By the time Ultima V was released in 1988 , Origin’s flagship CRPG series found itself in plenty of company.
Sir-Tech continued with their own interpretations of the PC-based RPG, hammered with hardcore appeal, through their Wizardry series. SSI had a stable of top-down, tile-based dungeon crawlers that it was churning out alongside its wargames. A young Interplay also began their own journey with the Bard’s Tale in 1985 and its sequel, in 1986, with the third game also coming out in ’88. Jon Van Caneghem’s Might & Magic, with its first-person, grid-based overworld and dungeons, was also making a splash.
CRPG fans had plenty to pick from by the time the second half of the 80s rolled around, but Ultima was still as popular as it had ever been. Ultima’s success alongside that of Origin’s other games had also shown itself through the quality of Ultima V’s packaging — a big, art-covered box with a traditional cloth map. Included booklets, such as the illustrated manual, were crammed with even more lore scrawled by longtime series’ contributor, Roe Adams III. The NES version also had its own heavily illustrated booklet featuring buckets of information as a prime example of old-school manual design.
Just as Ultima IV had focused on turning the ethical struggle within a character into the main quest, Garriott chose Ultima V to explore the extremes. In this case, when those same Virtues that had enabled the Stranger to become the Avatar of Britannia are twisted up and used as a tool for oppression and fear. It was something that Garriott, in an account from Shay Addams’ 1990 “The Official Book of Ultima”, had experienced indirectly when fielding criticism from religious fundamentalists over Ultima III‘s controversial cover art showing the demonic main villain.
Ultima V takes place a few years after the Avatar’s victory in Ultima IV. Having recovered the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom after becoming a living symbol of the Eight Virtues, the Avatar returned home to Earth. The dungeons were sealed and peace settled on the land. But a new Underworld was also discovered and Lord British took an expedition into the depths leaving Lord Blackthorn as regent. The bad news is that Lord British never returned.
Blackthorn has also taken a turn for the worse, turning the Eight Virtues into the Ethics of Britannia. These aren’t meant to inspire, however. These make up a Code of Virtue in which there can be no mistake as to what the penalties are. For example, the fifth one reads “Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income.” Another, related to the Virtue of Honor, goes on to say “If thou dost lose thine own honor, thou shalt take thine own life.” Blackthorn’s spies are also everywhere, watching the populace for signs of transgression, and then there are the mysterious Shadowlords…
Even the Avatar’s companions such as Iolo and Shamino were made outlaws under Blackthorn’s new order, but it is only through their hope that they had managed to call the Avatar back from Earth — you — to save the land once again.
Under the hood, the game boasted a number of technical changes in addition to being able to transfer an Ultima IV character over. A lengthy, text filled, intro explained things to the player with stills and the gypsy was back with questions to craft a new Avatar for players that wanted to start fresh. NPC conversations were expanded allowing a considerably larger range of topics to quiz them on using key words. And not all of them thought that Blackthorn’s brutal control was a bad thing, either.
The tile-based, top-down overworld looked better than before along with the first-person dungeons. Party size had also gone down from eight members to six. Combat was tweaked — unlike in the top-down world of Ultima IV which restricted attacks to the four cardinal points, Ultima V allows you to attack monsters diagonally now. Incidentally, monsters could always attack diagonally in IV giving them something of an unfair advantage. One interesting thing to note was that monsters weren’t all that plentiful on the surface aside from the dungeons or the underworld which actually made sense if you thought about the setting of the game — Britannia’s still at peace, albeit one that has turned it into a police state, but at peace nevertheless. The real monsters are elsewhere, and not always in a dungeon, either.
Saves could now be done inside dungeons which were still viewed in first-person switching to a top-down view during combat as they were in Ultima IV.
Technical limitations were cited for not being able to save in the same way with other Ultima titles making this a much appreciated feature in Ultima V. Weapons and armor now had strength requirements — you couldn’t use weapons or armor of you didn’t meet them. Even if you could wear the heaviest armor, it could have an impact on how well that character could fight adding an interesting layer of consideration for players to chew over. There was even an active scheduling system triggering events and determining NPC behavior, such as when stores would open or close.
