Ultima VII: The Black Gate's entertaining intro movie contains a huge, red, demonic entity called The Guardian who spews the following diatribe: "I will be your 'companion'...your...'provider!' And, your MASTER! Mwahahaha!" This speech might be directed at the Avatar but it might just as well refer directly to you, the player, considering the game's cruel ability to captivate the attention and usurp all the free time of anyone who gets near.
Britannia is in bad shape in Ultima VII: The Black Gate. It's been over 200 years since the glory days of Ultima VI: The False Prophet, when the Avatar made everything right in the realm, as usual. In his absence, though, everything has once again gone down the tubes.
The glorious uniting of the human and Gargoyle races has degraded through decades of racism, a potent drug (with its accompanying fatal disease) is sweeping the world, a religious cult is slowly taking over various townships and The Guardian wants you and everyone else dead. You definitely have your work cut out.
As if everything was not already bad enough, the Avatar is now considered largely to be a children's story and fighting the forces of evil when you are laughed out of town when you merely state your name is difficult. Most of the people who do remember you, like Lord British and all your former companions, are starting to be old enough to not be taken seriously either. In other words, even more so than ever before in an Ultima game, you have to rely more on your own abilities than on the help of anyone else.
Much like Ultima VI: The False Prophet before it, Ultima VII: The Black Gate essentially contains a tutorial mode that is woven so well into the storyline that it's difficult to even realize that's its purpose. The Moongate from Earth transports you to the town of Trinsic, directly outside a building where an incredibly gruesome murder has taken place. Trinsic's mayor declares a lockdown of the entire city.
Considering that you mysteriously pop up out of nowhere, this lockdown particularly applies to you. As you travel through the town, interviewing local citizens in an effort to discern what happened, the controls become intuitive and by the time the gates of the town are opened, you are ready for just about anything. It's a terrific use of a tutorial.
Gruesome murder scenes are not the only thing portrayed through fantastically gorgeous VGA graphics. The myriad trees and other foliage of Britannia look every bit as realistic as the severed limbs of the stable hand in Trinsic and Lord British's castle has never looked more opulent. The introductory and ending movies, too, are quite stunning, rendered in an eerily realistic fashion (especially considering huge, red, demon-men are not terribly realistic).
Ultima VII: The Black Gate has so many quests and sub-quests that it's nearly impossible to keep track of which character might be involved with what or whom. This is by no means a bad thing, as with a few exceptions, good and evil are replaced almost fully by shades of gray, the kind of thing almost never seen (especially not to this extent) in any CRPG at the time of release.
Sure, you know Lord British is on your side but even his wisdom is far from infinite; his decision to allow the cult-like Fellowship to set up bases all over the country is a questionable piece of judgment at best. Through all the lands, from the helpful yet unflinchingly racist human citizens of Terfin, to villainous yet surprisingly compassionate denizens of Buccaneer's Den, Britannia is a land full of ulterior motives. And, all the while, The Guardian is there taunting you at every step, reminding you of the sad state of affairs throughout the land.
The atmosphere in Ultima VII: The Black Gate is thick and rich merely from the graphics and the writing. However, the Ad-Lib and SoundBlaster compatible sound support adds yet another dimension to the entire process. Sound effects are present for just about everything that can be manipulated. Doors creak, clocks tick and chime, pianos plink and birds chirp.
Music is not played constantly as with previous Ultima games but now rather only cues in certain circumstances, lending that much more weight to the already heavy immersive atmosphere. Several of the game's songs are memorable enough to keep you humming them for days...or even years.
As the game's main story begins to wrap up, the path of devastation caused by the various plagues on Britannia is quite staggering but you find yourself finally nearing your ultimate goal. Without giving away specifics, it is safe to say that the visuals and vocal track of the ending movie will resonate in your mind for an incredibly long time, if not forever. After the long journey is finally over, the reward adequately fits the effort -- though everything is far from fixed.
Towards the end of the game, you discover that Iolo's wife Gwenno has traveled to a land called the Serpent Isle in order to perform research. You get the distinct impression that is where you may be headed next.
Graphics: Ultima VI: The False Prophet's graphics pushed the VGA envelope to the extreme and this game follows suit, providing a living, breathing world, filled from top to bottom with lushly drawn characters, backgrounds and architecture. At times, character portraits border on lifelike depictions.
Sound: The ambient music present in the game is almost always tailor-made for the specific area in which you hear it and always adds to the overall atmosphere of the game. The realistic sound effects brought on by SoundBlaster technology also make great strides in realism.
Enjoyment: Any CRPG fan would be hard pressed to find the game lacking in enjoyment. It has almost every traditional CRPG aspect, yet makes them all seem fresh.
Replay Value: Ultima's long-standing tradition of replay value continues with Ultima VII: The Black Gate, as the incredible size of the world makes minor (and sometimes even major) details easy to miss the first time through. Furthermore, the ending is so satisfying that playing through the game a second time for it alone makes perfect sense.
People who downloaded Ultima 7: The Black Gate have also downloaded:
Ultima 7: Part Two - Serpent Isle, Ultima 8: Pagan, Ultima 9: Ascension, Ultima 6: The False Prophet, Ultima 5: Warriors of Destiny, Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress, Ultima III: Exodus
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