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SummaryThis game should be taught in schools
The GoodThe first three (four, if you count Akalabeth) Ultima games were highly advanced and imaginative contributions to the nascent role-playing genre. That said, they were generally simpler in terms of RPG variables and less challenging that their main competitor, Wizardry. Ultima needed to find its own tone, to make a strong personal statement. And when it did, it overshadowed everything that was achieved in the genre before it, shattering all norms and preconceptions with its uniqueness.
At first sight, Ultima IV is just a traditional RPG - albeit an excellent one. It contains plenty of familiar elements, most of which are brilliantly executed, even if they remain relatively simple. The battle system looks basic, yet it is one of the most efficient and entertaining ones I saw in RPGs. Combat takes place on a separate screen on which you can move freely. The battles are turn-based, but very quick-paced, particularly during skirmishes with easier foes, where you can win by moving and typing the letter A plus the direction you want to attack. Mostly you'll be fighting against large groups of enemies, with several types of them attacking together. The terrain of the battlefields is one of the things that make those battles so fun. Each terrain is unique: if you are fighting in mountains, you'll have navigate narrow paths often blocked by impassable rocks; near a swamp you'll have to deal with poison fields that are scattered around.
Particularly inventive are the battlefields in the dungeons. All of them are different, and each has a particular design: some have lava fields that inflict damage on you, others introduce lightning fields you have to dispel in order to attack the enemy hiding behind them; there are hidden switches you have to pull in order to reveal a secret exit, adding a delightful puzzle-solving flavor to dungeon exploration, and so on. The dungeons of Ultima IV are complex and tricky to navigate: you have false walls, seemingly impassable rooms, dead ends, traps, various energy fields, fountains that either heal or poison you, secret doors, pits, winds that extinguish the light of your torch, sudden monster attacks, magic orbs that increase your stats at the cost of your HP, and other interesting things. And the overworld itself, with its coherent structure, forests and mountains, swamps and bridges, towns and well-hidden dungeon entrances, mysterious teleporting moongates, seas and islands, is a pleasure to explore - and you can do it at any time.
There are a lot of interesting magic spells to learn and to use in Ultima IV. By reading the Book of Mystic Wisdom that comes with the game you can learn about the effect of the spells and the reagents needed to cast them. You can't just cast spells in the game: you have to buy (or find) the necessary reagents and mix them together to create a spell unit. This unique magic system was implemented in all later Ultimas and is one of the series' trademarks. There are some very interesting touches of interactivity and realism in the game. You should have a supply of rations, otherwise you and your party members will starve. You have to light torches in dark dungeons. There are some really cool elements, like ship-to-ship battles against sea monsters and pirate ships, balloon flight, and others.
Ultima IV was a big step forward in RPG design also because it was probably the first game of the kind imbued with genuine personality. No longer set in a disjointed, indifferent world hastily stitched together, this game introduces the Britannia we've come to love and cherish. You can now communicate with townspeople by typing keywords: no matter how rudimentary, this feature was the seed out of which gigantic, exotic dialogue trees would eventually grow. You'll also need to learn and memorize keywords because the information given to you by NPCs is crucial to the completion of your quest. Another element that Ultima IV brought to us had a particular influence on modern-day RPG design: companions that exist in the game world and join the hero for their own reasons. Instead of generating an entire party of adventurers, you start as a lonely traveler from Earth, and have to explore the unknown world in order to find friends and recruit them for the common cause. The joy of locating yet another companion, the gradual composition of your party makes up for the lack of distinct class differentiation and the impossibility to create a custom group.
You'll fight monsters, gather treasure, talk to people, explore dangerous areas, and become stronger. That is where the borders of role-playing are usually drawn. Ultima IV, however, goes beyond that. This is the only role-playing game known to me that doesn't revolve around finding and destroying the big bad guy. Your quest is not about defeating an antagonist, but rather about a spiritual exercise of becoming the Avatar, a perfect incarnation of eight virtues. The main idea here is not to tell a story of a highly virtuous person: any book, movie, or adventure game are theoretically able to do that. What makes the phenomenon of Ultima IV truly outstanding is the fact that its concept can be expressed exclusively through the medium of a game. It doesn't create a highly ethical person: it lets you be that person - not automatically, following the game's plot, but through hard work, continuous exploration, searching, thinking, and effort. If it were a book or a movie, Ultima IV would not be as special. But being a game, it allows a kind of a "moral simulation": it creates a virtual world where you are not yet good, but where you can become good. The whole point of the game and its endless appeal is in its gameplay, which is dedicated to your spiritual path, but can only be viewed in its continuity, gradually developing as the player makes progress in the game, without being "given" to you.
