Ultima III: Exodus, Apple II

Ultima III: Exodus is the third game in the Ultima series and the final instalment in the “Age of Darkness” trilogy. It was the first Ultima game that was published by Origin Systems and first came out for the Apple II in 1983. Ultima III was also the first game in the Ultima series where you controlled a party of characters, rather than a single hero, and the first Ultima game to use a line of sight/fog-of-war mechanic, meaning that anything that wasn’t directly within viewing distance was hidden from the player.

The game provides eleven different class professions to choose from (Cleric, Druid, Wizard, Alchemist, Illusionist, Thief, Ranger, Lark, Paladin, Barbarian, and Fighter) and you can create and store twenty different characters in the roster in total, from which you must choose just four to take out in your party. It can take a while, and some experimentation (and re-starts), before you manage to assemble a party exactly to your liking, but the idea with the new character/party system is to provide a game with re-playability, which creator Richard Garriott wanted.

The first part of Ultima III is all about equipping yourself with the best weapons and armour, gaining a few levels, and acquiring a sailing ship, which you do by taking over a pirate ship (just like in the first two Ultima games). You begin in Sosaria and can later visit another continent, and the game is open-ended in how you can play it.

Combat in Ultima III is different to previous games and when you encounter hostiles in the overworld the scene cuts to a separate battle screen where you must move and attack in formation to defeat your enemies. This can be a little confusing at first – especially as you have to react somewhat quickly as each character has a time limit to take their turn. The current active character flashes to indicate it’s their move and you can use the direction keys to move them, or press ‘A’ to attack, or ‘C’ to cast a spell. Characters with ranged weapons, or spells, can fire them in a set direction, and characters with melee weapons must be next to their intended target to land a blow. Enemies can attack diagonally, but your characters cannot, which is unfair. In combat, the character who strikes the fatal blow on each individual enemy receives all the Experience Points (EXP).

After combat – if you win the battle – the defeated enemy will usually leave a chest with some gold, and possibly an item for you to collect and use or sell, but these chests are almost always booby-trapped and must be opened by your character with the highest dexterity (a Thief or an Illusionist, or similar), which will give them a chance of evading the trap.

Healing occurs gradually, as you walk around, and can also be done at a healer (the first one of which is in Lord British‘s castle). Healers can also cure poison and resurrect dead characters if any of your party have died. All for a (rather hefty) price, of course. The best (and least costly) way to heal is to have a cleric – or a druid – in your party and to use the “Sanctu” spell. Magic Points (MP) increase with every step you take, so are faster to recover than Hit Points (HP), and allow you to cast heal fairly regularly.

Levelling is different in this game to previous Ultimas. Whenever a character earns 100 experience points they must talk to Lord British who will raise their HP at his castle. However, when a character reaches 550 HP they must then seek “The Mark of Kings” before he’ll raise them any further. This ‘brand’ must be obtained from a dungeon within the game, so forces you to explore them.

Exploring dungeons requires the use of either torches, or a light spell, otherwise you cannot see anything. You can buy torches from a Thieve’s Guild – if you can find one – and light spells require precious MP to cast (so aren’t really worth it when your magic could be used to heal instead). When you do manage to create some light the view can be seen from a first-person perspective and movement is similar to dungeon-exploring in previous Ultimas. You can see and move through doors, and ladders lead up and down levels (and the lower you go down into a dungeon the more dangerous the monsters become). Random combat happens inside dungeons (so you cannot actually see the monsters in front of you, as you could in previous Ultimas) and works the same as combat in the overworld: when it triggers, the scene cuts to the battle screen. And if you win a battle a chest will usually be left for you to open, which you’ll be able to see in front of you. One thing that is different about dungeons in this game is that treasure chests re-spawn between visits (not ones that monsters drop, but ones that are put there for you to find), which means that you can keep revisiting them to acquire gold.

It has to be said that Ultima III has quite a few annoying features, but the most annoying thing about it is that the information window (in the bottom right hand corner of the screen) is so small that it takes time to list your stats and inventory items (and their associated keypress codes), which can make buying from shops and equipping items a real chore. Especially as you must do this for each individual member of your party. You have to constantly press ‘Z’ to keep track of your gold, items, and who can use what. If you’re playing the game for the first time this can be very annoying, especially when you’re trading items between your characters. Remembering all the codes for spell-casters is even more confusing, and it’s best to use a guide as reference to figure out what spells you can use.

Another annoying feature doesn’t become apparent until you acquire a ship. At the bottom of the play window is a short text description of the wind direction, and the way the wind blows dictates when and where you can move on the sea, which – to me – is an unnecessary feature that causes no end of frustration. When you finally get a boat you’re constantly faced with “invalid move” messages if the wind isn’t in your favour. Why Garriott included this I don’t know as it seems to add nothing to the game but annoyance.

