough that I didn't feel bad about it. This was a bit of a side track from my main point, which was that the dungeons were vastly more interesting to explore than they were in Ultima IV, where I largely dashed to the treasure with down and up spells and then immediately exited.

The most impressive change between the games is the improvement in the way the world exists independently of you--there is a day and night sequence, characters have specific schedules, and I am told seasons also occur. There are also astrological phenomenon that cause Shadowlords to invade towns! I mentioned this change in independent existence of the game world as a key theme in how the games developed over the years; the other key theme is how the world treats you as a person, and how your actions have an impact on the world. There's less evidence of this in Ultima V, or at least I didn't notice it, but I did notice glaring problems. For example, a member of the Underground tells me to head to Blackthorn's castle to get Lord British's crown, which I do--and when I return to get a new quest, he doesn't acknowledge the completion of the old one. Similarly, if you give up the names of the Resistance to Blackthorn there's no effect; indeed, you can get trapped by him over and over again and no one seems to care. Most hilariously, you can wander through his throne room and so long as you don't touch anyone, they are oblivious to you. I attribute most of these flaws to the small size of the game, and they certainly exist in every other early RPG, but they are more glaring because the game is so effective in presenting a realistic "breathing" world in so many other ways.

Overall, I would say my memories of Ultima V are weak, even though it took me something like 35 hours to finally finish. It's hard to explain why, because my memories of Ultima IV and Ultima VI are fairly vivid--there's just something about this game that did not sear it into my brain; maybe some of your quests are repetitive (shrine quests *extremely* so), and maybe I didn't find characters as charming or memorable as in the previous game. Maybe the long conversations without portraits made keeping track of who was who a lot more difficult? In short, my impression of Ultima V has never been very high, despite a neat plot and a far more realistic world, yet I don't know quite how to explain why.

On to a few of the most memorable moments of the game! It's easy to start with the very obvious--killing the Shadowlords. Tossing the shards into the flame and yelling a name and they are destroyed; I like imagining how that would play out in some kind of cutscene. I am also quite fond of meeting Captain John in the abyss and learning the origin of the Shadowlords, which I had never understood prior to encountering him in his unexpected fort! Ultima V also contains one of the most bizarre and mysterious sequences in any of the games, too--the strange, backward-colored realm that Lord British is trapped in. Why is he totally lacking power here? Why is it furnished with a bed and clocks and books and all? British proposes it to be an ancient location, and thinking about how it got there and what it was used for is one of the pleasures of finishing the game.

That's all I've got on Ultima V. I'm curious if anyone else feels the way I do about it--On paper everything about the game is good, but the experience never really seemed that great to me.


Unknown said...

Heh, that's interesting. Ultima 5 is my favorite from the first 6. I wonder if it depends on the order in which you play them? I played the original games on the C64 and thought the combat was improved in 5. It was more tactical. I thought the Underworld was awesome. Perhaps you found it more difficult because you didn't care for the combat, and therefore you weren't as powerful as someone who fought more. I also don't understand how the shrines could seem repetitive in U5 compared to U4. At least you only had to visit them once in U5, not three times. :-)

Anyway, it's fun to read these. I'm an avid fan of the series in the process of designing an Ultima based adventure using the Neverwinter Nights 2 toolset and it's good to read this.

Any plans on playing the Lazarus version of Ultima 5?

Natreg said...

Ultima V is my favourite Ultima plot wise. I really liked the combat in this games especially in the last dungeon. This is one of the few games which make me feel as if I was inside the game instead of playing it.

I know that it feels weird that some things don't change when they should, like when you reveal the names of the resistance to Blackthorn, or when you are at the throne room, but those were more technical limitations they had. Ultima V was the last of the Apple II Ultimas, and I think they were limited by the apple back then and couldn't do much better than U5. Also, it was a big jump from Ultima IV to Ultima V. The world interaction, the graphics, the plot. Everything. Also compared to Ultima VI, the atmosphere in Ultima V is better. In Ultima VI Brtannia is at war with the gargoyles, but this is not shown very well, besides at 2 or 3 places (Cove comes to mind)

Anonymous said...

A very interesting blog, it was fun to read it through!

Ultima 5. It was probably the game I have spent the most time playing on the C64. I do remember it as pretty difficult, especially as I didn't figure out how to level up "normally" - I almost always slept at an inn and the only way anyone gained levels was killing a party member and resurrecting him, losing some XP in the process. Or was it killing the whole party and getting resurrected by Lord British? My memory is hazy...

It didn't help that my English wasn't very good at that time. What's this 'stealing'? Is it same as 'taken!"? At some point I figured out a good way to get free food was from the fields of North Brittany and then even my resurrection trick didn't work anymore for some reason...

Then there were the loading times and disk swaps. Loading the dungeons, townes and such on the Oceanic OC-118 certainly took a lot of time. I wonder if I had had a real 1541, would it have loaded quicker with some turbo? There was some disk drive selection at the beginning of the game.

