With the exception of Final Fantasy, few other RPG series can claim a lineage as rich as that of Ultima. Created by Richard Garriott (or Lord British as he likes to be called) the critically acclaimed Ultima series spans dozens of titles and cross-platform spin-offs, the 30-year timeline of which is a mish-mashed spider’s web.
Most of the titles in the series follow the adventures of the Avatar, a mysterious and virtuous protagonist who traverses the multiverse laying the justice down on his nemesis The Guardian. As one of the first RPG titles, and the first ever open-world computer game, Ultima was a true pioneer of the possibilities of RPG gaming.
In the wake of so much history, 1994’s Ultima VIII: Pagan is a tough nut to crack. Following on their 1992 hit Ultima VII: The Black Gate and its expansion The Serpent Isle, Origin Systems tried to reinvent the wheel with their eighth outing. A decision that would mark the beginning of a descent from which the series would not fully recover.
The main criticism of the title was that Origin decided to take everything that worked so well from VII, and completely scrap it for VIII. Gone was the virtue system, the multiple character party system and the massive open-ended world. Instead was a far more linear narrative that placed the Avatar as the sole player character. The movement system also added a rather poorly implemented jump mechanic, which led players to dub Ultima VIII the ridiculous label of Super Avatar Brothers.
On top of all this the game was riddled with bugs. Although some of the issues were later sorted out with patches, the yesteryear of 1994 was not the easiest time in which to spread mass-market fixes to disgruntled consumers. Garriot himself admits that the game was probably three months from being finished, but was pressured into releasing by unhappy stockholders.
Playing all this as an 8-year-old child circa 1996, I was completely oblivious to literally everything written above. Ultima VIII was the first RPG I ever played, packaged together with a brand new CD-ROM my father purchased for my brother and I. It still coaxes a warm glow from my heart that shines through the darkness of so much criticism. Playing this game almost 20 years later, I am still in love with it in spite of its flaws. Sure it can be confusing as hell, often leaving you running around unsure of what to do next, and many of the systems such as fighting and shopping can be largely pointless or avoidable, but where Ultima VIII truly excels is in the delivery of its narrative.
Literally dropped into this strange land by The Guardian, the Avatar must harness the power of Pagan’s four godlike Titans in order to return to his homeland. Each Titan is concerned with a different magic school the Avatar must master in order to defeat them and gain their power.
In delivering this story, Ultima VIII is a far darker and lonelier tale than its predecessors. The gloomy landscape of Pagan and its somber inhabitants lend powerful feelings of suffering to the Avatar’s travels that draw you into what is arguably a strong and macabre storyline.
Special mention should also go to magic system, which makes use of a very interesting but intricate set of manually operated mechanics which differs between magic schools. Often this requires a layer of study and learning not seen in modern games.
Ultima VIII is a game that deserves a playthrough regardless of its criticisms. As a turning point in one of the most significant series in RPG history, it would be followed by the even more troublesome Ultima XI , a title so broken that it would shatter the faith of most Ultima supporters. Origin would of course go on to achieve much greater success with Ultima Online, but the single-player roots of the game will likely never be revisited in the same way again.