This post was originally 5 separate posts on my original Blogger blog, chronicling my way through Ultima IV. For various reasons I toned down the “let’s play” angle of this blog, but all this work was done so it seemed a shame to waste it. So I’ve decided to combine all of the “let’s play” posts into one – that way they don’t swamp the rest of the site. Oh, please excuse any formatting issues – there was a problem transferring from Blogger.
With that I give you – Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.
ULTIMA IV – PART ONE. IT STARTS
The first game on my list – Ultima IV. Purchased on…16 July 2014. Three years ago. All right, let’s get this party started.
First impressions – there’s a lot of “feelies” with this game. Maps, manuals, a spell book, quick reference card. They started doing this with Ultima III, and I recall that reading them is pretty essential. So I print them all out (thanks work!) and read through them.
Its about 80 pages. And it’s not that interesting. A description of the map layout, lists of armour, weapons and monsters, overly-detailed descriptions of the spells (a trick they’ve obviously kept from Ultima III). I know disc space was tight back then, but isn’t so much “world building” as “info dumping”. It could’ve been summarised or (even better) worked into the game.
I grind my way through the material, then FINALLY start the damn thing, expecting more of the same of UIII.
I was wrong.
Pretty soon I can tell that U IV’s reputation as the turning point in the series is well deserved. The mechanics are straight out of the earlier games (overhead view of UI, “gate” system from UII, combat from UIII) but the big change isn’t combat based – it’s the “Talk” function.
They’ve also learned how to give the player enough guidance to avoid the “what on earth do I do now?” problem that plagued U1 – U3. I’m 5 hours in now, and I haven’t checked a walkthrough once.
So what’s the game actually about?
Well after having defeated the various “uber-villain of the week” nasties in UI – III, Lord British, who now rules the world (which no longer looks like Earth) has summoned you from your world to show the people of Britannia how to live like good people. You do this by becoming the “Avatar” – the living embodiment of the eight virtues, which are Honesty, Humility, Sacrifice, Spirituality, Compassion, Valour, Justice, Honour, Salt and Sugar.
Why you would do this I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that on Earth, the life expectancy of “living embodiments of goodness” is about 33. Anyway…
You become this “Avatar” by collecting various trinkets that increase your rating in each of the 8 virtues, and not doing naughty things that lower your virtue ratings. So no more “killing all the guards for XP”.
The difference is that for the first time, I am really invested in the world of Britannia. There are mechanical incentives for me to actively interact with the characters of Britannia, and even treat them more like normal beings and not creatures I can slaughter for the hell of it with impunity.
It seems (and I could be wrong) that the basic goal here is to collect a Rune, Mantra and Stone for each virtue, then go to a Shrine for that virtue and chant there. Once you’ve done that for each of the 8 virtues, you go to the “abyss” and read a “codex”. Don’t know what that last part means yet, I imagine I’ll find out.
Combat is really a refinement of UIII. When you enter a fight from the overworked map, you zoom down into a battle screen where you move around your individual party members and attack the individual monsters. The refinement from UIII is that sometimes there’s terrain providing cover from missile weapons, and either you or your enemy can escape by leaving the map. Also, while you no longer create a party of adventurers, you can recruit up to 8 additional characters (one for each virtue). So it feels like a bit of a mix – there’s no more character creation, but it’s not quite as diablo-esque as UI and II.
World combat in Ultima I (top left) to IV (bottom right). In both Ultima I and II combat visually changes in dungeons, but mechanically remains the same
The magic system is a bit weird. In UIII, the game came accompanied with a “book of spells” which gave overly long descriptions of each spell including what ingredients each required and how to cast the spells. Practically this information was irrelevant to gameplay. UIV has taken that idea to the next level – you still get the book of spells, but this time you need to read each spell description for the spell’s ingredients, buy the individual ingredients and mix them together (ahead of time) to make each spell that you wish to cast. Each time you cast a spell, you use up those ingredients, so you’re often buying them in bulk.
Cleverly though, Origin has used the ingredients consistently. So Sulfurus Ash, for example, is necessary for all flame based spells. They then tell you that certain other spells (such as “Kill”) exist, but won’t tell you the ingredients – you’ve got to figure it out by reading the spell descriptions and guessing what ingredients would be required.
It’s a good example of how a minor tweak has made this game so much better than UIII. All of this information was there in UIII. But only in UIV do I mechanically have a reason to care about it.
Loving this game so far. I’m still working my way through the towns, talking to everyone and writing down hints. I’ve got 3 party members in total (max 9), and the mantra and rune for about 3 of the 8 virtues. I’ll finish talking to everyone in the towns, then it’s time for the dungeons….
