Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is the fourth game in the Ultima series and was designed by Richard Garriott and first published by Origin Systems in 1985. It is the first game in the “Age of Enlightenment” trilogy, which moves towards a more ethically-led, story-driven approach. Rather than requiring the player to overcome a tangible evil the story instead focuses on the player’s moral self-improvement.
The game begins with a sequence in which you meet a mysterious gypsy at a travelling carnival and she asks you a series of virtue-based questions which determine your class and also your starting position in the game. Unlike in Ultima III you don’t directly choose your character traits and begin the game in the same position every time – your starting position is determined by which class of character you end up with. There are eight different character classes to play as: Bard, Druid, Tinker, Paladin, Mage, Ranger, Shepherd, and Fighter.
In Ultima IV, the land of Sosaria has changed and has been re-named to Britannia, but is still ruled by Lord British who you must once again visit to level-up your Hit Points (HP) when you have enough Experience Points (EXP).
You begin the game on your own but a key part of your quest is to recruit seven companions, each of which must be found in the various towns. The number of companions you can have depends on your level. If you’re level two you can have one companion; if you’re level three, two. And so on – until your party is eight strong.
The main part of your quest is to master The Eight Virtues, which are: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality and Humility. You do this by completing small, virtuous tasks that award you points, until you reach a certain amount. When you reach the required level of virtue points, and meditated at the correct shrine, an epiphany occurs, meaning that you’ve mastered that virtue. Afterwards you must follow all the clues to enter The Great Stygian Abyss and complete your quest in full by becoming The Avatar. The game is different to previous Ultimas in that you must be ‘good’ to become The Avatar – you cannot steal, lie, kill anyone friendly, or do anything bad on your adventure.
There are a number of sub-quests that you also need to complete, like: finding runes to get into Shrines of Virtue and learning their Mantras; finding three parts of a key to get into the dungeon of Hythloth; finding some rare reagents that aren’t sold in shops; and finding various other important items that are spoken about in the game (such as The Silver Horn, The Bell of Courage, The Book of Truth, The Candle of Love, The Wheel of HMS Cape, Mystic Weapons, Mystic Armours, and The Skull of Mondain). And of course you need to acquire a sailing ship, which you do in much the same way as in previous games (wait for one to attack you, then attack it and take it over), which can take time*.
Like the previous Ultimas, Ultima IV is opened-ended in how you play it and clues as your aims are given to you by talking to NPCs throughout the world. You start with 300 food and 200 gold pieces and must start by finding the Lord British’s castle, which can be quite far away depending on your starting position. If you’re playing the game blind for the first time you can wander around for a long time before finding Lord British, so maybe it’s better to play with a guide and some maps to at least give yourself a fighting chance.
When you encounter hostiles, combat will initiate and this is similar to that seen in Ultima III, but with some differences. The game will cut to a separate battle screen when combat starts – just like in Ultima III – only this time there are random bits of cover to hide behind (and for your enemies to hide behind too – arrows and sling shots will not pass through walls or boulders). Enemies can also flee from battle by leaving the screen, which you can do too. The good thing about this is: if enemies do flee you are at least awarded with a dropped chest for your efforts. Also: fleeing enemies can have an impact on your virtuousness, because allowing non-evil enemies to escape increases compassion and running away from battles lowers your valor. It’s worth noting, though, that the number of enemies you face in battle is linked to how many characters you have in your party, so it can be advantageous to hold off recruiting more then one or two companions to speed up the first part of the game.
Magic is completely different in this game to what was seen previously. Spells are created by mixing potions using reagents (basically ingredients that you can buy or find), and there are five different spell types (healing, field, support, disable, and attack). All spells require reagents and must be prepared before you can use them. Pressing ‘M’ brings up the mixing menu, from which you must then choose reagents to use. Also: a spell recipe must be in your magic book before you can mix it, and these must either be bought or learned from certain NPCs.
Castles are now multi-levelled. Lord British, for example, is found on the second floor of Castle Britannia, and he will increase your level if you speak to him and you have enough EXP. Castles and other places have locked doors and these can be ‘jimmied’ open using “Magic Keys” (basically lockpicks). These Magic Keys can be obtained from a Guild Shop, which are rare, so another priority you have is to find one.
Talking to NPCs is more important than ever in Ultima IV, because they’ll give you vital clues and pieces of information. You can talk to anyone friendly and type in specific commands that help extract information from them. You can ask things like “NAME”, “JOB”, and other specific words. And when you’re done talking to them you have to type “BYE” to end the conversation (you can also just hit Enter). Some key NPCs are hidden in corners of towns, or in wooded areas that are shrouded in darkness, so you have to look for them. Some are even hiding behind secret doors, which you have to learn to recognise (by their slightly different appearance to normal walls).
