Ultima IX: Ascension
Once again, we see the genius of Lord British, the master storyteller.
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(Note: I played using the official Origin patch (v1.18f) and several “unofficial” patches from fansforultima.com. I elected not to use any cheat codes, but did consult walkthroughs for help in finding some of the special weapons and armour and finishing side quests.)
I thought the story was wonderfully engaging. Basically, huge magical columns erupted from the earth and the 8 Shrines of Virtue were destroyed. Thus the beliefs and thinking of the people of Britannia reversed over time. They became uncompassionate, greedy, dishonest, unjust, and totally disagreeable. To make them see the error of their ways, the 8 shrines must be “cleansed” by reuniting the Sigil and the Rune (glyph) and speaking the proper Mantra. Naturally, those three things are scattered, and finding them is your primary goal. In between, numerous other situations occur to diversify the plot (such as saving the Gargoyle race and restoring the Moongates).
The linearity of U9 didn’t bother me in the least. Sure, certain things must be done before other things happen, but that leads the plot towards the proper direction. There is plenty to do, loads of places to explore, numerous people to meet, and hundreds of monsters to fight so I was never bored. Whenever I got stuck, reading the Avatar’s Journal helped with the adventure aspects of the game.
One of the coolest things brought out in the plot was love. At least 2 women told the Avatar they loved him (one from his past and one from his present). Although he never really reciprocated, it was an interesting twist to an already great story. (The cut scenes of him with Raven sizzled … literally.)
The gameplay as a whole reminded me very much of Redguard and even Sierra’s King’s Quest 8: Mask of Eternity, although your character cannot perform as many actions. He can walk, run, swim, strafe, climb and jump, but he cannot crouch, sneak or hang from ledges. I liked the beginning in-game tutorial which I thought was an innovative way to get familiar with the game controls.
When saving a game, there is plenty of room to type your own description and a picture appears at the top showing where you were when you saved. Assumingly, the number of saved games is only limited by your hard disk space as I had no problems saving anytime and anywhere I wanted. You always restart the game from your last save.
The world as a whole was creatively drawn and lovely. The many islands and cities all have their own unique settings, terrain and building types. Nice as the graphics are, they are no more detailed or groundbreaking than, say, those in Outcast. They did a good job inside the dungeons and caves, which looked more realistic to me than some of the other areas. I would have liked a change of view to “top down” for the dungeons, since I was continually getting lost. Even a self-mapping feature would have been a nice addition.
When day turns to night, the sunsets are beautiful. The night skies are filled with stars and a big, bright moon. A rain storm can happen at any given moment during the day, turning the whole area appropriately dark. The storms are complete with lightning, thunder, raindrops and puddles. (I have never been fond of weather in games, but I admit that the effects were done very well in Ascension.)
However, monster and character graphics were only so-so, in my opinion, and appeared blocky and unrealistic. The Avatar’s face looks different in the video cut scenes than he does while you are actually playing him. (I thought he was more handsome, albeit angled, within the game than in the cut scenes.)
Music and Sound
The music was nicely orchestrated and different for each locale. The songs even changed after you had “cleansed” each shrine. I never got tired of it, and it did not interfere with sound effects or voices. All of those can be adjusted in the options menu.
Sound effects were appropriate for various actions and environments. When the Avatar walks on a wooden floor or a sandy beach, for instance, his footsteps sound correct. When you hurt an opponent, he/she/it will grunt, whine, groan or gasp. Sounds inside the dungeons were especially spooky and mood enhancing.
The character scripts were really good, and I liked the way they handled each of the virtues before and after the shrines had been fixed. The majority of the actors did a great job with their speech, incorporating the proper inflections and tones, and most of the voices were appropriate to the character you were looking at. I thought that some of the children were a bit stupidly portrayed though.
The Bottom Line
If you liked other 3rd person, single-player action/adventure/rpgs, and you have the proper system configuration, this game is worth playing (but be sure to install the latest official patch). It is not perfect and has its share of glitches, but none of those really hindered me. First and foremost, it is fun and will provide many weeks (maybe even months) of entertainment.
For those of you who have played previous Ultima games, don’t expect it to look or feel like any of them. Consider the game as a separate entity and try not to compare it to its predecessors. You may be surprised at how much you like it too.