Release date: 16 September 1985
Purchase date: 16 July 2014
Platform: For me, PC (via GOG). Originally, Apple IIe
Developer: Origin Systems
Lead designer: Richard “Lord British” Garriott
Time spent so far: 5 hours
Impressions: Minor tweaks to UIII makes for a much more absorbing game
I’m now 27 hours into Ultima IV and my views have shifted slightly. I still think it’s a good game, but the cracks started to show around 12 hours in.
ULTIMA IV PART TWO – EXPLORATION
First up I realised that the list of fetch-quest items is a quite a bit longer than I had first thought. There’s the eight virtues (each of which require you to gather a rune, learn a mantra, find the shrine and have sufficient XP in that virtue) PLUS eight stones PLUS a bell/book/candle PLUS three syllables of a word PLUS the “axiom” PLUS three items required to explore certain parts of the map (silver horn, “flying device” and the word of passage) PLUS a sextant, so you can follow certain directions PLUS Mondain’s skull, which presumably does something.
All of these bar 6 of the 8 stones are found on the overworld map. So there’s much less emphasis on dungeon delving than in Ultima III.
But that brings us to the next two tweaks UIV has made – the map is about double the size, and the random encounter rate is jacked up a LOT. One of the problems with UIII is that it was pretty savage about food consumption, but in the early-mid part of the game there just weren’t enough random encounters to ensure that you’d get sufficient gold to buy food. After exploring the UIV map for a bit I realised why UIII had fewer random encounters – party combat (introduced in UIII) very quickly becomes tedious. UIII had the added bonus of more powerful and easier to use spells – the gathering of reagents quickly discourages you from casting spells too much.
To find all of various bits and bobs you have to do quite a bit of exploring, and if you retreat from combat you’ll lose virtue points. So we’ve got this massive map that I hate exploring because I hate the random encounters. For some parts I just saved my game, then ran away from each encounter until I found the item I was looking for, then reloaded and went straight for it the second time. That doesn’t work at sea though, because you can’t escape (and at sea, you don’t even get any gold for your victories). I confess I looked online to find the town hidden at sea, I failed to see what grinding through a manual search would prove.
I’ve also found that the hints and conversations, while a great improvement on the predecessors, can still get pretty obtuse. Also there’s so many bits of disparate information (the significance of many aren’t immediately apparent) that it’s easy to miss what you’ve been told, even if you’ve been writing it down.
I snapped and looked at an online FAQ on three occasions – first, I was supposed to ask someone about a stone, and didn’t realise I specifically had to say “White Stone”. Second, when I knew that Sniflet in Buccaneer’s Den would say something important (thanks to the cluebook) but couldn’t get him to speak about anything. When asked about his “job”, he’d say he’s “hiding”. But he wouldn’t respond to “hiding”, you had to ask him about “hide”. And finally when I was searching for Mandrake Root – I knew the rough locations to search (which was itself tedious because the locations are a swamp, and each steps poisons you) but could not find the damn things. Consult online – you can only find it during a double-new moon. Checked my notes – no, I was never told that.
There were also a few times when I found items I didn’t even know I was looking for. I went into the Lycaeum and searched the library, because why wouldn’t you, then found the “Book of Truth”. Didn’t know I was looking for that. Went through my notes and found it was mentioned by one person right at the start – wouldn’t have remembered that in a hurry.
So Garriot got a lot better at giving the player guidance with this game, but still had a ways to go.
Current status is that I’m an avatar in 7 of the 8 virtues (Compassion is not levelling up through normal play, I’m going to have to do some grinding) and got all bar two of the items. So the plan is:
- Go through the three dungeons that I’ve found to get three of the stones;
- Find and explore the remaining dungeons to get the last of the stones;
- Figure out what on earth said stones actually do; and
- Find the last two items – a “flying device” (presumably a balloon) and something to magically strengthen the ship’s hull.
I’ve got a lead on the balloon, but nothing on how to strengthen the ship’s hull. Cross that bridge when I come to it.
Time spent so far: 27 hours
Current impression: Skyrim circa 1985. With more annoying combat
ULTIMA IV PART THREE – VIRTUE HUNTING
Approx 30 hours in.
I’ve actually played more than that, but I really need two blog posts to talk about what’s happened in that time. There’s two, maybe three blog posts left to this game (including this one).
But today I want to deal with an important announcement. Ladies and gentlemen, I’m pleased to announce that since my last post, I have become the Brittanian embodiment of all that is good and true. I, am an Avatar.
Turns out that you lose your avatar-ness if you lose your virtue points. And now I’m back down to zero in Valour and Sacrifice. I will have to start rebuilding them again, from scratch. Did I mention this game has only one save slot?
