And so begins. My final journey on the path of Ultima…
As with any Ultima game, I began my quest by reading extensively the manuals presented with the game. Ultima IX actually comes with two manuals entitled respectively called the “Journal” and the “Spellbook”.
The Journal is presented as a book written with Hawkwind the Time Lord for the Avatar upon his return to Britannia. Now I’ve seen a lot of complains about is being supposedly “poorly written”. Which is just not true. In keep to Ultima tradition, it is a very well written book and a very interesting read. It can get somewhat preachy about the Virtues, but this is not the first manual to be. Most importantly, it provides a whole lot of background information about Britannia at the time of Ultima IX and really showcase how much Britannian society has changed in the two hundred years since Ultima VII and since the Great Cataclysm 20 years prior to the game. This is even more important for this game, because it does suffer from offering too little background information within the game itself.
The Spellbook is another book intended for the Avatar, and commisioned by Hawkwind from a Britannian Mage. This is also a very good read and a very well written piece (which notably some fun trivia bits about the Mage’s apprentices) and also offers a very good illustration of the new system of Magic used in the game.
Interestingly enough, both of these books are present in some form inside the game, albeit in a somewhat abridged form, with the Journal notably serving as a way to save and load games, much like Ultima VIII.
The game begins with a cutscene showing a dream sequence, where the Avatar sees a gigantic Column raison from the depth of Britannia.
(One point of note: but due to techincal issues – which I assume codec related – videos during the game end up with highly saturated sound… which kind of forse me to watch them outside the game to fully enjoy them. Meh.)
Instantly… the Avatar wakes up in his bedroom on Earth, as the voice of Hawkwind guides him toward Britannia… and serves as the tutorial.
Yes. I know. This is NOT how Ultima VIII. But I’ll go and say it: who cares? This is such a minor detail that the fact there has been so much complains about this is just baffling.
Also taking into context that it had been over FIVE years since the last Ultima, basically starting right from where the last game’s cliffhanger ended would just have been silly and confusing for anyone but the series’ hardcore fans.
It’s one thing to have your game begin right where the last ended when it was last year… but not after so long!
Now perhaps this should have been made tutorials for fans, I don’t know. But as far as tutorial goes it works very well. You rapidly learn all of the controls and how to work through all the UI of the game and by the time you exit the Avatar’s home to get into the Park the UI has already been mastered.
Sure Hawkind talks about controls which kind of breaks the fourth wall – but since this is the tutorial, this is relevant.
I also need to stress how much Ultima IX was a marvel in term of controls. I could easily name similar game whose controls where… counter intuitive to say the least (did anyone said Gothic?). But Ultima IX is very intuitive, and while the older Ultima games can something get frustrating to play because of their UI, Ultima IX stills works perfectly even 11 years after the fact.
So after exiting the house you get into the Park next to his home, which serves as the second part of the Tutorial. So you basically get a small area to explore, with some loot to gain and monsters to kill. This doesn’t have any point other than easing you into the game before starting the adventure proper. And it works!
Once you are ready and feel comfortable, all that is left to do is get to the Gypsy which will open the gate to Britannia.
Regarding this part of the game I’m not what to say except that I love it. I’ll be honest and admit the first time I played it with the demo, I was somewhat underwhelmed – not by the content, but on account that we had basically seen it all over and over in videos. But I feel it is a great way to begin the game and ease player in the story – and especially new ones.
I’ll just go and say it – but it just feels as magical now that it was eleven years ago. For such an old game, the graphics have aged suprisingly well and it just feels… immersive.
So I toyed a bit around the park, and eventually got to the Gypsy.
Now if there was ONE reason to create this tutorial: that was it. There hasn’t been a proper character creation in Ultima since Martian Dreams, and here it comes in full force with the traditionnal Gypsy questions. Now the classes admitedly don’t change a lot in the long run, but they can most definitly affect things in the beginning of the game especially if you end up with a Shephard, like I did in my first play through.
This time though, I got a Bard!
And as such the Gypsy opened the Moongate to Britannia.
Now I know I’ve said it above, but doesn’t this just look freaking GOOD for a eleven year old game? I would probably argue that nightimes is when Ultima IX looks at its best, with some trully awesome lightning effects. A shame fog kind of spoils things a bit during daylight…
On a side note for all the criticism Ultima IX gets for is supposedly terrible Voice Acting… it tends too show the lack of objectivity of many haters. Far from me to say that the game doesn’t have some really bad voice acting at time… but here on the Earth part for instance, I sure can’t think of anything wrong to say about the voice acting of Hawkwind, the Gypsy, or even the Avatar…
So I was now ready… but as it turns out, the Guardian was already expecting me and sent me an evil Gazer through the Moongate!
But due to the lack of magic on earth, the creature did not last long.
Now I’ll say this I love the look of Ultima IX’s Gazer. Originally the Gazer was just a cheap Beholder knock-off. Ultima VI and Ultima VII both tried a different approach with terrible results.
But this one is very much fantastic. It keeps the floating eyes aspect of the original design but with a fresh and new perspective on its design. A trully great one. If I had the artists to do it, I would probably go with a similar design for Return actually…
And so here I was… my path and my destiny was set.
The Guardian awaits.
My last adventure awaits.
And virtue will prevail!