Friday 15 March 2013

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar - Atari ST & Commodore Amiga - 1987

Ultima IV is one of those games I start off with every intention of completing but never quite manage it.  I love the game but my gameplay always ends up losing momentum. By the time I am back in the mood I've forgotten where I've got to and have to start over.  This time, for the blog, I was determined to reach the end.  I am playing the Atari ST version which came out in 1987 along with the identical Amiga release.  I've not personally tested it but I believe the PC version is slightly inferior in terms of graphics (certainly so in the dungeons).  Richard 'Lord British' Garriott has professed to this being his favourite Ultima game and it was the first in the series to  introduce the concept of 'virtues'.

You start the game by selecting your character name and gender and are then shown an introduction...

Upon reaching the gypsy caravan you are asked a series of ethical questions which will determine your character class.  This was unique for the time and was an ingenious way to start the game.  Although you can fudge the answers to choose any of the eight classes, I chose to answer truthfully and began the game as a fighter.  The starting location for the fighter is just outside Jhelom, City of Valour.

Each of the eight character classes starts near the city that represents their virtue.  The eight virtues are Compassion, Honesty, Honour, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality and Valour.  Your aim is to become the embodiment of all these virtues through the actions and choices you make during the course of the game.  Only then can you descend into the Abyss to reach the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom to complete the game.

The main game world is tile based and is viewed from above.  Your party, monsters and towns are represented by a single icon.  When you enter a town the scale changes to the town plan.   The game employs a line-of-sight mechanic so you can’t see through trees, mountains or walls.  The only time you can view your entire party is in the battle screen.  Movement is limited to the four cardinal directions. As with previous iterations of Ultima, dungeons are viewed in a simple first person perspective. 
Typical dungeon view
It was my intention to firstly travel to meet with Lord British, then recruit Shamino, Dupre and Iolo in their respective towns.  I would then travel to the other towns picking up clues and delving into the dungeons.  I believe you need to have a party consisting of all eight character classes towards the end of the game, but I find picking them up early makes combat too unwieldy and time consuming.

As Jhelom is located on an island the only way off is by means of a moongate.  Although they can be rather ‘hit and miss’, moongates can be a convenient way to travel long distances.  The moongates are controlled by the phases of two moons.  The first moon phase represents where a moongate is open, the second represents the destination.  When the moongate opened, the second moon wouldn't have reached my preferred ‘destination phase’ before it disappeared so I jumped in hoping for the best.

I ended up on Verity Isle which contained The Lycaeum and the town of Moonglow.  I talked to all the NPCs in both these locations before jumping back into the moongate. You can actually converse with characters in this game rather than get the stock responses you had in previous Ultimas.  All the NPCs respond to ‘name’, ‘job’ and 'health'.  You can then pick up key words in their answers to take the conversation further.  ‘Bye’ ends a conversation.
'Wrong game, mate'.
In Moonglow I took the opportunity to buy some reagents.  Reagents are essentially the ingredients of a spell.  You need to mix the appropriate reagents together to make the spell before it can be cast.  There is a list of spells in the manual though some of the more powerful don’t have the reagents listed.  Some NPCs also reveal spell ingredients.  This was  a good time to pick up some honesty points as the proprietors of the magic shops are blind and you are asked how much gold you wish to give them.

To leave Verity Isle I had to hop back into a moongate to reach the mainland.  On my way to Britain I was thankfully attacked by pirates so was able to pick up a ship early on. One of my main bugbears in this game is the random nature in which ships appear.  You can sometimes play for hours before you even see one.

Combat takes place on the battle screen.  The terrain on the battle screen depends on what type of tile combat was initiated.  The terrain can be used to your advantage in battle which can be quite tactical.  Combat is turn based and each character can either move or attack (limited to the four cardinal directions), or cast spells.  In addition to normal melee and missile weapons, you can hurl flasks of flaming oil or attack from behind your comrades using the longer reach of the  halberd.  The bestiary in the excellent ‘History of Britannia’ manual shows the standard variety of enemy types you would expect in any fantasy RPG.  A defeated enemy leaves behind a (usually trapped) chest containing a small amount of gold.  One thing I didn't really appreciate until I played Final Fantasy and the Phantasie games (which didn't make the blog) is that you can see your enemies coming.  There are no random encounters and overworld combat can mostly be avoided if you wish.

