I have kind of an embarrassing computer game confession. To this day, I still remember the theme song from Ultima III, and even hum it occasionally. There's a good reason, though. I can't remember any other computer role-playing game that held my interest for so long, and kept me so thoroughly entertained, as that priceless gem. By today's standards, the older Ultima games are almost laughable. They had very limited graphics, no digitized speech, and none of the visual flash or FMV that is so prominent in today's market. What was it, then, that made these games so damned good? The answer is simple, and can be summed up in one word: playability. In the Ultima games, you could explore vast continents, solve challenging puzzles, battle fantastic monsters, and cast powerful magic spells. You never knew what was going to happen next, and that was the driving motivation to keep playing, even into the wee hours of the morning.
Now ask yourself this question. What would happen if someone today were to take the premise of those old Ultima games, and create a computer role-playing game using updated graphics and sound, and a more intuitive interface? Well, Jeff Vogel and Spiderweb Software have done just that. Although their Exile series of games really has nothing to do with the whole Ultima universe or Origin Systems, Inc., it does bring back the immersion and feel of the old classics. And to put it bluntly, Spiderweb's latest release, Exile 3: Ruined World is quite possibly the most entertaining, fully immersive CRPG I've played since I first started humming the Ultima III theme so many years back. And guess what else? Exile 3, like so many great CRPG's today, is shareware. You download the full version, play the first third of it for free and realize you've got to have the whole game, pay $25 to register it, and voila! You now have access to an enormous game world filled with hundreds of hours of solid gameplay.
In order to understand the story behind Exile 3: Ruined World, it's necessary to have some knowledge of the previous two games. Here's the story in a nutshell: the surface world was ruled by a sinister Empire. When the Emperor Hawthorne discovered a vast underground world known as Exile, he immediately knew what he would use it for. Exile became a prison, a subterranean hell for all those whom the Empire opposed. A horrible witch hunt began, and just about anyone who didn't fit in on the surface - the antisocial, those who opposed the Empire - were sent to live below. Eventually, Exile became more than a prison. It developed into a complete society, and its citizens studied everything from magic to weapons training. The first two Exile games basically tell of Emperor Hawthorne's fall to the magic of the Archmage Erika of Exile, and the Empire's subsequent raid on the underground world four years later. Thanks to the help of an alien race known as the Vahnatai, Exile defeated the soldiers of the evil Empire.
As Exile 3 opens, it has been five long years since your underground civilization has had any contact with those from the surface. Exile's rulers have decided it is time to return to the world above, and see what changes have occurred. And so, Upper Exile was constructed. This new series of caverns, built right below the surface, would serve as the transitional point between the two worlds. This is where you come in. Your stalwart band of adventurers has been chosen to be the first to explore the surface, in the hopes that a suitable place can be found to accommodate all of those in Exile who wish to return to the light.
The game world of Exile 3 is enormous. After setting out from Fort Emergence, your "home base," you can (and should, simply to build up experience) explore all of Upper Exile before venturing out onto the surface. After playing the game for several hours, I have yet only uncovered a Goblin cave and part of a Brigand lair. There's enough to see and do in Upper Exile alone to constitute a separate game altogether. When you throw in the surface's huge Krizsan Province and all it has to offer, including several cities and an extensive wilderness, you have a computer role-playing game the way it should be.
Although you can play Exile 3: Ruined World with the pregenerated party of six characters, you'll definitely want to make your own. There are three races to choose from: Human, Nephilim (cat people), and Slithzerikai (lizard people). The Nephilim and Slithzerikai have special abilities, but it also takes more experience points for them to gain levels. In addition, you can give characters other advantages and disadvantages that directly affect their in-game performance, and the rate at which they gain levels. Give a character a bad back, and it takes eight percent less experience points to gain a level, but he won't be able to carry much weight. Make a character ambidextrous, and she'll be able to attack with a weapon in each hand without penalty, but will need eight percent more experience points to gain each level.
There are no character classes in Exile 3 per se, but rather a character can be assigned distributable points in several areas of expertise. If you want a character who's good with a bow, add his points to the Archery skill. If you want a character who can cast spells and beat someone silly with a club, add her points to Mage Spells and Bashing Weapons. This system allows for an amazing variety of character types, and you can customize a hero just about any way you see fit.
Naturally, Exile 3 also has an incredible number of magic spells. There are both Mage and Priest spells available, depending on your specialty, and they increase in power up to level seven. Spells range from the mundane but infinitely useful Light, to the devastating Death Arrows. There are over one hundred twenty spells available, but you'll need considerable experience to be able to harness those upper level incantations.
Exile 3: Ruined World is so much fun for the same reason Ultima III kept me so absorbed. You just never know what you will discover next as you venture out into Upper Exile and beyond. Turn one corner, and you may find a dead goblin clutching an ornate sword; cross that river, and you just may stumble upon a cave where a giant is holding the Queen of Fairies hostage. These are just a couple of the dozens upon dozens of situations you may run into.
Your main task in Exile 3: Ruined World is to discover things about the surface world and report back periodically to Anaximander, the head of "Unspecified Services" - Exile's division of spying and clandestine operations. But, as in any great CRPG, there are dozens of subplots and mini-quests. Townspeople can hire you for special jobs, and your characters can easily find employment to fill their purses.
Exile 3 is not the type of game you would expect to get a great review. As a shareware product made by a small independent company, specifically Jeff Vogel, it has none of the flash or big-budget bells and whistles of its commercially packaged counterparts. Just look at the game's minimum requirements - you could run this baby on a calculator. But for everything it doesn't have, Exile 3: Ruined World makes up for in outstanding gameplay and ease of use. It is a testament to the immense popularity of shareware, and the ability of the little guy to make a more enjoyable computer game than the industry giants.
