Good Old Reviews: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

Good Old Reviews: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

Ultima Underworld cover

Despite its advanced years, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss remains one of the finest dungeoneering experiences you're ever going to have.

There's a certain risk in replaying the formative games of your youth a great many years after they were first released. How will they hold up? Is the magic still there, or will you taint your memories by stripping away the protective veneer of time and distance? Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (available at GOG for $5.99) was a revelation when it came out in 1992, but so much time has passed that just thinking about opening that door left me anxious and hesitant. So it was with great, great pleasure that I discovered that the magic is indeed still there, and that Ultima Underworld remains one of the finest - if not the finest - first-person dungeon crawlers ever created.

It may well be a struggle at first, especially if you weren't, you know, born in 1992. First-person games were still in their infancy back then and none that I can name offered anywhere near the complexity of Underworld, which served up full freedom of movement through sprawling, multi-tiered levels, a full-featured RPG system with wide-open character development options, a rune-based magic system, branching NPC conversations and more. But the trade-off is an archaic and cumbersome control scheme that will take no small amount of time to get used to. There's no mouselook and keys cannot be natively remapped, although they can be changed (at your own risk) through the included DOSbox wrapper.

Perseverance is handsomely rewarded, however, with a game that I don't think has ever truly been surpassed. The graphics are obviously dated but the level design and lighting effects are so well done that you can't help but become immersed in the environment. The contextual soundtrack is a huge part of the experience as well, gloomy, intense and bombastic as the moment demands, although I'd urge you to change the audio hardware setting from the GOG default Roland MT32 to Adlib/Soundblaster in order to capture a more "authentic" experience and also do away with the thankfully-sparse but still truly horrendous voice acting. (This GOG forum thread explains the details.)

Ultima Underworld works so well because it provides amazing depth and variety of gameplay, coupled with an uncompromising attention to detail. Each level offers unique environments and you can spend almost as much time talking to monsters as fighting them. You can also skip significant portions of the game if you don't feel like horsing around and virtually everything is worth paying attention to. A goblin might tell you about the disappearances of his fellows, always preceded by an odd, distant splashing noise, for instance, and if you choose to investigate you may well discover an amusing and exciting secret - albeit one you might be better off without.

The game isn't without flaws. Combat isn't much to write home about - you can stab, slash or chop, but it doesn't have anywhere near the elegance or flexibility of more modern games. It's also pretty easy to get hung up on corners, and running can result in jittery animation, especially if you're in the water. Thankfully, the controls are simple and adequate, and its shortcomings are alleviated somewhat by the the fact that you won't necessarily be spending a lot of time fighting anyway.

The writing is also overloaded at times with awkward uses of "thou," "wilt" and other such Ren Faire babble. That said, some of it is actually quite clever and if you're not the conversational type, you can butcher your way through the entire game, although it won't be easy - and you'll be missing out on some of the best bits, too.

There's no getting around the fact that Ultima Underworld is old - very, very old. Even when you come to terms with the controls, the evidence of its age is unavoidable: There are no cutscenes to speak of, only four save slots, and the map, while gorgeous, must be accessed through an inventory item rather than just a shortcut key combo. It won't spoon-feed you, either, and if you're not paying attention you're likely going to run into some kind of grief down the line.

But if you can adapt to its old-school ways, you will find yourself delving through one of the most wonderful, magical and memorable dungeons you will ever experience. It's not just among the most important RPGs ever made, it is relevant, even today, and that's nothing short of amazing. That's a big promise, but one that Ultima Underworld very handily keeps.

Come back next week for a look at the classic god-game Populous.

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The Underworlds are great. First person, but in the spirit of Ultima with an immersive, "living" world. The second one is (IMHO) even better than the first. If you manage to play these games to the finish, which is not easy, you will feel as if you really experienced and accomplished something.

Plus, let's not forget the story of "Princess Bad von Voice Actor is kidnapped and you are captured by Guard Captain Bad Voice McActor, dragged before Baron Horrible von Voice Actor and thrown into the Stygian Abyss, one of the most evil-infested hellholes on Brittania, pretty much wearing burlap."

Yes, I did watch Spoony's excellent reviews of the Ultima series several times, what of it?

The Great JT:
Plus, let's not forget the story of "Princess Bad von Voice Actor is kidnapped and you are captured by Guard Captain Bad Voice McActor, dragged before Baron Horrible von Voice Actor and thrown into the Stygian Abyss, one of the most evil-infested hellholes on Brittania, pretty much wearing burlap."

Yes, I did watch Spoony's excellent reviews of the Ultima series several times, what of it?

This is one of my old favorite games, up there with "Ultima 6" and the "Ultima 7 duology". I've always hoped they would do something of this depth and in a similar style with new technology and graphics. It's games like this that I look back on when I'm so critical of games like "Skyrim" becoming too simplified comparatively.

