Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle is a tough game. But it’s also one of the very best chapters of the Ultima series in a number of important ways. It’s packed with mature content that few, if any, games today even approach. Remember the scene from Gladiator when Russell Crowe’s Maximus returns home to see his wife and son murdered? The main character isn’t married to anyone in the game, but there are enough situations in Serpent Isle that mirror the same thing. Sexy time? That’s here, too, regardless of whatever role you’re playing — male or female — as the inhabitants cater to either sex. Or find comfort in the same, years before BioWare made it a signature feature of their titles.
Ultima VII: The Serpent Isle was much more than a simple add-on in the way that Forge of Virtue was. This was a full fledged CRPG that continued the story from Ultima VII — no mere DLC sized extension with only a few hours of content — blending adventure gaming sensibilities with a low-level of CRPG crunch. It might not be the most statistics heavy or skill-based CRPG. In many ways, it has a lot more in common as an isometric adventure game wracked with challenging puzzles, mazes, and the aggravating stomachs of your party members.
The band is back together…sort of
Serpent Isle is the continuation of Ultima VII, regarded by more than a few series fans as the best chapter in the series and was released only on MS-DOS boxes in 1993. The included booklet was packed with Denis Loubet’s fantastic line art defining the look of the series in their pages with a great illustration on the box that the ad above shares. Included with the big box was a traditional cloth map with locales identified with runic letters that players were free to translate on their own using the booklet’s alphabet table — something that would also be useful for the in-game plaques and signs.
According to an interview by the fan-site for everything Ultima, the Ultima Codex, former “canteloupe” Bill Armintrout recalls that the team behind Serpent Isle was ‘green’. After Richard Garriott approved the general storyline elements for the game, he went on with his team to plan out and build Ultima VIII. Meanwhile, Armintrout and his group plunged ahead on Serpent Isle and the differences are felt in more than the number of puzzles bolted into the gameplay.
A loose thread from Ultima VII’s conclusion was Batlin — the portly leader of the so-called Fellowship who had barely escaped justice at the Avatar’s hands towards the end of the game. A year and six months later, a lead is discovered taking the Avatar to the mysterious Serpent Pillars through which he/she and their companions sail through to emerge on the other side and upon the shores of a long lost land — the Serpent Isle.
In a wonderful twist to the series’ mythology, the Serpent Isle is home to a people that had ‘fled’ Sosaria — the lands that Ultima had traditionally taken place in with the exception of Ultima II. Fleeing Lord British’s ‘tyranny’ of Virtues, these people discovered the Serpent Isle and founded three cities on it, each dedicated to a new set of beliefs instead. It was a bold riff on the series’ traditional system of Avatar-led Virtues and the character of the good Lord British who had been with the series as the key quest giver since the first game.
The people of the Serpent Isle referred to Lord British as “Beast British” and had come up with their own system of Virtues themselves to lead their lives around from Monitor’s adherence to Courage to Fawn’s obsession with Beauty. But there was more. Ancient ruins had called the Serpent Isle home and its long lost people, the Ophidians, had their own language and belief system that would prove to be key to the gameplay.
Players were free to create their own ‘Avatar’ at the start, picking a name, face, and gender to represent them here. Player portraits were based on real-life faces of athletes, actors, and on a few in-studio designers — such as Producer, Warren Spector, who appears in the game as the duplicitous Spektor of Monitor.
This also extended down to the massive menagerie of NPCs in the game, each of which followed a set daily schedule of activities lending them a sense of living within a digital microcosm as those in Ultima VII did. One of the writers for Ultima VII, Raymond Benson, mentions in another interview with Ultima Codex that he considered the NPCs of the game to be the earliest “SIMS” before Maxis made the term a buzzword (though Activision’s Little Computer People might have something to say about that). NPCs would get up in the morning, go to work, mix potions, spin cloth, walk about town, complain about the food in the local tavern, or any number of other activities — a concept that would later become a staple in other CRPGs such as Bethesda’s nascent Elder Scroll series.
Not so much a quest but an adventure
Serpent Isle took everything about Ultima VII — the engine, the scheduling system, the paper doll inventory system, and the music — and use it as a base for Serpent Isle. With a technical foundation in place, the team that Raymond Benson and Bill Armintrout would be on fashioned the game into not one, but two fully realized cultures — one living atop the bones of the other, but both vitally as important to the narrative.
