This is an Ultima 9 review by Daniel D'Agostino (Dino the Dark Dragon), written on 1st November 2015. It's full of spoilers, so you have been warned.
I've just spent the past two weeks playing Ultima 9, finishing it yesterday. For around 15 years, I've lived under the impression that this is a horrible game. I hadn't actually played it for more than a couple of hours, but was influenced by the Ultima fan community. Legions of hardcore Ultima fans have criticised the game for various reasons, which will be discussed in just a minute. Hacki Dragon set up Hacki's Ultima Page, dedicated to nitpicking the Ultima series with a particular focus on Ultima 9 (I have occasionally contributed to those nitpicks). Other fans would vent their frustration in forums or other venues. More recently, Noah Antwiler's video review of Ultima 9 [Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3] was released at The Spoony Experiment - a hysterical piece of work that sounds very much like the game ruined his life.
So once I actually started playing Ultima 9, I played it with the expectation that it would be disappointing. I was in for a surprise. Here's what I wrote in a comment on the UDIC Facebook Group on 26th October 2015:
Daniel D'Agostino wrote: "I am actually really enjoying the game (contrary to expectations). Of course there are things I didn't quite like, such as bugs (crashes, Avatar getting stuck in places, etc), linear plot, plain bullshit (Minoc having moved to that NE island). But at the same time I'm enjoying this fresh perspective of Britannia, so much variety between places, lots of things to do despite the small world, and a pretty clever take on how corrupted values (read: virtues) affect society. So if you play the game with an open mind and don't fuss over the little details, I think the game is pretty awesome."
In order to criticise something objectively, we need to understand the context in which it was created. Hacki's nitpicking rules mostly exclude the first Ultima trilogy, for instance, because it was a period of experimentation and the Ultima style we recognise today had not yet matured.
An important factor in the criticism of games is the technology used to create them. Using the same example of the first Ultima trilogy, it does not make any sense to bash the original three Ultimas for their lack of depth compared to the later installments, because the it was simply impossible to create such depth with the technology available at the time.
This is exactly why I feel a lot of criticism towards Ultima 9 is not entirely fair. If you're familiar with the development history of Ultima 9, you'll know that the development team was subjected to heavy business, resource and technological pressures. These pressures resulted in the removal of key Ultima features such as the party system, the ability to choose a female Avatar, NPC schedules, etc.
While blaming Ultima 9's flaws on technology does not excuse it, it does allow us to understand why many things are the way they are. It also allows at least some of us to appreciate what the developers have managed to put together against all odds, rather than just throw mud at them for not having created a flawless masterpiece.
The plot of Ultima 9 has drawn much criticism, and many (including myself) feel that it does not live up to the record set by its predecessors.
While the Avatar was busy trying to survive in Pagan, the Guardian has managed to set up a presence in Britannia. Ruling from his base in Terfin, he has corrupted the runes of virtue into glyphs, and from them erected columns that spread the wrong influence. To make matters worse, the Guardian has altered the orbit of Britannia's twin moons, such that they will collide and destroy all life on Britannia. Finally, the Avatar discovers that the Guardian is actually his own dark side, and that they are fundamentally linked together. The only way that the Guardian can be destroyed is for the Avatar to die with him.
In his Personal view of Ultima Ascension, Hacki describes the virtues aspect of the plot as follows:
Hacki Dragon wrote: "Let's say there are problems in our society. How can you solve them? By starting a critical discussion with the people in order to work out suggested solutions, respecting the different points of view of all individuals? By trying to point out certain mistakes in society? (That's always been the point of the Quest of the Avatar; showing people their faults. I agree with Batlin, although his interpretation was pessimistic.)
"Ha, not quite correct! It's sufficient to fight your way through a dark cave to find a rune stone. As soon as you've used it to carry out a magic ritual at a shrine, everyone is happy again. (You also need another magic item, which you usually get after some idiot has realized that anti-virtue isn't virtue.) Repeat this part 8 times, and you've beaten the plot of Ascension. (Reading some reviewers' comments, like "great plot, but many bugs", seriously makes me wonder how those people would describe a "bad" plot!)
"Once you have cleansed the 8 shrines, the entire people of Britannia yet again brainlessly follows their spiritual leader. Pathetic."
I think this treatment of the plot is very superficial, if not plain wrong, for various reasons:
In many ways I feel that Ultima 9 is like another Quest of the Avatar. The Avatar must go pretty much everywhere in the world, leading by example to inspire others to follow the paths of virtue (the climax of which is his Sacrifice at the end of the game). The corruption of virtues is slightly reminiscent of Blackthorn's laws in Ultima 5.
The game makes it pretty clear from the beginning that the Avatar will ascend from Britannia at the end. This sucks, but Ultima 9 does emphasise that virtue comes from within, and that people don't need an Avatar for them to be virtuous. On the contrary, the Avatar's link with the Guardian shows that his uncompromising pursuit of virtue has probably caused more harm than good. In fact, destructive side effects of the Avatar's adventures have manifested themselves since Ultima 5. Notwithstanding this, the Guardian being the Avatar's "evil twin" sounds like a pathetic excuse to explain the destroyer of worlds.
