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Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny in a Nutshell

We've discussed the genre-changing Ultima IV as well as the series' height and decline, so let's take a look at the last of the "classic style" Ultimas and all of the innovations it brought to the table!


Before I get into the plot, I should probably point out that this game is much more elaborate in design than its predecessors, which also makes it much more difficult - one of the toughest in the entire series, in fact!  There are a variety of reasons for this, but I'll list most of the major ones here:
  • There's a day/night cycle now, as well as schedules for every NPC in the game.  This can make it tougher to track down some NPCs, but more importantly, it means that most towns close at night.  Which can mean camping outside.  Which can mean getting ambushed!
  • Towns aren't safe from danger either.  Guards will often try to shake you down for money or arrest you, and resisting, as in previous Ultimas, is generally pretty futile as the guards are extremely strong and numerous.  Shadowlords can also be in town, which will cause the townspeople to refuse to talk to you (or even attack you) and they're extremely dangerous enemies themselves!
  • Enemies are much more organized and dangerous, often attacking in large numbers and bringing out the heavy hitters as your level goes up.  This includes frequent instances of enemeis that can poison you, cause fear (daemons), charm your allies (reapers) or even summon more enemies to make your life difficult (Dragons summon daemons!).
  • Dying causes your teammates to lose experience proportional to their current Karma level - the lower it is, the more experience they lose.  Leveling down is a thing in this game too, so you really want to avoid death at all costs!
  • Leveling up no longer occurs automatically; instead you need to rest outside and hope Lord British's apparition appears to give you a promotion.  This occurs at random, though it seems to happen slightly more often if a character has the ankh necklace equipped.
  • Karma also affects shop prices, and you need to earn the trust of the Resistance members by having a good reputation, so if it dips too low you're going to have a much tougher time (and people won't give you important clues you need to finish the game).  Raising Karma back up is also very costly (Donating 100 Gold per point at a shrine), so don't let it drop!*
* Thankfully, it's also not as easy to lose points as it was in Ultima IV - you can run from most battles without penalty now, for example, and you're not really punished for being untruthful.  Stealing and killing will still dock you pretty heavily, but that stuff's generally easy to avoid anyways.  There are also other ways to raise it - freeing prisoners from Blackthorn's castle, donating to beggars and the Cove temple, etc., so you can afford a little tomfoolery here and there.

Fortunately, the game also avoids the pitfall of a lot of early RPGs by not taking the difficulty to excess, throwing the party into a nearly impossible gauntlet of enemies only designed to drain their resources and making the final stretches all but impossible without copious savescumming.  And that's just one reason why so many other CRPGs from this era are all but forgotten nowadays, but Ultima stands strong!

The story begins with the Avatar on Earth, getting a sign from Britannia as the symbol of the codex appears before him, materializing into an amulet.  The Avatar proceeds to the Circle of Stones, enters a moongate and ends up in Britannia once more, quickly encountering  Shamino.  Hot on his heels are three powerful new foes known as the "Shadowlords", who critically wound Shamino but retreat as soon as they catch a glimpse of the Avatar.  Thankfully Iolo's hut is nearby, so the Avatar takes Shamino there to recuperate as Iolo fills you in on what has occurred between games.

In short, the recovery of the Codex from the Stygian Abyss has caused an upheaval, resulting in the appearance of a large underworld beneath Britannia.  It was soon found to be extremely dangerous and full of hostile monsters, leading to Lord British's Great Council sealing off the dungeons with magical words of power.  Lord British himself led an expedition to the underworld, but his adventuring party met with disaster and LB's own whereabouts are currently unknown.  In his absence, a nobleman named Lord Blackthorn rose to power, ruling justly for a time but soon becoming corrupted by the Shadowlords and twisting the eight Virtues into a draconian set of laws.  Namely:

Honesty: Thou shalt not lie, or thou shalt lose thy tongue.
Compassion: Thou shalt help those in need, or thou shalt suffer the same need.
Valor: Thou shalt fight to the death if challenged, or thou shalt be banished as a coward.
Honor: If thou dost lose thine own honor, thou shalt take thine own life.
Sacrifice: Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income.
Justice: Thou shalt confess to thy crime and suffer its just punishment, or thou shalt be put to death.
Spirituality: Thou shalt enforce the laws of virtue, or thou shalt die as a heretic.
Humility: Thou shalt humble thyself to thy superiors, or thou shalt suffer their wrath.

