Ultima IV Quest of the Avatar

Reviewed by John Sweeney


Issue 23

Sep/Oct 86

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Origin Systems


The ultimate review of a story in its own right? Why has John Sweeney been moved to write at such length over just another program?

While out for a gentle stroll, you fall asleep beneath a tree. You are awakened by a strange noise - a magic portal opening and closing, and a small bundle falling through it. On examination the bundle turns out to be two books - The History of Britannia and The Book of Mystic Wisdom (although you only discover the latter by translating the runes on the cover!) - wrapped in a cloth. The bundle also contains a small Ankh and the cloth turns out to be a beautifully coloured map of The Lands of Britannia (about 43 cms square). All of these items plus a quick reference card, are actually in your games pack, each of the books being very well presented, and giving you approximately 100 pages of interesting reading.

Following the sound of distant music you eventually arrive at a gypsy's caravan. She appears to have known of your coming, and asks you a number of questions such as 'Thou art sworn to protect thy Lord at any cost, yet thou knowest he has committed a crime. Authorities ask thee of the affair, dost thou A) break thine oath by Honestly speaking; or B) uphold Honor by silently keeping thine oath?' Each of the questions places you in a moral dilemma and forces you to choose between two virtues. After seven questions the gypsy says, `So be it. Thy path is chosen', and you are transported to a strange land while a voice whispers in your ear, `seek the counsel of thy sovereign'. The game now starts.

The screen changes to four windows. The whole of the left of the screen is occupied by a large square showing a bird's eye view of you in the centre, surrounded by a variety of terrain. The map actually covers an area of 256 by 256 squares, of which you can see 11 by 11 - plenty of scope for exploration! The right of the screen has a window at the top showing the status of your party, a window at the bottom describing what is going on and allowing you to enter commands, and a single line window between these showing how much food and gold you have.

Examining your statistics (both those which are always visible, and those you can scroll through by requesting Ztatistics - by pressing Z), you ascertain that you are a fighter with Chain Mail Armour and an Axe, 200 Food, 200 Gold, limited Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity, and 300 Hit Points. You also appear to have a small supply of Ginseng and Garlic! You use the four arrow keys to explore your surroundings. As you do so the terrain scrolls smoothly around you so that you remain in the centre of the screen. You appear to be on a small island with mountains to the north and something interesting on another island to the south. Unfortunately you don't appear to have any means of crossing the intervening water at the moment. There is however something of interest on your own island - a small town. You move your character onto this and press E for Enter. The scene changes. You are now in the middle of an 11 by 11 view of a small town (which actually measures 32 by 32). The town is called Jhelom. Walking up to a nearby guard, you Talk to him (T). The bottom right window records your conversation: YOU MEET A STERN GUARD - NAME (you say) `I am a guard' JOB `I guard the gates and these passages' GATES `The gates of Jhelom' PASSAGES `These passages are restricted'.

Well that sounds interesting - there do indeed appear to be some passages behind the guard and his colleagues. Unfortunately, unlike various other characters you can see moving around the town, the guards appear to be fixed in place. Remembering your experiences in Ultima III you decide it would probably be unwise to attack the guards - they tend to be a pretty tough lot! Besides aren't you supposed to be one of the good guys - an Avatar or something? Maybe you will find some other way into the passages later. You wander on into town and explore a small patch of darkness between two buildings, it turns out to be a small wood, but there is nobody there. As you move around, the screen adjusts so that you can only see what is in line of sight - walls, buildings and woods obscure your view. You have a chat with a fighter: YOU MEET A THIN FIGHTER - NAME `My name is Tinrod' JOB `I fight with valor' VALOR `There is no holier spot of ground than where defeated valor lies - art thou brave?' Ahhh... should you answer Yes or No? Does it matter? You experiment a bit. NO `Coward'! You ask him about Valor again and say YES `Fortune helps the brave' BRAVE `Be brave for there is much to dare' HEALTH `Couldn't be better'.

You appear to be on a small island ...

