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Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (DOS)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  worldwideweird (54)
Written on  :  Jan 05, 2008
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars4.8 Stars

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An early 3D game, but a true masterpiece nonetheless

The Good

"Ultima Underworld" can safely be regarded as an absolute milestone in computer gaming as it did not only present revolutionary 3D graphics but also employed an immense palette of gameplay and design ideas (some of which have inspired modern classics such as "Deus Ex") which still feel fresh and convincing - probably even more so if one takes into account the sheer amount of games which, after it had been released, chose to leap backwards instead of further pushing the envelope of what's possible for a videogame and what's not.

At its core, "Ultima Underworld" is a so-called dungeon crawl game, meaning that it's set entirely underground. The player takes the role of the famous Avatar (either male or female) to enter a once peaceful, multi-racial colony in search of a baron's abducted daughter. Hatred and distrust have spread amongst the colonists since its founder Cabirus was murdered under dubious circumstances, the colony has fallen into ruins and is used as a prison when the game begins (a strong parallel to the beginning of another modern classic, "Gothic"). The player has to go to the colony's deepest core in order to achieve his/her goal (which will change during gameplay) and re-enter the light of day. Other than a few names and places, "Underworld" is not closely related to other "Ultima" games, however, its spirit, gaming philosophy and daring execution serve as significant links to the classic Origin series.

This review will separately deal with "Underworld"s technical, gameplay and content aspects (some of these are quite closely interwoven, so it may not always be possible) - concentrating on the amount of complexity and sophistication with which it was obviously created.

1. Technical

"Ultima Underworld" featured not only true 3D VGA graphics which were revolutionary for its time and even surpassed id's "Doom" in many ways but, yet more revolutionary, used them to render believable, realistic environments. Despite of the graphics' visible age, the actual "dungeon simulation" part still works perfectly fine, colouring is dark and sufficiently naturalistic and, most important, level design always goes hand in hand with technical aspects.

As with its in-official successor "System Shock" (and probably to an even stronger degree), rooms and corridors always serve a distinct purpose - one notices a fishing rod next to a small pond, it is owned by a goblin who lives not too far off, when one enters a small alcove filled with some jewelry and heaps of rotten cheese one is attacked by a rat, most NPCs have their own rooms and/or sleeping places etc. etc. "Ultima Underworld"s graphics were thus not only technically noticeable, but also the how and why of their usage was way ahead of its time.

To aid orientation, some great set-pieces are scattered throughout the game, differently textured walls indicate different parts of the dungeons, banners are used to mark inhabited areas (if the inhabitants are friendly, at least) and a simple, but effective colour scheme is used throughout the game. With all its technical limitations, "Underworld" employs a gradual colour "shift" from black to red as the player approaches the games' central core. This is hinted at right from the beginning when the player looks through a window down into the inner chasm of this "Stygian Abyss" (in a separate screen) and notices a faint red glow at the bottom. This red glow will get more and more close to the player as he/she looks through similar windows on deeper levels, heightening his/her expectation, until from level 6 onwards more and more lava regions have to be tackled. In level 8, most everything has gone red. Such a stringent dramatic use of colouring is always welcome and far from being self-evident even in modern games. For a game from back then, it's just marvellous.

As for "Underworld"s music, it's probably less revolutionary but not less effective. Part melodic, part ambient, it certainly fits the general, brooding mood of the game and dynamically changes when enemies approach or a battle begins. Together with its still effective graphics, "Underworld"s music makes for a game appealing to all (well, most) senses even today, at least if one gives it a chance.

2. Gameplay

With its powerful and surprisingly intelligent interface, "Ultima Underworld" is actually a combination of different games: there's an environment exploration/survival part, a multiple-choice dialogue adventure part, a real-time combat part and a role-playing game statistics part. While the stats-part is not really stressed (for an RPG) and is quite integrated into environment exploration anyway this review won't deal with it. The other parts, however, deserve some observation.

