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6/30/2016

Five Good Things and Five Bad Things About Ultima IX: Ascension

The last entry in the Ultima series is a very flawed game, bringing a franchise with nearly twenty years of history to a sloppy and disappointing close.  There's really no dispute there, but one must also consider that Origin Systems was a shadow of its former self at the time of the game's release; nearly all of its original developers had left EA or been fired, and EA themselves were reluctant to even allow its development, wanting Garriott to focus his efforts on Ultima Online instead.  Not to mention that EA's higher-ups mandated an engine change halfway through development, forcing the developers to hastily repurpose numerous game elements and rewrite or cut out much of the game's story to meet deadlines.

Still, while Ultima IX has more than its its share of faults, inconsistencies and mistakes, it also has some redeeming factors that, in my book at least, make it worth checking out.  So let's take a look at five things I actually like about this much-maligned title.

1. A much better interface than the previous games

Ultima was among the earliest of CRPG franchises, so it's natural that it would have a lot to improve upon as time went on.  Case in point, the early games went from complex keyboard controls (with a different action for all 26 letter keys on the keyboard) to a relatively streamlined 8 commands in Ultima 6, to entirely mouse-driven in Ultimas 7 and 8.  But while it worked fairly well for an overhead RPG in 7 and Serpent Isle, the same could not be said for Pagan, which changed the gameplay to more of an action-platformer and the viewpoint to an isometric one.  Needless to say, having only two keys and steering your character with a mouse cursor made the game extremely difficult, not to mention frustrating.

If nothing else, though, Ultima IX at least got things right in the controls department.  For one, you now use both the keyboard and mouse in tandem rather than having the game be 90% operated by one or the other.  For another, you now have modern conveniences like hot keys for items, shortcut keys for spellbook pages and common commands, and the wonderful convenience of mouse aiming and single button presses for almost every action.  Even the platforming is surprisingly simple; just point the cursor where you want to jump, and if it's green, you'll reach it (even if it's well above your line of sight).  The "poor man's Zelda" style of gameplay was unpopular among fans, certainly, but it was at least competently executed.

2. The Guardian

The 90s brought a lot of things to Ultima - better interfaces, more polished visuals, some very iconic and memorable music... and as was standard for the era, very cheesy voice acting and CGI.  Still, one character managed to transcend the limitations of both and become a very menacing villain.  Not only that, he was a sly jab at EA themselves, being the "destroyer of worlds" (in contrast to Origin's slogan of "We create worlds") and representative of a lack of imagination in general.  This is especially evident in his use of magic (based off the four Greek elements and simple geometric shapes) and his method of conquering worlds, which simply consists of crushing all opposition with deception and brute force rather than any kind of elaborate planning.  Beneath all of the symbolism, though, Bill Johnson's booming voice and the Guardian operating from the shadows as a powerful and dangerous, yet largely unseen force made the buildup to the inevitable showdown a highly anticipated event.  Not even some bouts of very corny dialog could diminish his threat in Ultima IX.

3. The (original) storyline

While nobody really considers Ultima IX's cut-down storyline to be particularly good (with many considering it an outright slap in the face to the franchise and its lore), it is at least interesting to see where it ended up after numerous cuts, rewrites and revisions.  Even moreso since many elements of the original script remain in the game, albeit with much smaller (and far less grandiose) roles.

As an example, many of the FMVs in the game were once part of a subplot where the Guardian would sow distrust between Lord British and the Avatar, leaving him free to further his own plans while they were at odds with one another.  These included the scene of the Avatar being thrown in a jail cell by Blackthorn and his guards (in the original script, for spying on one of Lord British's council members to uncover a conspiracy) and, more infamously, the Avatar's summoning of Pyros (a nightmare sequence shown to Lord British by the Guardian, highlighting his dubious actions on Pagan).  A third FMV was also created for this purpose, showing the Avatar standing triumphant atop Castle Britannia, leading Lord British to believe the Avatar would betray him entirely and claim Britannia for himself (however, it makes no appearance in the final game).

