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Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Apple II) artwork

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Apple II) review

"Sequels usually promise a bigger world, more spells, more detailed combat, and so forth, but when it comes to the previous game's narrative faults, they don't say much. Ultima V (U5) isn't just shinier; it makes a complaint about its predecessor the focus of the plot. Many people thought U4 micromanaged how the player gained and kept virtue. So the villain in U5 is a quasi-theocratic dictator, Blackthorn, who has deposed Lord British since U4 with the help of nebulous spirits called the S..."

Sequels usually promise a bigger world, more spells, more detailed combat, and so forth, but when it comes to the previous game's narrative faults, they don't say much. Ultima V (U5) isn't just shinier; it makes a complaint about its predecessor the focus of the plot. Many people thought U4 micromanaged how the player gained and kept virtue. So the villain in U5 is a quasi-theocratic dictator, Blackthorn, who has deposed Lord British since U4 with the help of nebulous spirits called the Shadowlords. The wisdom the Avatar developed during U4 is now law. Give charity or become poor. Tell the truth or lose your tongue.

This harsh new world falls short of Lord British's dream at the end of U4. The player gets his own taste as he arrives in Britannia. His friend Shamino is gravely injured fighting a Shadowlord, who is repelled by your ankh, a gift from Lord British. The party retires to Iolo's Hut.

It's a new location in a familiar world, but the extra detail's obvious: a cornfield for food, items in dressers, and even a bed to rest in. Explore and you'll find townspeople follow a schedule, between homes and shops. Graphic detail's expanded, and new villages dot the landscape. Towns and castles, though they've got more levels, haven't moved. Moongates haven't, either, but now you can dig up the moonstones beneath them to bury in other places. Three new small villages create a medieval Beltway around Lord British's castle. Magincia, destroyed for its pride before U4, is no longer a haven for the undead. Virtue shrines haven't moved, and mantras are the same, but dungeons are walled up to prevent monsters from terrorizing the countryside. You need to find words of power to re-enter.

This same-but-different feel pervades U5. You need virtue, but the game doesn't micromanage; be good enough, and Lord British clues you to where he's held prisoner. You have fifteen potential companions, including old friends like Dupre and Jaana, and can even swap them out at inns to juggle your six-person roster. Character classes have shrunk from eight to three, a good move since few were really special. There's a huge underworld below the dungeons, and it's as big as the surface. New islands have popped up all over. Some have lighthouses, which help ships see reefs in the night, but others hold dwellings and keeps.

For fans, the familiar and the new are balanced well, and there's technological progress since the Avatar found wisdom and virtue in Ultima IV. People new to the series can explore easily, too, with roads now linking towns, though the signs feature Icelandic runes. Shipbuilders in villages mean you don't have to wait for pirate ships to conquer. People remember you and offer more information later. You can even find a magic carpet early, so travel over land and shallow water is quicker. A grapple lets you pass through low peaks that make up mountain mazes.

It's hardly idyllic, though. Besides the oppressive laws and guards, you have to deal with possessed towns. Every day, each of the three Shadowlords infects a random town with his vice: hatred, falsehood, or cowardice, which are the opposites of the principles of love, truth and courage. Townsmen may hit, ignore, or steal from you, and a Shadowlord that catches a young party can win easily. With nobody brave enough to speak out against the Shadowlords except for your old companions from Ultima IV or members of the Resistance, who require references before trusting you, it's clear there's more to do than level up against bridge trolls or orcs in the wilderness.

As with U4, it's not clear what to do at first. U4 fans may visit shrines, which quest you to ask the Codex about what virtues really mean. Along the way, you'll learn about Lord British's magic royal jewels. A man tucked away in the Underworld tells how the Shadowlords were created and how to destroy them. A reformed demon tells you one magic word. With a boat, you can even go to Blackthorn's castle. This is the tensest part of the game, as if guards reach you, you're captured and imprisoned. Blackthorn tortures you for secrets and may wipe one of your party members off the roster for good. Resurrect spells won't bring him back. You can even talk to Blackthorn or murder him in his sleep. You learn this does no good. He is the Shadowlords' puppet.

And visiting their castle is also emotionally powerful. You can enter without having destroyed them, invoking a tricky chase where your magic carpet's twice as fast as they, or you can walk in after dealing with them. Either way you play gives a different emotional effect: panic, or worrying it's too easy.

Yet it's not all serious here. The demon guard makes fun of a puzzle in Zork. Other places, Blackthorn's followers contradict themselves stupidly. Some citizens even dare to make jokes about the Oppression, a slightly silly name for Blackthorn's secret police, but there's a feeling of civil war and divisiveness. Blackthorn's true believers are fanatics. Little kids are willing to turn their parents in, and some even question Blackthorn's commitment to virtue. People even speak out against the Avatar, and guards aren't afraid to hassle or arrest him. Er, you. Some ask you to betray members of the Resistance. Nobody asks the generic "Woe is us! Who will stop the evil?"

