As I mentioned recently, I last played Ultima IV ten years ago. Despite this, I still remember all of the virtues, which classes are associated with which virtues, and which towns are associated with which classes. I also remember the towns' basic locations and which companion I can pick up in each one.
There is a lot I do not remember, however, such as the locations of shrines and dungeons, the mantras for each shrine, the locations of the runes needed to enter the shrines, the specific things I have to do to achieve each virtue, the layouts of the towns, and all the things I must collect before the endgame. I also have trouble distinguishing in my memory between features of Ultima IV and later Ultimas--particularly Ultima V. (Which has the magic carpet? And in which do secret doors appear as barely-perceptible breaks in walls?) This is a good balance between remembrance and forgetfulness, and I only wish I could forget this much about Baldur's Gate. Maybe by the time I reach it again, I will.
The basic gameplay of Ultima IV is nearly identical to Ultima III, featuring a top-down perspective; a "tile-based" world with different physical features like trees, grass, and water; keyboard commands to do everything from (a)ttack to (j)immy a lock to (t)alk. The (z)tats key shows you your character statistics, which are strength, dexterity, and intelligence (wisdom was apparently jettisoned after Ultima III, as there is no longer a distinction between priest and mage spells). I was wrong in my last posting that my character starts with no equipment: I have an axe and a suit of leather armor. Ultima IV continues Ultima III's conventions of experience, levels, and magic points. As a fighter, I have none of the latter.
Since I have begun the game on an island, there isn't much to do but enter the nearby city, see what I can figure out, and hopefully buy some equipment. This is the city of Jhelom, home to fighters; the game starts you near the city that exemplifies the character class you chose.
I wander through the streets and begin my first dialogs with NPCs. This is where Ultima IV really stands out. In Ultima II and Ultima III, you could talk to dozens of NPCs but they only had one thing to say, like "DIG FOR EXOTICS" and "KILL MINAX WITH THE QUICKSWORD!" Just as often they'd say something useless like "UGH, ME TOUGH" and "PSST, WANT TO BUY A WATCH?" In Ultima IV, by contrast, NPCs have lots more to say, and almost all of it is useful. Furthermore, the way in which you communicate with NPCs is completely unique: you type the keywords you want to talk about. (Aside from Ultimas IV-VI, I know no other game that has this interface.)
My first conversation occurs a little way along the main street of Jhelom. I (t)alk to a fighter walking by, and the game tells me "you meet a valiant warrior. He says: I am Slithe," and then gives me a command prompt at which I may type key words to further our conversation. As I remember from previous experiences playing the game, NAME, HEALTH, and JOB are the three words that nearly everyone responds to. (I remember that Ultima VII has a bit of fun with this by staging a play that suggests these are the only words the Avatar ever spoke.) This is how my conversation with Slithe proceeds:
- HEALTH: "Only minor wounds!"
- JOB: "I fight battles!"
- BATTLES: "True valor is seen not in the force of arms, but in the force of will! Art thou valiant?"
- YES: "Then never flee unless the need is dire!"
A few other tries at conversation elicit the response, "That I cannot help thee with," so I end with a BYE. Granted, not the most verbose of conversations in a CRPG, but already he's give me more information than an entire town in Ultima III, and as much as almost all NPCs combined in Wizardry or The Bard's Tale. Most important, I've learned something about how to achieve the "valor" part of my avatarhood: never flee from battle.
As you can see, the NPC's own responses help determine what keywords to use. Here's another:
"You meet a ranger with a far away look."
- NAME: "I am Luke."
- HEALTH: "Quite well."
- JOB: "I seek the inner light!"
- LIGHT: "I come from Skara Brae and am on my way to Yew. Hast thou been to Skara Brae?"
- NO: "'Tis a spiritual city!"
- YES: "'Tis a city based on the virtue of justice!"
Now, if I didn't already know these things, this conversation would be quite helpful. In subsequent conversations, I learn of a red stone in the dungeon Destard, that I'll need to use that stone in an altar room to get "the third part of a key," and that I should stand my ground against non-evil creatures but try not to kill them. Throughout these conversations, there are a few chances to display or not display certain virtues. For instance, an enigmatic fighter named X asks me if I am the avatar. Since I am not, yet, I must say "no" or risk a blow to my honesty. Another character asks if I am "the most valiant of souls." To say "yes" would show a lack of humility.
Although most of the conversations in Ultima IV occur via prompts that you get from dialog, occasionally one character will tell you to ask another about a subject that you wouldn't have normally thought to ask about. For instance, at one point I meet a fighter named Hrothgar who tells me that another character named Aesop knows the mantra of valor. You would normally never get this from Aesop, a timid man hiding in the woods who questions his own bravery, but having been forewarned, you can mention MANTRA to him and find out that the mantra of Valor is "RA" and the shrine is on the next isle.
(One of the great things about playing Ultima IV with access to the Internet is I can find where some of these names come from. Aesop is obvious, but it turns out Hrothgar is an allusion to Beowulf (there's also a Hrothgar in Icewind Dale, I seem to recall). A fighter named Timrod could either be a play on the biblical Nimrod or an homage to American poet Henry Timrod. An essay written by the latter contains the line, referring to a man who has internalized his nation's character: "It is of no consequence, in his case, into what century, or what ultima thule, he may stray; he will still cary with him those characteristics which he imbibed from the national influences around him." A WikiPedia lookup on "ultima thule" reveals that it was a name used in medieval geographies for "any distant place located beyond the borders of the known world." Mind blown. )
For years, I have remembered Ultima IV's dialog system as a pinnacle of CRPG accomplishment, so I admit with some embarrassment that it doesn't quite live up to my memories. It's not in any way "bad," just not as good as I recalled. NPCs respond to such a limited selection of keywords that it really wouldn't have hurt the game if it had just given you those keywords (as games like Morrowind and Quest for Glory do). Moreover, typing words isn't quite the same thing as having dialog options, and Ultima IV doesn't really give you the latter. Except the ability to say "yes" or "no" to certain questions, you cannot have entire role-playing-driven conversations with NPCs the way you can in Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, or Neverwinter Nights. Nonetheless, this dialog system is very advanced for its time and makes the game a lot more interesting than any other CRPG of the era. You learn scads about the game world and your quest from your conversations.
My exploration of Jhelom is fairly swift. There are two people I cannot talk to because they're stuck behind locked doors--I'll have to get some keys to (j)immy them first. Presumably one of them is Geoffrey, who would join me if I wasn't already a fighter, as I don't see him anywhere else. With nothing left to do in town, I make my way out of the city. I'm in the process of wondering if I'm going to need to wait for a pirate ship to get off this island when suddenly a moongate (how could I have forgotten about those?) appears. I step in and find myself on another island, next to the city of Skara Brae. I still haven't had to fight anything yet. I suspect that's coming up.