Life, liberty, and the pursuit of unselfishness.
DEVELOPER: Origin Systems (port by Sega)
RELEASE DATE: 03/1990 – (US – Limited Release), 12/90 – (EU)
Ultima IV is one of the few games in history – upon its release in 1985 and today – that forces you to be a good guy or suffer the consequences. Compassion, Humility, Sacrifice, Spirituality, Honesty, Valor, Justice, and Honor are the virtues of the day. There is no wiggle room. In order to become the Avatar of the title (and win the respect and admiration of all of Britannia), you must achieve enlightenment in all eight virtues. This means: giving to beggars, being honest when townsfolk ask you questions, fleeing from non-evil creatures, sacrificing blood to those in need, meditating at shrines, and other high and lofty tasks.
Man, Ultima‘s got my number.
The game opens mysteriously. After questioning his surroundings via a second-person narrative, the main character – defined as “you” – finds his way to a fortuneteller’s tent. Inside, he’s asked several questions that, when answered, will link the player’s identity to one of the eight virtues. Virtues do more than define your character. Each one makes you start at a different location within Britannia and provides a character class, such as Ranger, Mage, Bard, etc.
Maybe I will then.
In addition to mastering the virtues, you also need to collect the eight Runes and learn the eight mantras, all of which are spread throughout Britannia. The Runes could literally be anywhere and it will take a good deal of SEARCHing and patience to obtain them all. The mantras, however, can be found just by talking to people in the towns.
“As long as Lord British is watching, consider it done.”
As you roam hither and yon through Britannia, you’ll inevitably come across creatures, both evil and neutral. Evil creatures, like orcs and skeletons, should be vanquished post haste to increase your Valor, while people and innocent wildlife should be left alone (even if they attack you!) to increase your Justice. Alas, battles are a necessary evil, but you don’t have to wander Britannia alone. Seven additional companions can be acquired along the way to help ease your fighting pains.
Bum rush those Orcs, Finnegan.
Ultima IV also employs a ‘reagant’ system, where the player mixes random “earthy” ingredients together to prepare magic spells. There are eight reagants in total, ranging from roots like Ginseng to, er, Sulfurous Ash. By mixing several of these reagants, you can make up to twenty-six spells, one for each letter in the alphabet. Applause, applause for the inclusion of alchemy here, but it really should have been optional. Being forced to make spells over and over again just so you can make your way through the world is the height of tedium.
It helps to have mixtures before you try to cast a spell.
And what classic CRPG would be complete without dungeons to explore and treasure to find? Within the dungeons in Ultima IV are eight colored stones. These stones are needed to unlock the artifacts of truth, love and courage. Fight enemies, SEARCH in every corridor, and get the hell out of there once you have the stone. The dungeons aren’t poorly designed, but the emphasis on combat and exploration is draining, even with companions helping you out.
“… and Finnegan believed he was holy enough to walk on water and tame the undead. He was wrong.”
One of the many groundbreaking features of Ultima IV – to my console gamer sensibilities anyway – is its freedom. Your objectives are few, and you’re allowed to complete them in whatever order you wish within reason. For some, this is free-roaming heaven. For me, this means stumbling around and trying to figure out what I’m doing. Exploring Britannia at one’s leisure surely enthralled fans upon the game’s release, but I’ll take direction and hand-holding over unprecedented freedom any day.
The man who made morality fashionable again!
Released a full five years after the original Apple II version, the Master System version of Ultima IV is supposedly the best of the best. I’ve only played the less-than-faithful NES port, so I can’t attest to that, but the SMS port certainly looks like an enhanced version. The tile graphics have been redrawn, but otherwise reflect the original’s look. The NPC conversations are more limited than the PC versions, but I actually prefer the streamlined dialogue; all meat, no fat. And the dungeons are no longer shown from first-person, but top-down. This gives you a wider range of vision and makes them easier to navigate.
This is your brain on death.
Even with the engaging morality system and the tweaks the Master System version provides to accommodate console players, Ultima IV‘s antiquated CRPG feel is like kryptonite to me. Tile graphics resulting in choppy movement? Barf. Britannia may have been entrancing in 1985, but it’s hard to walk through the game’s forests today without getting a headache. Figure out where you need to go and what you need to do with little assistance? Lord British have mercy. This “make your own adventure” nonsense was all the rage in the mid-80s, even on consoles (most famously: The Legend of Zelda). As a kid, this freedom overwhelmed me, and as an adult, I really don’t have time to uncover a game’s mysteries without a thorough FAQ. I’d be an ignorant contrarian to deny Ultima IV‘s contributions to gaming history, but distant admiration is the strongest feeling I can conjure for Quest of the Avatar. The game is legendary, and it’s absolutely not for me.
GRADE FOR THOSE THAT DESPERATELY NEED A GRADE: C