a.) Real-time combat

Combat in "Ultima Underworld" is engagingly presented in real-time, as is the rest of the environment. Opponents are quite varied and exist in different types (e.g. three types of spiders etc.) and not all of them are hostile by nature. A bat, a rat or even a spider will often enough not attack first, but give the player a chance to retreat. Moreover some creatures act territorially and will cancel their attack if the player leaves their domain. Every NPC and creature is assigned a "mood tag" by the game, ranging from friendly to hostile, which the player may influence by his/her behaviour. For an RPG, the available range of weapons is limited, however, each weapon has a certain status and will be worn down by usage, thus requiring a weapon-smith (hard to come by), own repairs or replacement. During combat, the environment can be used to gain advantage over enemies, enemies will work in teams (though, of course, not according to modern A.I. standards) and, naturally, different spells are waiting to be put to use. Last but not least: Especially with tougher battles, "Ultima Underworld" may provide more than one solution to the problem, and battle may (or may not) be altogether avoided.

b.) Multiple-choice dialogue adventure

There are a lot of NPCs to find in "Ultima Underworld", some are beautifully presented, fleshed-out characters with lots of varied and well-written dialogue (gimme all those „ye“s and „nay“s), other, less important ones represent generic "types" ("a knight", "a gray goblin") and are more interested in trading than in talking. However, it's safe to say that "Underworld"s dialogue ranges from good to outstanding across the board and one has to avoid lots of traps and small impolitenesses if one wants to keep (most) people happy and live up to "Avatar standards". Different people will react differently to a certain style of talking and sometimes the additional typing of key words will be required from the player. The way a conversation is lead is crucial to determine the respective NPCs mood status (see 2 b.)) and may yield more pieces of advice, additional information or even helpful items.

Some of „Ultima Underworld“s puzzles are also dealt with during dialogue, but only few of them remind one of a classic graphic adventure's style - which does not not mean that they're any less interesting. For example, one of my favourite puzzles involves freeing a prisoner from an upset lizardman. One does not understand the lizardman's language, however, the prisoner does - but he got his tongue cut out and can no longer speak. The player will have to write down words of the (albeit simple) lizard language and have them sort of translated by the prisoner's gestures until one gets the situation right and realizes the reason for the man's imprisonment. One can then try to set him free, ignore the problem or kill the lizardman - though the true Avatar would, of course, shun such a course of action. This intelligent use of puzzles which are linked to a concrete situation, involve interesting character interaction, are integrated with both story and gameplay and are, most important of all, just darn original, shows of "Underworld"s greatness once more.

c.) Environment exploration/survival

Not only the graphics hint at a realistic approach to the usual fantasy dungeon environment - it's the gameplay itself which makes "Ultima Underworld" primarily an exploration game. As with other "Ultima"s, the Avatar can only carry a limited amount of weight, moreover, he/she has to eat and sleep, everything progresses in real-time and the environment is extremely interactive. One can catch fish, make popcorn, kill/steal/barter/chat with the denizens, solve side quests, smash things, mine for gold etc. - less interesting tasks in a game world which is glowing with possibilities. Countless secret doors have to be found, apparently unreachable ledges to be conquered and long, winding rivers to be swum to their misty ends if one wants to stand a decent chance of surviving the Abyss. Level design can be strenuously tricky at times, yet orientation is aided by both recognizable environment features and, of course, the (for the time) excellent auto-map.

Linked to this wonderfully engaging exploration procedure are various environmental puzzles, ranging from switching levers to chanting mantras at the right spot etc. - as with fights and dialogue puzzles, many of the environmental puzzles may be solved in various ways, a "fly" spell could, for instance, render tiresome lever switching obsolete.

For me, exploration and environment simulation are "Ultima Underworld"s strongest gameplay parts. The oppressive intensity transmitted through believable graphics and, even more important, the notion that around the next corner anything might await the player: invincible demons, great treasures, long-forgotten messages, a solemn tombstone, a river grating leading to a secret area of the next level or a combination of them all - or nothing. This, combined with the pressing urge of the storyline (there's no time-limit, but hey, who'd keep a kidnapped girl a-waiting?) and the necessity to keep ones own, digital body clothed and fed along the way, create an experience any gourmet gamer interested in 3D adventures should be able to enjoy.

3. Content

As with other "Ultima" games, content plays an important role in "Ultima Underworld". The game's main plot is well told, it sets out as a simple case of abduction, the Avatar is suspected to have something to do with it and ends up more or less imprisoned within the cold walls of the Abyss. However, along the way, more challenging and more interesting tasks await the player: the murder of the ex-colony's founder has to be solved, the reason for the colonists' breakup to be unravelled and - of course - virtue has to be re-installed, not in a more or less pleasant fantasy-type countryside, but in a hostile, sinister environment which has long forgotten the meaning of the word.

