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Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II) artwork

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Apple II) review

"Before Ultima IV (U4,) people took being the good guy on faith. Maybe you'd get your butt kicked if you robbed a shopkeeper or attacked a townsman, but generally it was you against skeletons and goblins and the like. It was great fun, but Ultima III took things too far. The best strategy was to kill druids in one town until you were strong enough to kill guards in another town with a huge treasure vault. Then you could go kill a computer. Technically, the game was a strong achievement, and it so..."

Before Ultima IV (U4,) people took being the good guy on faith. Maybe you'd get your butt kicked if you robbed a shopkeeper or attacked a townsman, but generally it was you against skeletons and goblins and the like. It was great fun, but Ultima III took things too far. The best strategy was to kill druids in one town until you were strong enough to kill guards in another town with a huge treasure vault. Then you could go kill a computer. Technically, the game was a strong achievement, and it sold well. But Richard Garriott wanted better--not just more locations or spells, or clearer keyboard commands, or nicer graphics in both the top-down aboveground areas and first-person dungeons.

So his staff at Origin made a game about becoming an Avatar, the embodiment of all virtues, so you can read the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom. It starts with character creation. Instead of dice rolling or stat distribution, you answer a series of moral dilemmas that act as an elimination tournament to determine your player's class. When a beggar sees your purse of uncounted coins, you might choose honesty or compassion. I remember choosing a character several times to see all twenty-eight questions. They have no wrong answers, unless you're Machiavellian and wish to avoid becoming a shepherd. Their virtue is humility, a necessity with their lack of skills.

The adventure begins outside of your profession's town. It's free-form to start, but visiting the towns, you notice a pattern: each virtue has, along with a corresponding town and profession, a moongate that allows quick transport, a rune and magic stone to find, a dungeon to visit and a shrine. You learn about the three principles: truth, love and courage. Each one of these has a corresponding castle and artifact, and each combination of principles makes a virtue. For instance, valor derives from courage alone, and spirituality combines all three principle. Humility exists outside measurable virtue--if this seems hazy, consider the person who won't shut up about how much he sacrifices for others (love and courage) and how that makes people less likely to emulate or believe him.

So you need to follow these virtues somehow. It's pretty obvious stealing and killing won't work, but finding artifacts and solving quests gains honor as well as experience for your leader. Meditating at shrines gains spirituality. Overpaying a blind woman selling reagents gives justice. Visiting Hawkwind the Seer lets you know if you can achieve partial Avatarhood in a virtue at a shrine. He's in Lord British's castle, which is a sort of home base in the middle of the world of Britannia. British himself gives levels to players with enough experience and even heals the party on request. He also resurrects your party if everyone dies.

He can't help with finding stuff, though. Townsmen generally tell you where most runes and shrines are, though the spirituality and humility quests drag you to outer areas of Britannia or hidden alcoves where you either need to teleport. You may even need to sail into a whirlpool to reach an inland lake. It's a neat way to emphasize that these virtues are special. For any artifact, sextants and gems from expensive guilds in obscure towns can mark your locations and surrounding, though you may still need the right spells. Changing the wind while riding a balloon or teleporting from exactly the right square both work.

Spells themselves have a logic beyond costlier meaning more damage. You can deduce the reagents you need for each spell. The healing ginseng combined with garlic makes Cure, or with spider silk it makes Heal. Rarer reagents allow for more powerful spells. Other games have done this in more depth since, but I like this sort of recall puzzle. Like the virtues, spell creation makes sense without feeling academic. It's offset by the weird names for the spells--one for each letter of the alphabet. "Y" moves up a level in a dungeon, and "Z" moves down. The manual's entertaining pictures and references to ancient languages and lore make you forget they just picked whatever letters were left.

You'll need these spells U4's the web of dungeons. They're named after the opposite of virtues, Most of them contain a stone, and at the bottom, altar rooms link dungeons with a virtue in common. Dungeons themselves aren't big--8x8x8--but some squares open to dungeon rooms, where secret levers open up passages leading to new exits that random up-and-down teleporting should miss. The final dungeon, the Great Stygian Abyss, contains a three-by-three maze of rooms where you weave back and forth and find secret doors before reaching the other side of what seemed like an obvious dead end. No in-game congratulations needed.

Just be sure to nail the final puzzle afterwards. You see, you can't save in dungeons. U4 had a lot of nuisances like this. The biggest may be the backsliding traps once you become a partial avatar, you can lose it for doing something wrong, and sometimes by accident. Killing a townsman loses honor, botching a mantra in a shrine loses spirituality, or fleeing a fight loses valor, gets an ominous "THOU HAST LOST AN EIGHTH." It takes time to stay good and save regularly, but friends I told this to implied I'd just lost an eighth in humility. Worse, when quizzed, I sheepishly admitted to improving virtue in bulk, saying or doing the right thing and leaving and re-entering. My friends called that cheating.

U4 has other practical concerns. Pirate boats may take a while to appear, and capturing them's the only ticket to distant islands. You may also make your party too big too soon. This is counterintuitive, but generally enemies outnumber the party two to one, and they're hard to flee because rough terrain trips up you and not them. Worse, you get the same chest (random amount up to 99 gold) for defeating one easy monster or many tough ones. You can also mix only one spell at once. Fortunately, this can be worked around, and keeping one player for most of the game before collecting the party needed for the Abyss makes for two different but very satisfying overall experiences in one game. First, you become worthy of being a leader and can whip all enemis. Then, you collect everyone for big fights near the end.

Yet U4 may be the very best game to come back to. It's quick to solve, but none of the puzzles feel cheap. Your tasks are organized enough for a table checklist, but they don't need to be done a certain way. It's all done with a lack of melodrama, as fortunately the technology didn't try for speech. Also, bending the rules--playing as an anti-hero to get insulting progress messages from Hawkwind, or finding shortcuts to Avatarhood--gives creative results. Many fans know about shuttling between Lord British for healing and giving blood (e.g. hit points) to nail down sacrifice, but robbing Lord British's treasure vault to give to beggars and reagent women can augment your virtue and your pocketbook. When contrasted with the townspeople's philosophical discussions--nothing too in-depth, and thanks to a lack of voice technology, nothing melodramatic, either--it calls into question what decency is, and how we cheat it, and maybe even when it's good to cheat the rules.

And it's also great nostalgia. U4, along with Bard's Tale 2, occupied a wonderful summer when I was first exposed to computer RPGs. BT2 featured more wit and amusing animations. You could do all sorts of things with spellcasters, and the death snares and magic mouths' riddles and odd weapon names have stayed with me. It's a sentimental favorite and a solid game, but U4 demands less level grinding and relies less on tricks than any other game I've seen. It's quick to go through, and I never have to memorize a puzzle solution, and yet I seem to find something new every time. I forget how sensible it is because it's so compact yet fun. Best, U4 is released freely on the web, so I don't lose an eighth--err, feel guilty--for downloading and playing it.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (November 14, 2010)

Andrew Schultz used to write a lot of reviews and game guides but made the transition to writing games a while back. He still comes back, wiser and more forgiving of design errors, to write about games he loved, or appreciates more, now.

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