Silver the Enchantress said...

i remember preferring iv to v. i could understand how having both night and day would seemingly add to the depth of the setting, but i just plain hated it. it meant that half the day was downtime and my party had to find something else to do. usually it meant sleeping, which was no fun. if we couldn't find a place to sleep we had to feel around in the dark and waste torches in the middle of civilization that we could've used for the underworld or dungeons. i was always mad that from this point on, the night had to be dealt with in the ultima universe.

i also really disliked the battle sequences. i felt there was far less strategy because there wasn't as much limitation on weapon direction. in iv attack was only up, down, left and right. in v, you could just target any monster on the field. that meant that by the time everybody in the party got a good weapon, there would be no reason for them to move. they'd just stay standing in the same position and fire away until the battle was over.

Anonymous said...

I had the same experience with 5. I played the originals (starting with the first) on my old Apple][ - I flew through U1, couldn't finish U2, LOVED U3 and U4, and just couldn't get into U5. I just remember it being too fussy with all these little items to click on and investigate. I was afraid to play and explore in the larger world, for fear of missing some artifact on a bookshelf.

Oceans Dream said...

Ultima 5 was really the only Ultima game I played until recently. I had some interesting memories of that. I think what I remember most of the game was just going around to different towns, talking with the NPCs and trying to get information and what to do next. I could use the info I learned from one NPC to go back to an old NPC and learn something new (I think it was about the resistance).

Well, the other memory I had was being in prison and trying to buy keys from a guy. I ended up in prison pretty often.

I got turned off by it because I'd always just die in the wilderness and then end up revived at Level 1 in the Castle. Losing progress like that is pretty discouraging.

I think things like picking crops, buying food and stuff was a nice touch. I liked finding some odd ring when investigating the tombstones, or finding armor in peoples cabinets, or walking through a fireplace and finding a hidden area. Good times.

Anonymous said...

Initially, Ultima V seemed more a chore to play than U4 with the runic signs and spells. Back in the Atari XE days hours were spent mapping and learning U4 w/out game maps and manuals, from that experience much was learned about the series. After playing perhaps the best of the Ultima series, the U7s, I went back to U5 and really took to the game. I also liked the increased "mortality" of the characters, lower HP and increased damage. Something that made U4 seem too easy by comparison to later Ultimas. This increases the awareness as a character in U5 and gives a less "arcade" feel of invincibility.

In the end, playing U5 immediately after U4 is a wash in terms of pros and cons. Playing U5 after the U7s has been much better. May try U5 - Lazarus some day.

Captain Rufus said...

Ultima 5 is probably one of my most favorite and beloved electronic RPGs of all time.

I played it on a C64 roughly in order (though purchased in the same year) as 1,3, and 4.

With no music on the 64 version, it was creepy and lonely, my quest largely one with little respect from the NPCs of the game.

The technology of the game was mindblowing for its time, and it STILL feels more like an actual living world than most modern RPGs do, especially the console titles.

The combat was vastly improved with diagonal aiming, dual wields, and a good variety of weapons and armor.

The C64 version had a well laid out disk loading scheme that was quick, and kept things in a logical order.

And the story was great. A band of former heroes fighting from the shadows to try to restore the true king to his rightful throne.

Its actually the last Ultima I really liked. 6 and 7 both didn't grab me (6 on the 64 was a tad painful of an experience, and 7 went real time, something I generally hate in my RPGs.) for various reasons.

5 was the last one with a solid gameplay setup. No dealing with multiple character gear, or incessant whining for food. It was all in one mass inventory. No skills to train either.

It was an almost perfect blend of detail and ease of use.

And I loved the way encounters worked. The longer you tarried the more frequent and dangerous the monsters on the overworld became, as if the darkness was polluting our beloved Britannia...

not a real blog said...

regarding what you wrote about it being harder ... I hated this when I originally played it (when it came out).

Later I read that is was designed to turn Ultima IV on it's head, which is obvious from the plotline, but on top of that, what I never understood originally, was this difficulty was supposed to force you to break the virtues. Force you to steal. Force you to be bad. That was in part why it is very difficult to get going at the beginning.

I never got this as a kid, and it pissed me off. The virtues acted like rules that weren't *programmed* into the game, but existed to me anyway. I started to steal food off of tables, and looking to see if the engine counted it as stealing. I started going into the farmlands and stealing food (did you know you could do that?) and I kept going back to my house at the beginning and stealing the food there, too.

Looking back it was a clever thing to do, but since there was nothing in the game that pushed you that way, it pissed me off internally; it bothered me I was resorting to this.

Perhaps it was better that way; if I knew the designers had intended that, I wouldn't have felt bad. But since I really did think I was supposed to stay true to the virtues, I had a lot of mixed feelings about playing the game in the manner I did.

Abe Pralle said...

I've always loved Ultima 5 and I wholeheartedly agree with Captain Rufus's comments. I still enjoy playing it through again every now and then, though I don't have the patience any more for party combat - I'll ditch my party, get the magic carpet, magic axe, and Lord British's Crown ASAP, and solo the game.

Regarding Lord British's cell... it was furnished with books etc. because it's a mirror image of the last dungeon room before it. That still doesn't explain what that place WAS exactly, but I never thought too far beyond "trapped in a magic mirror". :)