|Given what we find out about the gargoyles, this is a somewhat cruel cover image.|
Ultima VI: The False Prophet
Origin Systems (developer and publisher)Released 1990 DOS; 1991 for Commodore 64, FM Towns, PC-98; 1992 for Amiga, Atari ST, Sharp X68000; 1993 for Super NES
Date Started: 8 February 2014
Date Ended: 7 March 2014
Date Ended: 7 March 2014
Total Hours: 30
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 68
Ranking at Time of Posting: 141/142 (99%)
Final Rating: 68
Ranking at Time of Posting: 141/142 (99%)
Ultima VI is one of the best games I've played since starting this blog, and I fully expect it to finish, quantitatively, among the top three. Whether it technically beats Ultima V or even Pool of Radiance isn't a particularly important concern--at this level, small differences in the final rating are somewhat meaningless. In broad strokes, in terms of just exploring and messing around, I had more authentic fun with Ultima VI than any other game I can remember, but it leaves me unimpressed in certain RPG categories, predominantly combat.
This is one of the first true "sandbox" RPGs that we've seen: a game where you can explore a large world at will, hit most plot points in almost any order, and have a lot of fun with the possibilities inherent in the engine. Because I liked the engine and gameplay experience so much, it left me wanting a little more than it provided. The developers at Origin have never quite understood the concept of "side quests" even when creating a game engine that seems custom-made for them. There wasn't any reason that the mayors of the various cities couldn't have offered some optional dungeon-crawling quests to retrieve objects or deal with a threat; I wouldn't have even minded the Akalabeth-style "go into the dungeon SHAME and kill a(n) REAPER" quests--anything to get more out of the world and gameplay. In the end, we got a few optional areas and a couple of lame side-quests like retrieving The Wizard of Oz for Lord British.
|Pretty much all the game's side quests involved taking books from the library and never returning them.|
The story similarly offers a paradox. On the one hand, it seems full of nonsensical elements and careless retcons. On the other, it's only that it provides so much detail that we can poke at its inconsistencies. Most game worlds of the era weren't anywhere near this developed. Thus, we have to simultaneously praise the series for its excellent attention to history, description, and lore, and criticize it for, much of the time, not making any sense.
I know many fans would like to forgive and dismiss the retcons and plot holes in light of Ultima's stark originality in having a story at all--in light of it developing what is probably the richest game world that we saw in the era. I'd like to join these fans, but I can't, for two reasons. First, my blog has never been primarily about praising games for how good they were at the time. My blog is about recognizing that games, no matter how old, can still be a lot of fun in 2014. This conversely means also recognizing that what was good then is bad from a 2014 point of view. Second, as I pointed out in my first post on Ultima VI, most of the retcons and plot holes are entirely unnecessary. It's not like there was some vital plot element that required the gargoyles to live on the other side of a flat world, rather than just within the underworld, or that required the Avatar to be the hero of the first three games. No huge change of dialogue would have been necessary for everyone to say, "Yeah, we realize that it wasn't you who raised the Codex from the Abyss, but since you're the one who set everything in motion, we're blaming you anyway."
|A bit of the game manual, which makes the Avatar the hero of the first two games and changes the action of the second game to Sosaria. There was no reason for either change.|
Thus, we end up with a bunch of plot revisions that are simply thoughtless, a geography that doesn't even try to make sense, and an overall feeling not that the developers didn't know how to resolve the inconsistencies but rather that they just didn't care. I wasn't at Origin in 1990, so I can't say for sure what happened, but I honestly suspect that someone raised these concerns and the project leaders said something like, "It's just a silly little fantasy world. Let's focus on the game engine. Who really cares if everything in the story fits together perfectly?" Well, I do--at least for the first GIMLET category.
