Ultima VI: The False Prophet is the sixth game in the Ultima series and the third and final game in the “Age of Enlightenment” trilogy. It was first released by Origin Systems in 1990 and the PC MS-DOS version was the original target platform. There is no Apple II version of this game. It is also the most complex game in the series so far.
Character creation is more or less the same as in the previous game: a mysterious gypsy asks you a series of virtue-based questions that define your starting character. You can also import a character from Ultima V if you wish.
You begin Ultima VI in a fight, with three companions (Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre), against a group of gargoyles in Lord British‘s throne room. After defeating the gargoyles Lord British explains to you what’s been going on. Gargoyles have taken on over the Shrines of Virtue and you must try to win them back. He also explains what the small, black stone you found does (it is The Orb of Moons and acts like a portable Moongate that you can use to teleport to places throughout Britannia), and gives you a key to access parts of the castle that you can loot to find some useful starting items.
You’ll find an essential spellbook, some reagents (needed to cast magic spells), some food, and some armour. After speaking to various NPCs in the castle you can then make your way out into the wilds, but only after you’ve lowered the drawbridge and left the castle.
Ultima VI is arguably the most fiddly of the series to get started in, since you need to spend a little time working out how to manage your limited inventory. The ‘move’ command is useful here as it allows you to give items to your companions and also put things in and out of bags to save inventory space.
The controls in Ultima VI use both the keyboard and mouse to move and do things. You can play the entire game using only the keyboard if you want to, and some players prefer this, but I used a combination of both. It’s a fairly simple system once you get used to it.
Like previous Ultimas, Ultima VI is truly open-ended in how you play it, but your first quest should be to free the shrines, which you need to do as soon as possible because you cannot level up without them. And to do that you need to have the rune for each shrine, and also know the mantra. These can be discovered by talking to NPCs throughout Britannia. All the shrines are guarded by gargoyles, however, which are not easy to beat (at least not all of them are – some are very difficult to clear), so you’re going to have to improve your weapons and armour before you can take them. You can get a Magic Bow on credit from Gwenneth at Iolo’s Bows in Britain, which will help you quite a bit, so make sure to do that. Also: when you free a shrine, make sure to pick up the Moonstone from the alter after clearing it (which I failed to do initially). Then afterwards you can ‘talk’ to the altar and meditate to level up any of your characters who have enough Experience Points.
As the Ultima series has progressed the games have gotten more and more complicated, so a good bit of reading is required before progressing. Whether that be the supplied manuals, or a walkthrough. Playing Ultima VI blind is a fool’s game, so be sure to take some time to learn the basics before setting out into the world.
One major change to this game is that towns and the overworld are viewed from the same perspective. That is: from a detailed isometric viewpoint. The view doesn’t change when you enter or leave a town, although the game is constantly loading new sectors as you move around the map. Thankfully the DOS version doesn’t have any disk-swapping, so it’s relatively seamless.
Another major change is in how the combat works. In Ultima VI combat happens in the overworld when you encounter hostiles. You can toggle combat mode for your party on or off, which allows you be prepared if you expect an encounter. Your characters will comment if they hear noises nearby, which can give you a heads-up of possible trouble ahead and allows you to enter combat mode in anticipation of a battle. One thing to keep in mind about combat mode is that it will change the way your companions follow you. Note that if you have combat mode turned on when you’re just walking around normally your companions may wander around and even get stuck, so it’s a good idea to only use it when you’re actually in a fight. It’s also possible to change the ‘Battle Tactics’ of each of your party members by clicking on the crossed swords icon underneath their inventory. This changes their behaviour during battle. There are seven different selections: Assault, Berserk, Front, Flank, Rear, Retreat, and Command; the latter allowing you to individually control their actions, and all the others allowing the computer to control them based on a set criteria.
Healing is done either by casting magic spells (which still require that you carry around reagents/ingredients with you), or by camping, or resting at an inn. When camping each character will eat a piece of food, if they have some, and their HP will partially recover. If they have no food then nothing will happen, so you need to make sure that everyone has some. A meal and a bed are provided at inns, so you don’t have to worry about food in those instances.
Selling loot from defeated enemies is one of the most frustrating aspects of this game, and it really is a pain in the butt finding merchants who’ll buy certain items from you, like two-handed hammers dropped by cyclops, or scale mail, which seems to be dropped quite a lot. There are no shops in Britain that will buy hammers or scale mail from you – you must travel to Minoc, Trinsic, or Serpent’s Hold to sell them. Even worse: the game also has a strict encumbrance system that assigns weight to each item and restricts the amount a character can carry. The Super Nintendo version of Ultima VI dispenses with this nonsense and allows you sell most weapons and armour to one trader in Britain. Which I wish was the case in this game. To get around this you can use The Orb of the Moons to teleport to towns with the right shops to sell to, but you need a list of merchants to do that.
Another niggle is spell-casting. In this you must have the spellbook you found in your room at Lord British’s castle readied in one hand to cast spells, and that can be a problem if all you want to do is cast ‘light’ when entering a cave or dungeon. So you end up un-equipping your weapon; equipping the spellbook; casting ‘light’; then re-equipping your weapon again. It just seems a bit unnecessary, and the game would’ve been better without it. Also: rather than mixing potions with reagents – like you did in previous games – you now just have to have the ingredients in your inventory and the spell recipe in your spellbook. Which does save some faffing around. New recipes can be bought from various NPCs throughout Britannia.
Boats can be bought from shipwrights, which was introduced in Ultima V, and if you have the money you can buy one in Britain, the town you start in. They don’t come cheap, though (although how much they cost depends on your karma; the higher your level, the less they cost).
Ultima VI has a number of features new to the series: more realistic day and night cycles; a more in-depth conversation system; a solo mode where you can control each party member individually, and screen shake due to heavy footsteps of large monsters.
Graphically, the game is very good, with 256 colour VGA graphics being used – out of the box – for the first time. I’m not a big fan of the brightly-coloured information panel, but the world graphics are definitely a step up from previously, even though the game window is a little smaller than I would’ve liked. The PC version’s graphics are better than the Amiga and Atari ST versions, though, with those extra colours really giving the game the edge. Musically the game is good too, with sound that changes depending on what’s happening. You may get tired of “Rule Britannia” playing for the umpteen time, though, so thankfully you can turn it off with CTRL+z.
While I did struggle with Ultima VI initially I have to say that I eventually warmed to it and grew to like it – once I’d gotten used to its foibles. It’s a significant leap forward from the previous Ultima and takes the series in a new direction that feels expanded and detailed. Maybe even too detailed for its own good… To get the most out of Ultima VI, though, you have to put some time into it and learn its nuances, but it’s worth the investment as it’s a good game overall.
Several open source remakes of Ultima VI exist, including one that uses the Ultima VII engine, and another that uses the Dungeon Siege engine. The original DOS version is still available to buy on GOG.com, in a package with Ultimas four and five.
Ultima VI: The False Prophet Keyboard Commands for PC MS-DOS:
a = Attack
b = Begin/break combat (also, “Battle”)
c = Cast
d = Drop
g = Get
l = Look
m = Move
r = Rest (in wilderness) or Repair hull (onboard ship)
t = Talk
u = Use
F1-F8 = Display inventory for specified party member
Tab = Switch cursor between field and inventory
1-8 = Enter Solo Mode with specified party member
0 = Party Mode
Ctrl+h = Help on/off
Ctrl+q = Quit and return to MS-DOS
Ctrl+r = Restore a previously saved game
Ctrl+s = Save game
Ctrl+v = Display version
Ctrl+z = Sound on/off
Escape = Aborts most functions