The former two FMVs get reused in the final release, albeit in a much sillier form.  The jail cell cinematic is now simply used the Avatar being imprisoned after being captured by Blackthorn (with it notoriously being of much lower quality than the FMV right before it, as well as not matching the design of the in-engine jail cell at all), and the Pyros FMV was changed from a nightmare sequence to a literal event, having the Avatar summon the (very dead) Titan to open the sealed path to the Stygian Abyss.

So while many changes were made for the worse over UIX's development, there are still traces of the original script buried in the game, and it is quite interesting to see how the development team had to repurpose what they already had done to fit the downsized story.  Not to mention it does make you more hyped for the fan remake Ultima IX: Redemption, which promises to tell a story much more faithful to the Ultima universe's long history.  Why is that project taking so long, anyway?

(For a complete side-by-side comparison of the two scripts, check out my writeup here).

4. Surprisingly good production values and world design (cheesy elements notwithstanding)

Thoughts of Ultima IX more often than not quickly drift to the game's incredibly corny dialog, complete with uniformly bad voiceovers throughout.  With those, it's easy to forget that much of the rest of the game's world was very well-crafted, especially for the time period in which it came out.  While most 3D games of the period were broken into very distinct "areas" with narrow connecting corridors and conspicuous loading screens, Ultima IX made an effort to create a single, contiguous and connected world, and surprisingly succeeded for the most part - the player can smoothly go the sprawling overworld map to dungeons to towns without seeing a single load screen in between.  Origin also put in the effort to live up to their slogan, creating a world that, while much smaller in scale than the previous Ultimas, looks and feels realistic on many levels - houses look lived in, towns are realistically laid out (for the most part) and there are a large number of NPCs and objects to interact with throughout the game.  They also fit in quite a few areas off the beaten path with extra items and loot to collect, giving the player some incentive to stray from the story occasionally and go exploring (a hallmark of any good CRPG in my book).

Finally, the game's FMV sequences were another highlight; they were immaculately produced for their era, showing clarity and animation quality that most other games' cinematics of the era sorely lacked.  No Playstation 1 video grain or plasticy uncanny valley character models here!  It's little wonder that Origin wanted to reuse as many of them as possible, even if many of them do contradict the series' lore as they were used in the reworked storyline.

5. The jank

Most 3D engines have prominent bugs and glitches to them, sometimes to the benefit of the gameplay or even just the comedic appeal of the game itself.  Ultima IX, however, takes this to a new level, allowing for the game to become a downright surreal experience.  IT-HE's amazing articles on the game demonstrate many of them in fine fashion.  Wearing barrels on your head, bizarre enemy and NPC placements, leading Blackthorn on a merry chase throughout Minoc... there's a lot of fun to be had just through the game's awkward programming.  But the best by far has to be the numerous bridges one can build; some games allow sequence breaking through clever tricks, but Ultima IX allows many major events to be skipped and the entire game to be done nearly backwards by hopping across tracts of ocean with bridges of bread, sticks, scrolls and books.  If Ultima IX truly succeeds at one thing, it's how much freedom it affords the player to not only explore, but to blatantly break the rules the designers intended them to follow.  For better or worse, I've never seen another commercially released game engine's weirdness reach anywhere near the level of Ultima IX's.



And now the other end of the spectrum, five of my most disliked things about the game.  Many of them are common among series fans, I'll try to focus on some of the lesser-mentioned elements of them.

1. Uneven difficulty and mediocre balance in general

Being in more of an action style, it's not surprising that Origin tried to mix up the gameplay a bit by having some enemies be more vulnerable to certain weapons or spells, or resistant to others.  Water-based enemies are weak against the Lightning Sword, the giant crabs are resistant to bladed weapons, ghosts and spectral enemies take more damage from the Staff of the Dead, and so on.  That's all well and good, but they went just a bit too far with it in many cases.  Some enemies are all but invincible unless you have the right weapon to use on them (a crab can take dozens of hits from a sword, but one or two pokes with a Shepherd's crook and they're dead).  This is also reflected on the Avatar himself, who, even with the best armor, can only withstand a few hits from the game's strongest enemies.  This quickly gets to be a tedious affair in the final dungeon, where you're constantly beset by gargoyles and every fight just boils down to who can land 3-4 hits first.  Hell, for some fights, it's also just preferable to stay somewhere they can't reach you and snipe them from afar with arrows until they go down; it's time consuming and tedious, but it's either that or watch them no-sell twenty sword stabs while they bash your head in, so...

