As many know, Ultima VIII ended with the Avatar being taken to a desolate world with a giant Guardian head. Originally, this was meant to be the Guardian's homeworld, but given the fan response, LB decided it best to move U9 back to Britannia. As I will discuss later in this commentary, the canon background for the Guardian would seem to indicate that that homeworld would be the original Sosaria and one could speculate that it might be the lands of the Dark Unknown. Reportedly, the origins of the Guardian were decided during production of Ultima VII, so the original concept for Ultima IX seems a little contradictory.
In any case, this original concept was dropped very early on in pre-production. In many of the concepts for the game, a version of the dragon burning cutscene was going to be part of the introduction and the player would start the game in Britannia. A comparison of the final version of this cutscene and the Ultima VIII ending indicate that they are meant to show essentially the same event. The final game, however, starts off with the Avatar on Earth, which on the surface seems to contradict the Ultima VIII ending. The two most common reconciliations for this that I have read are A) that the Avatar returned to Earth first before finding his way to Britannia or B) that the Avatar returned to Britannia too late and Hawkwind took him back in time (to Earth). They both have merit, and I frankly like both ideas. The time travel thing might in some ways explain the reduction in the Avatar's abilities.
The initial foray into Ultima IX presents the player with a simple yet effective interface that is the result of a long evolution from the early more-involved keyboard days. The HUD elements are largely unobtrusive and intuitive, which allows a clear view of the excellent world graphics. One of the only major flaws in this department are the use of books, which result in an annoying pause when opening and closing on some systems.
Inventory management has been somewhat chaotic and messy in the past, especially for some fans. Ultima IX, however, approaches the problem with the introduction of a grid-based backpack/bag system, which has become one of the more common systems used for inventory in RPGs that followed. The system here is very simplistic with each item filling just one slot and weight not being tracked. This system does make finding an important object in your inventory much easier. Unfortunately, one annoying problem in the game is the lack of slots and there are no party members around to act as pack mules. As a result, looting dungeons requires several trips. We will discuss more about inventory later in the commentary.
The Earth area does provide an excellent tutorial as it introduces most all gameplay aspects from movement to interaction to combat with the only exclusion being magic. The game quickly shows its strengths in this area, but also presents one of its more notable flaws: combat. The combat system is very simple and more of an expansion of Ultima VIII's hack'n'slash clickfest. Even though the final result is mediocre, it is clear that Origin was making attempts to provide a more involved combat experience. The game includes five combat styles in addition to magic with each having several different animations for attacking. Monsters also have certain vulnerabilities and defenses to different styles of combat and magical attacks. Unfortunately, most monsters prove to be easy enough to kill just by using the basic, one-handed, untrained thrust attack. By the time you can get the master training for various weapon types, you have weapons that slay most monsters in a single hit. Only a few monsters such as skeletons and ghosts require much variation from this strategy such as needing staves or magic weapons. As a result, almost all of the trained attack techniques prove useless. Below I will comment on each of the various attack techniques.
- One-handed weapons: The thrust attack is the best all around technique because only 6 enemies have any resistance to this basic attack: ghosts, spectres, bats, vampire bats, mimics and pirates. In fact, skeletons have no resistance to this technique, so stabbing a skeleton actually does more damage than smashing it with a hammer. The next two techniques (the hammer shot and side-swipe attacks) actually change the damage type to edged, which allows for variation to your damage dealt depending on the vulnerabilities and resistances of your opponent. Unfortunately, there is no reason to use these techniques against any enemies since only vultures, bats, mimics, and ghouls take more damage from edged versus penetrating attacks and there are far better weapons for dealing with these opponents (except easy to kill ghouls). So in actuality, the hammer technique I found to only be useful for cracking crates and the side-swipe (which you don't learn until very late in the game) is completely useless. The final technique of the shield bash could have its uses with knocking backward an enemy and potentially stunning them and doing impact damage, but you can't learn it until after you visit Valoria - so nearly useless.
- Two-handed weapons: These weapons do more damage than most one-handed weapons, but they only do edged damage for all techniques. While there are more enemies with vulnerabilities to edged attacks, most of these have similar vulnerabilities to penetrating attacks and there are more creatures that have resistances to edged attacks including crustaceans (insert deadliest catch joke here), mimics, skeletons, and dragons... you know the common harder enemies. Really there's only one advanced technique worth mentioning and that is the roundhouse attack since it can damage all enemies that are close to you, but this is a really rare situation since you are rarely outnumbered by tough melee opponents of the same type and you are in trouble if you are surrounded. The other two attacks seem to be ineffective, usually missing the target completely. What makes this all the more painful is that the useless master technique is very hard to get.
- Fist combat: The kick, headbash, and even backflip are useful in situations where a weapon isn't handy as they reduce an enemy's ability to attack you, but you usually have access to a weapon except for the start of Dungeon Deceit. While you can also find yourself weaponless in Wrong, melee is a good way to get captured again.
- Polearms: While staves are useful when taking on skeletons, they prove less effective against other targets, so the training here only goes so far. The kicking attack is great for knocking back an opponent, and the ground swipe is excellent for stunning enemies, but most staves take down skeletons in a few hits making these techniques less effective overall. The twirling staff move, though, doesn't seem to do anything even when used by an enemy. I will add here that the pirates found only on Buccaneer's Den have a vulnerability to impact damage but resistances to other melee attacks. So it is best to equip a staff while you are exploring the island.
