Review: Ultima V

Ultima V

ST Amiga Format Review

My Review
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So, reviewing Ultima 5 is something that would ordinarily take a fuckload longer than I have spent on games so far, so this is going to be more an exploration. In a way many of these reviews have been an exploration of how I cope with the jank inherent in these older games. I’ve been a little surprised in that some of the more out there games turned out to be ok once I got used to them, but for instance Zak McKracken caught me out – I expected to be able to cope without too many issues owing to being fairly familiar with Scumm games. The thing that has tended to put me off most has not been so much arcane interfaces or weird keyboard shortcuts (though there have been some cases of poor controls putting me off – Barbarian 2 was a perfect example of that) but performance. When the jerkiness, the low frame rate, is so bad that it prevents proper timing in a more arcade-ish game, or when it makes clicking on things too tricky (and tooltips pop up waaay too late) as in Zak.

So, this review will be a short slice of life to see how I handle a very unfamiliar game series. The oldest RPG I’ve played is Final Fantasy 7 (original) which I’ve been playing a bit recently and enjoying, but I’ve not played anything older than that (I really didn’t take much of an interest until Morrowind – until that point RPGs were just not of interest to me as while I loved shows like Knightmare on TV I wasn’t really that into orcs and elves which was where most RPGs were – though perhaps you could count Dungeon Master from 1988 to which I devoted hours of gaming time) and the big question is whether the missing quality-of-life improvements and the probably-awful graphics make it impossible to get any enjoyment from the game, or whether it’s something I enjoy and will come back to later.

Running Automation menu disk 221 I’m presented with an attractive-in-an-80s-way lady and some actually quite decent chip music in which to select my game. I don’t fancy Starbreaker so Ultima 5 it is.

Into the game – the logo partly in flames – we have some inoffensive chip music that’s quite fitting to this kind of game – cheery and uplifting and a bit ancient. The first UI humdinger, I try the ‘onward’ option and find myself stuck in a loop because there are no saved games yet.

Let’s try again – Create a character – I shall name him Cuntius. Transphobic fucker asks if I’m male or female – does the bigoted cunt not know I’m non-binary?

Moving to a big wall of text I am grateful at least for one rarity in old games – readable text in a decent font. Setting the scene for figuring out my character. A series of questions will determine who I am, in a manner I’m sure many RPG fans will be familiar with. I’m sure some people know what to answer to get the alignment they want but I answer honestly and let the chips land as they may. The questions are suitably weighty – questions where there isn’t a clearly good response to give. Lots of thys and thous – all very medieval England.

Aaaaand it crapped out. Let’s try another cracked version. Eventually I get it sorted and manage to start Cuntius’ journey towards greatness. Dear fucking god the graphics are shit.

So it looks to me like Dwarf Fortress with a tileset. Controls are interesting. Initially I had some luck moving around by moving the mouse and clicking (an arrow appeared to indicate direction according to whether the mouse was above, below, to the left or right of the player sprite) but it seems keyboard is the more sensible choice given the many commands:

A Attack
B Board
C Cast
E Enter
F Fire
G Get
H Hole Up
I Ignite
J Jimmy
K Klimb
L Look
M Mix
N New Order
O Open
P PUsh
Q Quit and Save
R Ready
S Search
T Talk
U Use
V View
X X-it (what the fuck does that do?)
Y Yell
Z Z-stats
Space Abort turn

Commands are issued by pressing the key and then a direction, so to get something to your North you’d press G and then the up arrow.

The quick reference card also provides detailed stats on the weapons, which makes some sense. While a modern game can pop up a tooltip to show you a weapon’s stats, with a resolution of 320×200 one has to leave some information out of the software and put it in the supplementary materials instead, if for no other reason than there’s no nice way to present that information on screen. We also have a chart of spells, and honestly I’m actually quite excited reading this stuff.

Wandering around I come to a well and wish for poo on a stick. Sadly I get no such poo, nor do I know where the coin came from. Plucked from my cavernous anus no doubt. Onwards.

I wander the woods some more, encountering a farm but no farmer. Where are all the people?

Going north past a certain point it asks if I wish to leave. This leaves me in a forest – I didn’t initially realise but each square represents one area like the one I was just in. The hut and surrounding forest is one tile and I can return to it by choosing to Enter it. This may be teaching granny to suck eggs, in which case I apologise, but this is new for me.

Not being entirely sure what to do at this point I decided to dig deeper into the resources that came with the game. We have:
– a 2 page journal
– a 2 page quick reference (keyboard, weapon attack points, armour defence points, and a chart of spells)
– an 8 page reference card (from the c64 version – I couldn’t find an ST version)
– a 60 page lore book

Firing up the emulator once more I attempted to get back to where I was, only to find that the emulator would lock up and refuse to continue playing. Back to the start again for me. In the end, the slog of getting it to work, an interface which gives too little away, and insufficient time and energy lead to me giving in and moving onto the next issue of ST/Amiga Format in search of fun.

For those who are interested, and don’t want to faff with an emulator, there is a version on gog.com in a collection which also contains Ultimas 4 and 6. I found that while it got me away from the horror of the emulator and rid me of the incessant disk access, it was still a bit too dated for me to really get much from it.

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