Spells still required reagents that could be found in the wilderness, or bought, and were now divided into Eight Circles each corresponding to a character’s level. Classes were also condensed into three major professions — Fighters (which wrapped up paladins, shepherds, and rangers), Bards (which include archers and tinkers), and Mages (which Druids are now lumped into).
Garriott also inserted a little anguish into the story to prove how brutal a bad guy Blackthorn had turned into to demonstrate his extremeness. At one point in the game, you could be caught by Blackthorn’s guards and as punishment, one of the Avatar’s companions could be permanently executed. No resurrection would be possible because the game would go so far as to erase them from the play disk copy. Permadeath, Wizardry-style for a party member meant to make things personal.
Speaking of which, the Avatar could also get away with some un-Avatar like actions to get through the game as long as they weren’t caught or seen. They’re no longer being “graded” as they were in Ultima IV.
One interesting anecdote on Ultima V’s development comes from Shay Addams’ book concerning a small room that Garriott experimented with. Seeking out ways to expand a dungeon’s challenge, he wanted to use something other than objects to populate them with such as an NPC. Unfortunately, dungeons were coded in such a way that living creatures were all treated as monsters. It was then he found a graphic that he wanted to use which looked like a little kid — and filled a series of cells with them inside a hidden room. A switch would open all of the cells if it were tripped, immediately mobbing the player with what looked like a horde of killer children.
As Garriott recalls, a tester who was a “religious fundamentalist” found the room and was horrified to the point of leaving the company but not before writing a scathing letter on how it was purposely promoting child abuse. Even Garriott’s family got involved in the controversy and wanted him to take it out. But this was the kind of emotional investment that Garriott was trying to get out of his players, something to make them “think”, because from his point of view, you didn’t have to kill anyone in that room at all. That was the whole point — to leave it up to the player and challenge them on how to figure things out making it a victory for either those that survived the attack of evil kids or found a way to save them. He explains:
“…you guys are missing the point. You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically — about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is. If it was something explicitly sexist or explicitly racist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored. But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room. The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove that room from the game.”
It’s an interesting argument considering that Ken Levine reported something along the same lines in his work for Bioshock Infinite, how a staff member with deep religious convictions had been upset about something in his own game. Although Levine relented and listened to their concerns ultimately coming out of it with, as he felt, a creatively more compelling character, it’s interesting to see that a similar argument had faced a different designer more than two decades earlier.
In the end, Ultima V was another success for Origin and Garriott outselling Ultima IV as fans returned to see what had changed in Britannia. Although most of those were technical and games such as FTL’s Dungeon Master would shake up the CRPG scene, Ultima V invested a deeper degree of storytelling and NPC conversation texturing mechanics with a fiction that fans appreciated as much as others did in collecting loot and smashing through hordes of evil in other titles.
Ultima V would be the last Ultima for the Apple II. It would also be the last Ultima ported over to the NES. Other conversions, such as to the growing IBM PC market, Commodore 64, Atari ST, and the Amiga would also follow. Today, you can snag Ultima V bundled in with 4 and 6 on Good Old Games. And if you own Gas Powered Games’ Dungeon Siege, a free fan remake that acts as a total conversion of that game is also out as Ultima V Lazarus turning the tile-based, pseudo 3D world of Ultima’s world and dungeons into 3D poly goodness.
A number of Ultima fans consider the fifth game to be among the absolute best that the series had to offer, a highly polished chapter that was a culmination of Garriott’s years of experimentation and design. In the growing crowd of CRPGs, it might not have stood out as dramatically as the first, but it was still considered a brilliant addition to the series.
However, it was also facing new competition from the likes of Wasteland from Interplay which also came out in the same year. Others were throwing their own weight into the CRPG narrative with no small amount of success and wonder. But players were winners in the end with a choice to either explore deep gameplay mechanics on a post-apocalyptic Earth with as much story-based nuance as Ultima V, or dive back into the heady fantasy tropes and high adventure of Lord British’s Britannia as the Avatar.
With its wide open world, puzzles, keyworld conversations with NPCs revealing vital clues expanding the quest, and non-linear approach to exploration, Ultima V would build on the lessons that Garriott would further expand upon with later installments as the series — and the Avatar — continued to write Britannia’s story.