There are also the small matter of dungeons that are available to explore. These – like in previous Ultimas – are first-person, but they also include ‘rooms’ that are overhead-viewed and in which battles often take place. These rooms are usually junctions that sometimes give you multiple directions to take and they make exploring more difficult. Getting to dungeons isn’t as obvious in this game, and some are only accessible either by ship or by hot air balloon (yes: you get to fly one of those later in the game). Dungeons contain items needed to complete your quest, and also hide ‘orbs’ that boost your character stats, so are considered essential to visit if you want to complete the game.
Ultima IV is crammed with small details that create a rich and rewarding (and dangerous) world to explore. There are poisonous swamps and spike traps in the overworld (don’t walk on them); bridge trolls (that sometimes attack when crossing bridges); and Moongates again feature and can save you a lot of walking or sailing. In fact: there’s so much to the game that at times it can seem a little overwhelming. It really isn’t that complicated, though, when you study it.
The graphics and sound in Ultima IV are good – similar to those in Ultima III, but with some enhancements. One important detail that’s worth mentioning is that the information display window is much improved over Ultima III. Pretty much everything you need to know is shown on-screen, so you’re not constantly struggling to remember which keystroke relates to which item. This makes Ultima IV much easier to play than the previous game – especially when transacting with shopkeepers and equipping weapons and armour.
Thankfully you don’t need to trade items between characters in this game. When you buy a bow, for example, it will sit in a ‘pool’ inventory that all your characters have access to. The same thing for food and gold – you have a pool of these and all characters use them as needed. This saves a lot of time, not having to pass items around your party members, like in Ultima III. So don’t waste time trying to do that.
Gameplay-wise, Ultima IV is excellent. And for the time it was truly innovative. NPCs have more individuality and personality, and being able to recruit a party of eight, without having to faff around creating eight different characters, is an inspired move. You can’t use chests as barriers, like you could in Ultima III, but you can use them as paths across difficult terrain to prevent the game from giving you annoying “slow progress” messages all the time. There are lots of subtle enhancements and differences over Ultima III that make this a better game.
Ultima IV on the Apple II comes on four disks, which means some disk-swapping, but it’s not too annoying. I played the game in the AppleWin emulator and I had no problems with it. Overall: it’s a very enjoyable game to play. Whether you’d complete it or not is another question.
The PC version of Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar is currently (at the time of writing) available individually for free on GOG.com, or as a part of a paid package with episodes five and six. Until recently it was also available for free on the Origin website, but that seems to have gone, having been swallowed-up by a nebulous EA.
*= A major problem with Ultima IV became apparent to me while playing this version. After approximately twenty hours of play (maybe more, but not less) my characters were at level five and no sailing ship ever showed up. This is a real problem because: 1. your characters can only reach level eight in Ultima IV, and 2. because around level five you are frequently attacked by fairly high-level monsters, so running along the shoreline – hoping that a ship will show up – will see you constantly interrupted by attacks. I tried for hours (and hours) – re-loading and trying again and again – to get a ship to show up, but one never did. So I never managed to go sailing in the Apple II version. I’ve seen guides for this game alluding to that being a possibility, and the writers were clearly exasperated by the ‘luck’ factor in ships actually turning up in the game (or not). I searched online to see if I could find find any information about this, but all I found was unfounded speculation. In Ultima II, for example, it is well known that pirate ships show up after two sea monsters have spawned, and one person on the GOG.com forum suggested that it might be the same in Ultima IV, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the algorithm that determines ship-spawning is different, and could even be bugged. Or at the very least: inconsistent. So why is this important? It’s important because – if a ship doesn’t spawn – then certain areas become unreachable and you probably won’t be able to complete the game. Which is extremely annoying. I’d like to know what the actual code is that determines ship-spawning. Even better: I’d like to see someone write something about it that is factually accurate and not just speculation. Maybe Richard Garriott could enlighten us? Because there are no guides that I could find that discuss this, and the official documentation doesn’t cover it either.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar Keyboard Commands:
a = Attack (followed by direction of attack)
b = Board; mount a horse or board a frigate
c = Cast a magic spell (followed by spell letter)
d = Descend; climb down a ladder in a dungeon
e = Enter a settlement, dungeon or shrine
f = Fire ship’s cannons in the direction indicated
g = Get; open a chest
h = Hole up; make camp and rest
i = Ignite a torch
j = Jimmy lock; use a ‘Magic Key’ to unlock a door
k = Climb up a ladder in a dungeon or building
l = Locate; determine your position
m = Mix; prepare reagents for a spell to be cast
n = New order; rearrange the order of the party
o = Open; attempt to open a door (followed by direction)
p = Peer at a gem; shows a bird’s eye view of a town, castle, dungeon or the overworld; one viewing per gem
q = Quit and save to disk (from the overworld only)
r = Ready a weapon for use in combat
s = Search; inspect your current location for hidden items
t = Talk; converse with townspeople or trade with merchants (say “bye” to end conversation)
u = Use; use an item found by searching
v = Volume; adjusts sound volume
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 character statistics, possessions and spells
Spacebar = Pass one game turn without taking any action