You leave him and wander around the town. There is an Inn, but the innkeeper isn't very talkative - only seems interested in selling you a bed for the night. Exploring the Inn you find three bedrooms, but two of them are locked and occupied. You chat with Max the Housekeeper, but he doesn't seem to know much. You buy some ale at the Pub and when you tip the barkeeper he asks `What'd ya like to know friend?', but you don't really know yet! There is also an Armourer, a Weapons Shop, and a House of Healing. By talking to the various people wandering around the town you learn of various artifacts which might be useful to obtain, and you gain a number of potentially useful items of information! You eventually decide to leave for the moment.

Once outside the town you wonder what to do next. As you are studying your History of Brittannia, a small Gate opens beside you on the island! You quickly enter it. The screen flashes to indicate magical activity and you find yourself on another island! Exploring the town here (Skara Brae; you learn of more artifacts, and gain more little snippets of information. Leaving the town you see the Gate opening again and quickly enter. This time you find yourself transported to a small clearing in the middle of a vast forest. Visibility is limited to a 3 by 3 square in the middle of the screen!

You set off south and east. Sometimes your attempts to move result in SLOW PROGRESS. You pass through some brushland, more forests, and finally reach a plain. Crossing this you enter some hilly ground, more SLOW PROGRESS. You finally reach impassable(?) mountains and start the long trek around them. Suddenly a small figure appears at the edge of the screen - looks a bit like a teddy bear? Every time you move it moves. It seems to be coming your way. Oh dear, now a small figure waving a sword has appeared - he is coming your way too!

... you find yourself transported to a small clearing ...

As the teddy bear reaches you the screen changes to show your current position in close up. Your party, just you at the moment, appears at the bottom of the screen. The enemy, two of them, appear at the top. You move towards them. Once you are beside them you press A for attack and use an arrow key to indicate the direction of attack. The bottom right window describes the action: MISSED. They attack. Your character's status line flashes and his Hit Points go down to 286, then to 273. Attack again: ORC BARELY WOUNDED (Oh that's what they are!). They attack again. You attack again. Eventually one, critically wounded, flees and the other finally succumbs to your axe blows: ORC KILLED. EXPERIENCE + 6. VICTORY. The scene returns to normal but there is now a chest beside you. You step on to it and press G for Get. The screen flashes again: ACID TRAP - your Hit Points fall again, but you have gained 24 Gold! The figure with the sword attacks you while you attempt to escape through the hills. Again the scene changes to close up for the fight, but, because you were on different terrain, the battle ground is different. Rocky outcrops near the centre of the screen provide good cover so that only one of the two Rogues can attack you at a time. Unfortunately, you don't manage to kill him very quickly, and your Gold starts reducing! The dexterous little thief appears capable of robbing you even while fighting you! You finally finish these two off, Get another chest and head off East again.

Finally rounding the last of the mountains you come to a river. You spy a bridge across it and head towards it. The ground around the river has a slightly different appearance to normal grassland - the dots are bigger and more coloured. As you cross this new terrain there is a sudden flash, and the G on your status line which indicated your character's Good health has changed to a P. P for Poisoned! This must be the marsh with the poisonous gasses of which the History of Brittannia warned you! With each step now your Hit Points decrease. You quickly search the Book of Mystic Wisdom and find a Cure spell. Reading the description carefully you determine that a Cure can be cast by mixing Ginseng and Garlic. Hey, that's what you have. M for Mix. C for Cast. CURE FAILED. M.P. TOO LOW. M.P.? Ah, yes, Magic Points - determined by your character type and his or her intelligence. Check the book again. How many should a Fighter have? None! - Fighters can't use magic! Hit Points getting dangerously low, best try and find a town with a healer. Unfortunately, since you haven't the slightest idea where you are, you fail. Your Hit Points reach Zero. ALL IS DARK, BUT WAIT, WHERE AM I? AM I DEAD? AFTERLIFE? I FEEL MOTION. The scene changes. You are in Lord British's throne room. Lord British rises and says, `At long last thou hast come. We have waited such a long time'. He sits and says, `A new age is upon Britannia. The great evil lords are gone (see Ultima I, II, and III) but our people lack direction and purpose in their lives. A champion of virtue is called for. Thou may be this champion, but only time shall tell. I will aid thee in any way that I can. How may I help thee?'

This looks like your opportunity ...

