Subm.: Ultima IV - Quest of the Avatar

Discussion in '50 RPGs per Hour' started by Mστh, Mar 11, 2022.

  1. Mστh

    Mστh Forum DM Moderator

    Mar 8, 2022
    Ʊ L Ԏ I M Ѧ ◈ Ⅳ
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    ☥ ᚴᚢᛖᛋᛏ ᚩᚠ ᛄᛖ ᚫᚣᚫᛏᚨᚱ ☥

    ~ O' Ultima, Where Art Thou? ~
    Let's take a short trip back to the early to mid 1980's - specifically, it's 1985. You see a teenage kid at a table, and the work station around him is a mess. Graph paper with dungeons of ASCII art drawn on them, a journal with random miscellaneous notes in seemingly no coherent order, pens and pencils of various colors and width, measuring tools that look like they're straight out of a high school math class... the works. If you were to take your best guess as to what the hell he might be doing, you might say he's playing one of those newly popular tabletop games, Dungeons & Dragons or perhaps Shadowrun, that are popular amongst the "nerd" sub-culture. However, you'd be wrong.

    What he's actually doing is playing a computer game, a computer game with depth as to unlike any game you'd ever see from an arcade machine or off your Nintendo. This isn't any RPG video game, it's THEE RPG video game. Looking at consoles, Final Fantasy wouldn't come out for another few years and that game is a simplistic number simulator with some fancy sprites compared to Ultima IV. How about on PC? Well, the only game that might give you anywhere close to a similar experience is Bard's Tale - released the same year. The fact of the matter is, if you're searching for an experience that might give you the same things you love and crave in any good fantasy adventure, for quite awhile tabletop was your only avenue of access.

    It is thanks to a mixture of the gods of tabletop like Gary Gygax and Jordan Weisman, along with the gods of fantasy such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan that we have such an amazing expansive world of both low and high fantasy today - especially in video games! But where did it get it's start in video games specifically? Primarily in the 80's, and while there are several series which could correctly be identified as grandfathers of the RPG genre as a whole (I already identified one earlier, the Bard's Tale), in my mind one stands out especially... one who often does not get the praise it and it's creator deserves...

    Setting & Plot

    Ultima IV takes place in the world of Britannia, a world that has had it's lore fully fleshed out and fluff written through several booklets that came with both this game and the others of the series. It's a high fantasy world fully of mythical monsters, magics, and almost everything else you would expect... everything that is, except for non-human civilizations. That's correct, humanity is the only sentient race in Britannia that has a serious civilization going on (there does exist the Gargoyles, but they do not "live" on Britannia during this time period), and while other sentient races do exist in the world they can hardly be seen as civilized.

    (Map of Britannia)

    The world of Britannia is expansive, every area has it's own history along with it's own unique flora and fauna. At the time of the game, Lord British - the current King of Britannia, has recently unified the various kingdoms of the world (which beforehand was known as Sosaria) under his banner, and a new age of peace and prosperity that has never been seen in the history of the world thus far. In order to further guide his people, Lord British decided to craft a new religion for his world, a religion not based off the worship of a deity so that all may uphold this religion, but rather a religion based off of a way of life. It would probably be best to think of the religion as more akin to agnostic Buddhism or Daoism, rather than Christianity or Judaism. British took the earthly symbol of the ankh to serve as the symbol of his new religion.

    There is a whole system to this religion which one could read about here if they wished, but to put it short it is based off the Axiom of Infinity, which further breaks down to the Three Principles and the Eight Virtues. The general point of the religion is to act as a guide by which folks can live their lives, adhering to the Eight Virtues as one might adhere to the Ten Commandments or Noble Eightfold Path. Most people of course aren't expected to be able to master all eight virtues for that would make them nigh-on perfect in the eyes of the religion... most people... that is.

    This is where the Quest of the Avatar comes in. There exists, a deep darkened pit known as the Stygian Abyss which lies full of demons and ravenous monsters, at it's depth a magical tome that is said to boundlessly incorporate all knowledge that exists or has ever existed. This tome is known as the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. To even gain access to the abyss, much less the chamber where the Codex rests, one must master all of the eight virtues, reaching the highest state of virtue in each, then make pilgrimages to each of the eight shrines of the virtues in order to achieve enlightenment in the virtue. After one has achieved enlightenment in all eight virtues, they are effectively an enlightened being, but they are not the Avatar. To become the Avatar, they must venture into the various dungeons of the world, and retrieve from them the stones of virtue. Afterward, they must fight their way through the Stygian Abyss and pass one final test of strength and knowledge, and read the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. Then they will become the Avatar, a holy being, essentially the Messiah of the people of Britannia who may lead their people into a new age.

    Then... there's you. You're just some guy from Earth of no particular importance who found himself in the woods one day, stumbling upon a Renaissance fair and a strange gypsy lady who speaks as if she were from another time and place...

