After Bard’s Tale 2, I had become a CRPG addict. I would go out and try to find other fantasy games that complimented Bard’s Tale. There was a feature in Bard’s Tale that allowed you to import characters from a few other games, including Ultima 3. Since I was struggling a bit with Bard’s Tale 2 in the beginning, I wanted to use this tool to gain a bit of power. But before that, I also found myself struggling in this early hardcore style adventure.
I would like to say Ultima 3 is where Origin/Lord British/Richard Garriott started to really hit their stride. Although I did play Ultima 1, the game was obviously not nearly as polished and focused as Ultima 3. Nonetheless, you could still see the Ultima series attempting to define its identity in the CRPG realm.
The game uses both a top down and first person style. Everything but dungeons receives a top down style view point. There aren’t many color palettes being used at this stage but the musical score (at least on the C64) was pretty ahead for its time and has some of the most memorable tunes in gaming history.
While there are some puzzles in this game, as with most CRPGs, you’ll be focused on grinding out XP to conquer tougher challenges. But this game can be exceptionally brutal to new players because of how random and deadly encounters are. First let’s talk about the character creation process.
With character creation, you get to choose a race, gender, a class and assign 50 attribute points to 4 main skills in the form of strength, dexterity, intelligence and wisdom. Unlike other RPGs, races do not limit you on your character class nor does gender impose a ceiling on your maximum ability. However, your race does impose a cap on your attribute so you need to be wary in which class you choose with your race.
One of the more interesting but ineffective aspects of the game is how the class system works. You have basic, classic style classes in the form of fighters, thieves, wizards and clerics. Each of those four classes has a primary ability that directly is empowered through one of the four attributes. So wizards need high intelligence to max out on spell points, which also define the limit of spells that they can cast as an example.
From there, you have a subclass system which borrows from each of the four basic classes and attempts to balance them out with a deficiency or two. A druid, for instance, can cast both wizard and cleric spells, but at half at the maximum intelligence or wisdom score (whichever is higher). If you take a Fuzzy or Bobbit (as an example) for a druid, you can max out their intelligence or wisdom at 99, but only receive 49 spell points, which means you cannot cast the most powerful spells in the game. Or if you choose a barbarian, you would get access to all weapons as a fighter, but only half the ability of a thief and only leather armor as protection.
Despite this interesting concept, there really isn’t much variety on what you can take. Pretty much you need a pure thief, cleric and wizard to gain the maximum amount of spell power and thievery (mostly to open boxes safely). Fighters are the only slot that probably can be switched around since the end game requires you to employ special Exotic gear to kill anything in the final castle.
Once you have your characters, everyone starts off with 150 gold, cloth armor and a dagger. For a wizard, this is fine. For everyone else, this totally sucks. You will demolished by everything except low level orcs and undead (skeletons). One trick back in the day was to pool all your gold and gear to a single character, go to the local town, sell it off then buy the gear you need (mostly bows). If you did this on a C64, you would go nuts because you’d have to reload the whole fucking game every single time.
After this horrible method of starting off, you can finally begin the real game. Your goal initially should be to accumulate gold, not get poisoned and find something called the Mark of Kings which is buried in a nearby dungeon. You absolutely need the Mark of Kings to progress because you cannot gain more hit points without it after level 5. From there you need to find a boat that is acquired through finding one of the random pirate ships. If you have enough gold and a few lock picks, you can use your ship to locate a whirlpool and travel into the underwater realm of Ambrosia. There, you can raise your attributes at one of the four shrines scattered in the zone. This is the only other means to improve your character. At the cost of 100 gold per attribute along with a pirate ship and a few lockpicks, you really need to plan in advance.
The rest of the game is about exploring, getting 3 more marks, grinding XP and gear while finding clues to destroy the infamous Exodus. You can travel to the various cities scattered in the realm and talk with the citizenry within. The game has limited dialog compared to future Ultimas. But dialog is the key to picking up clues. Unfortunately, some clues are so obscure that you probably will require a clue book at some point.
With all that said, this game was notorious for being unbalanced. Because you had virtually no power at the beginning, you could occasionally stumble upon a high powered mob like dragons, devils or sea monsters and not stand a prayer of a chance of surviving. The only thing you could do is reboot the game and hope that you wouldn’t see them again. Also, you would constantly get poisoned by chests. In the worst event, you could set off a poison bomb that would strike your entire party. Without ample gold or a mid powered cleric spell to remove it, you would waste away at every step.
Still, I look back at this game fondly because once you hit your stride, the game can be a lot of fun. The mechanics aren’t complex and the real bottleneck back in the day was the slowness of the C64. These days rebooting a game wouldn’t be as bad so it would be more forgiving in the event of a disaster. But I miss the idea of the balanced character classes. There was something that Richard Garriott was onto in trying to define this idea of character balance. It really didn’t work here because of how weak a subclass would be compared to a pure class. Yet the overall idea is something that should be studied more.