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My Ultima IV experience: from a modern gamer’s view

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I had a love-hate relationship with Ultima IV.

I rarely force myself to play games I don’t want to play. If I don’t like it or not getting used to it, I just give up and move forward. Very few games gave me a torn feeling of frequent exchanging between attracted and hated, surprised and bored. The last game that gave me this feeling was System Shock 1, and that was another story. Ultima 4 is here again, yet the feeling is even stronger.

I got into Ultima series just recently this year, after finished Ultima Underworld for my Immersive Sim fulfillment, I got curious of the lore of Ultima series. Then I started to try Ultima games, and accidentally hooked by Ultima I and finished it. Ultima II was too tedious for me, and I wanted to take a break from dungeon grinding so I temporarily skipped Ultima III, then I came to Ultima IV, this famous RPG in the gaming history.

Ultima IV was an innovative RPG of its time and one of the most important game in gaming history. Compared to rather loose plots of previous games in the series, it has quite a different storyline, more meaningful dialogues with NPCs, with a morality system that affects many later and modern games. If you ask the fandom which one in the series you should begin with, they will probably introduce you U4, plus it’s free on GOG, so nothing complicated to get your hands on it. One thing that really complicated is, if you haven’t played Ultima I to III, the control itself is much confusing, where every letter on your keyboard have some kind of use, and you have to recite it.

This game started with a cutscene where a moon gate appeared and you see an amusement park, a fortune teller decides your class by asking you questions (another big influence in RPGs!). The questions are about “eight virtues” where you will learn more later, the inclination decides the starting point of your game. Honestly, I don’t really like moral questions status identification, it’s hard for me to treat them seriously, and very often I didn’t end up with the class I wanted. The result was, I ended up being a mage, when I just never play RPGs as a mage before. Something new, huh. It’s said that mage is a good class to start with so I might just be lucky this time.

This game. I’d say if you go in it blind, you might get into some troubles and will take a huge amount of time to amend it. First, is the morality system. I wouldn’t even know this game has a morality system if I didn’t read and watched about the game beforehand. Even if I know it exists, I searched in the game for a long time without even knowing where and how to know my morality status. I TRIED to become as good as possible on these virtues with my understanding, and it was painful. I felt guilty and worried about my points when I accidentally lied about if I know a fact. I didn’t know what should be justice and I ignored the existence of humility completely. I was misled by Spoony Review that said I should let all kinds of enemies flee, which made the fight even longer and boring, and I myself fled a lot in the first few hours. That was a big problem, because when I really got my hands on these virtues, I found my Valor rate was “coward”, and later I spent hours and hours just fixing it… And you’ll see I complain about the combat system later, which is a pain in the ass I can’t stop complaining about.

(You can certainly argue that I’m not doing well of these virtues in my nature so I failed. Yeah, I admit. I’m not suitable for saving the world but I still want to beat the game. That’s the struggle.)

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Then there are the Moongates. I skipped Ultima 2&3 so I got a bit of trouble in traveling methods in U4. I knew about getting a ship from pirates since U2 (I gave it up on my way trying to get a ship key), but very little knowledge I knew about Moongates. Even if I knew, it doesn’t help much, the map is completely new anyway. From this point I had to rely on guides and walkthroughs.

I really like the novel dialogue system introduced in this game. After these years, RPG games have given up this kind of text based input conversation, so it becomes novel again for new gamers. If I didn’t play Underworld before this one, the closest thing I can think about is Her Story (2015). The conversation often start from asking NPCs their jobs—you can also ask name, health, or something in mind, but the most efficient way is usually asking jobs.

I expected to be bored quickly since the dialogues are basic and simple, but surprisingly no! It’s often not so straightforward to get the information you need, AND information you don’t know you need. I tried to ask everyone in town directly about “rune”, “mantra” or “shrine”, but it doesn’t always works. Sometimes you need to reach a certain topic to ask about these things later.

Another thing that I actually like is ingredients mixing to get spells. Since U1, you need to buy magic by numbers, and now you buy ingredients instead and you need to mix it. Yeah it’s a little bit tedious but I see a prototype of Underworld’s rune system, which is interesting. However I didn’t know about magic at the beginning, and had many unnecessary setbacks due to it. The increase of different kind of magic might also represents a rough prototype idea of emergent gameplay, where you can do many interesting things like changing directions of winds, blink to the place hard to reach, navigate through dungeon levels freely, and move to Moongate like fast travel.

I can see innovations in many corner of the game and it keep surprising me. Secret passage is quite surprising to see, while it was a bit annoying when I didn’t know its existence, it really encourages me to observe more carefully of the environment. You can see through a gem to check possible secret rooms, and figure out how to reach the place. Secret passages to some of the stone rooms also surprised me when I thought there wouldn’t be something new. There are many many elements in this game that when it first appeared, it was confusing and tough to understand, but when you figure out the mechanics you feel surprised. I didn’t expect this many surprises in such an old game.

