Origin Systems spent the 1980s riding on top of the CRPG world. Most things in the entertainment industry do not exactly improve with sequels, as is readily apparent from any number of low-grade horror movies or mindless TV spin-offs. Video games, however, are often exceptions to this rule and the Ultima series is one of the biggest exceptions of all. Every single game in the series to this point has built on the strengths and tried to correct the weaknesses of its predecessor. Moreover, in every case, the effort has succeeded, creating a cascade effect of ever-increasing quality.
From the very moment Ultima VI: The False Prophet begins loading, it is obvious that the game is an absolute labor of love. The atmospheric Ad-Lib compatible MIDI song that fires up with the introduction screen is unsettlingly ripe with emotion and segues effortlessly into the background story of the Avatar, once again being drawn back to the realm of Britannia.
The introduction begins at the Avatar's house on Earth, depicts him running towards a blinding lightning strike and then strapped to a sacrificial altar, amidst hundreds of terrifying Gargoyles, followed by a fast-paced rescue scene. The game begins in the very next moment in time with the rescued Avatar standing in Lord British's throne room, some straggling Gargoyles in pursuit and the plot of the game well underway.
Before the game actually starts, you must create your character, the Avatar. There are several highly detailed VGA portraits from which to choose initially and character creation from that point is similar to the two previous games in the series. You select one "virtue" from a choice of two and the selection continues until you are left with one defining character virtue which exemplifies the kind of adventurer you are -- valor begets warriors, compassion begets bards, humility begets shepherds and so forth.
Once in the game, Lord British's explanation of the tragic events in Britannia can be as long-winded as you want since the text parser leaves the direction of conversation entirely in your hands. The Gargoyles, seemingly gone mad, are no longer content to merely dwell in the depths of dungeons, preying on passersby. They now actively strike out into the land and are assuming control of the shrines of the virtues. To complicate matters, earthquakes are also rumbling with great frequency and no one is quite sure what to make of it all. Thus, naturally, the burden of responsibility is shifted to Mr. Fix-It, you the Avatar.
Initial gameplay in Lord British's castle is as much a tutorial as anything but is so cleverly disguised that it's nearly impossible to discern the tutorial aspect. You wander his castle with free reign to enter any room and take anything while getting accustomed to inventory management and various types of equipment. You converse with several randomly placed individuals as a means of getting familiar with the text parser. Once you understand gameplay well enough, you use the key to unlock the drawbridge control room, lower the drawbridge and journey forth into the rest of the world.
Britannia is a massive, multi-faceted world. Fully exploring the starting city of Britain alone can easily take several hours. Just talking to the citizens of this sprawling, huge city gives you plenty of ideas as to what to do to start your quest and offers many side quests as well. The rewarding conversations often play out through extremely witty dialogue.
Just as noticeable as the exquisite graphical detail of the VGA world, however, is the outstanding music. There are four or five songs, in addition to the introduction music, that alternate while on the over world map, as well as songs tailored to create atmosphere while exploring a dungeon, entering combat or in several other areas. Each one literally seems to grasp the very essence of the situation and plays it out with synthetic beauty. Just one listen to the infinitely jolly "sailing the ocean" song can easily prove this point.
Once the Avatar leads his merry band out of town, the game gets a good deal more dangerous. Even the best torch provides very little illumination in the countryside at night and there are plenty of beasts lying in wait to feast on a passing Britannia savior. Combat is handled in a terrifically simple way with each character getting a turn in which to move a single step, attack, cast a spell or use an item.
This is truly turn-based strategic combat and allows for real use of tactics when assaulting a Gargoyle stronghold or wiping out a troll infestation. Dozens of styles of weapons and armor are available for traditional fighting and 64 total spells, divided into eight circles, provide a superb choice for potential strategies.
Storyline progression in Ultima VI: The False Prophet is fantastic. The initial goal of annihilating the foul Gargoyle race for their misdeeds has your party journeying all over the globe, hunting down infested shrines and exterminating the intruders. About half way through the game, however, there is a slowly dawning realization of horror that the Gargoyles are not only crusading for the same cause that you are but, furthermore and due in no small part to your own efforts, are nearly extinct. It then becomes a race against time as you make every effort to stop the complete genocide of their race at the hands of man and nature and ultimately save the entire planet once more.
While nearly every aspect of the game is without peer, a few problems did slip through the design cracks. Inventory management, particularly if you are not using a mouse, can be difficult due to the sheer number of items each person can carry and the difficulty in moving large numbers of items into containers.
Additionally, while some gamers think it merely adds character to the game, others find the need to translate signs in the game from the Ultima Runic Alphabet to English an unnecessary chore. Most of the signs are merely flavor text and not essential to gameplay.
The game unquestionably sets new standards for CRPG creation. Often, the true marks of a great game go unnoticed, as smooth solid gameplay is not as easily remarkable as bug-ridden garbage. However, Ultima VI: The False Prophet is so completely solid in almost every area, its true merit cannot be denied.
Graphics: The game contains some of the best VGA art imaginable. The landscapes look great, the architecture is superb and the character portraits are phenomenal. Even the water looks realistic.
Sound: The music is truly outstanding and more is the pity if you never get to hear it. The sound effects, however, while plentiful and reasonably good, are so inferior to the music they actually lessen the impact.
Enjoyment: You'd be hard pressed to find a CRPG with more sheer enjoyment than Ultima VI: The False Prophet. The game has something for everyone from in-depth storytelling and witty conversations to massive dungeon-crawling action and pretty graphics.
Replay Value: From personal experience, it is safe to say the game is every bit as much fun when playing through a fourth or fifth time as it was the first. There are really no parts of the game tedious enough to make one dread playing it a second time and the world is simply too vast to completely explore in one playing.
People who downloaded Ultima 6: The False Prophet have also downloaded:
Ultima 5: Warriors of Destiny, Ultima 7: The Black Gate, Ultima 8: Pagan, Ultima 7: Part Two - Serpent Isle, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, Ultima III: Exodus
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