A fixed dungeon encounter

The ship l commandeered from the pirates is the most useful form of transport in the game.  I used the ship to follow the coast to the Castle of Lord British.  Travelling by sea can be slow going if the wind is not favourable but you can reach locations inaccessible on foot or on horseback.

On the ground floor of the castle you can find Hawkwind the Seer who keeps track of your virtues.  He tells you in which virtues you have attained enlightenment and gives advice on how to achieve it in others.  On attaining enlightenment in a particular virtue you can gain partial avatarhood by meditating at the appropriate shrine for three cycles.

As usual with my RPG reviews I won't be blogging a full walkthrough (for this I recommend The CRGP Addict or an old blog called Blogging Ultima).  I will note some of my thoughts and experiences below....

  • With my 3 companions I first attempted to conquer dungeon Destard but had to retreat  to the nearest town licking my wounds.  I decided I needed more magic power so returned to Moonglow to recruit Mariah.
  • Dungeons contain orbs which can boost one or two of your base stats of strength, intelligence and dexterity to a maximum of 50.  Touching them costs hit points so make sure you have enough.  Touching an orb in Dungeon Hythloth raises all three stats but will instantly kill any character with less than 600 hp.
  • Dungeons reset when you leave so any treasure you have plundered and orbs you have touched will reappear.  Creatures also respawn if you leave and return to a room with a fixed encounter.
  • I seem to be progressing much faster than I remember and quickly attained enlightenment in all the virtues apart from spirituality.  This is probably due to my previous mapping and note taking.
  • Whilst travelling the ocean I came across a whirlpool.  In Ultima III it takes you to the land of Ambrosia and when entering it in this game I ended up in Lock Lake.  My party took a lot of damage but could now enter the village of Cove.  I now need a new ship to use on the open ocean....
  • On leaving Cove I was attacked by a pirate ship that appeared in Lock Lake and was sunk before I could properly retaliate. On returning to Lock Lake after being resurrected the pirate ship had disappeared.  I now need two new ships. Gah!
  • You need to ensure you visit Lord British regularly.  As well as resurrecting and healing your party for free, he also levels up your characters.
  • Rather unfairly enemies can target your party diagonally but not vice versa.
  • Getting frustrated due to a lack of ships I entered Dungeon Hythloth to come out on the Isle of the Abyss where some pirates hang out.  Using wind spells I flew the balloon (located nearby) a little north to this 'pirate bay' then directly west back to the mainland hoping to draw out a ship or two.  Coincidence or not, after hanging about for a short while a ship did come along and there were plenty of boats appearing during the rest of the game.
  • Combat gets tiresome with a full party.  I lost my valour attainment by killing fleeing monsters as I couldn't be arsed waiting for them to leave the battle screen.  Lesson learned.
  • When you reach enlightenment in a particular virtue and meditate at the appropriate shrine for three cycles, you are granted a vision.  Each vision displays a letter which when correctly arranged form the 'one pure axiom'. To enter a shrine you need to know the mantra and be carrying the appropriate rune.
Achieving partial avatarhood reveals a runic letter. 'N' in this case.