This looks like your opportunity to learn a bit. What should you ask? Try HELP. `Travel not the open lands alone. There are many worthy people in the diverse townes whom it would be wise to ask to join thee. Build thy party unto eight travellers for only a true leader can win the Quest.' Quest? Ah, yes, the game is called Quest of the Avatar, wonder if Lord British knows what the Quest is, or what an Avatar is? QUEST `The Quest of the Avatar is to know and become the embodiment of the eight virtues of goodness. It is known that all who take on this quest must prove themselves by conquering the Abyss and viewing the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.' ABYSS `The Great Stygian Abyss is the darkest pocket of Evil remaining in Britannia. It is said that in the deepest recesses of the Abyss is the Chamber of the Codex. It is also said that only one of highest virtue may enter the chamber, one such as an Avatar' AVATAR `To be an Avatar is to be the embodiment of the eight virtues. It is to live a life constantly and forever in the quest to better thyself and the world in which we live' VIRTUE `The eight virtues of the Avatar are Honesty, Compassion, Valor, justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility'.

What a knowledgeable fellow this Lord British is!

So, that is how your first half hour of Ultima IV might go. The next couple of hundred hours will be spent exploring the many towns, castles, and unmapped villages that are scattered throughout the lands, talking to the well over 200 different people in them, mapping the uncharted seas that fill vast areas of 

The next couple of hundred hours will be spent exploring ...

the map (assuming you can get hold of a ship!), discovering the existence of and tracking down numerous artifacts without which you cannot win, searching the mountains for secret entrances to dungeons, mapping the depths of the numerous dungeons (this involves a certain amount of magic, and an awful lot of fighting!), persuading seven other characters to join you, finding out how to achieve partial avatarhood in a particular virtue, and then achieving it in all eight, and last, but definitely not least, braving the Abyss.

This has to be one of the best computer games of all time. Ultima (I) was a nice little game. Ultima II was excellent. When I played Ultima III I thought it was superb. The autthors have used all their experience from those earlier games to produce a game which is beyond all my expectations. Those of you who have played the earlier games and are looking forward to Ultima IV will not be disappointed. They have pushed back the boundaries in countless ways to make this one of the all time greas.

A friend of mine stayed with me recently. He is a fanatical games player. He owns a BBC with many games. I showed him Ultima IV. He stayed an extra night. He went out to buy an Atari the next day. He says it's the best computer game he has ever played. I think I agree with him.

Anyone who has experienced Dungeons and Dragons in any of its many forms will have recognised from the description of the start of a sample game that this is indeed a computerised version of D&D. It is ari extremely well thought out implementation. Lots of thought has gone into making it very playable and enjoyable. It is driven by single key

... a game which is beyond all my expectations.

commands from the keyboard, the joystick is not used. Some commands require further input, for example, when talking to people you use single words picked from their conversation to probe for more information, also if you, say, `Ready a weapon' you will be asked which member of your party wishes to Ready (reply 1 through 8) and the top right window will immediately fill with a list of all your spare weapons, each identified by a single letter for you to type in (a great improvement on Ultima III where you had to remember what weapons you had and look up the appropriate letter on a reference card). There are eight different character classes: Mage, Druid, Paladin, Shepherd, Fighter, Tinker, Bard and Ranger, all with different abilities and characteristics. Once you understand what is going on you can actually answer the gypsy's questions in such a way as to become whichever one you want, but don't waste time with that initially, just take what you get. Beware, a party can only have one of each class, so don't waste time trying to persuade anyone of your own class to join you!

Terrain is varied, and affects both movement and combat. It is also varied out at sea. Once you have acquired a ship you will find open seas, deeps, rivers, shoals, bridges, whirlpools and whirlwinds to negotiate, not to mention the fact that the wind always seems to be blowing the wrong way and that the seas are teeming with monsters.

The combat is excellent. You can arm your party with numerous weapons: axes, maces and swords for close up, slings, bows and crossbows for shooting the length of the screen, halberd for hitting the enemy over the heads of your comrades or over obstructions such as the side of a ship, plus numerous magical weapons which are rather harder to come by but well worth acquiring! Within combat the terrain is varied, especially in dungeons, where there are countless rooms each with its own layout including such things as streams, lava, energy fields, walls and bridges, as well as secret doors, treasure chests and traps of all sorts. In the countryside and in dungeon corridors you are attacked by whatever chances your way, the more experienced you are the nastier it is likely to be, from orcs and skeletons up to balrons, dragons and reapers. The size of the attacking party will depend on the size of your party - there will be usually be more of them than there are of you! Dungeon rooms on the other hand are predefined. Each one is a carefully designed set piece, with particular monsters in particular positions - the deeper the nastier - don't venture too deep too soon!