It all sounds perfect, certainly. But I was still having miserable moments in the game and sometimes even physically uncomfortable while playing (note that this game is not 3D other than dungeons and I have no motion sickness with 3D games).Well, I guess time to complain about the mechanic I hate the most in the game: combat. Movement was also bad, very slow progression in some region by design which is annoying, and the input lag is just crazy sometimes. But it’s completely tolerable compared to the combat.

I need to describe it first, it’s quite different from U1 and U2 where you fight by yourself. U4 is team based combat, no matter on world map or in dungeons, when you see a monster, you enter 2D top-down chess plate and fight with swarms of enemies. Combat is not a no-brainer, which is good and bad, but generally bad here. If you want to combat, first press A for attack, then give a direction, and you need to do this for everyone. Imagine you want to be quick but you have to press 16 buttons in a turn and distinguish your 8 people in the team to assign directions. Just… miserable. Enemies might flee, the whole combat system is just as unfriendly as possible for melees. luckily I’m a mage, my companion and good brother Iolo (I’m yulo so I just call him brother) is a bard, we started with ranged weapons. After more companions join the world map combat would just be a mess: control everyone that might block each other’s way, waiting for tens of enemies to respond, and control everyone again… finally you might get merely a few gold pieces as reward and possibly a poison trap. When I was grinding for virtue points, I only brought Iolo and luckily avoided this huge confusion of controlling everyone. However, in dungeon phase, you need to bring as many people as you can because enemies are kind of fixed in numbers, places and species. This messy phase is unavoidable sadly.

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But it’s not even the most confusing part. One thing I hate in all Ultima games chronologically up to this one, is the HORRIBLE accuracy of combat. It gradually became better with generally better weapons, but even with best weapons it’s kind of horrible. My main character is a mage, and cannot equip a large range of weapons and have to tolerate this horrible accuracy. I gave up U2 because I missed 30 times in a row and it drives me mad, and I didn’t expected having to tolerate it in U4 again, having an impulse to smash my keyboard when I didn’t hear the hit sound effect.

To be fair, I really see this combat system has some innovation and it’s pretty strategic by design. You and your teammates can attack from different directions with higher efficiency, trap enemies from fleeing, and protect each other by adjusting the position. But the combat itself just pretty lack of feedback. I mean, the physical feedback like sound and text of status is good this time unlike U2, but the XP and gold reward are just nothing compared to the effort and I’m really really not motivated to fight. Even worse the game force you to fight by this virtue system like I mentioned before. It can be even worse that there are too many encounters on world map that you have no way to bypass… I don’t mind being called a coward in this game if I don’t have to become full avatar, but think about it, even you have the option to flee, trying to flee each of everyone in your 8-people team is again a headache thing to do. The situation just stuck you there with this combat system.

Another thing that annoyed me a lot is getting a ship. I missed the time when pirate ships were just everywhere in earlier entries when I cannot get a single ship in over an hour. However, when I went to the Stygian Abyss, there were ships everywhere! That’s almost an insult to me……

Oh, apart from the annoying combat and sleep debuff which can prolong your single combat to an everlasting struggle, I actually liked to see Stygian Abyss. The first Ultima game I beat was Ultima Underworld, when I knew little lore of the whole series. U4 explained a lot of the background and I have a better understanding. Although I have a party of 8 now unlike in UU, but I don’t think some of them helped much. Sorry to say that tho. When I finally beat the game I was just so excited—a mixed feeling of the relief from combat burdens and the appreciation of the game from deep of my heart. I even have the impulsion to bring these virtues to real life even the concept is not longer new today. I can imagine what kind of impact this game was to its era.

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So that’s strange. I’m eagerly expecting to play Ultima games and see more every day, but when I’m really playing U4, I’m just full of all kinds of different feelings. I even stop looking at the screen when the fight was extremely boring and long. But after I stopped playing it, those lores and interesting little things just took up my mind and I cannot stop thinking about it. I certainly have moments that was enjoying the game, but I still don’t recommend you to try this game seriously (especially as your first Ultima game) if you (1) are a new generation gamer that don’t usually play old games, (2) don’t have strong curiosity in Ultima series already. I have a strange opinion on my own perspective, that you can actually try Ultima Underworld first. The combat in UU is janky but never frustrating, and the dialogue system is somewhere between U4 and modern games. Even the game structure are a bit similar too, due to the lore behind them. Magic system is more complicated and there’s no lack of secret doors in UU. Of course, after playing U4, I understood much more about the lore of UU since lore of U4 is the foundation of everything after it in this series. Wanting to see the Stygian Abyss in U4 is a huge motivation that pushed me finished the game after all.

TL;DR: I, the fake Avatar, am not suitable for saving Britannia, but I tried to do so anyway. Honestly I relied on guides and walkthroughs so much that beating the game isn’t really anything to be proud of. It was sure an unforgettable experience, I loved it, yet hated it at the same time. I’m very excited to continue my (very late) journey in Ultima series. I’m eager to see what is waiting for me, and what changes and surprises would be in other games.


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