Like Ultima VII, the game has divided some fans of the series that favored its more statistics heavy predecessors to the simplified crunch that Serpent Isle continued with — experience was still earned, raising characters to a maximum level of 9 with training points awarded for use with trainers. A vast array of armor and weapons, magical and mundane, were available to dress characters in — though their in-game sprites wouldn’t show the changes outside of the inventory paper doll system, a selling point that other RPGs would make in the years to come. Cleverly, however, the game set itself 18 months after the end of the first game leaving enough time for the Avatar’s three primary statistics and two skill bins to wither far enough to make combat satisfying for awhile.
On arrival to the Serpent Isle, the designers also took the dramatic step in removing all of their hard-won loot that Lord British left them through a freak, magical storm — a dangerously alienating feature that was risky, but also added an additional layer of questing for players as they explored this new land.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes was the emphasis on how important the world around the player, as the Avatar, was to the actual gameplay. While books and scrolls fleshed the background lore for games like BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate or Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, or Ultima VII, they often held vital and cryptic clues to solving the massive breadth of puzzles and plumbing the meaning behind the in-game events of Serpent Isle.
In many ways, Serpent Isle has more in common with adventure games than a CRPG — this is an extremely puzzle-heavy title relying more on the player’s wits than statistics checks or dialogue trees. Thanks to a relic that allowed a player to respawn or resurrect any of the companions that might be traveling with them (up to a max of four for a party of five) and the amount of loot lying around, leveling up wasn’t anywhere as important as it was in having a notebook at hand to copiously copy the fragments of clues and conversations passed on. Some of this information was also one-time-only with enough vague opaqueness to match the pixel hunting for keys and switches engaging would-be Avatars for tens of hours.
My friend is dead! Iolo, grab his stuff!
This was a huge game and the number of plot lines, puzzles, and quests easily made it a precursor to the kind of vastness that Bethesda’s famous series would later be known for. It was a logical step up from what had been commonplace before, however, from the simple tile-based CRPGs of the past to a living world with active NPCs.
It was also extremely linear and unforgiving to anyone wandering off of the established script sharing another thing that adventure games were known for in stopping the player cold thanks to a missed clue or a missing item. It was further compounded by it’s relatively sandbox design and a few problems that could emerge from ‘breaking’ the script by attaining things or being somewhere one wasn’t supposed to be. Instead of an inventory of only a handful of nicked goodies, players may have dozens of things to ply through and little to go on. If players thought clicking through and dragging around inventory items was a sense of realism that Ultima VII could have done without, they won’t escape it here.
If you’re a terrible note taker used to in-game journals brought in by more modern CRPGs, Serpent Isle will be a splash of cold, old school water. Hours and hours of playing had already given me pages and pages of notes dissecting the Ophidian belief system. I have a massive list of save games in case I needed to reference back to an important clue-giving NPC who isn’t around anymore because of death/cataclysm/other. The heavily scripted nature of the game doesn’t leave much room for error and it can be very easy for players to leave behind important quest items or miss a vital clue and only to realize it many, many hours later. Instead of your decisions affecting the actions and consequences of others around the player, the only person the player may end up screwing over is themselves.
It’s a brutal sort of sensibility that a lot of other CRPGs have steered clear from since along with adventure games in general in easing up on killing the player for simply trying out different things. On one hand, it’s a refreshing sense of responsibility that the game engenders — the player is ultimately responsible for everything related to their progress, relying on their own sense of judgment when it comes to throwing out things in their inventory or talking to the right people. On the other hand, it’s pretty telling when players need to use the save system to get around certain bugs/design bizarreness trapping them at certain points or having to rely on pixel hunting techniques to find whatever key/switch/scroll their progress hinges on.
At one point towards the end, I was missing out on a particular relic that I needed to push forward with at the Temple of Balance — but I couldn’t leave it. The bridges that I had created to get there were gone, yet I needed to get back to a Serpent Gate taking me back to the Serpent Isle. Restoring an earlier save meant that I’d have to re-solve a lot of the puzzles I went through while I was at the Temple. At another point, spell reagents (components necessary for spellcasting) are all but gone thanks to the widespread slaughter (not my fault) of the only city that provided them in abundance. If I didn’t have the Silver Seed expansion, I’d probably have been screwed or had been forced to restore an earlier save and farm gems ad nauseum to cash in for the script needed to supply myself.