Once you have engaged in combat, or entered a room, the members of your party appear separately across the bottom of the screen. Each of them gets a chance to do one thing, then the enemy pieces get one turn each, then each of yours and so on. The range of actions is quite wide: a character any move one square, change weapons, attack with a weapon, cast a spell (provided you have mixed it before entering into combat), or pass. So each fight, once you have a party of more than a few characters, is like a miniature board game, where you and the computer are moving your pieces round a board and fighting for the best position. The enemy can have powerful

A friend of mine ... went out to buy an Atari the next day.

magic on their side. One of their favourite combinations is a group of reapers or balrons, protected by walls, energy fields or their allies, throwing multiple sleep spells at your party. If any of your party get SLEPT then they are liable to be beaten to death by hordes of daemons and phantoms before they can be wakened. In order to survive you will need to learn how to use magic yourself.

Magic is well implemented. You are provided with the Book of Mystic Wisdom. This contains details of 26 spells ranging from simple Light and Cure Spells to the much more difficult Tremor (devastating against most enemies) and Resurrect. Most of the characters can start using some of the simple spells right from the. beginning of the game. Not so the more difficult ones, for a number of reasons. First, the Book is incomplete and inaccurate in its description of the mixtures of reagents needed to prepare for the casting of some of the spells. Second, only six of the eight reagents are sold in Herb Shops, the other two, Nightshade and Mandrake Root are extremely difficult to come by (even if I told you exactly where they are you probably still couldn't find them!) and are of course required for the best spells. And even if you should eventually track down the formulae and the ingredients, you might still fail if you did not have a sufficiently powerful magician in your party. There are ways to improve your characters, so eventually you should be able to cast any spell you wish.

The Lands of Britannia are large. You will need to travel them many times, and make careful notes. There are many reasons you will need to revisit towns, villages, and castles. Apart from the obvious one, that you haven't discovered all of a place's secrets (and they have many), you will also find that certain weapons, for example, are only available in certain towns, that not all towns have Herb Shops or Food Stores, and that prices for goods vary from place to place. You will also find that a person you talk to will refer you to a character in a different town. Armed with this knowledge you can revisit someone you have talked to before, prompt him with new keywords you have discovered and gain new information. These little subsidiary quests are not always easy, as some locations are almost completely inaccessible, and also the object of your search may well be very cleverly hidden or disguised.

There are numerous ways to travel: on foot, horseback or ship, by Moon Gate and by Magic. And there are rumours of a lighter-than-air device, according to the History! There are also rumours of Thieves. Guilds, somewhere out on the uncharted seas, well worth a visit, as those of you who have played previous Ultimas will be aware. They are a source of items such as keys and magic gems which enable you to get an overview of the surrounding land or dungeon area (32 by 32 (22 by 22 in a dungeon) instead of the usual 11 by 11). A visit to the Lycaeum is also thoroughly recommended as early in the game as possible. Dungeon corridors are similar to those in Ultima III, you get a view of what you can see down the corridor, instead of the usual view from above, but they are much more sophisticated than those of Ultima III. Each Ultima III dungeon is made of eight square layers directly above each other. In Ultima IV there is no such uniformity. Dungeons ramble in all directions, Up and Down spells rarely work (and even more rarely work usefully!), there are countless dead ends, illusions, and one way ladders. The solving of a single dungeon in Ultima IV has more in it than a lot of games on the market.

... one of your many objectives is to become a partial avatar in all eight virtues.

One interesting facet of this amazing game is the fact that one of your many objectives is to become a partial avatar in all eight virtues. This means that you are a Good Character. You must think twice before stealing treasure chests from castles, or shooting fleeing enemies in the back. You will have to learn lots of little ways of proving to the game that you are a good guy. Initially you will find some of the philosophy thrown at you by various of the inhabitants to be a trifle confusing. Hopefully it will all become clear as the game slowly unfolds. If it doesn't you are in trouble as you need to unravel quite a lot of clues hidden therein in order to win the game!

