Ultima VIII: Pagan
In a massive departure from previous main-line instalments in the Ultima series, 1994’s Ultima VIII: Pagan (U8) took us away from almost everything we’d come to know and love about the world we’d been exploring since the early 80s – no more Britannia, no more Lord British, Dupre, Shamino, Iolo or any of the Avatar’s other companions; just a bleak, unforgiving land with a shift in tone and gameplay so severe that this entry became one of the most reviled games to bear the name. And not without plenty of good reasons, though I’m here to suggest that the backlash against U8 was so inflated that many detractors failed to spot a legitimately compelling adventure hidden beneath the heaps of scorn.In Ultima VII Part 2: The Serpent Isle, another rather rushed product from the slowly dying Origin Systems, we saw the Avatar and his closest companions chase a villain through magical gates to the mysterious titular island, where they managed to thwart the villain and his seemingly omnipresent master, The Guardian (no relation to the painfully middle-class liberal newspaper equivalent of clickbait). This feat was accomplished by restoring balance between the forces of order and chaos in the strange new world, while inadvertently murdering 90% of the population as a result of a colossal fuck-up that made the presidency of George W. Bush look like a minor historical error on the scale of a cashier in Tesco short-changing you by five pence.
The Ultima series never shied away from dark themes and violence – to the point where series creator Richard Garriott received death threats for a bit in Ultima V where you can release possessed children from a cage that will immediately attack you, forcing you to kill them – but Serpent Isle took things to a whole new level, though sadly much of it was left unrealised due to pressure from publisher EA to get the game out of the door. U8 was similarly rushed; the now-defunct Origin said shortly after the release that they wanted at least another three months to finish up, and this is painfully obvious in places. There are unfinished sections of the map, doors that go nowhere, plot threads left hanging or full of holes and semi-frequent glitches with the rudimentary physics engine that can make the game a chore to play. And that’s after the patch came out – bear in mind that in 1994, many people that bought the game on release would never have any way of acquiring the patch; I found it PC Gamer cover disc of all places, which fixed several show-stopping bugs and removed the worst of the jumping puzzles.
Oh yes. There are jumping puzzles. In an isometric RPG. Originally you frequently had to jump on to platforms that moved around or rose up and down beneath the water which, by the way, instantly kills you if you touch it. You had basically no control as to where your jump would take you, you just chose a direction and clicked. The patch made all the platforms static and changed it so that you’d jump to where your cursor was, which you can imagine was a huge relief. I’d already completed the game the hard way, a feat which I cannot imagine trying to replicate today now that I have disposable income to simply go and buy a less shitty game when I get frustrated.
Enough negativity for the moment (though I’ll be coming back to it!), I’d like to say a few good things. U8 was a pretty game upon release, and like U7 before it you really needed a beefy machine to play it – anything less than a 486DX/66 and 8MB RAM was just not gonna happen, realistically; the box says 33mhz and 4MB but don’t believe its lies. But with a decent machine, the brightly-coloured and detailed world of Pagan came to life; all the characters had way more frames of animation than any competing game at the time – especially the Avatar himself who could run, jump, fight and fall down in a way we’d never seen before. The game opens with a stunning pre-rendered, fully-voiced cut scene as the Guardian’s computer-generated giant hand dumps you out of the hand-painted sky into the world (following on from his capture of you at the end of U7:SI), and shortly afterwards we’re treated to an exciting scripted in-game scene where we see a poor sod getting his head cut off at the behest of Lady Mordea, a tyrannical ruler that apparently has the power to control storms. The MIDI score was impressive, too, particularly if you were the kind of person like me that had a real MIDI device hooked up to the computer rather than relying on crappy soundcard emulation.
Then the depressing nature of the game hits us; we’re all alone in this hostile world. The one person that seems remotely nice is the fisherman Devon, that pulled us out of the water at the beginning. Everybody else is a jerk to one degree or another, especially since this is a very insular little world with zero ability to travel to or from the island due to the giant beasts that dwell in the sea. The Avatar is alone here, with none of his gear or friends, no concept of how society works here and no clue which direction he should go in. Fairly soon, at least, we’re told to seek out the wizard Mythran, who lives on a plateau in the mountains which can only be accessed via a series of caves filled with deadly creatures. Why do you live all the way up here, asshole? And why is your house a TARDIS-like construction that is a small shack on the outside but a massive mansion inside?