In a recent comment, Corey Cole references the "Uncanny Valley" phenomenon. Technically, the term comes from robotics and computer animation, and it refers to a abrupt negative drop--a valley--in human responses to things that look almost-but-not-quite human. They might think that a robot like the one in Lost in Space is cute and funny and a robot as advanced as the ones in AI: Artificial Intelligence are cool, but somewhere in between--say, the Johnny Cab driver from the original Total Recall--is an aesthetic that repels us.
|An image from Masahiro Mori's article on the phenomenon.|
As a metaphor, the term works for a lot of situations in which the lower extreme is okay, the upper extreme is great, but the point in the middle sucks. It notably applies to graphics and sound in CRPGs. I didn't mind Wizardry's wireframe dungeons, and I love the vistas of Skyrim, but in between there's a large era of CGA and EGA graphics that are "good for the time" but pretty awful today. Applied to story, I don't hate games with the barest sketch of a story (e.g., most RPGs from the 1980s), and I love games with extremely detailed stories, full of history and lore (e.g., Morrowind, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), but I have a disdain for games that tell stupid stories, or treat them carelessly (e.g., Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back, Ultima II), and that is, at least in part, what we have here.
Still, all of this discussion is only to suggest that Ultima VI under-performs its two predecessors, and perhaps some of the best examples of other game worlds during the time (e.g., Starflight, the Gold Box games, The Magic Candle), not that it's an entirely "bad" story and setting. It'll still rate reasonably high in that category. It's just that, for me, its gameplay elements far outperform its plot.
Before I get to the rating: A few posts ago, we talked about the pirate treasure quest and how it was ultimately unnecessary to the game. I didn't fully realize the implications of this until I watched a speed-run of the game that took only slightly more than 30 minutes (and that's with the opening and end-game screens). If you already know everything--including the mantras and the positions for the Orb--all you have to do is:
- Start the game, talk to Lord British about how the Orb works
- Grab some quick cash to fund your endeavors, buy the necessary spells
- Collect the runes, free the shrines (getting to them by the Orb), get the moonstones
- Warp down to the gargoyle world, visit John, learn Gargish, enlist Beh-Lem, put on the Amulet
- Put together the pieces of the balloon
- Find the Vortex cube at Stonegate
- Head to the Altar of Singularity and then the endgame
You can cut out all combats except the first one in Lord British's throne room and all dungeons except the last room of Hythloth where John is. Of the steps above, the balloon part takes the longest, which is funny given that you only need it for about three seconds of gameplay.
Let's see where it stands in a GIMLET.
1. Game World. I covered my thoughts on this above, so I won't repeat them here. It's not a bad plot, and I like that it continues the tradition of the rest of the "Age of Virtue" trilogy by not having the main quest focus on a "big bad" that you need to kill. There certainly is plenty of lore about the history of the land, pirates, the gargoyles, the gargoyle virtues, and such. I just wish there weren't so many inconsistencies and absurdities.
I like game worlds that react to your presence and respond to your actions. Ultima VI does that with items, but not with NPCs. With only a few exceptions, NPC dialogue remains fixed regardless of where you are in the plot progression, and no one acknowledges anything that you do, from liberating the shrines to discovering the true nature of the gargoyles. Score: 7.
|Lord British fails to note the slain body of Chuckles in front of him.|
2. Character Creation and Development. None of the Ultima games have been particularly strong in this category. I love the virtue-based character creation process except that it no longer has any bearing on what kind of character you play. You have some good options for sex and character portrait, but we're deep into an era of complex attributes and skills, and we don't see any of that in this series. You get a maximum of eight levels, and leveling up increases your hit points and attributes (the latter depending on a shrine). I didn't like that magic was essentially useless for most of the other party members.
