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Lora's CRPG Reviews: Ultima 4, 5, and 6

Ultima IV, V, and VI (Game release date: 1985-1990)
If you can get past the dated graphics and awkward interface, the role-playing innovations of this trilogy still shine through.

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Highlights: Innovative plots, richly evocative gameworld, old-school nostalgia Lowlights: Severely dated look and interface, simplistic gameplay, annoying random combats

These three games defined classic role-playing games in their era, and each of them also expanded the genre's scope in some innovative way. The plots of these golden-age Ultima games are startlingly non-formulaic--other classic CRPG franchises, even the good ones, were content to release a more elaborate rehash of the same game every few years. Look at the Might and Magic series, for example: in every single game in the series you start out as a 1st-level party on some planet or other, you clear wilderness areas, perform side quests, raise your level, eventually learn of a bigger quest to kill a big boss villain and save the world, find space-age weaponry, kill the big boss villain with it and save the world. Not that I don't like playing those games, because I do, but the Ultima series blew me out of the water with its willingness to push the envelope and try things other games would never have dared try. In Ultima 4, for example, there wasn't even a boss villain at all. Your quest was a complex spiritual journey to master all eight of the land's virtues and become the Avatar. Ultima 5, perhaps my favorite game of the series, built on this with a revolutionary plot to overthrow a ruler whose corrupt misinterpretations of the eight virtues are oppressing the people-- an objective you could accomplish in more than one way, with different consequences based on your actions (revealing a rebel's identity will help you infiltrate the ruler's inner circle, for example, but result in the rebel's death. The game can be completed either way.) Ultima 6 added a new level of character interaction and turned the mythology of the series on its head, forcing the main character to examine his or her beliefs from an entirely new angle. This is stunning stuff in many ways--a lot of games written 15-20 years later are less flexible and compelling than these Ultima games were.

Sadly, the technology used to write these games has been long left in the dust. The interface is unpleasant, dungeons and combat are aggravating and time-consuming, the graphics look terrible and none of the games work well on modern computers. (Oddly, Ultima IV, V, and VI tend to function the best of the lot; I, II, and III have nearly insurmountable processor-speed problems, and VII and VIII are completely incompatible with Windows 2000 and XP.) Ultima 4, 5, and 6 are not games you can slip comfortably into--playing them takes a certain amount of patience. It's patience well-rewarded, though. Only a few rare games have those moments of true magic in them, the ones that still reverberate in your heart fifteen years later, comparable to reading a really good book or seeing a really good movie. These are three of those games, and anyone who's a fan of the CRPG genre deserves to experience the wonder of this gameworld and its original plots for yourself.

Style: Ultima IV, V, and VI are classic CRPG with a third-person birds-eye interface. The plot is a role-playing adventure and there are fantasy and mystical themes. The game is untimed and requires no manual dexterity. Combat is turn-based.

Series: The Ultima series has a long and storied history, spanning ten games, several spinoffs, and a MMORPG. You don't need to play any given Ultima game to enjoy the others, but there is significant plot continuity between Ultima 4, 5, 6, and 7, so if you like classic games, it's fun to play them in the proper order. Ultima 1, 2, and 3 are not part of the same plot arc and are so old-school they take a lot of determination to play anymore.

Finding Ultima IV, V, and VI: All three of these games (as well as six of the others) come bundled together in one CD set, the Ultima Collection, along with all the extra software you need to get these older titles working on modern systems. It's a good bargain, if you can find it (it's out of print now). Otherwise, you could just download the games as abandonware. (Note that the usual security and emulation issues inherent in downloading DOS abandonware apply if you go that route.)

Getting Ultima IV, V, and VI to Work: If you buy the Ultima Collection, these games will work out of the box (except for the audio, which may not work with a modern sound card, but it's not necessary to the game). That's because they come patched for modern machines and attached to software that will slow your processing speed down for the duration of the games. If you've downloaded the games or are using your own old copies of them, you'll need a program like MoSlo to get them working.

Hints For Ultima IV, V, and VI: I don't have a page of Ultima hints myself at this time. Ultima Online has some good game information and walkthroughs for these three games, which it collectively refers to as the Age of Enlightenment Trilogy.

Game Length: 50-100 hours apiece, depending how thoroughly you explore the world and how long you spend conversing with NPCs. These are old-school CRPGs with a lot of gaming content.

Age-Appropriateness: These games predate the rating system, and the box set has been labeled M (for 17 years old and up) due to animated violence/gore in Ultima VII. However, there's none in these earlier games. I played them all when I was a young teen, and can't think of anything inappropriate in any of them; in fact, if anything, they're a little heavy-handed with the morality lessons, but appeal to kids nonetheless.

Lora's Review: (Okay)

Plot and Quests: The plots of all three of these games are quite good and extremely original; in Ultima V, there are even significant choices you can make along the way that will affect the outcome somewhat. There are relatively few quests compared to modern games.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: These are not very challenging games in terms of puzzles. Most of the difficulty in these games is in figuring out where to find important information and learning to use an alien writing alphabet and calendar system. Ultima 6 offered up some more challenging puzzles. Dungeoneering is rote in all three games.
Characters: You control one main character and as many NPCs as you can convince to join your cause. Your main character's character class and stats are determined, not by rolling dice, but by your answers to ethical questions posed to you in the beginning of the game (a player who values bravery more than kindness is likely to end up a knight, while a player who values kindness more than bravery is likely to end up a bard.) In Ultima VI, you have a customizable character portrait. The NPCs are interesting and fairly interactive.
Gameworld: The Ultima gameworld has the heavy weight of nostalgia behind it, but if you're able to get past the offputtingly dated graphics, you'll find that it stands on its own merits as well. Only the Myst games really give you the sense of playing in a real world in which real people lived their real lives before you ever arrived there as well as the Ultima series does. Objects have conceivable practical reasons for existing, people go about their daily routines and use a sensible writing system and a calendar based on their planet's two moons and a consistent set of spiritual beliefs. It's possible to get immersed in these games.
Gameplay (Leveling, Spells, etc.): The gameplay mechanics can be very tedious in these games and I generally wanted to skip most of it and advance to the next interesting plot point. There's not the same sense of accomplishment in gaining a level that there is in many CRPG's, as you don't really get to craft your stats or skills yourself. The magic system is original and interesting enough, but collecting reagents for it becomes very tiresome very quickly.
Interface (Movement, Inventory Management, etc.): These games all suffer from very clunky interfaces. Combat is wretchedly time-consuming and boring in Ultima 4 and 5; even in 1985, I hated going into Ultima dungeons to fight those tedious battles. Combat is significantly streamlined in Ultima 6, but the non-combat interface is especially annoying to make up for it (you can't just open a door or look at an object, you have to select the object to be used and then the individual character who's going to do the using.)
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): At the time, these games had an utterly absorbing ambience; but they have not aged well, and the grainy, blocky graphics and distracting animations interfere with the immersiveness of the game. Still, the freshness and sense of wonder in these games shine through if you're willing to give them the chance.

Lora's Recommendations: If you're a fan of the CRPG genre and have never played these classic games, you may find them a real treat; they're fresher in concept and design than many modern offerings. If you're not already a CRPG enthusiast, this is probably a poor place to start; Shadows of Amn is a good example of a more modern CRPG that learned well the lessons of the early Ultima games.

If You Loved Ultima IV, V, and VI: There are several other collections of great classic CRPGs available on the market now, notably the Realms of Arkania Trilogy, Ultimate Wizardry Archive, and Might and Magic Millennium Edition. Or you may enjoy one of the great contemporary CRPG's like Shadows of Amn, Wizardry 8, or Morrowind.

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