Ultima VIII: Pagan
Ultima 8 is one of those games that were just ruined, on release, by a mix of bad development decisions and producer decision to rush everything. Just like most of today’s early access games players buy so happily.
The game also suffers of the “saga name curse”: it’s hated by the saga fans because it isn’t like previous Ultima games. Same happened when Final Fantasy saga leaned to action focused gameplay in FF13.
But don’t let this introduction discourage you from playing it. This is a classic game and it’s worth playing because it’s unique and interesting. It was also improved after release. Origin took seriously the players feedback and finally patched it in 1995. By the way, I played its release on 1994, unpatched, and it was a bit unpolished, buggy and hard. But it was playable.
- Pagan is probably the most (subtly) hostile world I’ve seen on an RPG:
- It’s a exotic world, far from Britannia, where no-one knows the Avatar and where there are other belief systems. It’s the ruling world of his great archenemy, the Guardian. You’ll see some seriously bad things happening here.
- The Pagan people isn’t virtuous and they worship the Titans who either aren’t good deities. The Avatar is stuck in this world and he has to play, with that world rules, against it.
- The world is immersing: plenty of books to learn its lore and NPCs to talk with.
- The soundtrack is good and unique. Hard to forget the cemetery, wilderness or Tenebrae themes.
- There is a good dose of black humour in U8 if you search a bit.
- Slightly open-world game. The plot is linear but you can do some exploration freely from day 1.
- Ultima VIII is a game ahead of it’s time.
- Combat is action oriented. This is very usual today RPGs but not in the early 90’s computers.
- Platforming puzzles: jumping was highly criticized (it was unfair on the unpatched game) but it’s fine in the modern/patched version of the game.
- Sprite graphics look ok even today.
- Ultima VIII has got some interesting NPCs: Mythran, Salkind, Kilandra, Aramina, … They aren’t at the level of BG2 or U7, but they’re still unique and above average.
- A lot of secrets (many of them are casually hinted in books, but exist ingame): The Slayer (a weapon), Bonecrusher Cave, Troll arena, the Theurgist invisible treasure, the cheesy book and (as usual in Ultima) the secret cheat room.
It’s funny that the 8 virtues are missing in the number VIII of the saga. But don’t worry, there are the Zealan and the Pagan religions+lore instead.
Don’t let those flaws discourage you. The game still have many fans and there is a lot of things to discover. But we have to be honest (it’s an Avatar virtue) so let’s talk about them:
- Some animations are a bit slow, clunky, for today standards. It’s an old game, but back on the day it was looking awesome.
- Some dialogs are skipable depending on what you choose (nothing important that you don’t hear elsewhere) and they aren’t usually offered again.
- Bugs: the unpatched game was bugged. The patched game still have it’s issues so just save progress on various slots, resolve puzzles before touching other stuff and don’t place a backpack inside your backpack.
- There are many plot issues on the game:
- Various known plot cuts: undead invasion against Tenebrae, Haunted Grove, tempestry/Hydros plot cuts and The Lost Vale game add-on / expansion which was never published.
- Plot holes: The Birthplace of Moriens (somewhat fixed in 2.12 patch), Guardian’s Palace, Skull of Quakes, inheriting master necromancer’s position and Hydros subplots.
- Source: Read more in the wiki. The cuts seem minor but they could be relevant to deepen the story and to add consistency.
- Game design flaws:
- Too many traps! Failing floor, chests, lighting poles, … Everywhere. Sometimes there are hints there is a trap, others don’t.
- Game refuses to do actions sometimes because of positioning and there are issues with collisions (going though doors, etc) that slowdown movement.
- Spellcasting system is very interesting but it was a bit over-complex. The patched game solved some issues with Sorcery spellcasting, so a yay! for that. There is also a cheat mode that makes spellcasting a menu click.
- Combat is a clickfest. At least they removed the stunning blows against Avatar in the patched game.
- Inventory management. Typical in Ultima games and other CRPGs, the game can be a bit annoying with inventory. The patched game solved some issues with reagent inventory management.
- No party system: RPG party management can be a hassle but companions are interesting and fun to interact with. Not an option in U8.
- As usual on Ultima games, the character development is limited. It’s the game world what changes (or it should).
- It was not directed by Richard Garriott. He was a producer instead.
This is a classic game, but I don’t think we can consider it a gem. Maybe a rough one.
And about jumping. That was the biggest critic for the game back on it’s day and, indeed, it was a bit hard in the vanilla game, with those moving platforms and hard jumps. But Origin released the patch 2.12 (in January 1995) to make jump precise (targetted) and to make floating platforms static, which totally removed the unfairness. Jumping was easy and fine after that. I
‘m a big fan of pure cRPGs like Baldur’s Gate 2 and Ultima VII, but puzzle jumping in a RPG seems fine to me. You can also jump in Ultima IX or Zelda BotW.
Why to play?
Ultima 8, with its flaws, is still better than most of the RPGs out there. And the saga, as a whole, is amazing.
How to acquire
Version / Platform
I’m reviewing Ultima 8 Gold edition for DOS, ran on DosBOX. The gold edition is patched and it includes both the patch 2.12 (released in 1995) and the addon disk “Speech pack”.
The game could also be played on native Windows by using Pentagram, a fan made opensource engine for Ultima VIII. Sadly, it’s unfinished and there are no updates for more than a year, so it seems dead. A pity, they could really improve some things.
There is an expansion / add-on called “Lost Vale” which was finished but never published by EA. Honoring its name, it’s lost.
There is also a fan-made spanish translation in case you need it and it works fine on any U8 releases. It’s quite a feat.
Ultima IX was the sequel and it followed the steps started with Ultima VIII on almost everything. Modern and advanced, stunning graphically, but plot was cut, game is buggy and engine is badly optimized. It was worse than U8 in that regard but it was later patched. So, what about the future?
Ultima X was the final sequel and it was in development but it was finally cancelled, probably because of U9. This meant the premature end of one of the most revered single player RPG saga.
Ultima Online was still popular but that came to an end too. But, lately, Richard Garriott has been active again in the game development and he finally released a MMORPG called Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues. It’s probably a game with potential and it’s free so, well, feel free to try it if you enjoy MMORPGs. I just don’t have time to spend time in that, so I hope there is a reboot for Ultima X someday, so the saga is finally closed how it deserves.
Games like Ultima 8
It’s impossible to find other game like Ultima 8 in the early 90s or before, but there are various posterior games that share something:
- Ultima IX: the sequel shares some of the issues (rushed game development and balance) but visiting Britannia in 3D is worth it and fighting/jumping was better.
- Zelda Breath of the Wild: a action-focused JRPG, you can jump too.
- The Witcher: action cRPG, no jumping but the game world is slightly hostile and it shares a dark theme like Ultima 8.
- Don’t Starve: if you’re looking for hostile and dark themed survival instead, this is for you.
With all its defects, Ultima VIII is an interesting game linked to the Avatar and the Guardian, the most important characters in the Ultima saga.
This isn’t your average game. I enjoy reading this game’s conversations, books and tombstones, so it’s nice if you’re looking a RPG that’s more into the adventure side with plenty of lore and stuff to discover.