Ultima IX: Ascension is the ninth and final episode of the Ultima series and was was released in November 1999 after a long and some would say gruesome development. It marks the end of both the Saga of the Avatar and the Guardian Saga – as the Avatar fresh from his exile on Pagan return to Britannia 200 years after Ultima VII during which his nemesis has successfully invaded and corrupted the land.
I won’t be going into the details of this long development (I’ll be keeping this for a later post), but suffice to say the game went through multiple iterations, and a very complicated development, which lead (much like Ultima VIII) to numerous cuts and a very rushed release. A a result the game upon released suffered from loads of bugs and many performance issues.
Because of this, Ultima IX was a very controversial game. As such it received very mixed reactions from both fans and critics alike.
Critics for the most part gave the game very mixed or poor reviews because of the terrible technical state it was released in. Most however praised the game for its gameplay and plot, and felt it would have been a truly great game had it not been released in such conditions.
Reactions from the fans (as much as the vocal haters want you to believe that everybody hated it), is much more difficult to gauge. A lot of hardcore fans hated the game – and especially what I would call the “hardcore Ultima VII crowd”, who basically wanted an “Ultima VII part III”. But a lot of other fans – especially those who were more fan of the Ultima IV~VI era – genuinely enjoyed the game. As for casual fans the general consensus seems to be to it was a good game – a far cry from Ultima VII, but that more than made up for Ultima VIII.
Perhaps I was wrong in saying Ultima VIII was the most controversial after all, because the reaction about Ultima VIII were pretty much black&white… while Ultima IX really goes all over the spectrum!
In truth you only need to look at any youtube video of Ultima IX or any site offering user reviews of the game to see how drastically opposed the opinions about Ultima IX can be. You can usually see just as many people saying it was one of the best game they’ve ever played, as people who said it was the worst game ever made!
Outside of the technical aspects, the biggest issue of Ultima IX amongst fans is its consistency. While the inconsistency issues tend to get overblown at times, they are there. But in essence it’s not radically different from the approach taken by previous episodes in the series and especially Ultima VI. Basically, it was crafted in a very ’80-ish mindset, where a new episode of a series was really more a re-imagination than a direct sequel – a way to do things that was not very prevalent by the late ’90 anymore where people expected a stronger form of canon.
Of course the fact that the suits of the time wanted Ultima IX to be aimed first and foremost at new players did not help, as it also lead to a lot of references being cut. Indeed, it almost lead to the game being called “Ultima: Ascension” instead, with Richard Garriott having to fight bits and nails to get the IX back in the title!
Other aspects that got criticized were also the removal of traditional Ultima features – much like Ultima VIII – such as the party, reduced interactivity, or the lack of character schedules, although a lot of these cuts were consequences of the rushed release.
Admittedly, there are lots of legitimate issues with Ultima IX. Admittedly, there are also a lot that are overblown, or really not issues at all (such as the supposed “small” size of the world).
One point that can’t be stressed enough though, is that for all its issues and cuts in content and gameplay, Ultima IX was truly a groundbreaking game.
It was the first seamless 3D RPG, and offered graphics amongst the best of its time. It was amongst the first RPG to offer full speech, in a time where most role playing games offered at best a couple of voiced lines per characters. And even if it wasn’t quite on the level of an Ultima VII, it was more interactive than any 3D game from the late ’90 and pushed world simulation to a level rarely seen since.
It was basically way ahead of its time, and to be blunt still ahead of most RPGs games that are still being released today.
Now, some would argue that this does not suffice to make a good game, which is a good point. But while this does not been Ultima IX’s flaws should be overlooked, it is important never to forget its accomplishments and how it paved the way for classics such as Gothic.
Personally I’ll say it, I loved Ultima IX. And I’ll stress that word. I didn’t just felt it was good or “fun” – it felt it was genuinely great game, and it ranks amongst my most memorable gaming experience and my favorites Ultima games. This often lead to some derision toward myself (with comments such as “Richard Garriott made a game that only cathered to Sergorn” which is of course BS), and to be honest there was so much negativity on some forums, that there was a time I even began to doubt that the game really was that good.
But you know what? Every time I replay it I still end with the same feeling – that it’s just as great as it ever was.
Sure the game does have issues, but they pale in comparison to what the game has done right.
Now I certainly would have liked the story to be more consistent with Ultima lore, and the writing to be more polished. But in spite of some obvious flaws in execution, I do feel it is a genuinely great Ultima story with some real moment of brilliance that provides a fitting ending to the series.
Most importantly I feel it was a true come back to the root of the series, with a real focus on the Virtues that had been put aside in the latest games, and a return to a Britannia more in the line with the world I had grown to love in the Age of Enlightenment trilogy, rather that this semi-renaissance one seen in Ultima VII.
And even more – I do believe this is one of the better Ultima in terme of gameplay and sheer design. Combats are fun (if a tad unbalanced), the world design is marvelous in a way that has rarely been matched by any other RPG and it has what is without a doubt the best dungeon of the entire series.
And most importantly: it had a world that felt alive, with a lot of exploration to do, and just a whole lot of variety – with not two places in the world looking alike.
Ultima IX might have been a poor sequel to Ultima VII. But truly: it was a great game and a great Ultima. And this is all that should matter.
So to say the least I am just very eager to return to Britannia once again and share with you my view of Ultima IX and all the greatness that can be found in it!