The crux of the plot is that here on Pagan, the Guardian is regarded as a good guy. Centuries ago, Pagan was invaded by a giant red guy with yellow eyes – that they call The Destroyer – shows up and starts wrecking the place. For those that know anything about Ultima, yes, The Destroyer was actually what we know as the Guardian. Conveniently, a good guy called The Guardian shows up and helps the people fight back against the Destroyer, which involves working with four of his underlings – elemental Titans of Air, Fire, Water and Earth. In return for their help in defeating The Destroyer, the titans have to be worshipped as gods, and covenants are made between them and the population, binding them in eternal servitude. This sweet bit of false-flaggery from ol’ Red Face basically left Pagan in ruins, as the titans are cruel and petulant masters, each granting their closest followers some power in return for their service. Lady Mordea, for instance, is the chosen one of the water titan Hydros, and is known as the Tempest – the official title for the ruling monarch of the land. Lithos, the earth titan, claims all of the souls of the dead. Pyros, the fire titan, controls the sorcerors, the most powerful magicians on Pagan, and Stratos, the air titan, has ‘the breath of life’, which appears to decide who gets to carry on living. Each of the titans has their power harnessed in a piece of blackrock, the same material that The Guardian uses to move between worlds, and in order to leave this cursed place the Avatar must get a hold of them so that he might be able to use this teleportation power for himself. This is where things get shitty for the poor sods that live here: by stealing these artefacts, the titans are not constrained by their pacts with the world and soon go mediaeval on everybody’s arses. So that’s the Avatar’s moral conundrum: do the ends really justify the means? Is it acceptable, in defiance of the virtues that he stands for, to destroy an entire world in order to stop his nemesis from destroying other worlds? The answer, of course, is yes. At least it is if you want to complete the game; there’s no moral choice to be made here. The Guardian taunts you constantly about all the awful things he’s doing to Britannia in your absence, and lets you know that Earth is going to be next, just to piss you off.
It may not sound like it, but this was kind of a big deal for me when I first played this game. This wasn’t like any other RPG, where I had to be noble and heroic and save the day; it was made clear that what I was doing was horrible and that I was a bad person for doing it. And it’s not just in a GTA-esque “you are a literal sociopath doing awful things” kind of way, it was more of a personal struggle for the Avatar, along the lines of “if the Nazis told you to murder one person in your village or they’d kill all of them, would you do it?”. And this is really just scratching the surface; U8 has a vast wealth of tidbits of story to uncover, and though sadly there are really only maybe two or three sub-plots you’ll come across, everything you do reveals more story about this hostile world.
But I’m afraid that’s about all that there is that is good in the game; decent graphics, music and a very rich story full of world-building. The controls are terrible. The combat has that 90s RPG ‘click frantically until things die’ mechanism with literally zero strategy. You’ll never find gear that works better in different situations; there’s an objective ‘this is better’ for anything new you find. Nothing you say in conversation trees changes the way characters react to you. In short, this is barely an RPG at all; you level up strength by hitting things, dexterity by jumping round like an idiot and intelligence by casting spells.
Oh, yeah; the magic system. It’s pretty ambitious, I must say, but it falls painfully short due to how cumbersome it is. You never get to use water magic, but the other three elements are all here, and they’re very different. Earth magic is the first you’ll learn, and it involves finding reagents, putting them in a bag and then using a ‘key’ (it’s a magic wand) that the necromancers give you. This creates a one-use spell token. Most of these are used only for plot progression, though there is a useful one that kills skeletons – very useful as the fuckers never stop coming back normally. Air magic is the simplest, which simply involves clicking on a ‘focus’ that you’ll find to cast the spell – mainly healing and defensive, with a couple that let you jump really far or find hidden things (again, only ever used when it’s super obvious in the plot). Sorcery – fire magic – is the most powerful, but also the most irritating, as it requires you to play red and black candles round a pentagram in a specific order, with an appropriate container in the middle and reagents spread around in a very particular fashion. It takes ages to prepare these things, but they’re very powerful when you do. There’s also Thaumaturgy, which only Mythran knows about, which I don’t think I ever used until the very end of the game when you have to. It’s all pretty interesting, and certainly rather unique, but it takes so long to acquire the necessary components and then assemble as required that ‘hit things until they die’ seems like a much more viable strategy for 99% of the game.
If you can get past the atrocious combat and poor controls, there’s a legitimately great adventure to be had in U8. I just can’t help but feel like it’s the kind of story that would’ve been so much better told in a LucasArts-type adventure game, or more recently a Telltale Games ‘interactive movie’ experience. If you’re a fan of the other Ultima games, you’d probably enjoy this one somewhat if only for the story, and you’d be able to complete it and say “well, at least it’s better than Ultima IX”, though that hardly counts as praise. If you’ve never played a game in this series, but fancy some old-school RPG action, then I’m gonna say just play any out of IV, V, VI or VII, since they all hold up much better than VIII does.
Oh, one other thing: U8 was originally going to have an expansion pack, much like Forge of Virtue and Silver Seed for U7. Entitled The Lost Vale, there was supposed to be a huge extra landmass to explore, with even more backstory about what the world was like before The Guardian showed up (something that is hinted at a great deal in the main plot line, but never fully realised). It was cancelled by EA due to the relatively poor sales of the game, despite allegedly being almost finished. According to the developers, no trace of The Lost Vale‘s code exists any more, which is a crying shame as I’m sure the clever bods in charge of Pentagram, an engine port to get U8 running on modern systems, would’ve been able to do something with it. In 2005, a single prototype of the expansion’s box showed up on eBay, which was confirmed to be real. It sold for just under $2000 – yes, for an empty cardboard box – and has since vanished entirely other than a few very low-resolution pictures.