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

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Which I Say Nice Things About Ultima V

Well, reading my comments indicates i totally failed to address one aspect of Ultima V that made it vastly superior to all the previous games--namely, the storyline. Ultima 1-3 had stories, but the events and impact of them were contained almost entirely within the documentation. Ultima IV was strangely plotless--it was a quest of self-improvement, but there wasn't really any compelling need for the world to have you as Avatar. I would summarize the back story of that game as, "Everything's going OK I suppose. Let's find someone to be the Avatar!"

In Ultima V, by contrast, the first thing that happens (granted, in a cutscene) is that you get attacked by a Shadowlord. They also take over towns, and Blackthron harasses you on a regular basis; guards demand bribes, and so on. Unlike the previous games, there's the sense of impending disaster and the well-being of the world hanging in the balance. The illusion breaks at points (like any game), but it's there for the first time. Ultima VI's major failure is in this regard; I still can't get over the moron that makes you build and play some panpipes before letting you save the world; moreover, hardly anyone cares about the Gargoyle threat in general. At least in Ultima IX, Katrina apologizes for wasting your time!

I would also disagree with a commenter who said Ultima V's combat was insufficiently strategic and thy preferred Ultima IV. I thing the opposite; for most battles at the end of IV, I just repeatedly hit the A key and the up arrow because the massive barrage of magic arrows and wand bolts and whatever pretty much cleans the board of all enemies. As for the argument that a Shepherd or a Fighter is the best character class in IV because you can ge them to level 8 more easily, I say there's no particular reason to bother. Even in the abyss, everything was dead before my uber-Shepherd gets in melee range, and besides, touching those orbs is tedious.

I also got some other comments! Someone said that the item in Serpent Isle which trades for the ice wine was "obvious" but can't remember what it was; I say that such an item does not exist. Finally I was attacked for not showing Ultima Underworld sufficient love, but I maintain that I was fairly positive in my comments :-P If I'm overly critical, it's only because criticism is more fun to read than positive comments.

Hope everyone has good holidays, or at least those of us in the United States. I am on vacation so I may publish more this week.

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.