Review: Ultima IX – Ascension

At last, we have arrived. I’m proud to present my review for the final game in the main Ultima series, Ultima IX: Ascension. This is probably the most divisive game in the entire Ultima saga. It has a reputation for being almost universally hated. Knowing this, I was very curious to see just what I was getting myself into. Yes. This playthrough is my very first experience with Ultima IX.

If you’ve been following my journey through the Ultima franchise so far, one thing should be clear. With each new chapter in the Ultima saga, the developers always attempted to showcase the latest in PC technology. This rule remains true with this entry. Originally released in 1999, Ultima IX is the first and only game in the series to feature 3D accelerated graphics. It is also the first entry in the series to run natively under Microsoft Windows.

Even though Ultima IX showcased the latest technology of its day. It suffered from a number of bugs at release. Including a few that were downright game-breaking. Of course, a number of patches were eventually released by the developers to correct the majority of these issues. But, an equally number of serious problems remained unaddressed. This left players feeling abandoned by the game’s developers. Sadly, this had become a bit of a trend with the later games in the Ultima series. To make matters worse, the game was largely unoptimized and had some very stringent system requirements. As result, even players with some of the best computers of the day struggled with performance issues. These woes were bad enough to make the game nearly unplayable. (When playing the game on modern hardware, this is largely a non-issue, of course).

Gamers who are interested in experiencing this title today still have a little work cut out for them. First of all, even though Ultima IX is a Windows title, it was designed twenty years ago for technologies that are no longer readily available. In order to play the game on modern systems, I highly recommend obtaining a copy from GOG. To start, the GOG-version of the game comes complete with the final official patch and a special Glide wrapper that allows moderns computers to handle the game’s legacy 3DFX instructions. But, the prep doesn’t end there. If you really want the best experience from this title, I recommend that you download and install most of the updates included in the “Ultima Patcher“ utility. This includes an unofficial patch that allows the game to run in Direct 3D mode (enabling players to enjoy the game at higher resolutions). This patch also contains the “Forgotten Worlds” fan-made update. This corrects a number of the game’s notorious remaining bugs and fixes several quests and loose ends. These fixes may not be 100% official, but they are widely considered by many to be largely essential.

The story of Ultima IX was supposed to begin immediately after the end of the previous game. In the finale for Ultima VIII, The Avatar passed through a portal that was to deliver him directly to Britannia. However, somewhere during the development process this ending was inexplicably retconned. Instead, Ultima IX now begins with The Avatar back in the safety of his home on Earth, where he is mysteriously beckoned back to Britannia. It also seems that The Avatar has somehow suffered from a bout of amnesia, as he has to be reacquainted with the some of the series’ most basic lore and concepts as part of the game’s tutorial.

Of course, when you consider that EA wanted this title to appeal to both new and old players alike, this “starter level” is certainly understandable. But I can’t help but feel that the company could have simply asked the player if they were new to the series or a veteran Ultima player at the start of the game. Then, given a starting experience in accordance to their answer. Now, as a result of this oversight, there is a major lore disconnect between this game and the previous entry in the series. Regardless, once you’ve made your way through the game’s introduction and actually enter the world of Britannia, the storylines once again fit back together perfectly.

Once back in Britannia, The Avatar learns that in his absence, The Guardian has began his plot to take over the world by stealing the legendary Runes of Virtue and erecting a series of tainted pillars across the land. These pillars radiate foul energies that have caused life in Britannia to deteriorate at a rapid pace. To restore balance, The Avatar must seek out the Runes of Virtue from The Guardian’s hiding places in hopes that he can discover a way destroy the pillars and defeat The Guardian once and for all.

One of the first things that fans of the Ultima series are likely to notice about this title is the radical new way the game is presented. Until now, every entry in the Ultima franchise has been played from a top-down view. For this outing, the perspective is now in 3D chase-cam style. Today, this type of presentation is not very unusual. But at the time, it was still a bit of a novelty (especially on the PC). As such, there was no universally accepted control scheme for a game laid out in this way. The result is that Ultima IX features an awkward combination of both keyboard and mouse controls. It feels like a funky amalgamation of Tomb Raider and every RPG you can imagine. Naturally, this is a completely different playcontrol experience in comparison to any other Ultima game. On top of such a big change, the default controls are not intuitive at all. Yes, like anything else, it is possible to become acclimated to them over time. But in my personal opinion, they leave a lot to be desired.

Another big gripe I have with this game has to do with the combat system. Mixed in with an overly funky control scheme are equally convoluted combat mechanics. Like in Ultima VIII, combat is again action based. It’s not quite the mess that was seen in the previous game, but it still feels out of place with the rest of the series and take a bit of getting used to.

Looking past the radical new presentation, there’s actually a few aspects of the gameplay that will feel familiar to fans of the series. Ultima IX retains a bit of sandbox style gameplay that made the later games in the series so popular. Players can interact with the world around them (move and manipulate objects, converse with NPCs, etc). But, gone is the open-world feel that made the series so famous. Yes, Britannia is still full of great places to explore. But this time, there’s a very obvious “on rails” feel the gameworld that was never present before.

So, I’ve been a bit hard on Ultima IX so far. But, one of the most important things about any RPG is the storyline. Thankfully, this is where the game shines. The story contained in this game is very worth experiencing. Not only that, but the way it is presented is very well done. Ultima IX features some of the most memorable NPCs in the series thus far, and it is through them that several of the game’s best plot points unfold.

I can’t help but feel that Ultima IX is a game that suffered considerably due to a lack of attention from the development team. During most of Ultima IX’s development time, Electronic Arts undoubtedly gave more attention and resources to Ultima Online. The end result is a game that feels more like a red-headed stepchild than the conclusion to an epic series. That being said, there’s still a lot to love about Ultima IX if you’re really willing to work for it. The sad truth is, most people weren’t.

Ultima IX received scathing reviews at the time of its release and therefore earned a stigma that sticks with it to this day. Admittedly, much of the negative press was deserved. But, there’s still an enchanting story hidden amidst all the rubble that litters this game’s legacy. They say that patience is a virtue. And while it may not be one of the eight outlined in the Ultima series, it is certainly one that will pay off for players who are willing to exercise it on this game. So if you’re a fan of the series, don’t be so quick to dismiss this final chapter in the saga just because of bad things that you’ve read online. Instead, take a moment to accept that even though the experience may be far from perfect, Ultima IX still offers an adventure worth remembering.

Difficulty: Medium –  Most of the challenge in this game has less to do with the actual content and more to do with technical hurdles. The combat in the game is laughably simplistic. But some of the dungeons and puzzles are tricky at times. Overall, the difficult level of the game feels pretty well balanced.

Story: Undoubtedly, this is the best reason to play Ultima IX. Legend has it that the original plot to Ultima IX was nothing short of a masterpiece that ended up being gutted and taped back together as a shallow mockery of itself. Perhaps that is true. But even so, what’s presented here is nothing to sneeze at. I found myself very happy with the level of storytelling found in this game. If anything, it is one of the game’s few redeeming qualities.

Originality: If fans wanted something different after Ultima VIII, they got it. Ultima IX is a whole different beast compared to any entries in the series that came before it. With that in mind, I feel like the UI was largely inspired by games like Tomb Raider and Soul Reaver. But, it somehow manages to keep its RPG roots buried deep in its core. Ultima IX is nothing if it isn’t unique.

Soundtrack: A second high point for the game. This title features a wonderfully composed score. Gone are the days of crude midi files. This game boasts a fully orchestrated soundtrack, and it is nothing sort of amazing. Ultima IX also features a considerable amount of voice acting. By today’s harsh standards, the voice acting is pretty bad and doesn’t keep well with Ultima’s “old english” lore, but it was still pretty impressive for its time.

Fun: The game’s technical issues and all-around sluggishness really do have a pretty considerable impact on enjoyment. This is true even with today’s faster computers and a number of fan-made patches that address just this issue. I can only imagine how infuriating it would have been to play this game at the time of release. Even so, if you’re willing to take a deep breath and overlook many of the frustrating aspects of Ultima IX, there’s a lot of enjoyable moments to be found.

Graphics: Today, the game looks a bit dated and blocky. But this is par for course with PC games from this age. In truth, Ultima IX boasted some pretty impressive graphics for its time. Even today, the game retains its beauty.

Playcontrol: This is my chief complaint. I really feel like the developers did not know how to design controls for a PC game with a third-person 3D layout. To be fair, many similar PC games from this age suffered from stubborn and awkward controls (Heretic II and Tomb Raider, to name a couple). But when mixed with a sandbox-type RPG, the whole thing ends up feeling like one big mess. Yes, it’s possible to customize the control by editing a few text files (and doing so can really improve the situation). But this was not a solution that was intended by the developers.  As a result, it’s not one that is taken into consideration when scoring this part of the game.

Downloadable Content: No.

Mature Content: Mature themes, fantasy violence.

Value:  At the time it was released, there’s no way the price justified the sub-par experience that this game provided. These days, this game can be purchased for $6.00 on GOG and is frequently on sale for as low as $1.50. At these prices, it’s easy to recommend the game even with its less-than-perfect reputation.

Overall rating (out of four stars): 2 – As I said in my review above, much of shade that’s thrown at this game is deserved. But, as with most things, there’s always a little light at the end of the tunnel. Players who are willing to grit their teeth and suffer through some of the bad aspects of this game are sure to find a pretty memorable experience. In truth, it really is a travesty that a series as influential as Ultima had to receive such a tarnished ending. I know it would never happen, but if any game deserves the second chance of a remake, it is this one.

Originally Available: PC

Available on: GOG

Other Games In This Series:

Akalabeth    –    Ultima    –    Ultima II    –    Ultima III    –    Ultima IV    –    Ultima V    –    Ultima VI    –    Ultima VII    –    Ultima VIII    –    Ultima IX

Ultima Underworld I    –    Ultima Underworld II    –    Underworld Ascendant

Savage Empire    –   Martian Dreams

Ultima Online

Shroud of the Avatar

Old Game Hermit

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