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SummaryPaving the path to the great RPG revival
The GoodAt first sight, what we have here is an add-on of sorts to Black Gate, the first part of the complete Ultima VII saga. Serpent Isle uses the same engine as the first part, looks almost identical to it, and has the same combat mechanics, stat-improvement system, and party management. But in its core, it is a very different game.
Black Gate still continued the tradition of open-ended Ultima games. Its gameplay formula was still about roaming the world and completing tasks in any order. Serpent Isle is decidedly inclined towards a tighter, more focused narrative.
The abundance of scripted events immediately catches the eye. Earlier Ultimas had very few of those. You had an intro and an ending, but the rest of the game was dedicated to your exploration (which was nearly unrestricted), and only very few things did really happen. It is true that the initial impact of those great stories and the fascinating gameplay were enough to sustain the interest of the player, but there has been always very little "inside" story in those games. Serpent Isle is the first one that was created with a different design philosophy in mind. You really play a story in this game, almost in the sense of Japanese RPGs (though naturally with much richer exploration and interaction possibilities) - things happen because they are supposed to happen, you just have to trigger the appropriate event. There are many cutscenes in the game, and more obligatory dialogues and events that advance the plot regardless of your actions: you are often being teleported, thrown into prison, your inventory is taken away from you, etc. As a result, the game has a much more distinct flavor of a good novel than all earlier Ultimas.
Another significant change is the importance of your party members. In all earlier Ultimas they were there just to decorate the game. In Ultima IV you had to find seven companions in order to finish the game, but none of them influenced (or even enhanced) the plot individually. In the fifth game they were little more than speechless fighters once they joined your party. In the two following games they became more talkative and started having distinct personality traits, but were still equally unimportant to the plot. However, in Serpent Isle they have become an integral part of the narrative - they perform various actions, participate in the story, and behave like people with their own wills rather than item-carrying, fighting machines.
The storyline itself is naturally more dramatic and involving thanks to the new technique. There are sudden twists, massive cataclysms, lyrical moments, and even moving scenes that depict courageous deeds and sacrifice. This added a whole new dimension to the somewhat dry, impersonal Western storytelling style. Serpent Isle is an early precursor to the (perhaps upcoming?) great "RPG merge", a game that takes the best from Japanese RPGs without losing the gameplay quality of the Western style.
Being so tightly scripted, Serpent Isle is naturally more linear than all the previous Ultimas. Often you can't access a new location until you have completed certain tasks in the old one. Particularly the first part of the game is of a very straightforward nature. The result is a "user-friendliness" that was practically absent from the earlier installments: Serpent Isle is easy to get into, easy to start playing; it is a perfect starting point for re-acquaintance with the classic series for those who have missed the previous installments.
Certain aspects of Ultima were brought to utmost perfection in Serpent Isle - most importantly characterization and writing. The personalities of the game's characters are more detailed than ever, the dialogues more complex and finely written. There are many more important characters here than in any Ultima game before - plenty of characters are involved in the story and are much more active than the somewhat indifferent inhabitants of Britannia in earlier Ultimas. The addition of large, realistically looking character portraits (the only graphical change in the game, along with the cool equipment screen - equipped items are visible on the character) was a great decision - it is nice to talk to people with such expressive faces, and it adds a lot to their personalities.
The game is long. Although it is much simpler to follow and to play than earlier Ultimas, it will still take quite some time to complete - not wandering around aimlessly, searching for clues, like in earlier Ultimas, but actually experiencing things and making the story progress. The quests are large, wonderfully detailed (take Monitor as an example, with its political conspiracy involving plenty of characters and their personal views of each other), there are huge dungeons and some very colorful and unique locations to explore, like the Lost City with its unbearable heat and gargoyles, or the ice-covered northern regions.
Like in the first part, there are many humorous dialogues and situations in Serpent Isle. One of my favorites was the dialogue choice you have after Filbercio catches you fooling around in his mistress's bedroom and asks you whether you did something with her or not: 1) I'm guilty 2) I'm innocent 3) I'm leaving... By the way, Serpent Isle decidedly the sexiest Ultima game out there, offering quite a lot of action. The aforementioned scene, for example, is quite convincing - if you decide to go along with the mistress, you see both her and the Avatar undress and go to bed...
Those are the "new" good things in Serpent Isle; but together with them, it also contains plenty of traditional Ultima goodness we know and love. Like the first part, it is set in a fully interactive, breathing, believable world - spin threads to make clothes, catch fish, hunt deers, and take and move around everything you like...
The BadThere are even more plot items in Serpent Isle than in Black Gate - chances are you'll carry around lots of weird things without the slightest idea of how and where to use them. Since your inventory is limited, and you can drop things, there is always the risk of dropping a seemingly unimportant item and then being unable to retrace it back when you suddenly discovered it was needed to make the game progress at a much later stage. Many items are also very small and easy to overlook, like the serpent teeth you need to teleport around.
The amount of locked doors and various keys in the game is a bit too overwhelming. If you don't drop the keys you have used (a few of them have several functions, but as a general rule, a key is valid only for doors in the location where you found it, so it is relatively safe to discard them after usage), you can easily end up with a whole bag stuffed with keys of all colors. The "find a key to unlock the door" puzzle is somewhat overused - you'll spend a lot of time just hunting for keys in dungeons.
I should mention the party AI, which was dangerously close to zero. My companions used every opportunity they had to unequip the best weapons I was giving them and to equip some junk instead. I was careless enough to give a glass sword (basically an instant kill item of one charge) to Shamino, who equipped it without me noticing it, and used it to kill a rat. Boydon jumped right into fire with 3 hit points in the midst of a hard battle. Iolo killed me once by repeatedly hitting me with fireballs while I was fighting a slime.
The new scripted event-based mechanics don't always work perfectly. Often there is little logical connection between the "triggering" action of the player and the scripted event that follows. For example, a door in Shamino's castle is protected by an energy field, that disappears after you find the Hound of Doskar and summon him to trace Cantra. There is no true connection between the disappearance of the energy field and the summoning of the dog - you have to summon it only because you are supposed to.
The Bottom LineThe first part of Ultima VII was the richest and most perfectly crafted realization of the classic template of the series.
Serpent Isle, on the contrary, defines - particularly in storytelling - a new design philosophy, which will eventually become the new template for the great RPG revival of the West. Tightly scripted, story-driven games like Planescape: Torment have been hugely influenced by this seminal work. Large, rich, creative, wonderfully detailed, Serpent Isle, with its focused narrative and outstanding balance between scripted events and exploration, is a masterpiece way ahead of its time.