Before you can enter the abyss to win the game you need to...
  • Find the eight runes, mantras and stones that relate to the eight virtues.
  • Behave in an appropriate manner to attain enlightenment in all eight virtues.
  • Locate the Silver Horn which allows you reach the Shrine of Spirituality on the Isle of the Abyss.
  • Meditate at each of the eight shrines to attain Avatarhood.
  • Find the Bell, the Book and the Candle (symbols of the principles of Truth, Love and Courage)
  • Discover the one pure axiom from which these three principles are derived. 
  • Use the stones on the dungeon altars to obtain the Three Part Key.
  • Know the word of passage derived from the syllables given by three Lords (but it i didn't find if/where it gave the order they should go in).
  • Arm your party with mystic or magical weapons as normal weapons won't work in the Abyss.
  • I think the mystic robes and strengthened ship hull are optional.  I picked up the mystic robes but skipped searching for the wheel of HMS Cape and still made it past the pirates.
  • Also optional is finding the skull of Mondain which can be destroyed in the volcano on the Isle of the Abyss.
One you have the above you can then sail to the Isle.  After battling the pirates, wading through a swamp and making your way through molten lava, you can then use the bell, book and candle to open the dungeon.  In the Abyss dungeon, normal weapons always miss and the spells to go up or down a level fail to work.  At the end of each level you will find an altar which poses a question on each of the virtues.  If you answer correctly and choose the stone of the appropriate colour the altar will transform into a ladder to the next level. 

Ultima IV was originally developed on the Apple II so the graphics are very, very primitive and any animation is two frames at most.  They probably looked basic back in 1985 and not much effort was expended on improving the graphics for the more powerful home computers.  The sound wasn't up to much either.  While the music is okay the handful of tunes quickly got repetitive.  I switched to the sound effects which were again basic and more annoying than anything.  I left these on but so low I could barely hear the ‘tick’ sound every step your characters take.  More that anything though, Ultima IV is about the story which is where the game excels.  Rather than saving the world from an evil baddie, your quest involves becoming the embodiment of eight virtues and an example for the people of Britannia to follow.  As far as I know this was and still is unique in the realm of CRPGs.  Also the game is completely non-linear.  I love how you can do any quest in any order as long as you complete your 'shopping list' by the time you enter the Abyss.  Ultima IV definitely deserves it's classic status.  I'm also pretty chuffed to have finally completed it after all these years and abortive attempts.

Screenshots from the Abyss.....

At the end of each level of the Abyss you are asked a question pertaining to a virtue.

Level 6 was 'interesting' to map as some rooms were divided into two and trying to find tiles to open walls whilst controlling eight individuals can get frustrating.
There was a surprising encounter on Level 8

I had the syllables for the word of passage, but not the order they went in.  The three part key is listed as TLC in the stats screen so using the syllables in that order was a good guess.

The ending sequence.....

....and final screen.


  1. PetrusOctavianus18 March 2013 at 04:42

    Ultima IV was a great game, which I almost completed. Both my buddy and me were stomped on the very last question. I know now that the answer is "infinity", but back then there was no Internet to search for answers, and I had missed the clues which the "visions" gave.

    My main critisism against U4 is the combat. It's rather slow and boring, and there are too many random encounters. Thankfully combat was much improved in U5, with a better combat system and random encounters only at night.

    I couldn't get into U6 when I tried it last year, due to the clunky interface and small view area. Combined with a boring combat system I found it a step back compared to U5, despite its superior visuals.
    But I'm currenly playing (and almost completed) the Ultima 6 Project, a Dungeon Siege mod, which is very good and highly recommended.

    1. Hi Petrus and thanks for the comment. I agree regarding the combat being a major weakness. I left getting a full party as long as possible as it becomes a real chore, especially when waiting for monsters to flee or maneuvering one character at a time through a dungeon room.

      I never got to play U5 but that will soon be rectified. And I used to love U6 though I haven't played it since I my Atari ST corrupted the game disk. I'll see later on if it still stands up.

  2. Wow - awesome, lengthy write-up. I've only ever played 2 Ultima games - both on the NES, so Exodus and Avatar. I really enjoyed Avatar quite a bit on that system when it came out, but I never played it on any other format.

    1. Hi Chalgyr. I've only ever played computer versions of the Ultima games. The thought of playing without a keyboard seems a bit alien to me - I guess it's what I'm used to.

      Since completing Final Fantasy I'm looking forward to playing a few more JRPGs on the NES though.