2. The lame speechifying

This ties into a larger problem with the game that I'll elaborate on more below, but it's worth mentioning in its own right.  The Avatar's whole character was built upon leading by example, taking up "Quest of the Avatar" by following the path of the eight virtues and leading by example - an eternal quest, as nobody can be truly perfect in that regard (hence the solution to Ultima IV's final puzzle).  Furthermore, the more recent games in the franchise started to stray away from this whole aspect, with the stories focusing much less on the virtues and more on combatting the vague threat of the Guardian and his minions, forcing the party to undertake some very questionable actions as they did so.  Which just makes things pretty cringe-worthy when none of these events or ideas are acknowledged at all in Ultima IX, instead favoring the Avatar spouting lame lines about how stealing is wrong and the importance of honoring one's commitments.  It even gets to the point of being par with an after school special at times, particularly the scene with Malchir.  Here's the scene in its entirety:

Avatar: Please forgive me for disturbing your rest, Malchir, but I must beg a favor.
Malchir: Why would I want to help you? You are the person responsible for my death and the forture that I've endured since.  If it were within my power, I would strike you down where you stand!
Avatar: Torture? What torture have you suffered?
Malchir: Do you think that Pyros' flames stopped burning me once my body was dead? Well they haven't! I've been burning in those flames from the moment that Pyros dispatched me*. Since that time the only thing that I've felt aside from the flames is my hatred of you.  And now you want me to help you?
Shamino: Good spirit, you burn not from Pyros' flames, but from your own hatred of the Avatar.
Malchir: Who are you? What do you know of me and my pain?
Avatar: Go on, Shamino; talk to him.
Shamino: Thank you. Malchir, I do not know you, but I know a great deal of spirituality and the ethereal world.  I know that Pyros' flames can not reach you in that world. The flame that burns you comes not from Pyros, but from your hatred of the Avatar. Release that anger and you will be freed of your pain.
Malchir: Hmm, I can feel a strong knowledge of spirituality within you. Perhaps you are right, but how do I free myself of the hate that has sustained me for so long?
Shamino: Help us. Give us the ritual that will summon Pyros. In doing so, your act of forgiveness will free you of your hatred and pain.
Malchir: I see the truth in your words. Very well, I will help you. If you wish to summon Pyros, do the following and do not deviate one bit from what I tell you: Please a Demon Skull, Sulphurous Ash, Spider Silk and Blackrock into the center of a pentagram. After this is done, place a red candle in the center of the pentagram and light it.  The reagents will be consumed, and Pyros will appear.
Shamino: Thank you, gentle spirit.
Malchir: No, my thanks go to you. Already, I feel the flames subside as the hate leaves me. Finally, I am at peace. Farewell.

Yeah.

* For those curious, that's not what happened at all; the Avatar enters Malchir's chambers to inquire about the Tongue of Flame, and Malchir attempts to kill him for his intrusion.  The Avatar fights back, killing Malchir in self-defense.  You could argue the Avatar was still at fault there, but Malchir deserves some blame too for flying into a murderous rage over seeing the guy merely enter his room uninvited.  Instead of say, I don't know, telling him to get the fuck out first...