Later in the game – when you have a sailing ship – you must visit the continent of Ambrosia, which you reach by deliberately sailing into a whirlpool. In Ambrosia you must explore various shrines to raise your character attributes, but this costs money (a lot of money, if you’re going to do it properly), which means travelling backwards and forwards between Ambrosia and Sosaria. In Ambrosia you must also find and collect four cards, which are needed to complete the game.

One other thing that I want to mention are encounters with dragons. Combat is generally manageable until you’re faced with these beasts… The animated intro sequence on the Ultima III title screen foreshadows this fact, with a party of adventurers fighting monsters, and then running away from a dragon. I’m not entirely sure when dragons first start appearing in the game, but you’ll notice when they do… They throw fireballs at you in the overworld and are tough to beat in combat. My first encounter with them was utterly terrifying – pinning me down behind a row of treasure chests until I could protect my party’s health enough to fight them. How many dragons you have to face when combat initiates is random. If you get more than two or three, then you’re pretty much f**ked – unless you’re high level. I don’t know how Ultima players dealt with them before the advent of emulators and quicksaves (they didn’t; they died), but even with quicksaves they are challenging to survive.

The reviews of Ultima III (that I’ve seen) are generally favourable, but occasionally you’ll find a person who can see sense and understands that – as ground-breaking and as good as the game is – it really is unnecessarily cumbersome to play. Having to deal with keyboard codes for weapons and items – for four individual characters – is tiresome, as is the rapid rate of food use and the high cost of healing and resurrection. Also: dealing with money is also a chore as there’s no “share gold” command (so that money can be equally divvied-out to your party members to buy food). There is a “join gold” command, so that one character gets given everybody’s gold, but that’s of no use when you need an equal share among everyone. You can “hand” gold from one character to another, but again: it’s tiresome doing it manually. Exploring dungeons is a pain too, because torches don’t last long and ‘strange winds’ often blow them out. Overall: Ultima III just seems to stack too many things against the player to make it as fun as it should be… The game is convoluted and the controls are over-complicated, but yet it is still very absorbing to play. And – to make matters worse – if a character dies the game saves automatically, immediately, so you can be stuck with a dead party member until you can afford the ridiculous 500 gold cost for resurrection. It’s almost like Roguelike ‘permadeath’, and it is a huge annoyance – especially during the first part of the game when you’re just trying to learn how to play it. My suggestion is to use emulator quicksaves as well as in-game saves, just in case.

While I do like Ultima III a lot, it does take serious effort to gain a foothold, and the aforementioned niggles do hold it back from being truly great. It is a classic RPG, and one of the best of its kind on the Apple II, but if you’re going to play just one version of the game, I’d say: have a look at the Amiga and Atari ST ports, as they’re more user-friendly and more enjoyable to play.

Note: my review of the Commodore 64 version includes some useful Ultima III gameplay tips for first-timers. This is a useful guide for players too.

More: Ultima III: Exodus on Wikipedia
GOG: Ultima 1+2+3 on GOG.com

Ultima III: Exodus Keyboard Commands:

a = Attack with “readied weapons” (followed by direction of attack)
b = Board (mount a horse or board a frigate)
c = Cast a magic spell (followed by player number, spell type, and spell letter)
d = Climb down a ladder in a dungeon
e = Enter a town, castle, dungeon or other landmark
f = Fire ship’s cannons in the direction indicated
g = Get/open chest (followed by the number of the player who will search for traps, open the chest, and acquire its contents)
h = Hand equipment (trades equipment between two players; followed by prompts to determine what is to be exchanged)
i = Ignite a torch
j = Join gold (gives all gold in party to player indicated)
k = Climb up a ladder in a dungeon
l = Look (identifies an object in a specified direction)
m = Modify order (exchanges positions of any two players within the party)
n = Negate time (stops time for all outside the party; requires a special item)
o = Other command (enter any command desired during gameplay; includes BRIBE, SEARCH and others)
p = Peer at a gem (shows a bird’s eye view of a town, castle, dungeon or the overworld; one viewing per gem)
q = Save game to disk (from the overworld only)
r = Ready weapon for use in combat
s = Steal (from behind store counters; success depends on skill)
t = Transact; use to talk to townspeople or trade with merchants
u = Unlock and open doors (if you have the key; followed by direction of door and the player whose key is to be used; one use per key)
v = Volume (toggles sound effects on or off)
w = Wear armour (outfits player with specified armour)
x = Exit (leave behind or dismount your current transport and travel on foot)
y = Yell any word that’s typed
z = Stats (displays your vital statistics, possessions and spells)
Spacebar = Pass one game turn without taking any action

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