(This post is from my old blog, where I also did gradual posts chronicling my progress. If you want to see those posts, they’re available here)
Well that was a journey. But now that it’s over, why I do have to say about Ultima IV? Let’s start off with probably the most controversial of my musings; what IS the theme of Ultima IV, and what effect do the virtues actually have?
Virtues -v- Stranger in a Strange Land: the theme of Ultima IV
In my very first post I said that the theme of Ultima IV is “stranger in a strange land”, not the virtues. Was I right?
Let’s look at the beginning sequence. You’ll note that the framing device clearly put the focus on you, the player, being pulled into a strange new land, NOT virtues. Let’s look a bit more closely:
It begins with you in the everyday world, but with the mysterious circle of stones in the background as foreshadowing. Then a portal appears, it drops a book that speaks of “a land strange to you”, which you read. You then rise “unbidden” to your feet and walk off to find a traveling fair, “strange that you came that way earlier and noticed nothing”. Then we have the very first line of text that anyone in this game says to you:
Comparison to previous Ultima games and his contemporaries:
But each of the early Ultima games were really significantly different from the last, and elements from older games are significantly tweaked to improve how they fit together. For example:
- Aklabeth (“Ultima 0”) has the dungeons;
- Ultima I has the overworld;
- Ultima II has the moon gates, multiple towns with NPCs who have information, horses and sailing ships;
- Ultima III drops the arcade elements of Ultima I and II, and introduces party combat, a hard-copy spell book and “wind direction”; and
- Ultima IV drops the sci-fi elements, introduces virtues and also starts providing significant stat bonuses on levelling up (stat increases were previously a big focus). The “balloon” sequence is reminiscent of the earlier arcade sequences, though much easier.
So overall, what do I say about UIV? Is it a good game?
Yes. As I’ve said before, its strength really lies in how it mechanically requires the player to engage with its world, which makes the world feel alive in a way that’s very rare without either significant graphical fidelity (Skyrim) or complex interlocking systems (GTA III).
This is a massive achievement considering it was designed for the Apple II.
Its biggest weakness is that its systems are not sufficiently deep to remain engaging for the length of the game. Combat is the biggest culprit. That could have been avoided by either adding more variation (as happens in the dungeons) or just reducing the amount of combat from mid-game onwards through, for example, special items or spells.
An interesting question is whether it would have been just as fun with a quest-log, instead of having to keep all those notes? I say – no. Physically taking the notes yourself is a big part of what forces you to engage with the game world despite the primitive graphics and lack of a complex world-systems (such as a day/night cycle, or NPCs that interact with each other). I accept it’s a hurdle for modern gamers, but that doesn’t make it a bad part of its design.
Recommended for – People who want to see a vibrant world created out of simple elements, RPG historians.
Not recommended for – Anyone else. I would love to recommend this game because I did enjoy it, but I think the combat is just too tedious for me to make a general recommendation.
Release date: 16 September 1985 on Apple II.
Purchase date: 16 July 2014
Platform: For me, PC (via GOG)
Developer: Origin Systems
Lead Designer: Richard “Lord British” Garriott
Time to finish: Approx 70hrs
Last word: Amazing for its creation of a living world using elements you don’t see used at all in modern games, but not recommended for modern play due to repetitive combat.