Ultima 5 probably had one of the most endearing stories in CRPG history. It took the virtues that were setup in Ultima 4 and inversed them to create an oppressive universe. Rather than seeking enlightenment, you seek to uncover the disappearance of Lord British while learning about his successor, Lord Blackthorne, who has perverted the teachings of virtues.
Of all the Ultimas, I found 5 to be the most challenging in that the world felt vast, oppressive and kept you on edge every time you dared step foot into a town. No longer can you merely walk into any major city without feeling some level of despair due to the perversion of the virtues by Lord Blackthorne. If you were incredibly unfortunate in timing, you could easily land in town during the appearance of the Shadowlords, cruel beings who helped warp Lord Blackthorne. Pretty much it would be game over the minute you stepped into combat with them. If not that then you might face the wrath of brainwashed guardsmen who could toss you in jail without bribery.
The game is both an exercise in ethics/moral values as well as intense mapping and careful note taking. The world had been expanded quite a bit since you last appeared. Right off the bat, when you encounter Lord British’s castle you would see three new villages just above that give you more spots to visit. The world map feels larger too but the real kicker is the massive underground level where you can easily get lost or killed.
Some of the features boasted were multi-levels, the underground, the improved tactical combat and sense of scheduling. Multi-levels wouldn’t just apply to dungeons and Lord British’s castle but individual houses. That provided new areas to explore for a little extra depth. Tactical combat was similar to 4 but you could now fight diagonally. Also, certain weapons would allow you to hit over walls like a morning star or halberd. And time was added where NPC would have their own schedules rather than standing in a single spot all day. In some cases, the schedule would be part of a quest such as the resistance member who would place a magic axe in a tree every day.
Despite having these new features, many ideas remained the same between 4 and 5. For instance, the mantras, spell components and certain spells did not change. 8 still played as a key number with it being your level cap, the number of shrines, runes, mantras, major towns and whatnot. Also, you’ll find many familiar faces such as Dupre, Shamino, Iolo, etc. whom you can recruit or start with your party.
Even though Lord British in body is gone, his spirit stays with you. When you rest, you may be visited by him for increasing levels and healing. Be careful though to follow the path of righteousness as you can incur penalties for straying too far away.
One thing I really enjoyed was finding a variety of loot from killing monsters. Certain beings like dragons would have the best treasure in the game. Naturally, these creatures would be the most difficult to slay. And in many situations, you would find yourself quite vulnerable like against daemons with their high hit points and ability to summon other daemons.
For myself, I recall the nail biting experiences of traveling to the Shadowlord’s domain to locate one of the artifacts of Lord British as well as Lord Blackthorne’s castle. The Shadowlords always frightened me due to being nearly impossible to kill. And even if you managed to win a combat, you wouldn’t permanently finish them off until you used the Shard in the appropriate Castle’s flame. Likewise, in Lord Blackthorne’s castle, you faced the threat of being caught by the guards and jailed. At that point in time, you could only reset as you would find your companions permanently removed from the game after being mercilessly beheaded.
After solving the game once, I never looked back on this. I enjoyed certain game elements like being able to eat food from a table, picking up loot from dead monsters’ corpses, seeing all the secret rooms, etc. But I found the game play in the end to be monotonous, time consuming and unbalanced. For instance, if you randomly encountered a dragon, you pretty much were dead. I’m not a fan of games where you lose tons of progress in a blink of an eye due to bad RNG. It was nice seeing through the game once and it certainly had its moment for its time. Yet there’s not a lot of individual development that offers a lot of replayability for someone like me. The grind itself is more about the story, which is why completing it gives you enough satisfaction of not wanting to repeat everything.