But aside from the logistics of the character sheet, the game continues to excel in role-playing opportunities. It's the third game in the series to feature a "karma" meter (did any other games of the era?). It offers real temptations to steal, burgle, and cheat, and there are more opportunities to do these things than in the previous titles. Score: 6.
|My final Avatar had max everything.|
3. NPC Interaction. About as strong as it was in IV and V. I still love the keyword-based dialogue approach, expanded here to allow the use of actual sentences and including some subtle help. I love that so many disparate NPCs can join the party, and that you can't get very far in the game without teasing out key elements of lore from a variety of townsfolk with unique personalities. I love the surprise of encountering an NPC in a remote part of the game map and wondering what he'll have to say. I liked the occasional comments from members of my party and I wish the game had done a lot more with that. I still don't like that there are no true dialogue options--that there's no way to role-play a character in NPC interactions the same way there is in world interactions. Score: 8.
4. Encounters and Foes. A step back from V, I thought. The menagerie of creatures is still very well-described in the game manual, and they still have their strengths and weaknesses that require you to adjust combat tactics, but not to the degree that we saw in V. The "room" encounters are gone, and not replaced with very much in the way of puzzles. Most encounters have only one solution and require very little in the way of creativity or thought. Finally, I thought the respawn rate of enemies was balanced fairly well. Score: 6.
5. Combat and Magic. I thought the series hit its height in V in terms of difficulty, tactics, and terrain. While I normally appreciate a game that integrates combat into the main adventuring screen (I discussed this last year in relation to Chaos Strikes Back) and allows for some computer control of characters, I think the previous method--a separate combat screen--worked better for Ultima. The NPC AI for combat here is poor, but manually controlling each character is a little too frustrating. There are still lots of tactics having to do with spells, use of items, and use of terrain, but the overall reduced difficulty of combat makes them less meaningful.
The game also took a step back in spells. I appreciate that there are so many "utility" spells and that the nature of the game mechanics allows so many interesting things to happen with them. But it annoys me that only the Avatar can be a powerful spellcaster (the others, if they can cast spells at all, are crippled by low spell points) and that so many of the spells are useless. The transition to a "spellbook" method of casting means that you no longer have fun game mechanics like intuiting the right syllables or the right combination of reagents. There are spells of enormous power in this game and virtually no reason to cast them, especially since the game's toughest enemies (daemons) are magic-resistant. Score: 5.
|Gideon prepares to resurrect a cat the party accidentally killed when they blew open a door with a powder keg.|
(As an aside: it occurs to me at this late juncture that it would have been a lot more fun to save the shrine-freeing quests for later in the game, when I had more spells and was able to use them effectively against the small armies of gargoyle occupiers. Of course, this is a bad option for plot and role-playing reasons.)
6. Equipment. One of the game's best categories. I love the process of slowly filling in a paper doll interface with new and upgraded equipment, and VI delivers on this in spades. Not only that, it makes it easy just to (L)ook at a weapon or piece of armor and determine its relative protective value. The weight and encumbrance system adds to the logistics but never seems too restrictive. I love all of the "utility" items, like shovels, pick-axes, and powder-kegs, that you can employ both in ways that the creators intended and did not. There's even one bit of item-crafting involved in creating a magic shield.
On the negative side, the game dumbed-down its approach to food (you don't really need it) just as food got interesting. There are no item restrictions, which might have led to more interesting NPC choices. And all of the acquisition of weapons, armor, and magic items would have been more meaningful with harder combat. Still, a great part of the game. Score: 7.
7. Economy. In retrospect, it's a lot better than I covered in the brief section of my posting a few days ago. Even if you do the wisp trick, it's hard to get through the game with a complete spellbook--and this is especially true if you give a second character a spellbook--so the economy at least remains relevant through most of the game. There are also some big-ticket equipment items (like magic armor) that you'll never give to every character unless you buy it. (Although, again, the relative ease of combat makes this somewhat unnecessary) Gold drops are not quite as plentiful on slain enemies, making it all the more exciting when you find gold nuggets strewn about Shame or when you can sell an extra magic bow for a few hundred gold pieces. Late in the game, I even found myself scrambling a bit: I'd spent so much on spells and reagents that I didn't have enough to pay some key NPCs to help make my balloon.
