From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima Underworld II

The art was also used on the cover of the box itself. And the ice world was pretty awesome stuff.

Origin’s Ultima Underworld rewrote what to expect in a CRPG when it arrived in 1992, raising the bar on interactive, virtual dungeons with massive levels perforated with materials of questing. It was developed by Blue Sky Software which later became Looking Glass Technologies. And less than a year later 1993, Origin released their sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds.

It was “3 to 4 times” larger than the first game, a huge epic, first-person sprawl of worlds tied together at a central hub where players, as the Avatar, would strike out against the malicious evil of the Guardian. It’s an amazing improvement over the first game in terms of sheer content, storytelling, and adventure.

Labyrinth took place after the events of Ultima VII. There, the Avatar and Lord British found the world of Britannia under subtle siege by an entity known only as the Guardian. Through a cult that called itself the Fellowship and fell sorcery, the Guardian had nearly succeeded in entering the world of Britannia through the Black Gate until the Avatar destroyed it. But it only delayed the Guardian’s plans. The Titan is still out there, plotting and scheming a way to add Britannia to the clutch of worlds in his grasp.

To celebrate their victory, Lord British hosts a big bash at his castle. The Avatar, and all their friends, also show up to help out and all is well…until a giant blackrock dome rises up around the castle, trapping everyone inside. Blackrock can’t be shattered by normal means, a fact that the Guardian knows all to well when he delivers his ultimatum to his captives. Either surrender to him, or starve inside with everyone else. In the meantime, the Guardian has begun his assault on Britannia with no one able to stop him.

The good news is that the trap is flawed. Deep within the bowls of the castle, a smaller version of the giant blackrock gem encasing the castle is discovered. And it can apparently lead to worlds beyond Britannia, worlds that have fallen to the Guardian or are in the process of being conquered. Through this crack in the Guardian’s plan, it’s up to the Avatar to journey to these worlds and find a way to undo this sorcery before it’s too late. Then there’s that murderer in the midst of the castle’s guests leaving a body or two in their wake.

The crunch from character creation, stats, equipment, paper doll system, and the rune-based spells all make it over to the sequel from the first game splashed with a bit of polish to make things a bit easier to manage for players. Carrying too much stuff can still weigh you down, especially if you’re swimming around, and players still have to remember to bring along food when they get hungry.

Where the first game was largely focused on the underground ecology of the Stygian Abyss, this one takes the player to several different worlds populated by a kaleidoscope of enemies and creatures along with the lore behind why they exist — and what the Guardian has done to make them so.

It was an huge adventure told against the backdrop of an interdimensional war of conquest with the Guardian as the overlord leading his armies, culled and trained in fighting pits which you will also be visiting. And it was still the same kind of non-linear experience that the first game was. There were still certain rules — more worlds would become “open” during the course the game and you couldn’t be a total ass — but once you were somewhere, it was up to you on how to go about unraveling the mysteries ahead.

What stood out the most for me was the idea of traveling to other worlds even though they were largely extended “dungeons” accessible from a central hub. But the idea that they were somewhere far from Britannia itself and were pieces of an empire built up by the Guardian was compelling stuff similar to what Interplay’s Bard’s Tale III did with its own dimension hopping to stop a Mad God. Just finding out what was in the next world or what challenges, or goodies, lay in wait was enough for me to dive right into hours of exploration. And then there were the events that occurred outside of the main quest — a few side missions, NPCs that developed over time, and a murder mystery to solve.

Mechanics-wise, players still have an automap they could annotate on the fly. Music was also improved lending each area its own dynamic personality amongst the visuals and the graphics were also tweaked to be even better than before. The interface had also been tweaked offering more of a viewable area than the first game did. And like in the last game, things that you killed stayed dead. There was no “infinite random” generation for bad guys making every kill count.

The game was converted over to a smaller list of platforms this time around: to the FM Towns, PC-98, and of course, MS-DOS. There was no console port this time around. Today, you can pick it up on Good Old Games along with the first Ultima Underworld though will have to settle for the digital versions of the great content that came out with the original retail package — the illustrated handbooks and manuals along with some decent box art.

Labyrinth of Worlds was a vast game filled with great adventure, story, and an involving setting pitting the player against a brutal enemy. It’s the kind of stuff that epic quests thrive on with only a few shortfalls being that it isn’t too dramatically different from the first game which spoiled audiences on what to expect next. But it’s also the same argument with SSI’s “Gold Box” series, or the Bard’s Tale games from Interplay — both series were relatively similar with only the imaginative use of the tech making them feel like separate games. And Labyrinth succeeds in bringing a fantastic experience to PCs as a worlds hopping Avatar.


2 responses to “From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Ultima Underworld II

  1. Pingback: From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Pagan: Ultima VIII | World 1-1·

  2. Pingback: Need a good CRPG to play? RPG Codex’s top 70 RPG list is filled with reasons why these are the best | World 1-1·

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