"And so your quest isn't to overpower some great evil, but instead to master eight virtues and become an Avatar — the human representation of goodness whose purity of soul will be the necessary inspiration for the populace to enter a new era of prosperity."
Ultima: Quest of the Avatar greatly differs from pretty much every other RPG I've ever played. In the NES port of the popular computer series' fourth game, there is no demon lord, evil empire or psychotic megalomaniac threatening to enslave or destroy the world. No, after villains Mondain, Minax and Exodus were taken care of in the first three Ultima games, the land of Britannia has a new problem.
This people of this land have undergone more than their fair share of hardships over recent times. While no new threat is on the horizon, they need someone to look up to as a paragon of virtue, so as not to be overcome with despair over their turmoil-ridden existence. And so your quest isn't to overpower some great evil, but instead to master eight virtues and become an Avatar -- the human representation of goodness whose purity of soul will be the necessary inspiration for the populace to enter a new era of prosperity.
First, answering a series of questions will determine which of eight characters you'll control. If you pick the choices leading you towards honor, you'll take control of Dupre the Paladin, a powerful melee warrior also possessing a respectable amount of magical ability. Wind up following the path of humility, and you'll start out as Katrina the Shepherd, who starts out the weakest prospective Avatar, making her chosen virtue quite appropriate.
After picking your character, you'll initially be concentrating on three tasks: going from town to town to recruit the other seven characters (of which three may join you actively in exploration at any time), doing good deeds to prove your worthiness and finding the runes necessary to gain entrance to shrines dedicated to each virtue in order to partially earn Avatar rank. Now, the focus of the game switches to drool-inducing old-school dungeon exploration. You'll delve deeply into a number of these dark places (literally -- you'll need torches or the proper magic spell to see where you are) in order to find a number of artifacts necessary to descend into the Abyss and earn access to the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom, truly become the Avatar and beat the game.
Quest of the Avatar's plot isn't the only thing making it different from the average RPG, as there are a number of neat little twists on tried-and-true ways of doing things. To cast spells, you not only need sufficient magic points, but also the necessary reagents, most of which can be bought in stores. Also, it's far more important to talk to townsfolk and take note of what they say than in most games. You don't have many placeholders uttering meaningless tripe like, "Beware! There be monsters afoot!" in Britannia. Instead, the lion's share of these people give hints on how to solve key puzzles, clues to the location of certain important items or reagent combinations to craft powerful new spells. Random conversations give you most of the knowledge you need to beat this game -- it's just up to you to put all the pieces together.
However, while some aspects of Quest of the Avatar are intriguing, they really don't translate to a video game particularly well. To master certain virtues, you'll be spending a LOT of time doing things like giving your hard-earned money to beggers and donating blood at hospitals. Whenever you buy items, you'll find the storekeeper is blind, so you have to count out the money yourself. If you buy goods worth 90 gold and you accidentally only pay him 80, that won't help the ol' honesty rating.
And while you're jaunting from town to town to collect new companions and all that good stuff, you'll find out that overworld battling is pretty dull. Fighting is done in a turn-based strategy RPG sort of way -- sort of like Final Fantasy Tactics if you and enemies could only move one square per turn. Many of these fights start with your guys on the bottom of the screen and the enemies on the top, causing a good amount of time being eaten up by everyone s-l-o-w-l-y moving towards each other before any actual fighting takes place.
Thankfully, that problem is alleviated as you get farther into the game. As you gain more and more money, you'll be able to equip many of your party members with various projectile weapons (some quite powerful) allowing them to cut down foes from a distance. And when you start exploring dungeons, you'll find that most of the fighting is done in fairly confined rooms, where it'll only take a few short moments to get into position to start hacking away at monster limbs.
Those dungeons are the high point of Quest of the Avatar. For the most part, you'll be in a first-person environment walking through multi-floor mazes; however, these places contain a large number of rooms. Enter these and you'll find yourself in the game's standard overhead point of view -- often about to engage in fights against many of the game's tougher monsters in order to earn some nice treasures, including certain key items necessary to reach the Codex. The time spent exploring these places easily can make the ordeal of getting to this point of the game seem like a distant memory.
In Quest of the Avatar, the rewards are high if you can endure the early going. While it can become painfully boring to get your party assembled and master the virtues, once the dungeon crawling begins, this game picks up and becomes fun and memorable as you stop piddling around with beggers and blood donations and start scrambling through mazes battling powerful monsters for great rewards. As a friendly piece of advice, if you want to get the most out of this game, don't even look at its instruction book. That 80-page monstrosity serves as a mini-walkthrough, giving hints (and, at times, answers) to many of the greatest puzzles AND is packaged with a world map that also gives you floor layouts for all but the final dungeon. When it's so rewarding to solve a game's mysteries (and let's face it, becoming a holy icon for the common man to follow is pretty damn cool), it just seems kind of lame to spoil that experience by having your hand held for most of the trip.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (November 13, 2008)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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