    ~ The Quest of the Avatar ~
    The gameplay of Ultima will certainly feel familiar to RPG veterans, both old and young. Ultima IV has a lot of unique systems to it, all coming together to make a very legendary game. The first thing we should get out of the way about the gameplay of Ultima IV however is that yes, you are on a legendary quest. However, that quest does not feature a big bad, there is no evil villain of tremendous power to vanquish in order to save the world. The evil that needs to be vanquished is not that of a BBEG, but rather the evil that exists within yourself. You are on a quest to save the world spiritually, not physically. To do that, the world needs an idol to look up to, a messenger, a messiah. You might just be "some guy" now, but what you're working towards is total enlightenment of the spirit and elevation of the soul. And you're going to be doing it all in a traditional fantasy world, full of orcs, dragons, monsters, and magic.

    ~ Character Creation & Progression ~
    Character creation is going to be a bit different to your standard cRPG. Rather than rolling for stats or picking a class, you get your tarot read to you. Well... kinda. It happens as if it's a tarot reading, but in actuality what's going on is you're playing a game of morality based "would you rather". It puts you through a few scenarios and then gives you some options all of which you'd rather do, with the artwork displayed to you making it pretty obvious that your decisions are playing into one of the eight virtues of Britannia's religion/virtue system.

    Based on the choices you make, you end up rolling a classic fantasy style class with examples like Fighter, Paladin, Druid, Mage. You also have three stats, STR, DEX, and INT, with both the starting stats and the way they increase being tied to your class with an added bit of randomization. The levels are one through eight, and while it might seem like it can take a short amount of time to hit max level, it's actually fairly balanced to where you'll end up hitting level eight right around the time you're at the game's finale. One thing that isn't different or unique however is the way you level, which is good ole' fashioned killing. Fighting and killing things gives you experience points, which translate into levels for you and your party.

    Actual progression however happens along spiritual lines, rather than leveling up. There are eight virtues that you need to master in order to become enlightened in them, and this is the meat and bones of Ultima IV's progression system. Some of them are fairly straightforward, like Honesty and Compassion. Honesty is simple, just don't lie, and compassion just comes down to being nice and helpful towards people and not being a jackass in general, like giving money to beggars. Others are a little more insightful and require active thinking, like Spirituality. It's honestly best to think of the Eight Virtues as something similar to the knight's Code of Chivalry. Be good to the poor, never run away from a fight, always be a man of your word, et cetera.

    ~ Combat & World Exploration ~
    Combat is fairly simple, it's turn based and happens from a top down perspective. There's not much to say about it other that... well, it's simplistic. You have you and your party, move all of them and make attacks, end turn. Your enemy moves and makes their attacks, end turn. Repeat.

    What isn't simplistic however, is the magic system. It works inherently different than just a simple "mana bar". Each class will have higher or lower abilities to casting depending on their affinity towards magic, and it's based off that which decides how much trouble you'll have casting a spell. To actually cast a spell however, you need to know a few things. First, you need to know the words (and by product, keyboard commands) to cast said spell. Second, you're going to need to know what reagents you need for that spell, and in what order. Yes, magic relies off of reagents which you combine in order to create and cast spells. Most reagents you can reliably buy at stores in towns, some however only grow in certain areas, during certain times...

    Another thing that can get complicated is the dungeon system. Do you remember when I used graph paper as to an example of how someone might have been playing this in the 80's? That wasn't a stretch. Unlike everything else in the world, you navigate the dungeons in a first person view mode. That being said, they're often labyrinthine mazes full of creeps and traps, making the man who would map out their route in such a place a wise man indeed.

    The world of Britannia and by extension Ultima IV is open world, and non-linear. This means you can go anywhere you want and do whatever you want, in whatever order - no one is holding your hand through any of it (just do be sure you buy food before you leave a town, as you will need to keep track of your party's hunger). There exist different towns, all each with different cultures, and a multitude of dungeons that are each deadly in their own unique way. Speaking to townspeople is something you'll spend a fair amount of time doing, as it is they that are your best source of knowledge. Most everything you learn will come from speaking to towns people, and how you interact with and treat them could very well have an effect on your eight virtues, all of which are individual stats being tracked by the game constantly.

    Conversation in Ultima is quite different from what you would expect out of an RPG, especially modern RPG's. Dialogue on your part is open ended, meaning an NPC will tell you something, and you will be expected to type in your response rather than choosing it from a dialogue tree. This works in two ways, the first being there is a list of generic terms you're going to need to remember when talking to people, such as; 'name', 'job', et cetera. The second, is that you'll need to pay attention to what people tell you and pick up on words and phrases that might be important, otherwise you'll have no idea what you need to be asking them about.

    Transportation in the world is doing primarily via basic means, walking, or purchasing a horse or boat. However, Ultima IV actually does have it's own version of the fast travel system, but it is implemented into the game world cleverly by making it apart of how the world itself works, refusing to break immersion. There are two moons orbiting the world of Britannia, and it would be wise to pay attention to their phases. All throughout the world there is a network of moon gates. They are essentially teleportation portals which pop up at various times depending on the phases of the moon, and if you know when and where one is going to be, you can effectively teleport across Britannia as your primary method of travel.