The design also occasionally revels in being vague to the point where throwing things at its logic was the only way to get things done — much like more than a few adventure games do. At one point, I needed to swap bodies with an automaton to get through a puzzle. Fortunately, there was a room nearby filled with the things willing to join me. According to the instructions, I just had to put one of these dummies on a platform, flip a switch, and stand on the other platform to do the magic. I didn’t know that I needed a ‘specific’ automaton to do this with. After trying fruitlessly by telling an automaton to ‘leave’ the party and having it stand on one of the platforms, flipping the switch, and wondering why it wasn’t working, I plowed through the test with enough mana and heals to get me through. It worked. It wasn’t the right solution, but at that point, I didn’t care.
Then there was the feeding. Party members would need food every so often before becoming in-game nagware on wanting to eat. Cries of “I am famished!” became annoyances that I just wanted to turn off. In the earliest Ultimas such as in the first three, players needed food which was automatically consumed as they moved across the world. No dragging and dropping, spell casting summoning, required. It was eaten if it was there. It was annoying to deal with in Ultima VII (which a patch later reduced the frequency of) and it’s about as useless in Serpent Isle other than interrupting play with the whambulance in being unable to feed themselves — an example of a feature that a series had grown away from which was forced in for a degree of realism. However, it no longer had any game enhancing impact aside from being something that one hoped other designers would avoid.
Serpent Isle also had the Silver Seed expansion set which added a few new quests and important items to the main game. It, like Serpent Isle, also felt tougher puzzle-wise to get through than Forge of Virtue though I didn’t get to crank my stats to the max with it. Nor did it seem to be as polished. This is where I found a ring that generated infinite reagents for spells along with a key ring which should have been included with Serpent Isle by default.
It also had a few weird problems of its own. There’s a quest for orbs that the game wants you to complete, but one of the key NPCs in the game doesn’t even recognize that you’ve found them all. Nor that you’ve dealt with some of the monsters in the side passages that have plagued the keep the quests take place around. But the goodies are worth finding and a few of the puzzles, in particular the maze, were fun to solve.
Serpent Isle is a massive game — its utility of the cultures, history, and their integration with the gameplay are remarkable for all of the connections made and how important the entire picture is to completing the game. That said, it also needs a large degree of forgiveness for its harsh linearity and its penchant for leaving one in the dark if there isn’t a convenient save to jump back to. The NPCs were great to talk to, there was plenty of personality around, but there were times that I could have used a parser to quiz them specifically on topics I needed to know more about or needed a refresher on — even though the game’s script assumed that I didn’t need one.
But one thing that it should be lauded for is in being one of the few CRPGs to inhabit its world with flawed personalities and mature-level situations, plying modern conventions into its environment in ways that the ESRB or Wal-Mart might get upset over. Brazen sexism, philosophical intolerance, greed, arrogance, madness — it’s all bared here and not simply to shock players for what it dares to do. It all fits a purpose to why they are there, even the mad grade schooler that runs around wanting to eat the flesh of anyone around her like a medieval Regan from the Exorcist. Though the characters still have some flaws — no one really reacts to the sacrifice of good Dupre who hurls himself into an incinerator — the world of Serpent Isle wouldn’t be the same without any of them. Or in how they flipped the tables on so many things from Ultima VII’s sandbox.
Today, you can snag Serpent Isle and its expansion along with Ultima VII on Good Old Games. Exult, an open source project, also allows players who have the original 3.5″ disks to run the game under the same conditions that it was intended for (plus a number of fixes which, unfortunately, aren’t retroactive for saves) on more modern systems without the memory hassles of the original release. It’s still kind of sketchy, at least in my experience, but it works relatively well in running Serpent Isle and its expansion.
Serpent Isle is also the last of the more ‘traditional’ Ultima titles before the arrival of VIII which took the series in a radically different direction. By the end of Serpent Isle, with the Balance restored, the Guardian steals the Avatar away and drops him on the world of Pagan, dividing players even further on the direction of the series as well as heralding a chilling pall over it that was hard to ignore.