The economy would have been slightly better with more magic weapons to buy (and, in turn, harder enemies), but for the most part it was better than I let on during my postings. It's tough to design an economic system tight enough that the player has a true incentive to steal, and the creators did that here. Score: 8.
8. Quests. It's a good main quest, with a fun plot twist in the middle of it, but why-oh-why can't the Ultima series get on board with side quests? You've got a big world and a great game engine--give us more to do with it!
That said, the stages of the main quest were interesting and involved a lot of sub-quests, if not side quests. And the game isn't totally bereft of side-quests; it's just that the ones it offers are somewhat lame, like retrieving a book for Lord British (and, apparently Dr. Cat, though I missed that one) and a dragon egg for a cook who rewards you only with a smile. There are at least two plot elements that seem like side quests but are, maddeningly, unsolvable: the murder of Quenton in Skara Brae, and the healing of Matt's muteness in Britain. Although there are optional roads on the main quest, there are no alternate endings.
Ultimately, I feel that the game was about as good in this category as Ultima V, but it surprised me when I looked at my rating for Ultima V, and I saw that I gave it a 7 despite having no side quests, no alternate outcomes, and very few ways to role-play the main quest. I think I rated it too high, and I'm going to have to rate VI more consistent to how I've rated other recent games. Just having a main quest is only one of my four criteria, and it only gets you so far, no matter how good it is. Score: 5.
9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. Both the main game and cut-scene graphics are pretty good, certainly nothing to complain about. I didn't mind the game music, but there was no way to turn it off independently of sound, and naturally no way (in this era) of setting the music volume differently than the sound volume. This meant that I had to turn the music off at the setup screen. The sound effects are tolerable but certainly not yet "good." It has some background effects like ticking clocks and cackling fireplaces that are at least okay. I like how cyclopes thud and shake the screen nearby, but many of the monsters are curiously mute. Spell and combat sound effects are, again, tolerable.
I seem to differ with a lot of Internet commenters on the interface. Yes, too little fits into the main game window, but beyond that, I thought it was great. I thought the inventory was easy to use, and I really liked that the keyboard and mouse were redundant, so you could use one or the other or, as I did, both in tandem for their strengths. The ability to set an active character is also a strength of the game, though rendered a little annoying when you can't re-activate "party" mode from more than a couple of squares away. While the AI in combat may be bad, the AI for characters following the Avatar is good: they avoid poison, lava, and other hazards (unless the Avatar walks through them), and they always catch up. I think it's one of the best game engines we've seen so far, and I'm glad it shows up again in the two Worlds of Ultima games, even if I'm not excited about them for plot reasons. Score: 7.
10. Gameplay. My only complaint here is on the difficulty. The game is way too easy, with the Orb of Moons making it too easy to travel and Lord British's auto-resurrection, plus the "Help" spell, making it likely that you'll never need to reload except for plot-related reasons. With no particularly tough combats, there isn't much incentive to build up your inventory, master all the spells, or grind your characters to the highest level. Hythloth should have been crawling with nasty creatures. The Altar of Singularity should have told me, "Yes, you need to visit the three shrines, but since the gargoyle world started to collapse, literally everything bad has gone to live in those caves." Instead, we got the occasional dragon or demon that could be defeated with a couple of spells and a lot of melee work.
But everything else in this category is good. The game is almost completely non-linear, and this non-linearity makes it very replayable despite not having alternate directions in the plot. I played in a relatively "standard" way, but during a replay, you could have some fun saving the shrine-liberations for last, when you can maximize your spell power, or explore the dungeons at the same time you hit their associated cities, or warp immediately to the gargoyle world and keep Beh-Lem with you as a best friend for the entirety of the Britannia part of the game. The pacing is also excellent--it's the rare game that left me wanting more (but only a little) when it was concluded.