    Why Is It A Classic?
    The Ultima series, while unfortunately not often given the respect it is due, has played a big part in pushing the RPG genre forward and making it what it is today. Richard Garriott, Ultima's creator, was widely known for each new sequel being bigger, better, and having more depth in every sense of the word (well, at least until EA purchased Origin, anyways). It was a common trend for fans of Ultima to be forced to update their computers and graphics card, every time a new Ultima game came out. Ultima as a series would consistently introduce many "firsts" to the genre of RPGs, and to the world of video games, and was doing things that fan often give praise to the Elder Scrolls series for, long before the Elder Scrolls ever even was a series. NPC schedules, interactive dungeons, expansive open worlds, interactive worlds where you could skin an animal and tan it's hide, worlds full of their own hand crafted lore, Ultima was doing all of this as far back as the 80's. The Ultima series is a part of video game history, and a HUGE part of RPG history, having been entered into "must play" and "required gaming" lists for RPG fanatics and video game connoisseurs for decades - primarily Ultima IV - VII.

    But why is Ultima IV a classic, rather than the series as a whole? Ultima IV was Garriott's passion product, he wanted to create a game that would inspire people in their real lives, inspire them both to do better in whatever their chosen profession was, and to be better people. He crafted a game that wasn't centered on killing and fighting, but rather was a personal journey for both the player and character to in short, make a better you of you. The Avatar was meant to be someone everyone could aspire to become, humanity at it's apex, what each and every person had the potential to be. And to do this, he literally handcrafted his own philosophical way of life to accomplish it. For possibly the first time in video games, there was no big bad evil guy. The evil you sought to defeat was the evil that lies within all of us.

    What Can Annoy RPG Fans?
    Modern day RPG's are not what they used to be. Yes, this is a tired out old phrase repeated to death, but it's been so persistent because it's true. First of all: graphics. In the world of video games, we've arrived at a point where if a game doesn't have draw dropping graphics, or at the very least a highly textured 3D world, many gamers won't even touch it. If this is true for you, you may as well leave Ultima IV alone and never look back.

    Second, tutorials and handholding permeate video games of the modern era. You would be hard pressed to find a recent game with a serious manual, and very few games today leave much to the imagination or the player to figure things out for themselves. There's either a compass arrow, a highlighted trail, a journal entry, or something telling you exactly what to do, where to go, and how to do it. Graph paper and note taking isn't necessary for Ultima IV, but if being left to your own devices with no tutorials, tool tips, hints, or help boxes to guide you bothers you, Ultima IV might not be for you.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2022
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  2. Mστh

    Mστh Forum DM Moderator

    Mar 8, 2022
    This took me forever to make. I'll add 5-7 later, I'ma need a breather after that.
    • [Rad] [Rad] x 3
  3. TorontoReign

    TorontoReign The Douchelord Staff Member Moderator

    Apr 1, 2005
    IT LIVES! Nice work.
    • [Rad] [Rad] x 1
  4. Ave-H

    Ave-H First time out of the vault

    Nov 20, 2009
    Great job, was an enjoyable and informative read, I'd be willing to try this game because of this.
  5. Proletären

    Proletären Vault Fossil
    Staff Member Admin

    Mar 15, 2012
    Oh that was very ambitious! Nicely done.
  6. Mστh

    Mστh Forum DM Moderator

    Mar 8, 2022
    I'm surprised this got as much attention as it even did. I was expecting Toronto to come in, pat me on the back and say nice job while the rest of the site avoided it like the plague. Maybe there is hope I'll do an Ultima 5 submission since people actually seem to still care about this. This was definitely good to test the waters.
  7. ironmask

    ironmask A Smooth-Skin

    Mar 10, 2018
    I have always wanted to get into the ultima games. But I'm afraid they're too old for me to get into. They sound really interesting. I always enjoyed spoony's reviews of the games before he became what he is today.
  8. Mστh

    Mστh Forum DM Moderator

    Mar 8, 2022
    Nonsense, they're very easy to get into! If you can play the first and second Fallout games, you can play Ultima I assure you. I'm not just saying that either, Ultima IV is perfectly playable and it isn't hard to learn at all.

    They're amazing games and you shouldn't let anything dissuade you from experiencing them. Honestly Ultima IV is no more difficult to learn than an old Final Fantasy game, it just has more depth to it. Much more depth. I'm glad myself I got into the series, once I finally played them I was extremely thankful I didn't let myself keep talking myself out of doing so. The Ultima series was one of the best RPG experiences I ever had.

    I started with Ultima IV which was/should still be free on GOG (and even if it's not, there's other places you can obtain it).

    Word to the wise though, skip Ultima I - III. That was basically Richard Garriot refining his computer programming skills until he could truly begin to make great games. Ultima IV is widely regarded as the first "true" Ultima game, mainly because it's the first game that is set in the world of Britannia, it's not a clusterfuck of random madness like I-III - rather it has a creatively and detailed written world and great story, and is the first game that plays like an "Ultima" game. It's where Ultima truly began, in my opinion. So - start with four, that's exactly why I did so here with these reviews.

    Start with IV, then if you like it from there you can work your way through the series. Play V, VI, and VII, and then stop at 8. Eight is where EA took over and the series crashed and burned, as all EA franchises inevitably do.
    • [Rad] [Rad] x 2