- Bows: Projectiles have to be most the contradictory attack in Ultima IX. Half of the monsters in the game have a resistance to arrows and often the damage is reduced to less than a quarter before armor is even taken into account. Couple this with the low damage these weapons do in general, and it really makes you wonder why they bothered with bows. Well, the techniques are extremely useful, and this is probably because damage dealt is so low. The triple arrow shot is an extremely effective technique and a great investment as it allows you to do triple damage, which with a longbow or siege bow can be as much as 90 or 100 damage before reduction. The fire arrow shot is learned at least reasonably early in the game if you go to Yew before Minoc, and it does fire, impact, and area damage, which is likely more damage than a standard attack from Iolo's bow for most enemies. In addition, this technique has a 30 damage potential irrespective of the bow, which is great for anything less than siege. There is, however, a major downside to this technique: it requires an oil flask per shoot effectively consuming a lot of your inventory space. The mana arrow shot is significantly more useful and can be learned as soon you return to Britain after learning the above technique in Yew. The mana arrow shot does area, impact, earth, fire, air, and water damage (whichever has the most impact is what gets counted) effectively meaning if an enemy has a magic vulnerability, it will be multiplied by that vulnerability even if the target has resistance to one of the other damage types. For instance, ghouls will take 2*45 damage minus 15 for armor. Also, the mana cost is fairly low per shot meaning one mana recovery potion could provide over a dozen shots. This attack actually becomes very useful towards the end when dealing with dragon guards (those gigantic wasp looking things with the magic shield).
It really was a cool idea to have 1-handed weapons be a jack-of-all-trades weapon, but it was implemented so poorly that you should just stick with the 1-handed thrust throughout most of the game. This is especially notable sense you can get the flame sword near the start of the game which has medium damage potential. There is really no point to use anything else for the first half of the game except when facing the few fire-resistance enemies and skeletons who also have a resistance to fire damage. The 1-handed attack is so versatile that there are few situations when you should switch to other weapons: staves for multiple skeletons, magic weapons for ghosts, the triple shot/mana arrow shot for flying enemies, fire spells for creepers, no fire attacks against demons/dragons/hellhounds, and no water attacks with crustaceans or icehounds. Although, I will admit that the mana arrow can be a very useful tool when you have the sufficient distance to the target.
One feature not yet seen in the main line Ultimas is the ability to swim (notable underwater), and the designers made full use of this feature in the world/dungeon design. Still I found the deep water instant drowning to be a rather annoying component that seemed to only serve the purpose of forcing you onto the designers' extremely linear path through the world. This aspect becomes even more annoying when you find yourself trying to get to New Magincia only to drown a few yards away.
The other areas of movement prove intuitive and well implemented especially jumping except for a few, annoyingly steep, mountainous areas, but of course this is a reasonable limitation. And that is the last I'm talking about the interface except when we get to the magic system, which I'll describe in my next post.
Earth, for such a small map, has a surprising number of issues that go beyond the obvious. The first of these lay in the intended design, which attempts to mesh a private estate with a public/semi-public park. The meshing of these two settings was accomplished in such a haphazard fashion that it really doesn't work well for either. Also, what was with the animals/monsters included in this area: giant rats, large spiders, and a bandit? Really? The goats and the wolves, while curious given the design of the map, are at least animals you find on earth and more than enough for combat practice. Another (though less serious) complaint in the design is the use of a Britannian sky at night, which given the small size of the map, there is no reason to expect anybody to stick around on Earth for that long.
A second issue here is the way the gypsy was included, which breaks with logic and tradition. Why would the Avatar be taking the virtue test? In the past, this event was a memory/dream and shrouded in a mysterious fog. Having the gypsy used in this fashion demystifies the whole test. The inclusion of the test does harken back to the virtues and hasn't been seen since Ultima VI. In my opinion, this sequence would have been better served as a dream that occurs right before the Avatar awakens. The test itself while identical to the one in Ultima IV is definitely well implemented here with the floating and masterfully designed tarot cards.
A third issue with this section of the game is the significant breakage of the fourth wall with Hawkwind and several books throughout the house. None of the prior Ultimas had destroyed immersion to this level in the introductory areas. What is worse in this case is that the controls are so intuitive that the level of hand-holding applied here is completely unnecessary.
Admittedly for such a small section, these issues are more nitpicky than significant, but they give off a rather negative first impression to the player.
So to close off this section, I will discuss the dimension gate (or rather moongate since there is no apparent difference here) that will take us to Britannia. The moongate that is commonly seen in the game is purple and very chaotic in appearance. It is not entirely clear why it appears like this. A few things to note here that might help to explain the appearance: moongates stopped working after Ultima VII and the Guardian's columns are messing with the ether. The creation of a moongate under these conditions would certainly require very different means than traditionally used. Rather than them being naturally created, these gates are generated more through force. For the moongates used later in the game, the color could be due to the mixture of the blue (moonstones) and red (orb of the moons) means of moongate creation. The complaint about the return of moongates really isn't valid in that clearly this is not the original moongates, but a new moongate system that was developed by the mages of Britannia (or at least Nico). While the magic book seems to indicate that the moongates did work with an orb of the moons, it is not clear how they were made functional again or through what mechanism they work since the phases of the moon aren't involved.
In any case, we have chosen our virtue and now we travel through the gate.