Released in March 1993, roughly a year after “The Black Gate” – Serpent Isle is the direct sequel to Ultima VII.
This did not come as a surprise for anyone who finished its predecessor however, since the ending very much announced that the next game would take the Avatar to the Serpent Isle.
What did somewhat came as surprise was that rather than being called “Ultima VIII” the game was instead called “Ultima VII Part II” – the rationale behind this title being that Serpent Isle couldn’t be called Ultima VIII since it used the Ultima VII engine, and that traditionnaly no core Ultima games ever shared any line of codes with its predecessor.
Now I feel it is important to put a rest to a misconception that has been going on for 17 years: Ultima VII and Serpent Isle were never meant to be one single game and if anything they were very much concurrent projects, with Serpent Isle already being worked on before Ultima VII was even released.
Indeed the rationale behind Serpent Isle is actually very similar to the World of Ultima series (and there are actually people who feel this project might have started as kind of World of Ultima game, altough there is no evidence toward this) – taking the Avatar in an adventure to a different world, and reusing the engine of the last Ultima game to cut on development time and cost.
It was also probably a good way to make fans wait for the actual Ultima VIII which was silmutanously being developped by Richard Garriott (which because of this actually had little involvement in the development of this “Part II”).
The concept changed radically during its developments, as originally it was to be set on a Serpent Isle whose shape evocked Lord British’s necklace and focused on a Pirates of the Carribean flavor with a strong presence of a Voodoo kind of magic called VooDun.
When the original director left however, and Bill Armintrout was brought as Project Director in his stead, the concept was basically restarted from scratch – solely keeping the original game – and evolved into the game that was released: a Serpent Isle which was actually Shamino’s former land from Ultima I, and now settled by people who had left Britannia at the dawn of the Age of Virtue – discontent about Lord British’s rule.
The result is one of the game that is considered my many to be amongst the best Ultima game, and amongst best CRPGs ever created.
What is interesting about Serpent Isle however, is that while it uses Ultima VII’s engine and gameplay – it is however a very different beast in term of design, following a design philosophy that is diametricaly opposed to Ultima VII’s, and which personally I’ve always found to be a perfect illustration of the difference of philosophy between Richard Garriott and Warren Spector (which was producer on this game and hadn’t work on Ultima VII).
While Ultima VII offered a basically free-form world and focused mostly on its virtual world aspect – Serpent Isle however offer a more linear world that opens up as you progress throughough the game and instead focusing completly about the plot. As such it conceived in a way that basically makes you explore the entire land to complete your quest and as such offers actually little in term of side quests and such. The upside that this craft a long and epic story that last through the entire game.
And of course you can’t mention Serpent Isle without mentionning how fantastic its land and its plot are – it offers a depth and quality of writing that has never been surpassed by any other Ultima game and is quite simply sheer brillance.
Alas Serpent Isle suffered from having a big chunk of the later half of its plot being completly removed to a development that took much longer than expected (the game had already missed its Xmas ’92 original deadline) and lead to a lot of content being cut.
The fact however that Serpent Isle remains that good in spite of these cuts says a lot about the quality of the game.
On a personal level… well. It will come to no surprise to anyone that Serpent Isle is by far my favorite Ultima game. There is a reason I am devoting my time to crafting a Serpent Isle based Ultima spin-off.
Serpent Isle is actually the first Ultima I played directly upon its original release (and probably the only one with Ultima IX actually). As I mentioned in my earliers blog we had got a PC in March 1993 – and when Serpent Isle was released a couple of month later, I basically bought it directly (and still did not get a Cloth Map! Damn it!)
I was very much enthralled the minute I read “Beyond the Serpent Pillars” and its peculiar view of Britannian history. Starting the game felt like magic as well: the introduction was nothing short of jawdropping for its time (altough I just did not understand all the the voiced dialogue then) and beginning the quest with Stones starting was just amazing.
Playing through Serpent Isle was basically bliss in spite of the technical problems that Voodoo system caused at time (requiring at some moments to play without sound, or without mouse). Exploring this new land brought a sense of novelty and fresh air, and was just immersive and captivating. I was in love with this worlds, its story, its characters and that certainly made the whole thing a very emotionnal journey, and I look forward to sharing some of these feelings while replaying the game.
To this day I still think Serpent Isle remains unique to the series, and its setting to be nothing short of marvelous.
So to say the least I am very eager to begin this quest anew – this is one of those games I could play over and over without ever getting bored it it.
A masterpiece I tell you!