Worse yet, the former champions of the virtues (the Avatar's companions), refusing to accept these new laws, are now branded as outlaws and have been forced into hiding, as have the mayors of the eight towns, who have covertly formed a Resistance to counter Lord Blackthorn's Oppression forces.  Thus our mission is laid before us: We must defeat the Shadowlords, oust Blackthorn from power, and, if he's still alive, restore Lord British to the throne!


We definitely have our work cut out for us, to say the least, but your first best move is to get some better equipment and round up a few of your former allies to give yourself some strength in numbers.  Gwenno, Jaana and Julia are all relatively close to the starting point and solid companions besides, but you can ultimately recruit all of your former comrades (just not all at once; the party max is 6), as well as a handful of new characters (including Gorn, a carryover from another game called Ring Quest).  Just don't trust the guy named "Saduj"; the name is a dead giveaway!

Another commonly used trick is to pilfer the storerooms in Lord British's castle for some better armor and Magic Axes; these are far and away the most useful weapons in the game.  They've got great range, do quite a bit of damage and you never have to buy more ammo for them.  Unfortunately this also wreaks havoc on your Karma level, which will make it harder to earn the trust of the Resistance and give you a heavier experience penalty when you die, so don't abuse it too much.  However, you can soften the impact through save abuse - save before entering the castle, open the chests, and if you don't get what you're after, load back and try again.

In any case, once you're adequately armed and hopefully have powered up a bit, it's time to embark on the quest proper.  As in Ultima 4, this requires a lot of talking to people, discovering clues and cross-references, so I would strongly suggest having a notebook handy.  But basically, your goals are as follows:

  • Locate the council member hidden in each town, and convince him to give up the Word of Power to unseal their respective dungeon so that you can enter the Underworld.  Of course, it's to your benefit to do this while avoiding the guards, who will try to shake you down for money under the pretext of enforcing the new "virtues".
  • Meditate at the eight Shrines once again to gain access to the Codex and the wisdom within.  Once all eight Virtues have their respective quests completed, the Codex will reveal the password to enter the final dungeon where Lord British is imprisoned.
  • Find the names of the three Shadowords and the three Shards of Mondain's Immortality Gem; these are what spawned the Shadowlords, and ultimately the means by which they can be destroyed.  Each one represents the opposite of one of the three principles (Hatred, Falsehood and Cowardice), and each must be destroyed by casting the shard into the flame of Love, Truth or Courage as the respective Shadowlord stands atop it.
  • Locate the three Crown Jewels of Lord British.  In addition to being necessary to reach the final dungeon, each one also provides a very useful trait: the Amulet dispels the darkness around the final dungeon, the Scepter cuts through magical barriers (essential to get through some puzzles and traps), and the Crown nullifies enemy magic when equipped - invaluable for fighting against Dragons, Reapers and other nasty enemies.
  • Locate the Sandalwood Box, which ultimately proves key to freeing Lord British from his prison in the underworld.
One must also take care not to be captured by Lord Blackthorn or his forces whilst going about their business.  If this occurs, he will take the party captive and demand the mantra for one of the eight shrines; should the Avatar give it to him, he will destroy the shrine*, presumably because his sense of virtue is so twisted (a plot element which would be revisited in Ultima IX).  Should he refuse, however, Blackthorn will execute one of his comrades and they will be irrevocably lost for the rest of the game.  It's honestly a pretty heart-wrenching scene; the dialog implies that Lord Blackthorn honestly believes himself and his laws to be virtuous and is entirely oblivious to how far he has fallen, lending some tragedy to his character.  Tragedy that would be undermined by a certain later game in the series, but tragedy nonetheless.

* It is possible to repair the shrine, but one needs the Word of Power for its respective dungeon to do it.

The Sandalwood Box is probably the most obscure of these, as it's scarcely mentioned anywhere in the game.  The most obvious way to discover its location is to earn the trust of the Oppression, which requires you to learn the name of one of the Councilmen and sell him out to Blackthorn's lieutenant; this nets you a heavy Karma loss, but also gets you the Black Badge, which will cause members of the Oppression to trust you.  This causes Saduj to tell you exactly why he's snooping around Lord British's castle at night - namely that he's searching for the Sandalwood Box.  Thankfully, while he knows it's located somewhere in the castle, he doesn't know exactly how to get to it.  The key lies with Sir Kenneth at the lighthouse Greyhaven, who teaches you the song "Stones" which you must play on the harpsichord in Lord British's bedroom.  That opens up a hidden passage and grants you access to it.