It is at this point, that I utter the mantra of frustrated players everywhere – FUCK. THAT. There must be an easier way…
- enter the dungeons I’ve found to get the stones from them, hit level 8 and get the last companion;
- find the last few dungeons and get the stones from them;
- get the flying machine from outside the “Hythloth” dungeon (which I need to find) and use it to find the white stone from the overworld map;
- figure out what to do with said stones;
- figure out how to strengthen the hull of my ship; and
- get into the abyss, read the codex and finish the game.
So what have I learned from this play session?
The designers obviously thought that part of the fun would be figuring out how the game actually works. To an extent that works; Ultima IV is about exploration, and its tonal theme is not really about avatars or virtues, but “stranger in a strange land”. So there’s a nice verisimilitude in exploring the system at the same time that you explore the world. The plot makes it quite clear that you’re from Earth, you’re in a strange place, and you’re learning how things work.
But you can only learn the Ultima IV system by trial and error. Which is not great when either the feedback isn’t clear, or if new variables are introduced late in the piece without warning. I got stuck on the “how do I hire this NPC” question because 30 hours in is too late to start referring to my character’s numerical level, at least without some sort of guidepost. I got stuck on the “virtue point” issue because I didn’t know that losing virtue points still mattered until it was too late.
It’s fair to say that if I’d bought this game back in 1985 I probably would’ve quit at that point.
Thank God for cheating.
Time spent so far: 30 hours
Current impressions: Trial and error is poor game design when errors take too long to fix
ULTIMA IV PART FOUR – THE DUNGEONS
I have made my way through the various dungeons and sorted out what the stones were for. And fortunately my assessment of this game has strongly tipped back into the positive. The dungeons are quite good, and I’m finally seeing some emphasis on the the “virtue” theme of this game.
Each dungeon contains two things of note – a coloured stone and at least one altar room. The altar room/s are always at level 8, and interestingly they always have 4 exits. Each exit links to a different dungeon, so you can travel between dungeons via these altar rooms. This helps me find the Hythloth Dungeon and the “flying machine”, which, as expected, is a balloon (eventually I learn that there’s a second entrance at Lord British’s castle, but I’ll skip that part).
This balloon is also a lifesaver. The balloon travels at high speed either North, South, East or West, as dictated by the current wind. There are no random encounters in a balloon – and you can use the “wind change” spell to steer the thing. I can now find ALL of the dungeons and travel to and from the towns without a single. damn. encounter. All praise Lord British!!!
Eventually I’ve got all the stones. I also find a way to strengthen the hull of my ship, although I had to look this one up. In Serpent’s Hold there’s a sailor who’s from a shipwreck of the “HMS Cape”. Alright, I obviously need to find it. Ask him “where”, he won’t say. Ok – go to all the towns, ask everyone about HMS Cape. Nothing. Give up, look online. Apparently there was a secret passage I missed in Serpent’s Hold where an NPC told me that HMS Cape had a “wheel”, and that a survivor should know where the wreck is. Duh – but he won’t tell me where! Hang on…go back to the sailor. Say “wheel” to him – and he gives me the location. URG.
Ok whatever, I’ve got all the bits and pieces now. But what do I do with them?
Going through my notes I realise that each stone relates to a virtue, and each altar relates to one of the three principles. I can also figure out which combination of the three principles creates each virtue.
Eventually I figure out that if I “use” the “stones” on an altar, I get the option of inserting 4 coloured stones. On each altar I have to insert stones for each virtue that relates to that particular principle. This is quite clever, because you can just use logic to figure out that, for example, “Sacrifice” is a combination of Courage and Love, and that “Honour” is both Truth and Courage.
This is unique, even by modern standards. I can’t think of any other game that requires me to think philosophically about what drives “compassion”.
Each time I sort out an altar I get “part of a key”. I remember reading about this…I need a 3 part key to enter the Abyss. So that’s what the stones are for!
Eventually, I’ve got the key, and it’s time for the endgame.
Join me next time for when I finish this beast.
It later occurred to me that in my excitement of nearing the endgame, I skipped over the negatives in these dungeons. There is one big flaw worth mentioning – the rooms are way too crowded for a party of 8. Your characters move one square per turn, and they can’t move through each other. So realistically only 1-4 party members will ever be meaningfully involved per combat, but you’ll be forced to move each character, in order, every round. That means it’s easy to press spacebar one to many times and accidentally skip your sole effective character, and so have to wait another round before you can actually do anything that turn.
This game does not need party sizes of up to 8. It’s another example of where some extra content just makes the game bigger not better.
Credits: Maps for Ultima III, Bard’s Tale and Ultima IV from (respectively) https://strategywiki.org/; The Adventurer’s Guild (http://brotherhood.de/Bardstale/talefiles/about/index.html) and http://ultima.wikia.com/.
ULTIMA IV PART FIVE – ENDGAME