First of all, I feel stupid. Why? Because I can’t believe I never gave that game a chance back in the day. Sure, I did play it for a bit, but never really got into it, due to me not being into RPG’s at that time. Yeah, c’mon then, call me ignorant, that’s fine. But fact is, now, 29 years after its original release on the Apple II, I finally gave it another shot and gee, what a game it is. It truly must be one of the most innovative titles I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot. So, with no further ado, please welcome Ultima IV.
Britannia needs you!
Crisis struck the land of Britannia. No, there aint any evil forces threatening the continent, those times are gone since the ‘Age of Darkness’ ended, an era covered in the first three Ultima games. What Lord British, ruler of Britannia, urgently needs is someone who can lead them into a new era, someone who possesses all the required virtues to guide them into a bright future. In short, they’re looking for the Avatar, they’re looking for you.
Of virtues and shrines
So the goal is not to defeat some evil wizard or rescue a princess, it’s about becoming the Avatar, a master of the eight virtues (compassion, honesty, valour, honour, justice, sacrifice, humility and spirituality, and yes, I had to look that up, always forget half of them). There are several ways to achieve that, such as giving money to the poor to boost compassion or letting injured foes escape to raise honour, for instance. In short, one has to carefully consider his or her actions, because everything you do will affect those stats in one way or another.
Every virtue got its own shrine, which must be visited in order to gain avatarhood of a virtue. To be able to enter them one has to possess the appropriate rune, which can be found in one of the major cities. Furthermore, the player has to know the proper mantra. Without it, meditating in front of a shrine won’t do a thing, apart from wasting time. But fear not, someone in those cities always knows the mantra, and it’s just a matter of asking the right person. The same goes for the location of the runes, so beware, you will do a lot of talking.
Screenshots (click to enlarge)
Creating a character in Ultima IV is quite unique. Instead of assigning points to the various stats / skills, one has to decide how to deal with certain situations, and on the basis of your answers the game will determine your character class.
And I don’t have a clue how I do it, but clearly remember the few times I did create a character in the past, he always ended up being a bard. Like my current character. See, after answering the last question, the game spawned me next to a town and a large castle. A quick look at my stats revealed that my character is indeed a bard. Now, the thing is, I named him ‘Dude‘ and was planning to use him for a test run, to get used again to the interface and controls before starting a proper game. Well, that was several days ago and I must’ve invested well over 15 hours into that ‘test run’ already. Too late to start over again, so my character is stuck with the innovative name of ‘Dude‘.
The land of Britannia
To the right a map of Britannia (don’t be shy, click on it to see it in a higher resolution). The continent is fairly large, with several islands located off the coast (Spoiler alert: There’s an evil island located in the south-east corner, not shown on the map. Hey, the cold war was still ongoing when this game got released, so everything evil had to be somewhere in the east). At certain intervals, moongates will appear and can teleport the player and his party to a different part of the map, which can be quite handy at times. But you have to be quick, otherwise they simply disappear and you have to wait for the moons getting aligned again.
Most of the time will be spent travelling to different locations, trying to get hold of the runes required to enter those shrines. Should the player get attacked, the game changes to the combat screen. Combat itself is, like the whole game, turn-based. Well, sort of. The thing is, if you don’t enter a command within a certain amount of time, you automatically pass a turn. Speaking of commands, there’s no menus or icons to click at, so everything has to be entered via keyboard shortcuts, like [A] for ‘Attack‘ or [C] for ‘Cast‘, to name a couple.
Towns will offer the player to rest, heal, buy new items and reagents (required for creating spells), or stock up on food. Characters don’t level up automatically. This is done by visiting Lord British, who can also heal the party free of charge.
And what would an RPG be without dungeons? Yeah, don’t know either. And while the majority of the game is presented in a top-down view, upon entering a dungeon the game switches to a 3D view.
talk type a bit
NPC interaction is quite interesting. Instead of multiple choice answers, you have to type in your queries and scan their answers for keywords, in case you need more information on a certain topic. But don’t fear, there’s no need to type in whole sentences, just a single word is all you need. Simple, but elegant.
The game itself seems to be centred around the number eight. There’s the aforementioned eight virtues for instance, or the eight major cities across the continent. And your party can consist of up to eight members. Speaking of your party, I don’t know if it’s just coincidence or bad luck, but Geoffrey the Warrior must be one of the most useless fighters in the history of computer RPG’s. Around 75 % of his attacks simply miss, which can be a bit annoying, to be honest.
Not much to say here. The graphics are simple, but do have a certain charm to them, while the music is quite catchy… no, not just quite, the music is catchy. And although the tune you hear while travelling is on an endless loop, it never get’s annoying.
Would a game like Ultima IV stand a chance in today’s gaming culture? Of course… not. Or do you really think gamers today want to play a game where you have to become a better person instead of just, you know, killing stuff and blowing everything to pieces? And to type in your queries during conversations would be too much to ask for. Plus, the fact that the game does not hold your hand and completely lacks a tutorial would most likely put off the majority of today’s casual gamers. And before anyone thinks I’m talking some elitist retro gamer crap right now, nope, the secret lies in the word ‘casual‘.
But if you do enjoy old-school RPG’s and don’t mind the simplistic graphics, I have to warn you: Ultima IV is highly addictive. In fact, it’s so addictive I achieved avatarhood in half of the virtues already. Not because I’m so good (trust me, I’m not), but because it’s the only game I play at the moment.
In short, a heaven for people who love old-school RPG’s and definitely a true classic.