After dealing with all these people, dungeons provide a break. They're still 8x8x8, with some squares leading to dungeon rooms, but the rooms are more sophisticated. Some feature banquet tables, or even kids that attack you. Often you have to throw a boomerang at a distant wall to open one secret square, and sometimes tripping the wrong lever makes it impossible to find the new secret passage. In the underworlds below, you often need a combination of mountain climbing and teleporting to get to the big treasures. This means you need to do more than just poke at every square. It comes to a head in the final dungeon below the underworld, where you go up and down and discover secret doors all over before finally finding Lord British.

Then, you need one special item to avoid being trapped with Lord British once you find him. Lying I didn't have it left a simple yet awkward scene of everyone moving around aimlessly. I've been frustrated with final-boss fights before, but needing more spells or hit points has nothing emotionally on letting down the guy who can resurrects you party from afar at the end.

All this is the story. The rest makes it easier to get through. You can save anywhere--and you really need to--or make batches of spells more easily. Combat deserves particular mention. In U4, you could only attack in four different directions. U5 lets you fire at any square, with the risk you may miss. You may hit the wrong monster or even a party member attacking from close range. Monsters often blend with their surroundings, and they drop more appropriate treasures. Rats' corpses may give food or the plague, but dragons may leave very valuable items indeed. If there's one problem, it's that mages are clearly better than other classes to the extent that experts can win the game with one player who finds a magic axe early on in a tree stump and then casts earthquake spells through all the tough dungeon fights. It's U5's one technical fault, but really, it takes a long-time player to discover it. One who's already enjoyed it a lot.

I remember feeling, on first playing U5, it did everything concrete I expected and some things I didn't. It offers reunions with old friends from U4, but it forces you to choose between them. You can visit the old towns, but they're rearranged, and you need to find the new villages. The in-game world and moral questions have progressed along with the technology to create it. The maturer theme is also successful. It's not so elegant to organize or recall when you're playing through it, and it offers genuinely emotional moments without creating a too-dark opponent. Blackthorn gets sympathy throughout the game, and his ultimate punishment leaves open new questions. U5 is a powerful game about fighting and understanding evil, but it's fun enough never to feel like a lesson.

aschultz's avatar
Community review by aschultz (November 15, 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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overdrive posted November 15, 2010:

My gods!!! The computer version just sounds 5000000% superior than the NES craptacular port from this review.
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aschultz posted November 15, 2010:

You haven't played it? You'll enjoy it very much. It's a really sprawling game, but there's also a way through without doing too much. The only problem may be the disk switching if you go the Apple emulator route. I imagine the PC + Dosbox works ok & you can speed up the slow bits.

Glad I could give you an idea that the original might be worth it.

And yeah, I try to forget about the NES port. But if you've managed to beat the NES port, many of the important puzzles are basically the same. It's just the NES really only copies over the shell of the puzzles. Oh, and it's wretchedly slow.

Even knowing a lot of the puzzles from the NES first won't ruin U5 if you want to play it. It may even help you ease into the game.

Interestingly, the NES port has more -squares- outside and in the underworld than the PC/Apple. It's just all so repetitive, and it leaves nothing for NPC conversation beyond finding the words of power.

Poke ths topic again if you want hints, etc. I've actually played U5 fewer times than U4, but only because it's longer.
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espiga posted November 16, 2010:

This probably belongs in a response thread to your Ultima 4 review, but fuck it! This one was already here.

I played the hell out of Ultima: Quest of the Avatar on NES back in the day and I loved the open-endedness of it all. I always made the early mistake that you caution players to avoid and got a full party early, so perhaps I need to check out this freely-available download version and play through Ultima 4 again.

Either way, both of these Ultima reviews were great reads that hit a lot of nostalgia buttons. Great job.^^
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aschultz posted November 16, 2010:

Thanks again! While I wasn't actually thinking of the NES version while I wrote -either- review, it's cool this piece brought back enough memories.

I remember playing the NES port of Ultima IV and enjoying the different ending. Of course, I'm still necessarily attached to the Apple/PC version just because. I think Ultima V was also the first game I solved on my own. I actually solved it before U4 because I just wasn't thinking straight in the Abyss. I even managed to discount "Infinity" as the right answer, somehow.

If I bottled whatever reasoning I had when I did that and completely ignored my conscience, I bet I'd be making a killing in MLMs.

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