While Ultima fans loved wandering around with a party until Serpent Isle, Ultima 9 follows in the footsteps of Ultima 8 with a solo adventuring Avatar. While this is due to technical limitations of the engine, the engine makes up for this by presenting a rich 3D view of Britannia for the first time. The Avatar can interact with various objects and can swim, climb and jump, allowing him to explore new types of areas including underwater cities and snow-capped mountains. But you can't bake bread, sorry (at least not in Britannia :D).
The intention was for Britannia to feel alive, and to some extent it does: dragonflies hover around plants, swans dive to look for food, and the sun rises and sets. However, the mad rush of development prevented this aspect from being polished. In fact, NPCs lack schedules, and they are often unaware about what is happening in the world. Their dialogues are simplistic and the voice acting is terrible, making the plot a lot less believable.
Combat is simple and involves repeatedly hitting a monster. There are skill systems that allow you to excel using certain types of weapons. You will progressively find better weapons and armour that will make you more powerful, as with any RPG. The magic system is unlike any other in earlier Ultimas (spells are bound to your spellbook using a pentagram), but is pretty handy nonetheless.
Geography in Britannia is rather annoying for the experienced Ultima player. Many things have been moved around, so you might not find them where they used to be (e.g. Empath Abbey and Minoc). Worse still, the Britannian continent has been broken up intentionally to limit your exploration early in the game. While the plot is linear in the beginning, it does open up later in the game and allows the player to travel freely around Britannia.
There is a lot of variety between places. In terms of architecture, you're going to see everything ranging from glass domed buildings to ziggurats. You'll also encounter a breadth of different settings including lava-filled dungeons, frozen northlands, a wasteland, an underwater fortress, and a city of the dead enshrouded in mist.
It is worth mentioning that Ultima 9 is pretty buggy. There's no arguing about that. Although the GOG.com version of the game (1.19f as I write this) is a lot more stable than the one released in 1999, it is very annoying to have the game crash suddenly, or for the Avatar to get stuck somewhere. One of the most common plot-stoppers historically reported (which didn't happen to me on this playthrough) is that a rune remains floating in the air above the Avatar when a shrine gets cleansed. I did, however, barely manage to get inside Serpent's Hold alive due to a bug that makes you drown really quickly. Some other bugs in the engine's physics system make for pure entertainment, and I recommend you check out IT-HE Software to get an idea of the kinds of abuse you can inflict upon the game.
Ultima 9 does a poor job of keeping up with the canon established by its predecessors. One needs only to check out Hacki's Ultima 9 Nitpicks to realise how many inconsistencies are present. Just to name a few:
Moreover, many fans have been annoyed by silly dialogue options allowing the Avatar to ask about the gargoyles, paladins and other stuff in a totally clueless manner. No doubt this was done to allow players new to Ultima to get up to speed with the lore, but the execution was pathetic (compare with earlier keyword-based conversation systems where you could still ask about various topics you should know about, but no words are put in your mouth).
Another category of nitpicks is that there are many things that are not explained in Ultima 9, such as the disappearance of people (e.g. Nystul, Geoffrey, Chuckles, etc) or entire towns (e.g. Vesper). While I think it's reasonable to expect to know what happened to major players in the Ultima series, I don't think we should be expecting explanations on little details such as why we don't have the morphing object from Ultima 8, or why there's a pentagram on the Isle of the Avatar. Use your imagination. This is a game, not a mathematics lesson.
There is a whole section nitpicking the Tapestry of Ages. Hacki wonders "whether it's actually meaningful to nitpick it, since the images shown are meant to be symbolic." That's not even the point. Why are we criticising stuff in the game because the developers didn't get little details right? We're supposed to be thinking that the Tapestry was created by people in Britannia, so how (or why) would they know every little detail about what the Avatar saw in his deepest dungeon crawls? He probably doesn't even remember those details himself.
I used to believe that Ultima 9 was a mess. Contrary to expectations, I really enjoyed the game. There are a lot of aspects of the game that can be criticised, and a lot of what you hear is true. However, I think a lot of the flak that Ultima 9 gets is exaggerated. It is clearly the case of a decent idea that was poorly executed due to time constraints. In spite of this, Ultima 9 remains a technological marvel that allows players to experience Britannia as a fresh and beautiful world. On the other hand, 16 years later, none of the remakes claiming they could do a better job have managed to release anything.
This review may be seen by some as a critique of Hacki's Ultima Page. Clearly, that's not my intention. I have been a big fan of the site since 2001. I have contributed my own nitpicks to that site. My own site, Dino's Ultima Page, would not be here if it were not for Hacki. But since Hacki's Ultima Page is one of the primary bastions for mercilessly bashing Ultima 9, it is natural that a review with some space for positive thoughts on the game would clash with it to some extent.
Ultima 9 was a disappointment in many areas, and its technical limitations and time constraints are certainly no excuse. But do we really have to be so pedantic about it? If we accept the game for what it is and just enjoy the ride, it can be a pretty fun experience.
A game can be fun and enjoyable - or perhaps even an Ultima - without companions, a complex plot, complex dialogue, or a familiar magic system; and in the presence of jumping puzzles and a simplistic combat system. Think about it. I think most people will agree that Ultima Underworld is a fantastic game.
Don't agree with me? That's fine. You can post your own Opinion of the game.© by Daniel D'Agostino 2002-2021