Finally, once you have gathered all your friends, armed them all well, proved what a good guy you are, and acquired not only numerous artifacts but also vast knowledge, you MAY be ready for the Abyss. Unlike the other dungeons, this one's entrance is well guarded and unmarked; should you actually succeed in reaching it and locating it you will find that the usual E for Enter is completely inadequate. If you ever manage to get inside it, you will find that it makes all the other dungeons look like child's play. And if you should actually happen to have with you all the knowledge and artifacts necessary to reach the entrance to the Chamber of the Codex, not to mention being able to survive long enough to map and progress through all eight levels of the Abyss - and that means passing through over forty rooms full of monsters and traps - even should you get there, there are some very nasty twists left to prevent you achieving full Avatarhood. But I'm not going to give you any clues on that yet!

The documentation is superb, except for a couple of details. It never mentions the fact that the space bar can be used to PASS (note that this affects things like movement of enemies and restoration of Magic Points, but NOT the moons or the winds) or to make the game move on during certain parts of conversations, during the initial preamble with the gypsy, and to get rid of the Title Page after you have booted the game. Nor does it tell you what to do if the phone rings during a crucial battle. Z is actually a valid PAUSE command at any time that you can use it. If you don't pause the game with Z then it will assume you wish to PASS after waiting 18 seconds (12 seconds if you are in combat). The only place where you must concentrate, since too long a pause can be disastrous, is during meditation (just hope the phone doesn't ring then!). Also it is not clear whether or not you can have two long-lasting spells in effect at once. The P for Protection, J for Jinx, and Q for Quickness all use the same space in the middle of the centre right window. Each of these can last for many turns. By casting a new one you erase the letter indicating the continued effect of the previous one, but have you actually cancelled it?

There is a minor bug caused by riding a horse into Castle Britannia. If you dismount to Klimb the stairs, on your return to the ground floor you will find your horse has disappeared!

Finally ... you MAY be ready for the Abyss.

One improvement on previous Ultimas, which is undocumented, is the fact that the save facility (Q for Quit and Save) is a proper Save in the usual adventure style. In Ultima III if you entered a town or dungeon an automatic save was performed by the game whether you liked it or not, and should one of your characters die he was immediately marked as dead so that you couldn't restore to get him back. In Ultima IV you can suffer major catastrophes without concern, since by rebooting you can restore to the last point at which YOU issued a Quit and Save.

The reference card says that you can switch the Colour option from standard 800 to XL series during boot-up. Unfortunately when it asks you which you want it doesn't tell you which is which. I can't get very good colour either way with my version, indeed I have to turn the colour control up on my TV to get any colour at all. The only problem this causes is that Marsh is a bit difficult to detect, but that may be intentional anyway! It may be that my colour problems are caused by the fact that my copy is an American import. Maybe the UK version will have fixed this. But it doesn't really matter, the game is so good that once you get hooked you are unlikely to worry about the colour.

The documentation also assumes that you understand some of the basic concepts of D&D, such as Hit Points, Experience, and Levels. If you have never come across any of this before then find a friend to explain it to you, or just play along and pick it up as you go.

If you have been wondering why you should add a disk drive to you Atari, here is the answer!

Ultima IV has a lot to offer, regardless of your interest. Whether you enjoy best the logical challenges involved in conversing with the townspeople, the exploration of the wilderness, or the fighting in the dungeons you are bound to find something in Ultima IV to get you hooked. You can even, as one of my sons did, set up your own objectives within this superb fantasy world. He decided to see how evil he could be - he now has the Seer coming out with responses such as 'Thou art a cad and a bounder, Thy presence is an affront. Thou art low as a slug!' - he went too far when he attacked Lord British though: he turned out to be invulnerable!

If you have been wondering why you should add a disk drive to you Atari, here is the answer! If you have a drive already then you shouldn't miss this experience. I don't know how much the UK version will be, but if you compare it to the number of hours you are engrossed in Ultima IV I'm sure you will find it a bargain! I wonder when Ultima V will be out?