That said the part about this game was that while it's explained in Ultima lore why your not basically a Demigod going into this, since your powers as the Avatar greatly weaken when you return to earth and come back to Brittania (by way of explaining why you have to level up all over again), I always found the beginning of this game kind of suspect. I mean you'd think the guy would be so utterly terrified of you (since your recognized instantly most of the time, and there are paintings in your honor all over the realm and stuff) that he'd either immediately surrender, or pretty much have you killed on the spot. Him not knowing (or not thinking this through) is kind of odd, since really it seems like the dumbest thing you could possibly do is throw The Avatar into a dungeon or whatever knowing that the longer he's around the stronger he becomes, and when we say strong we're talking "fights time travelling, reality warping sorcerers, defeats demonic arcane super computers, becomes a paragon of virtue akin to an iconic religious figure (except standing right before you) and successfully achieve world peace. I mean in the end the only thing that really slowed down the Avatar was basically fighting himself (in the form of "The Guardian" which was all the evil cast out of himself). It's probably just be, but after Ultima VI I could just never understood how anything evil could look at you/him and not immediately suffer bowel loosening terror. Kind of like a normal person or "regular hero" meeting some nightmare fuel monster, I mean this is the guy you'd expect mommy demons tell their children might be hiding under their bed to get them to fall asleep.

The bad voice acting wasn't an issue for the vast majority of people who played the original release (like me). On Adlib and Soundblaster cards, which is what virtually everyone used, there was no voice acting, just really, really good chiptune music. Thus my recommendation to change the settings, since the GOG release uses "better" audio settings, which don't sound nearly as good.

It also bears remembering that UU didn't begin life as an Ultima game. It was Underworld first, and then Ultima was tacked on later (although still relatively early in the process) to leverage the marketability of the name. It's never really "fit" the franchise very well, but it's also the only Ultima game that ever really captured my imagination.

Gods I loved this game and II of same. Nothing has come close to the engrossing atmosphere. Where if you found a fishing rod you knew you might actually be able to survive - provided there was a large enough body of water nearby... now if only you had a fireplace to cook the thing on.

Hunger, light sources, danger, and a ton of risk-reward decisions to be made. It is a crime an Ultima Underworld III hasn't been attempted - or something of its ilk. Stonekeep was "alright" but it was grid based whereas Ultima Underworld had proper free flowing exploration and combat.

Edit: Double post. Thanks internet.

I just remember beating it as a fighter, then beating it BARELY as a thief/archer type, then trying to go as a mage. This was back when D&D was still prevalent, Diablo wasn't even an idea yet, and mage archetypes were HARDMODE. You could get maybe 1-2 spells off before your magic was gone, and there was a very pissed off spider in your face, chewing your knees off, all while you were desperately trying to rearrange your runes to cast Magic Missile. Then after casting it, you notice the spider isn't dead, so you try and run away, but your 12 health quickly succumbs to the nasty looking blood worm you looked at wrong. THIS GAME WAS THE TITS. I want to reinstall it right now and try it as a magic user.

As I recall there were ZERO walkthroughs for magic users, mainly because no one ever got past the 3rd level as a magic user and lived. It was just too hard.

Best part? The game had zero cheats. ZERO. Not even ways to glitch yourself into being stronger. Basically, it all came down to the Bill Cavaleir Guide to Dungeon Crawling.

YOU ROLL UP A DWARVEN FIGHTER, OR YOU DIE LIKE THE WORTHLESS SCUM YOU ARE!

Also, take a look at this, for anyone looking to get back into it. It's got some good creation kit mods.

http://reconstruction.voyd.net/index.php?event=project&typeKeyword=remakesuw

Yeah, unless you're a real masochist, playing as a fighter is really the way to go. Although I tried to take a more well-rounded approach - kind of a ranger/rogue type, I guess. But definitely swords. Magic has its place but I wouldn't want to rely on it in a fight.

Abomination:
Gods I loved this game and II of same. Nothing has come close to the engrossing atmosphere. Where if you found a fishing rod you knew you might actually be able to survive - provided there was a large enough body of water nearby... now if only you had a fireplace to cook the thing on.

Have you tried Arx Fatalis? Sort of a "spiritual successor" thing, not quite as brilliant as UU but still an excellent game, and very much in the same vein. It's even got funky controls and will kick your ass if you try to play as a mage!

Andy Chalk:

Abomination:
Gods I loved this game and II of same. Nothing has come close to the engrossing atmosphere. Where if you found a fishing rod you knew you might actually be able to survive - provided there was a large enough body of water nearby... now if only you had a fireplace to cook the thing on.

Have you tried Arx Fatalis? Sort of a "spiritual successor" thing, not quite as brilliant as UU but still an excellent game, and very much in the same vein. It's even got funky controls and will kick your ass if you try to play as a mage!

And thank you, was looking for something in the same vein.

Andy Chalk:
Yeah, unless you're a real masochist, playing as a fighter is really the way to go. Although I tried to take a more well-rounded approach - kind of a ranger/rogue type, I guess. But definitely swords. Magic has its place but I wouldn't want to rely on it in a fight.

The key was always to play a mage but keep rerolling until you got a mana stat of around 17-18 in character creation (not an easy task). Probably due to a bug your mana growth was tied to how high the stat was at game start, so if you didn't Max it out then you'd never have a lot of mana.

With a high initial mana though you had a near bottomless pool to cast from. Then you Could put points into combat skills and Max everything out

 

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