Back in its day, in 1994, Ultima 8 was a much-anticipated continuation of the legendary Ultima series of role playing games by Origin Systems. This game, as well as the whole Ultima series, is slowly fading into obscurity though. Electronic Arts purchased and then skillfully killed Origin, the effects of which are already visible in this specific game. So why should you go through the effort of playing it at all? What’s special about it? Well, it’s an Ultima silly! If you like modern open world games with a fantasy twist and have a modicum of interest in history, you owe it to yourself to play at least part of this series. And as retro games go, this particular one is accessible and recent enough to make the experience enjoyable to complete newcomers.
But everyone hated it in 1994!
No they didn’t! At least, not beyond some very well-founded criticism which was quickly addressed in a series of patches that came out for the game. Sure there are still plenty of issues with the final released version but the most painful issues were properly addressed, making the game immensely more playable than it was when it first came out and was critically reviewed in the high-profile magazines of the time.
So what’s the story?
Ultima VIII: Pagan is the second part of a trilogy consisting of four games, and none of it was inspired by Douglas Adams. In order to understand where the story of Pagan sits, you need a small bit of background from the series as a whole.
Ever since Ultima IV, which kicked-off the second trilogy which actually did consist of three games, the player travels the fictional world of Britannia. Somehow this world is always in danger and its benevolent albeit somewhat passive sovereign, Lord British, needs you to set things right.
In game IV, titled ‘Quest of the Avatar’ the player gained the title of Avatar by becoming a paragon of virtue. Now Virtue in the Ultima-universe has zero to do with the social justice warriors of today. Instead, it centers around a philosophical system initially created by the games' original developer Richard Garriott. The system defines eight specific virtues which derive from thee principles. The landscape is dotted with shrines dedicated to these, towns each tend to pick a particular virtue up (or revel in a specific lack thereof) and most quests can only be finished properly by understanding a bit of this philosophical backdrop.
In games IV through VII the Avatar strove to set an example and make the whole of Britannian society more virtuous at every step he/she took. Yes, in many games you can choose the Avatar’s gender but not in all games and it seems canon that the Avatar defaults to being male. These games were clearly created in different times from ours. Even having a female option, or the ability to pick a race were revolutionary at the time.
So, back to the story. As the Avatar went about fixing the world from games IV all the way through game VII-part-2, he encountered a being called The Guardian. While the nature of this Guardian remains fuzzy, he’s quite a bad-ass since at the end of game VII-part-2 he plucks the player out of a place called the Ethereal Void and drops him into the ocean of an as yet unknown world called Pagan. A world wholly controlled by the Guardian through his minions. Good luck getting out of that pickle! Oh and in the mean time, obviously, the Guardian will be busy destroying our player’s beloved Britannia. So there.
The darkest Ultima
Being set in a world where none of the inhabitants know of any Virtues, the backdrop differs wildly from what Ultima players were used to. This game is a dirty fight right from the get-go. Only minutes after you were dragged out of the sea by a local fisherman, you witness a brutal and bloody execution by axe on the nearby docks. The very second you move, you are interrogated by a very intimidating city guard. Only to have the experience repeated seconds later as you innocently walk up to the city gate, ready to start exploring this strange new place.
Now without spoiling the rest of the plot for you, this game does not shy away from taboo subjects. You’ll be a witness of (and instrumental in) human sacrifice, pentagram-based fire magic involving the summoning of demons and all sorts of violent behavior for only one purpose: to get yourself off Pagan.
Clearly this is a world beyond help, nor does it have a benevolent ruler open to the idea of Avatarhood. So instead you exploit the locals, their customs and their traditions only to destroy and supplant their gods and transcend this world. All with very little care for any consequences the Pagans themselves may endure from your actions. What Lord British doesn’t see, apparently doesn’t impact your Avatar-karma.
Playing Ultima 8 consists of three main components: gathering information, puzzles and combat. Because you’re dropped on the shore of a completely unknown world, it’s advisable to talk to as many people as possible but also make sure you read every sign and book you come across. Not only are the books often entertaining, they contain valuable pieces of back-story to help you understand your quest.
Puzzles take the form of figuring out patterns of levers, switches, pressure pads etc. You’re especially likely to encounter these in the underground areas of the world. Solving them is often required to remove impassable physical barriers which block progress on your quest.
And finally combat. It’s often possible to avoid combat altogether by running away from the fight, which is usually the wisest choice. However, a fight can’t always be avoided so you’d better come prepared. Armor and weapons aren’t very generously spread around across this game so pick up and wear any item you can lay your hands on and stay on the lookout for upgrades.
As mentioned, you should only bother with the fully patched version of the game. This will at least give you the means to actually jump from where you stand to the spot you intend to. Another useful addition is situated right at the docks where you witness the execution. Check out the barrels and take the keyring with you! It may seem very inconspicuous at first, but the item is indispensible. During your quest you’ll find an ever-growing number of keys, which all look the same in your backpack. Having these on a single ring is an immense help! Just hit ‘K’, click the door or chest you want to open and it will automatically try every key you have on the ring.
Ultima 8 is a moody and sometimes cantankerous game that clearly shows its age to new players. However, if you stick with it and allow yourself to see it in its time there’s actually some surprisingly good storytelling going on there. The internet nowadays is also full of hints and walkthroughs so there’s no real reason to get hopelessly stuck.
Sadly, the game at the time was rushed to market and many interesting parts of the plot were cut at the last moment. This shows as you play through the game. Some parts of the story feel strange or unfinished at points, and that’s simply because they are. The patches did attempt to fix up some of the worst omissions, but I’m still angry with EA for botching up a potentially legendary game like this.
Actually playing the game
Ultima 8 used to be quite a beast when it comes to system requirements. Not anymore, so you have multiple options if you want to play it on modern hardware. By far the easiest would be ScummVM, an free and open source software project which unifies a number of rewritten gaming engines under its umbrella. It recently picked up the Pentagram engine which allows you to run Ultima 8 natively on modern hardware and multiple operating systems. I tried it briefly and it seems to work, but I didn’t play through the entire game to see how stable it really is.
Another option would be DOSBox. This is also free and open source, providing you with an emulated MS-DOS environment on your modern system. The difference from ScummVM is that DOSBox actually emulates the underlying hardware of a 90’s PC, so you can run the actual Ultima 8 executable on it as if it were running on an old PC and it’ll be none the wiser. This gives you the advantage of having “the real thing”, which adds the disadvantage of “the real thing” behaving like a clunky old PC from over 20 years ago.
For fans of the MiSTer FPGA hardware emulator, I’m including a fully prepared and bootable hard drive image of this game here. You use it in combination with the AO486 FPGA core, which reimplements a 486-based PC. The hard drive image contains MS-DOS 6.22, a mouse driver and a fully patched and configured version of the game ready to run on the AO486 environment. Unzip the image, copy to your SD-card and mount onto the AO486 core. Make sure you have a keyboard and a mouse attached and you’re ready to go.