Review by harpheaven
The survival horror RPG: controversial instalment for a great series
Almost without exception, a new entry into a series of games is greeted by mixed reactions from the player fanbase. Self-proclaimed "fans" are the toughest crowd to please, with their preconceived notions of how a game should or shouldn't be. Nowhere is the fanbase more self-conscious and critical than with RPGs, and the more arcane and complex the game is, the more these traits are emphasized. The Ultima fanbase is probably the most hardcore of all these, and boy were they in for a disappointment when this game was released. Later, they got a punch in the face when Ascension came out, but unlike the dismal failure that was, Ultima VIII stands up to the test of time pretty well.
I somehow picked up this game at the ripe age of 11 or 12 years old, purely by coincidence as it was in the bargain bin at the local gamestore. Now, one thing that can't be argued is that Origin knew how to do boxes. The original release for this featured a cloth map and an expansive manual. My budget version featured only the latter, but to make up for it, I probably read that more than I played the actual game itself. After fiddling around with the game to make it work, I played it for some hours and then left it alone until a family friend made the sound work. Armed with a soundcard that had elementary .wav support and could only support FM synthesis, one of my best adventure/RPG experiences started.
They're fantastic. This is where most of the money went, and it's still jaw-droppingly gorgeous in its retro glory. It's worth playing just to see how smooth the animations are. The drawback to all this is of course the monolithic difficulty every computer on earth has with running it. Obscure references to EMM386 and virtual memory were beyond my skill at the time, but I was lucky enough to have some experts make it work. Looking back, I'm glad it worked at all.
This is the first thing that gets Ultima fans divided. Fans of the Black Gate/Serpent Isle will say that it's exceedingly linear and generic, which it may indeed be. There are no twists, it's not very epic and the world is small. I'll give in to all these points, but I think it's special because of how it presents what it has. The world of Pagan is extremely unforgiving and cold, and one misstep can kill you easily, giving it a survival horror feel (more on that later). None of the characters are really likeable, and those who don't immediately treat with you harsh rejection quickly feel valuable to you because they are the closest you have to friends.
Some of the things you are required to do are downright unexpected, cruel or both. You have to think outside the box, and the game never ever holds your hand. A great story it is not, but it does well with what it has.
The second divisive point. Pressure from the investors made Origin change the format it had used in the previous instalments to an almost completely unrecognizable model. A "hilarious" catchphrase running wild on bulletin boards at the time of its release was "Super Avatar Brothers": this time around, there was no party, platform jumping puzzles, few weapon choices and an action-driven gameplay.
Make no mistake, Ultima VIII is frustratingly difficult. To get anywhere stat-wise, you have to do things a million times. Getting your strength to the maximum 25, which is almost required if you want to kill anything at all, means you have to hit a training dummy for four hours. Enemies are universally stronger than you, some of them I swear are near invincible and extremely deadly. Running becomes the law, avoiding encounters leads to some nail-biting episodes with enemies (especially Seekers, grotesque tentacle-like things). To add to this, items and health are in short supply. Not content with making enemies kill off the player every two minutes, Origin added jumping puzzles and death traps that required insane skill or just sheer luck to get around. The perspective confuses everything and makes the need to save every two seconds and reload two times as often pivotal. Yes, it'll make you pull your hair out of sheer difficulty. When you aren't worrying about running away from hordes of enemies, you are trying to figure out just what is required to get any further. It is a beast of a game, a hydra where skill, intelligence, luck and patience are all needed to the end. It's this that makes me think of it is a precursor to the survival horror genre, where tension is increased by the lack of items and deadliness of enemies.
The payoff is that in the end, this game is sheer, unadulterated fun. You can customize the terrain, build small buildings out of loose parts, sneak into locked houses by way of jumping onto the roof and climbing ledges. You have to decipher runes manually, mix reagents and read books. Even with the linear structure of the game and the action/adventure elements, it's infinitely more of an RPG than the dreadful Japanese console titles that get released so often. It demands a lot, but it gives back in equal amounts.
The music for this game holds a special place in my heart. Neno Vugrinec, who only worked on a couple of titles for Origin and then disappeared, created an extremely creepy MIDI score that set the tone perfectly. Gone were cheesy Fatman tunes like "Moongate" or "Rule Britannia"; Vugrinec's vision had atmosphere galore, with midi SFX and string swells. The MIDIs are easy to like and I think they still remain chillingly effective to this day. Running around in the catacombs while the environment collapsed and indestructible ghosts chased me pumped my heart rate up to the maximum, all to the tune of some complex and well-composed MIDIs.
I can't really comment on the SFX and voices, as this was early 1994 and the quality is low low low all the way. I guess it did well with the resources available. The CD version has some voices which I guess are decent. The Guardian sounds menacing, and Pyros is unsettlingly horrific.
It may not be a true successor to Ultima VII, but I'd be damned if it isn't one of the most creepy, atmospheric titles ever to grace the PC. It's a challenge, rest assured, and it demands that you think and react in equal measures. Pre-empting the survival horror genre by three years, Origin made a disappointing Ultima game but an excellent overall game, perhaps the best the action/adventure-genre has ever offered.
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