The unique take on role-playing introduced by Ultima IV is the possibility to do whatever you like in the game, and choose your course according to your own will - though bringing it in accordance with the will of the designers is the game's actual goal. You must be good if you want to complete the game - but at any given point you have the much easier possibility to stop being good. The game gives you freedom but is not afraid to tell you that there is only one truth, and you must adhere to it if you wish to see how the whole thing ends. Maybe I'm imagining things, but this looks like a wonderful metaphor and illustration of the Christian concept of synergy - cooperation between our free will and God's grace.
Ultima IV is the only RPG where gameplay and story are truly inseparable. In other games of this genre, the story is told by the game, while you are trying to trigger its events by completing the game's objectives. No matter the amount of non-linearity and optional ways in a game, it always follows the principle of the gameplay being unrelated to the story and serving as a vehicle to transport you through it. In this game, the gameplay is the story. There is no other story but the one you make while playing the game. Nothing happens in the world of Ultima IV; you should not trigger any events. Its world is static, and the only thing that changes is you. Your progress through the game is the only story it has - and what a fascinating story it is: a tale of a nameless, ordinary person who has the possibility to become a moral example to others.
Besides the usual tasks of finding many items and visiting places where they can be used, your main objective in the game is to prove you are worthy of the title of Avatar. Before you start the game, you have to create your character, answering a series of morally ambiguous questions presenting conflicting aspects of the eight virtues. The questions themselves are masterfully posed, and make every player reflect upon his own moral values. For example: your lord believes he was the one who vanquished a powerful dragon, yet you know it was your strike that brought the victory. Do you tell the truth or do you prefer not to hurt the feelings of your liege? This is a conflict between honesty and sacrifice. In the end, the virtue you choose most determines the character class you start with, since each class is associated with a certain virtue: Bard with compassion, Druid with justice, Fighter with valor, etc.
You start the game with a perfectly mediocre score. You are an average person, neither a villain nor a moral example. But as you play the game, you discover everything you do affects you as a potential Avatar - or a potential scoundrel. At first sight, you are in a typical RPG world where you can hack monsters, loot chests, etc. But if you really want to become an Avatar, you have to follow the spiritual way of the virtues. Sure, you can just open any chest in any city and take the treasure inside, but your honesty will suffer. You can run away from fights, but then you lose your valor. You can backstab fleeing animals like snakes or spiders, but that won't do well to your compassion. The game allows you to behave the way you like, and it is through understanding of the virtues that you will eventually come to Avatarhood, not because the game dictates it to you. You have to play the game a lot in order to understand that it reflects everything you do. You can kill children on the streets, but don't expect the game to ignore it. The game is a barometer of your morality, and it doesn't punish you in a primitive way, sending guards to capture you - no, it makes you understand that you are doing something opposite to its very essence. It treats you with justice, yet it also forgives you and gives you an opportunity to correct the wrong you have done.
The BadAs there is no actual plot to follow, there is nothing in the game that will reward you other than the satisfaction of slowly becoming an Avatar. The world of the game is static. Nothing changes after you have become an Avatar; even Lord British doesn't say anything except his usual standard greeting. You are alone in the game. Your party members don't talk from the moment they join you, and are far from being the graceful companions of later Ultimas. The people in towns have only a couple of simple phrases to tell you, and most of the time will react with "I can't help thee with this" to your attempts at communication.
You won't get many clues in this game. You have to find many important items, but if you don't ask around, there is no way to know you will ever need them. Once you learn that you will need them indeed, you'll have to spend more time talking to people and trying to meet someone who might know where they are. Since the world is very large, the only guarantee for a successful completion of the game is a rather tedious asking every person in every town about everything, as well as meticulous searching. Important items don't even appear as items - you have to search empty spots for them, hoping to find something. For example, if a person tells you that the Silver Horn can be find on a certain group of islands, you have to search every spot on every one of those islands - you won't get a more exact clue. If you are not willing to use a walkthrough, prepare to spend a huge amount of time with this game.
There are other problems related to the actual gameplay, especially concerning your progress on the path of an Avatar. Some of it might seem a bit unnatural and forced. Once you get familiar with the "virtue-raising" mechanics, the process gets too elementary and you start having a feeling you are cheating. I also think that the requirement of having met all eight of your companions, attained perfect scores in each of the eight virtues, and collected eight other magical trinkets or incantations was a bit too much. Imagine the frustration of reaching the end of the Abyss and being rejected only for lacking 1/8 of sacrifice because you forgot to donate enough blood.