As we proceed onward with our Ultima series retrospective we find ourselves for the first time outside of the main series proper as we look at spin-off title Ultima Underworld.
Deviating from the standard structure of the games up to that point, Ultima Underworld was an entirely different beast to that of its siblings, while at the same time being something of a throwback to the older titles in the series.
The game, full title Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, sees the Avatar protagonist return to the world of Britannia, summoned by the ghost of a wizard who claims his brother is enacting a plot which will see the world end. You know, the usual. The Avatar returns at the moment a baron’s daughter is kidnapped and he gets framed for the crime. The baron, who doesn’t recognise the Avatar (the most famous and iconic person in the world of Britannia mind, but suspend that disbelief!) and tasks him with retrieving the girl from where she has been taken; the eponymous Stygian Abyss.
What follows can best be described as a dungeon survival simulation, where the player is tasked with not only surviving, but also conquering, the vast Stygian Abyss, rescuing the damsel and foiling the end of the world into the bargain. As you do…
The game itself is most noteworthy for being set entirely in the first person perspective. While not the first game to do so, Ultima Underworld really broke new ground with its approach. Developed by Blue Sky Productions (later Looking Glass Studios) and published by Origin Systems, the game was released in 1992 and was, quite simply a game changer. Pretty much every aspect of the game was cutting edge, from the ability to explore three dimensional environments more or less at will to simply being able to look up and down.
While today first person perspective games are endemic to the industry, in 1992 this was breath-taking. Just the visual depiction of the world and its inhabitants was like nothing seen before. Couple this with the previously unseen freedom the game allowed and Underworld can be justifiably be cited as the first true 3D roleplaying adventure game. By today’s standards the game might feel extremely basic, but in Underworld you can see the genesis of the modern adventure RPG.
Think over the key features of games like Fallout: New Vegas, Skyrim and their kind; open world, non-linear storylines; all come from Underworld. Hell, even the idea of having a detailed world map is in evidence in Underworld. Not only that, but in many ways the Underworld’s map surpasses it’s modern luminaries’ versions, being fully editable, allowing the player to make annotations, diagrams and whatever else they feel they need to aid in their work.
And boy, are those notes needed. Many games worlds are described as epic and vast, but Underworld’s titular Stygian Abyss is definitely worthy of the description. The levels of the dungeon, a total of eight, are sprawling and labyrinthine, especially compared to games of the time. There are a great number of features and inhabitants, all of which will need to be noted down on the map if the player is to have any hope of progressing.
This is coupled with what is perhaps the most progressive aspect of the game; the non-linear storyline/game narrative. The game world exists as an entire entity, with no specific progression line or levelling limit segregation; meaning that in theory all areas are accessible from the beginning. This has both good and bad results for the player, creating a more realistic feel to the environment layout, but meaning that even the first level has several areas inhabited by very high level monsters, making it extremely unforgiving at times. Though, to be fair, the unforgiving nature of the game is often cited as one of the reasons its many fans love the game so much. This set-up does rather lend itself to the survival simulation nature of the game, often frustrating but never giving the impression of an artificially managed experience. It’s about as close as you can get to pitting yourself against a dungeon without having to don armour yourself.
The game itself occupies an odd place in the Ultima mythos, as while it is clearly set within the canon, there are a number of quite glaring plot holes and inconsistencies. Apart from the aforementioned non-recognition of the Avatar, the setting and storyline do stretch the suspension of disbelief of the long-time (and one may argue pedantic) Ultima fan. Take, for example, the concept that a cloaked stranger abducts the Baron’s daughter and runs to the Stygian Abyss. The slight problem with the concept, if the previous games are taken into account, is that this is impossible. The Stygian Abyss is depicted throughout the preceding games, when it appears, as being on the Isle of the Avatar, which is inaccessible by land. Hell, you can only get there by flying carpet in previous visits (don’t ask). Unless this Baronet is pretty damn remote or there’s been some pretty dramatic seismic reshuffling mid-game (admittedly not inconceivable in an Ultima game) this is a pretty gaping plot hole.
All in all, Ultima Underworld is a pretty special game. While not being part of the main Ultima storyline arc, it makes for an interesting deviation, fleshing out the Avatar’s mythos and along the way creating an enduring and engrossing game setting. The game itself differs completely from its mainstream cousins, but set the precedent for a whole genre of gaming, one that endures to this day. Rest assured, without Ultima Underworld you wouldn’t be shouting dragons into submission in Skyrim or fleeing from a deathclaw in Fallout. It was simply that important in the world of adventure gaming.
Despite its flaws, Ultima Underworld is a true Ultima game at heart and, in this genre, there can be no higher praise given to it.
Join me next time as I tackle Underworld’s sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds!