812th played so far

Genre: Role-Playing
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 1993
Developer: Looking Glass Technologies
Publisher: Origin Systems/Electronic Arts

There are a few games that I vividly remember being introduced to through the library. It started me on Baldur’s Gate, which I played that way first before getting my own copy, as well as the Discworld adventure games. The other series I played because of it – although I never got too far in because of my limited time – was the Ultima Underworld series. As an off shoot from the Ultima series, from around Ultima VII, it switched to first person dungeon crawls for the entire game while laying the groundwork for immersive sims. In fact, Looking Glass Technologies went on to be involved in both System Shock and the Thief series, both of which pushed that further. This early part of that legacy started here and it managed to get me quite involved and interested.

Having been exposed to more games and more of these genres (and really enjoying them), I’ve been dying to go back to the series that started so much of it. Now I finally get to go for it.

Our Thoughts

Just walking through Lord British’s castle, there is something big feeling about this game. There are a lot of named NPCs walking around with their own schedules and set up s who seem to react quite well to what’s going on – it’s not bad by contemporary standards and great for 1993 – Ultima was doing it anyway, but it feels it stands out here too.

Add to that that this first “level” has a bunch of things going on anyway – several secret areas, one of which actually contains the supplies you need to cast spells. I’m sure it’s hinted plenty, but it stands out here as something that avoids hand holding. Still, obviously there aren’t many quest lines here, but it stands out as not being the only level setting up this way, even if you might expect that. The dungeon levels under the castle are a fairly standard dungeon crawl, including some annoying puzzles and death traps, but it feels fairly simple for the most part compared to that castle. The stand out in that sense is a community of peaceful goblins who are happy to leave you be, and even accept some help.

Then you get to the prison tower. Other games would have you fight or sneak your way through. Here you can find a food delivery voucher that lets you travel through uninterrupted, as long as you deal with the guards correctly. Fighting is, of course, an option, but it’s a lot more difficult and less satisfying. It’s a neat way of giving you multiple options where the game supports it.

From there on, the world also opens up. You need to return to the castle regularly to open up new routes and deal with things as they happen, things changing at you do, but also need to travel between levels as their quests aren’t contained to one side. It’s a cool mechanism, with a pretty varied set of areas that it seems to take you through, and it feels quite intense. It’s all more dungeon focused than other Ultima games, but creates its own good feel.

The magic system, ported from the original game, is as interesting. You combine different runes to cast spells. A number of them are given, but you can experiment with combinations to cast more of them. A lot of them are utility as well, which works in this type of world as well. I didn’t get to the point where my MP was high enough to keep using them – and the fact that you need to swap rune stones around mean it’s not as easy to use several of them – but it feels immersive and good.

Now, these systems appear in other games, but somehow this feels different from the original Ultima‘s, which focuses a lot of this on the NPCs. Everything interacts, but since it seemed like it is more focused on your interactions with other characters, here it feels like you’re more involved with the world – it’s smaller but your interactions with it seem more in depth.

Final Thoughts

Ultima Underworld II struggles with the constraints of its age at every point. Visually it can’t quite show everything with the detail it needs and its systems maybe aren’t quite as worked out as they could be. It certainly runs up against the limits of the UI it has – no WASD, no hotbar casting for your spells and so on – which I don’t think has a decent engine update to improve this. It’s a game to go to and explore, but I need to take my time to take a deeper dive. This is a game that needs it.