3. Trivializing the virtue system and the avatar's character

This ties into the above example as well, but it's much more egregious than simply turning the Avatar into a flawless paragon.  Rather than depicting the virtues as the guidelines they were intended to be (and were in every previous game), Ultima IX makes them something more akin to a magical force that people are nearly powerless to resist.  A fact which the Guardian takes advantage of by creating the eight columns, which corrupt the runes into the "glyphs" and cause the people to embody the exact opposite of their town's respective virtues.  Katrina the shepherd becomes vain and prideful, the people of Trinisc (the town of Honor) become cowardly and refuse to honor commitments, and Britain (the town of Compassion) begins to snub their sick and infirm rather than helping them.  It's all a bit cartoonish and silly, not helped by the fact that the Avatar never seems to catch onto the idea that they're maybe, possibly, being corrupted by forces beyond their control and never misses a chance to deliver a lame speech about how what they're doing is wrong.  When he should be focusing his efforts on, you know, fixing the very obvious thing causing the problem instead.  Plus, as mentioned above, this is a pretty lame turn for the story to take, especially when the games from VII onward were beginning to take a turn into morally ambiguous territory and the running storyline throughout the final arc ultimately had little to do with the Quest of the Avatar at all, instead having the heroes combat a vague malevolent force that threatened the multiverse as a whole (and partaking of some questionable actions in service of the greater good).

4. The Guardian's big twist

While the Guardian continued to be an effective and threatening villain in spite of the previously-mentioned problems, there was one big thing that managed to diminish the impact of his character.  Namely, the backstory he ended up getting in the revised final script.  Shamino clumsily informs us that the menace we've faced up to this point is not some malevolent invader from parts unknown, but rather something more familiar - the Avatar's "evil half", stripped away upon completing the Quest of the Avatar in Ultima IV.  This was an appallingly bad call on many fronts; so many, in fact, that I'll be making a list!

a) As mentioned above, the Avatar's quest was not to be the ultimate paragon of virtue, nor to completely absolve oneself of evil.  It certainly had an element of redemption to it considering some of the protagonist's questionable actions in the first three Ultimas, but that was not its main goal; the purpose of the Quest of the Avatar was to serve as a guiding example to the people of Britannia by embodying the eight virtues, leading by example and giving them something positive to devote themselves to in the absence of a great evil to unite against.
b) It contradicts series lore in a big way, considering that dialog seen in other Ultimas imply that the Guardian has been around for ages.  As one example, the Silver Seed quest in Serpent Isle implies that the Guardian played a hand in the ancient War of the Ophidians, which took place thousands of years in the island's past.
c) It's a gross simplification of the original script, where the Guardian is instead a fusion of the three Shadowlords (spectres embodying the three "anti-virtues" who were created from the shattered Gem of Immortality who also appeared as major villains in Ultima V and Martian Dreams) and a wingless Gargoyle.  This still allows him to serve as an evil counterpart to the Avatar, but is much more consistent with the series' lore.  Especially when one also considers Hawkind's role in the original script, where he is revealed to the last of a race called the "Ultima" who nearly destroyed the universe in a cataclysmic war with their darker halves and created the eight Virtues (and the quest of the Avatar) as a measure to prevent the tragedy from ever occurring again.  That lends a lot of weight and urgency to the quest, as the tragedy threatens to repeat itself with the Avatar and the Guardian.  That also leads into the game's climactic moment, capstoning the morally ambiguous turn the franchise took by having Britannia itself be destroyed at the hands of Lord British and the Avatar to prevent the Guardian's ascendance.  ...Granted, blowing up an entire planet to stop the big bad may be a bit much, but still a sight more interesting than the morally black-and-white nonsense we ultimately got!

5. Many, many bugs, glitches and crashes.

Whether you're one of the game's detractors, or one who manages to find some entertainment value in it in spite of its flaws, there is no denying that Ultima IX's engine is far from perfect.  Hell, its original release was actually unbeatable as designed, which forced the developers to release the codes to unlock the in-game debug mode so the player could bypass certain obstacles and complete the game.  Several patches were released that repaired many scripting errors and attempted to alleviate the game's many show-stopping bugs, but even with all of that, many still exist.  Even in the latest unofficial patch (1.19), I had to resort to using debug mode because the avatar blatantly refused to climb onto a ledge in Wrong, and certain puzzles seem to simply not work properly on a consistent basis.  I also ended up having to tweak the graphical settings down to a minimum in order to bypass Lord British's duel, which would always crash about two thirds of the way through on normal settings.  The game is mostly playable without having to resort to this, but still, this is one game that could have benefitted from a few more months in QA before getting a public release.  Or at the very least, not being completely dumped and forgotten by EA so they could keep pushing a bunch of Ultima Online sequels that ultimately never came out...