I’m writing this because I wanted to play Ultima V. I realise that may take some explaining.
I recently put up a webpoll of what game I should play next, and the winner by a longshot was Ultima V. Fine – Ultima IV was a long time ago, and while it was a game that I was often lukewarm with at the time, it has blossomed in my memory into something quite different.
I now think that Ultima IV was a truly great game. Which is odd, because I certainly didn’t think that while I was playing it. But such is the way of memory I guess, it’s not the first time that I’ve grown to appreciate something more in hindsight.
But when I loaded up Ultima V, I soon realised that it shared two important factors with its immediate predecessor: (1) There was a lot of pre-game reading (which I dutifully printed out); and (2) I would have to write everything down.
Most of my gaming time is spent sitting on a chair in my kid’s room with my laptop trying to get the boy to sleep. That means that the light’s off and I have nowhere to write. Two insurmountable problems for starting Ultima V.
So I decided to try out Quest for Glory II, despite it scoring a spectacular zero votes on my little poll. I thought it wouldn’t matter until, next thing you know, I’ve finished it. I suppose after Bard’s Tale II and Bard’s Tale III I’d forgotten that most games don’t take 40+ hours to finish.
The verdict? Hm…how to put this….it’s like someone watered down a tequila shot to make it less offensive. Or went to McDonalds and ordered carrot sticks. Or watched Transformers but skipped the stupid bits.
Technically an improvement, but far less interesting.
For those who’ve not heard (or read my earlier post) the Quest for Glory series is famous and fairly-successful series of five games with an odd central conceit – it’s a puzzle-based RPG with an arcade-style combat system.
At the start of the game you choose your class (Figther, Thief or Wizard) and interact with the world in early-Sierra adventure game (think “point and click adventure” without the mouse). But unlike your standard puzzle-adventure game, most puzzles have three different solutions – one for fighter, one for thief and one for wizard.
On top of the class system you also have the other RPG staples – stats, skills and experience points, so that some solutions won’t work unless your stat/skills are high enough. And on top of that, it has a combat-system reminscent of Punch-Out (although whether you successfully hit or dodge depends on not just your timing, but your stats/skils).
Stats mixed with arcade-style combat. It didn’t really work in the first game either
In my review of the first game, I said that this weird genre mashing is hit-and-miss. So for the sequel it appears that Sierra decided to even out the rough-bits by toning down the RPG aspects and focusing on the core adventure-game aspects. I barely had to grind skills in this game, the combat was mostly irrelevant and much less emphasis was placed on the three-class system.
Problem – having cut all that content, they forgot to replace it with anything.
What you’re left with is a puzzle game that is, by and large, pretty straightforward. There’s some differences between the three classes but it’s only in respect of the side-quests, the main quest puzzles (and their solutions) will be much the same on each playthrough.
Worse, they added what must be the most tedious copy-protection I’ve ever seen – at the start of the game, you have to navigate the winding streets of an Arabian city using a map printed in the manual. Which means, unless you’ve printed out a hard-copy of the map, you’re constantly switching back and forth between the game-screen and the manual’s pdf.
Fnally, they put most of the puzzles on a strict timer system. The game lasts for 30 days of in-game time, with the plot-centric puzzles only arising on specific days. The rest of the time you’re just wandering around the game world, wondering what you’re missing, until suddenly you get a message that Godzilla-of-the-Week is attacking and you need to sort them out.
It’s not exactly engaging, and once you’ve explored the world you’ll be left wondering what you’re supposed to be doing a lot of the time, when the answer is – honestly – nothing.
Actually I was initially going to recommend this game regardless, but having now dwelt on its shortcomings, I can’t see why I should.
Yes, it’s still generally enjoyable – the world is fun in a “1001 Arabian Nights by Westerners” sort of way, and it’s quite vibrant with a lot of nice little touches. You’ll eat meals at the starting inn, be treated to a belly-dance and Epic Poems from time to time, or wander into a town square to suddenly see a visiting acrobat. The world is quite fun to visit, mostly because it’s a style you just couldn’t do any more considering modern Geo-political tensions and modern sensitivities to accuracy and cultural appropriation.
It feels so innocent to a modern eye, it’s hard not to be charmed. And some of it is (deliberately) very silly.
And to be fair, the idea behind this game probably was to focus on the world and storytelling aspects. The game quite proudly wears its “cinematic” pretentions on its sleeve, which is probably why the game is so heavily scripted to a strict timeline. As a pure piece of storytelling the game is fairly effective – it’s got a fair number of cutscenes but they never feel like it’s “too much”, probably because you’re watching them carefully for clues on how to handle upcoming puzzles. This was before the 90s “cinematic games” fad hit, so they were a bit ahead of their time.
Some of its cinematic allusions are more subtle than others.
Although I think Signor Ferrari is hitting on me.
And because it’s controversial – let’s talk cultural appropriation and accuracy for a moment. For the record, while I’m normally sympathetic to such matters I have no such concerns with this game. Of course it’s not a realistic depiction of ancient Arabia, in the same way that Shakespeare’s ancient Rome sounded an awful lot like renaissance England. Or the way that Aladdin isn’t very Chinese (that’s not a joke – Aladdin is set in China, it was just written by and for people who’d never been there). The game is not insensitive or insulting – whoever wrote this loved its setting, and it’s lovingly over-the-top in the same way the first game was (which, let’s not forget, was set in a fantasy-Europe-that-never-was).
But when you break it down into hard facts – no, I cannot recommend this game. With the weirdness of the genre mashing worn away, what you’re left with is a fairly straightforward puzzle game, and while it’s an effective “cinematic game” for the era, we’ve seen that trick done many times since. It’s still fun to play and the light-hearted jokes and horrible puns are quite enjoyable – it’s probably the most accessible game that I’ve played for a while. But personally, I think there’s better games out there.
Still, I enjoyed it enough to try out the next game! And I can import my character again – let’s see if they’re stupidly overpowered (I suspect the answer will be “yes”).
Release date: 1990
Purchase date: 12 September 2014 (via GOG)
Complete date: December 2018
Time spent: Approx 20 hours
Lead designers: Lori Ann Cole and Corey Cole
Developer: Sierra On-line
Publisher: Sierra On-line
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to try a pre-point and click adventure game that’s very playable and without the impossible puzzles or constant dying usually associated with games of that era.
Not recommended for: Adventure game enthusiasts who want a challenge.