For my money objectively speaking, Ultima 4 Quest of the Avatar is perhaps the greatest CRPG in existence. Certainly, there are more advanced CRPGs, ones with better content, mechanics, combat systems, etc. However, Ultima 4 did what few games have done which is bringing actual role playing into an otherwise hack-n-slash themed universe. The game was far ahead of its time and tries to teach people on a fundamental level how to be a good person.
Most CRPGs fall into the easy trap of catering to the hack-n-slash crowd. The focus on that crowd are brain dead mechanics with limited controls and an environment dedicated to pumping out large numbers. Some CRPGs mixed up the content with puzzles but the vast majority ignore conversations nor personal growth. There is no learning in hack-n-slash style games outside of improving ones reflexes.
Yet with Ultima 4, the game revolves around personal growth by attending various cities, speaking with their denizens en route to becoming an avatar. An avatar is one who follows the 8 virtues of honesty, compassion, honor, humility, valor, sacrifice, spirituality and justice, becoming a paragon for others to follow. In order to achieve this goal, you need to follow strict codes to gain points or you risk starting from scratch. For instance, you never kill a neutral character if you can help it, especially if it runs away or you’d risk losing out on honor. You donate blood to healers to improve your virtue of sacrifice and so on.
The character creation process is now legend as you speak with a tarot reader who gives you a personality test. Once you finish up this test, you will start off as a class representative of that virtue. For instance, if you follow the code of honor, you will be a paladin starting near the town of Tristan. It’s critical in selecting your initial virtue because this will influence who you can hire, what your starting gear will be and the difficulty of the game over time.
Generally, I would go with a shepard who follows humility because of how difficult it is to recruit Katrina as well as building her up in later stages of the game. While you would start off equally as weak as Katrina, you will find it even harder to add her to a party of seven who already have a large amount of experience ahead of her. On top of that, you would have poor end game equipment as a shepard. But as the party leader, a shepard will be there from the start, meaning that even with a sling, you’ll outperform Katrina unless for whatever reason, you decide to grab her first for your party.
Ultima 4 felt immensely different from Ultima 3 not just from a character creation viewpoint but the overall difficulty level. Ultima 3 was more of a pure hack-n-slash with a few puzzles tossed in type of game. But the game’s random encounter mechanism made it difficult starting out. Ultima 4 places far less emphasis on combat and lets you run away from difficult encounters. Of course, running away has it’s own set of consequences but therein lies the true difficulty of this type of game.
A huge part of the game involves exploration and discovery. You need to find all the runes of virtue and pray at the various shrines to become proficient in that virtue. You can do this on foot, with a balloon, with a ship or with a horse. But if you mess up you will lose that effort. For instance, let’s say you gain the symbol for humility but accidentally brag during a conversation. Your effort will go down the drain and you may have to start from scratch in rebuilding that part of the eight.
The game often tempts you to commit acts that reverse your virtues. A good illustration occurs in Castle Britania where you can find a hidden vault of gold. Opening a box won’t call all the guards as in previous games (or future games for that manner). But you lose points in a few virtues (justice? Honor?) by stealing.
Even when combat is de-emphasized, the game still is a long term grind. Besides building up your virtues, the world is pretty big and getting around while finding clues, earning gold, etc. takes a great deal of time. But the fun part for me is just going to each town, speaking with the locals and reading all the silly dialog. The game has a good sense of humor and finding all the easter eggs is quite rewarding.
One thing I really enjoy about the game is the non-linear design as well as the free form text input in interacting with NPCs. Many games have cut down on the free form text input in favor of multiple choice responses. Part of the reason that has occurred is to prevent people who have answers before collecting the clues from progressing. But I like this style better just because it’s not as tedious and doesn’t force you to sit through long text bubbles that you end up skipping regardless.
Overall, the game really brings to life what becomes Richard Garriott’s vision of Britannia. With all the denizens, dialog, virtues and characters, the world of Ultima really comes to life at this stage and becomes a high point in the CRPG genre. Anyone who is a lover of CRPGs ought to play this game through at least once. While the graphics are out of date, the game still must be examined within the context of its time. It had grand ambitions and managed to achieve them for the limitations of hardware at the time and should be respected as a classic that would influence CRPGs for years to come.