(Oh, and if you're playing the Ultima V: Lazarus remake, make sure you don't get captured by Blackthorn or let Saduj join you afterward - they will take it away from you, resulting in an immediate game over!).

With the Shadowlords banished, the crown jewels in your possession and the Sandalwood Box firmly in hand, as well as the final Word of Power granted to you by the Codex, it's at last time to enter the underworld and venture into Dungeon Doom, where the world's deadliest monster hordes await and a bunch of tricky dungeon puzzles exist to drive you nuts.  Once again, having a large stock of invisibility, resurrection and healing spells comes highly recommended, and liberal use of Lord British's crown to disable enemy spells is absolutely invaluable.  After braving all of that, you come to a magic mirror and enter to find Lord British trapped within.  He asks for the Sandalwood Box, and upon relinquishing it to him, he opens it to reveal the Orb of the Moons, a magical artifact that allows him to open gateways within Britannia and even to other worlds, and frees all of you from his prison.

(Or, if you forgot to get it, you all end up trapped in the mirror for the rest of time.  Oops!).

This results in the Avatar's companions returning to Britannia alongside their sovereign, and the Avatar themself being sent back to Earth.  The Avatar's victory is a bittersweet one, however, as they return home to find their house picked clean by robbers in their absence.  This reflects that the Avatar's quest is truly an everlasting one, as evil exists everywhere and can never be completely overcome.

As this goes on, we see another scene occurring concurrently:  Lord British returns to his castle to find Blackthorn, now freed of the Shadowlords' corruption and seemingly aware of and deeply remorseful for the harm he has caused.  Lord British then offers him a choice - he can put himself at the mercy of those he wronged by standing trial, or face exile in a land unknown to them both.  Without a word, Blackthorn chooses the latter, stepping into a portal opened by the Orb of the Moons and vanishing from Britannia.

Spoony: And if you've played Ultima IX, you know that he would later return in the employ of the Guardian, seemingly driven by revenge against Lord British and the Avatar.  Which goes against what we see here, as well as a journal written by one of the Xenkan Monks which states that he spent time on Monk Isle, learned the value of humility and seemed to turn over a new leaf.  However, the series' developers also had two separate ideas in store for him that ultimately went unused.
  • Design documents for Serpent Isle reveal that he was originally to be one of many vengeful spirits that would attack the Avatar in Mortegro's home (alongside Elizabeth, Abraham, Hook and several slain Gargoyles); the player would need to use the Spectral Orb to banish their souls to the afterlife.  How he was to have died is not specified.
  • Blackthorn was also to have been in league with the Guardian in the original script for Ultima IX, discreetly sowing distrust between Britannia's major parties in hope of invoking a civil war. No explicit reason is given for his actions, but as the Guardian's origin is also different in this version (being a fusion of the Shadowlords and a wingless Gargoyle), it can be assumed that he was once again corrupted.
Spoony: At any rate, Ultima 5 was another step into greatness for the Ultima franchise, taking the amazing concepts of 4 and putting them into a surprisingly realistic and interactive environment that lent itself to an incredible experience overall.  Mirrors could be broken, instruments could be played, and the difference in gameplay from night to day was as different as, well, night and day.  But more than anything else, the immersion factor grew immensely as the stakes grew much higher and the characters and scenarios much more complex, resulting in a franchise that pushed the boundaries of storytelling in gaming as much as it did realism and gameplay.  It also proved what few other games of the time did (and few still do, sad to say) - that heroes and villains are more complex than their namesake implies, and that one can be drawn down a dark path even with the best of intentions, or that even heroes may have to take questionable actions in order to achieve what's best for all.  And of course, its central theme - that making virtuous guidelines into laws one must fiercely adhere to only undermines their intended purpose - shines through perfectly.  Later games in the series attempted to incorporate these ideas as well, but to me, none captures it better than Ultima V, which in my book makes it undeniably one of the greatest RPGs ever made.