1992 – Ultima VII: The Black Gate

“Avatar! Know that Britannia has entered into a new age of enlightenment. Know that the time has come for the one true lord of Britannia to take his place at the head of his people! Under my guidance, Britannia will flourish. And all the people shall rejoice and pay homage to their new Guardian!”

“Know that you, too, shall kneel before me Avatar. You too, shall soon acknowledge my authority, for I shall be your companion, your provider – and your master!”

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As the red face mocked me with a menacing laugh and began to sink back into the blue static background, I was shocked. In most games, the antagonist just sits on the sidelines, but in Ultima VII the Guardian shows up right at the start, tells you his intent and then taunts you throughout the entire game.

Anyone who has played through Ultima VII can tell you what an immersive, amazing journey it is. Quite a few things set it apart, including its story. As the Avatar, you return to Britannia, meet your friend Iolo and learn of the brutal murder of a blacksmith and his gargoyle companion. Your first objective then is to solve the mystery behind this tragedy.

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It’s a very different experience from RPGs where you just need to run out kill monsters to get a shiny new weapon. In the Ultima series people matter. Their dialog is not something to be skipped so you can just get on with the game. The text is something to be savored, like a compelling book.

Eventually, the trail leads you out of the starting city of Trinsic, to Paws, then Britain and from there you can head wherever you want. However, Britannia has become a much darker place since your last visit, so adultery, drug abuse and class struggles are just a few of the more mature themes you will find.

Adding to the immersion is the clean and fully mouse-driven interface. Gone are the list of keyboard commands needed to play – walking, talking, picking up items, opening your inventory, moving objects around, etc… it’s all done with a click of the mouse. Also gone are the stiff dialogs based on typing “name”, “job”, “bye” and other keywords. Now you just have to click on the dialog options that appear on-screen.

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Another aspect is the sheer amount of detail that went into Ultima VII’s world. Not only in the dialogs and secrets, but in the simulation of the world itself. Want to make bread? Cut the grain, grind it to flour, add water to make dough then pop it into the oven. Now you have bread. You can also shear sheep and make cloth, forge your own sword, go fishing, pile up crates to climb, get a job as farmer, etc.

I obviously enjoy Ultima VII immensely, but it does have its flaws though. One of them is the combat. It’s real-time and mostly automatic – you basically just toggle between in a “peace” or “combat” mode. The frustration sets in when you go into combat mode and everyone in your party runs off-screen. In a dungeon this usually means at least someone will die, no matter how high their level.

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Another flaw is that there’s no auto-eating. Use of resources is the mark of a good RPG, but when Shamino says he’s hungry I have to open up my paper doll, then his paper doll, then his backpack, click on some food and feed him – and then when I walk two steps and Iolo complains he is hungry as well.

Ultima VII had a expansion, Forge of Virtue, which sends the Avatar to investigate the Isle of Fire. Relatively short, the game’s backstory is well written, although it’s not on par with the main quest.

In 1993 came Ultima VII – Part 2: Serpent Isle.

A full-length stand-alone release, it continues the events told in Ultima VII and Ultima Underworld II.

The Avatar follows a villain to the eponymous Serpent Isles, which are actually the “Lands of Danger and Despair” from Ultima I. Shortly after leaving your ship, a magic storm switches your items and companions with other things. For example, your spell book switches place with a piece of pumice.

Part of the game’s premise is you need to hunt down all of your old equipment, as well as your now-missing companions. As you explore the Isle, you will also come across three towns which have rejected the Three Principles of Truth, Love and Courage, core of the Virtues which you defined in Ultima IV.

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Serpent Isle has a very different tone from other Ultima games, having a more linear and event-based story, with a heavy emphasis on dialogs. This displeased some old fans, but inspired many developers later.

It eventually also got its own mini-expansion, The Silver Seed – which oddly came with a complete walkthrough in the box! Sadly, EA had already began to meddle too much, and this expansion was a rushed release, with poor puzzles and a disconnected plot.

True masterpieces, both Ultima VII parts are well worth playing, not only to see where modern RPGs truly found their footing, but also for an incredible story that has yet to be surpassed. David Konkol 

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