Finally, it's one of the few games of any era in which you can have a lot of fun just screwing around--in which you can make little vignettes and scenarios for your characters that don't depend on the regular plot. Free every prisoner in Yew! Avenge Quenton's death! Read every book in the library! Fill the throne room with so many chests that no one can walk anywhere! Pile bodies in the dungeon and burn them! Make your main weapons gunpowder and cannons! Develop Sherry into an indestructible Mouse of Vengeance! Play a jazz riff on your panpipes! And above all, don't worry too much if the game doesn't really acknowledge these flights of fancy.
The engine is just brilliant in these possibilities, and perhaps most notably, it features some mechanics that we no longer see. As much as I love the last three Elder Scrolls games, do you know what I can't do in any of them? Destroy a chair. Play an instrument. Batter down a door. Throw a wine bottle across the room and have it shatter on the floor. Row a boat. Start or douse a fire. Lock a door. Oh, Ultima VI has plenty of limitations itself, of course, and I don't want to suggest that it's "more advanced" than modern games, but the sheer number of possibilities that it offers puts the gameplay experience at the top of the list, with everything else it does well making up for the relative ease. Score: 9.
Add 'em all up and we get a final score of 68--still one point lower than Ultima V! But owing to small variances in scores that I can never make fully consistent, I think we can consider them tied. V is a "tighter" game, with better combat and difficulty, and just as good in most other categories. VI offers better game mechanics that create that "sandbox" feeling.
My positive opinions are in no way controversial; there's probably more written on Ultima VI than any other game of 1990 (or any previous year, for that matter), and almost all of it is positive. The sheer number of fan remakes and ports, some continuing today, attest to how fondly everyone remembers it. It ranks in the 91st percentile on MobyGames's rankings, and the words "best" and "awesome" appear repeatedly in the user reviews.
Scorpia's review in the June 1990 Computer Gaming World (it starts on Page 11) is an interesting read. It's easy to forget that many of the elements in Ultima VI--combat on the main screen, all party members visible at all times, party members with minds of their own, towns and cities integrated with the rest of the game world, unique portraits for every NPC--were brand new at the time, and it took a period of adjustment before players used to IV and V could learn to appreciate this new style. You can feel some of that angst in the review, in which Scorpia says she has "some very profound, mixed feelings." (Scorpia was never one to embody humility, but I think she means "profoundly-mixed feelings.") Despite that statement, her review is almost entirely positive, and the things she flagged as negative--the triviality of the map quest, poor AI in combat, and inconsistencies in plot--are the same things I've remarked on. Ultimately, she called it a "very good game," praising the NPC conversations, the interface, the plot, and all of the little touches that make it feel like a living world.
Incidentally, CGW nominated Ultima VI for "RPG of the Year" for 1990 but gave the award to Starflight II, which was a 1989 game, but whatever. (The other nominees were Dragon Wars, Keys of Maramon, and Chamber of the Sci-Mutant Priestess.) I don't agree with the decision, but it's at least sensible--not baffling in the way that it was when they gave the award to Elvira (a 1990 game) in 1991.
Since I won, I've had some fun reading other modern players' takes on the game. Ophidian Dragon had a fun series of posts in 2007 in his "Blogging Ultima" project, but the ones I enjoyed most were Nakar's epic series of 22 posts on the game in November 2007. Nakar hit upon so many of the same plot holes and jokes as I did that you'd be forgiven for thinking we're the same person. But he's much funnier. I woke up Irene in the middle of the night because I was laughing so hard. He starts off playing straight but completely goes off the rails (hilariously) by the end.
I remember Ultima VII as having many of VI's strengths, especially when it comes to the sandbox-like game engine, although with even worse combat. I also don't like that the dialogue switches to clickable keywords, but this might be balanced with more dialogue options (I don't remember). I think perhaps there are better side-quests, too. Whatever the case, I look forward to checking it out in 1992. But well before then, we'll have the two Worlds of Ultima games and probably Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.
Moving on, we unintentionally encounter two games with the word "Tunnels" in their titles: 1982's Tunnels of Doom and 1990's Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan. If you're wondering what happened to some other games, I rejected Lords of Doom as an RPG and moved Silmar to where it belongs in 1991.