Ultima VII: The Black Gate

Released a mere month after Ultima Underworld in 1992, Ultima VII was not only the new core episode of the Ultima series, but also a brand new step in the series as a whole.

After three episodes focusing about the Avatar and its Virtues, Richard Garriott wanted to go back to an epic against a big evil Foozle. Except the idea from the start was to conceive a villain that would last for the entire “trilogy of trilogy” all the way to the final confrontation in Ultima IX, and thus craft a somewhat overarching story that would last the entire trilogy.

Thus was born the idea of the Guardian.

Of couse, as the following games would rapidly prove, there never was much of a plan beyond that – which lead as usual to a very loose continuity. But really was novelty for Ultima at the time.

The context also took a peculiar approach, since it brought the Avatar into what is seemingly a peaceful time with no threat on the horizons, 200 Britannian years after Ultima VI – which had lead to the Avatar into becoming some kind of a legend, and most people not recognizing him at all!

But Ultima VII really was a drastic evolution of Ultima in term of look and gameplay. While it retained the seamless overhead perspective of Ultima VI, it complently revamped the look and feel and the game. For starter the whole game was now in full screen, with a new graphical scale offering a much more realistic scale between characters and items in the game. But most importantly it went with a fully mouse based interface, much more intuitive than the previouses games, and which had the advantage to remain pretty much effective even by today’s standard.

Of course some fans did not take kindly to this change back then, feeling that dropping the keyboard interface was betraying the Ultima spirit. But what do they know?

What made Ultima VII impressive though was its sheer scope, cumulated with his truly seamless approach (unlike Ultima VI, dungeons were also on the same game map) – which made a really big world for its time, with a lot of exploration to do throughouth Britannia.

In addition interactivity was pushed even farther away (though some might argue not quite as much as Savage Empire), wich the abilite to put items one on another, bake bread and other stuff.

For all of these reasons, Ultima VII was yet another breakthrough in the Ultima series, and is widely considered as one of the best episode of the entier Ultima legacy.

Well.

Not by me though. 😛

I have always been somewhat ambivalant about the game. There are some aspect that I truly love, but others I’ve always dislkied and just profundly irked me.

A bit of context first: I played Ultima VII in summer 1993, the year we got that computer. I had already played through a lot of Ultima Underworld II by then, but most importantly I had just completed Serpent Isle after months of playing and as a matter of fact, I went and bought Ultima VII the very same day I finished playing Serpent Isle.

I knew the gameplay already, and loved the engine, so that certainly wasn’t an issue.

The first point of issue was first the lenght of the game – after having spent month on Serpent Isle, Underworld II… and really pretty much all Ultima games before then, I fully expected Ultima VII to take at least as long.

And I got it done in less than a week, which left me with like a bitter tast in my mouth.

But really when it comes down to it, my issue comes from two things: the plot and Britannia.

I’m not that fond of Ultima VII’s plot – there are some brillant stuff (notably all the Time Lord aspect), but admitetly the main plot aspect regarding the Fellowship is just not very interesting due a lack of subtelty and predictabilty. It’s all very black&white (indeed the little subtelty that was brought to the Fellowship would only come with Ultima Underworld II) and perhaps it would have been starter if you know… the Fellowship had NOT been evil? No I don’t necessarilly mind black&white but the way it was presented was just really not that interesting.

But most importantly I would guess that the issue with the plot is that it sometime feels like there just isn’t much of a plot, and that the story takes a secondary place in the game, which is more focused into creating a beaufiltul virtual world and bringing a heavy handed pseudo social subtexte that really has no place in an Ultima.

As I mentionned I also wasn’t very fond of Britannia as it was into the game – because it just didn’t felt like the Britannia I had grown to love over the past three games and more like a separate place altogether. The lack of anything related to Virtues also really irked me.

Now of course I guess this was also the point of the game in some way, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

That being said I still enjoye playing Ultima VII and certainly feel it to be a very good game – but it’s too flawed in my view to be amongst by favorite episodes of the series.

Needless to say, I will be playing this playthrough with the help of Exult. While Ultima VII runs just fine with DOSBox, it does feel silly to use it considering Exult just offers a lot of improvement, digital music and bug fixes.

Ultima V Cover

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