I'll be honest here - this ain't Diablo. Exile 3 uses a rather simplistic graphics engine, and everything is represented in a top-down view (think a non-cartoonish Yoda Stories). There are no cutscenes, and the game is strictly sprite-based; there's no rotoscoping here, folks. Still, for what they are, the graphics in Exile 3: Ruined World actually look quite good. Everything is hi-res SVGA, and the characters, objects, and monsters, while small, are very detailed. There are numerous special animations and magic effects. Spiders can shoot webs, and the Mage Spark spell sends out a glowing bolt that zaps an opponent with blue magical energy. Graphically, the game really does resemble a Super VGA version of the earlier Ultima games. It's generally been the case that computer role-playing games don't need to have cutting-edge graphics in order to be successful. Sure, games like Diablo are so popular partly because of their phenomenal graphics. But just looks at the success of true CRPG's like Star Trail and Shadows Over Riva, neither of which has great graphics, and you'll see that this is a genre where substance is definitely more important than flash. Exile 3: Ruined World is a perfect example of this trend.
Exile 3: Ruined World uses a simple, point-and-click interface. The game screen is comprised of several small windows, each with its own bit of relevant information. The main play screen is a small window on the left-hand side of the screen which shows your characters and their immediate vicinity from a top-down perspective. Below this is a bar holding various command icons, such as those used for casting the various spells or resting. To the right are windows dedicated to either your party's statistics, inventory information, and general game messages, or an automap that can be toggled on and off. Because it is a Windows based program, Exile 3 has an incredible amount of in-game information available to the player in the form of pull-down menus. If you cast the Scry Monster spell on any creature, its information is then added to a database of known monsters which can be accessed at any time during the game; this is very handy when your party is in a fierce battle, and you need to know if a monster has any special attacks or weaknesses. Some of the other information available includes: lists of the various Mage and Priest spells; an index, with pictures, of the game's different magical barriers; a "tip of the day" feature; and complete transcripts of all conversations. Communicating with other friendly characters is a pretty easy affair, since the game uses a very user-friendly dialogue interface which has been much improved over that of the previous Exile games. There are several conversation "buttons" that can be pressed to gain specific information. Click on "Job," and the character will give you a description of his or her occupation. Click "Buy," and the character will sell any goods or services they have available. There is also an "Ask About" dialogue box that lets you type in specific key words you want information about. For a real laugh, strike up a conversation with an animal!
What more can I write about this engrossing, thoroughly entertaining role-playing game? On the surface, Exile 3: Ruined World might look like a simplistic little shareware RPG. But don't kid yourself. It may not look like much on the outside, but Exile 3 is an epic computer role-playing game. When Jeff Vogel claims that his game will give you hundreds of hours of gameplay, he isn't kidding. Naturally, I like to finish any given computer game before I review it. With Exile 3, this would be impossible, considering the fact that my editor's never given me a one year extension. Granted, this game is not for everyone. If you're into 3D acceleration and the latest polygon engine, you'll likely be very disappointed by Exile 3. But if you consider yourself a true role-player, and you are looking for a CRPG with enormous depth and playability, Exile 3: Ruined World will answer all of your prayers.
Exile 3 has a really comprehensive, if often hilarious, library of sounds. When a wolf hits a party member, the accompanying "crunch" is obviously the digitized sound of someone taking a bite out of an apple. And one of the monster death cries sounds suspiciously like the squealing of a pig. Humorous or not, there are tons of sound effects in Exile 3. When walking through the caverns of Upper Exile, an ambient "drip, drip" can be heard in the background. Doors creak when you open them. A cat meows when you pass by it. Trudging through different terrain elicits the appropriate sound - a "crunch" when walking through rubble or a "slosh" when wading through garbage. Although there is no digitized speech when conversing with characters, there are some bits of digitized speech in other instances. Try casting a Heal spell, and the game will ask, "On who?" When monsters attack and Exile 3 goes into battle mode, cheers of soldiers and the rustling of weapons can be heard. And pray you never experience the hideous scream of one of your own characters biting the dust.
The characters in Exile 3 are actually more intelligent than I thought they would be. Because the game is turn-based, it's sometimes hard to judge the intelligence of monsters while in a battle, but some things were very evident. During combat, distant opponents will try to nail you with arrows and spells. And if you cast a Flame Wall, most monsters aren't actually stupid enough to walk right into it. The combat system also has a morale aspect built into it, so enemies will take off if they think you're getting the better of them. Another pleasant surprise is the fact that friendly characters react realistically to your party. Accidentally nail someone in town with a spell, and you can bet it will take quite some time before they offer you any more jobs. The artificial intelligence of Exile 3 is really most noticeable in your conversations with other characters. There are no boring Daggerfall interactions here; every character in the game has a unique personality, and will respond to your party accordingly. That gruff old wizard may be easily annoyed, and not in the mood for chit chat, but the guy in the bar will tell you his whole life story. In Exile 3, I actually felt like I was communicating with real people. This was a key element in drawing me into the game.
People who downloaded Exile 3: Ruined World have also downloaded:
Exile 2: Crystal Souls, Exile 1: Escape from the Pit, Blades of Exile, Elder Scrolls, The: Daggerfall, Faery Tale Adventure 2: Halls of the Dead, Escape from Hell, Elder Scrolls, The: Arena, Dungeons & Dragons: Warriors of the Eternal Sun
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