The most wonderful thing about "Underworld"s content is the way it's linked to general game design: in order to finish the game one has to get to the deepest level, in order to do that one has to visit all the levels in between. On most of these one may find left-over groups of surviving colonists from the "good old times" - the player is more or less forced to interact with them to progress with the game and will learn more about the story along the way, told from strongly differing angles. In the end, each of the various races will have to contribute to defeat the main villain, though probably not in the way they'd have thought.


Symbolic readings and interpretations are done with sculptures, books, movies and all other pieces of work, why not with a videogame, so here it goes.

The colony's founder Cabirus dreamt the dream of harmony and peace between all (fantasy) races, however, his experiment failed and distrust and hatred broke out between the colonists. While the Avatar will not really be able to reconcile their struggles, he has to look for eight long-lost symbols which were given to the them by Cabirus, representing the eight virtues on the one hand, and the respective race's "main" virtue on the other. In order to defeat the game's final demon (of distrust? of hatred?) who is appropriately called the "Slasher of Veils" (a "veil", an illusion - of harmony? of peace?) one has to retrieve all eight objects and throw them into a pool of lava just in front of said demon.

If that's not a symbolic representation of the far-famed cultural "melting-pot", I don't know what is.

Moreover, since it is also mentioned in a vision that, in fact, all Britannia is threatened by the demon, it seems feasible to conclude that the limited "world" of the Abyss may actually stand as a representation of a much larger (and more real?) world which may equally be haunted by a breakdown of racial and cultural harmony. It may all seem a bit far-fetched, but hey, racial and cultural distrust -are- this game's topic, after all, so why not interpret it this way.

All in all, "Ulima Underworld"s content doesn't only stand the test of time, it's mysterious, engaging and even touching because of the purity with which both the dream and the (possible) nightmare of a multi-cultural/racial environment is presented. Refreshingly, "Ultima Underworld" weaves its tale without the usual "epic fantasy" means, it largely uses small person to person discussions with the Underworld's inhabitants to progress the storyline and adds dreams, visions and the use of symbols to make its palette of storytelling means more varied.

In the end, it can safely be said that "Ultima Underworld"s content lives up to both its technical prowess and its gameplay innovations, rounding it all up and, what an achievement, making it all actually worthwhile.

The Bad

There is not much to say in this section, however, a few points need to be mentioned.

First of all, this game can be quite unforgiving in some ways. Though not overly difficult for the most part, recognizing objects necessary to complete the game can be a nuisance. Let's be serious: who'd think that a "piece of strong thread" found on the first level could become of vital importance for progressing the darn game? If a player has first picked up an item and then left it at some other place without making a note of its position, it may be practically lost forever - and if one has thrown something into the water it definitely is. Since many objects in "Ultima Underworld" aren't used at the same place where they're found (in fact, that would make exploration seem quite ridiculous) it is very important to always keep track of "unknown" or "unclear" objects which appear to be mysterious in any way. However, once one has gotten used to this kind of behaviour, it's not that much of a problem any more.

Another one of "Underworld"s bad points would be some of the environmental puzzles. Many of them are excellent - so excellent, in fact, that the occasional "random lever" switching puzzles hurt all the more. Luckily, these are rare enough.

The final piece of criticism would be the usual point: as they managed to make it so great, why didn't they make it still better? Most of "Underworld"s faults are really minor strokes of weakness in an otherwise perfect combination of technical, gameplay and content aspects - one uninteresting character here, a conventional puzzle there, maybe a bit too much fantasy stuff overall...there's so little amiss with this game: taking into account what it tries to achieve, it truly comes close to perfection, yet I personally think that it stops just a millimeter away from the finishing line.

The Bottom Line

For me, "Ultima Underworld" is one of the greatest games of all times. Its atmosphere is grim, intense and never based on cheap tricks - everything is seriously and solidly crafted through the masterful usage of those elements which can only be employed within the medium of video gaming. It's greatest strength (and a guarantee of its "eternal modernity") is it's approach of combining a good, meaningful storyline with a densely simulated, well fleshed-out and designed environment complete with an extremely varied populace and countless challenging puzzles and fights.

The best notion of it all, however, is this: "Ultima Underworld" is a proud game, or better, it is proud to be a game. It took the chances, possibilities - in short, the "virtues" of gaming seriously more than fifteen years ago whereas even today a majority of Earth's inhabitants fail to see them.

Looking Glass, you are sorely missed.