Serpent Isle is an oddity in the Ultima series in that it is a direct sequel to the previous game – Ultima VII: The Black Gate – which uses the same game engine, but with a few enhancements. It was published by Origin Systems in 1993 and only ever appeared on the PC, running under MS-DOS.
Ultima VII Part Two takes place eighteen months after the events of The Black Gate and the story leads The Avatar to Serpent Isle, where The Guardian resides and from where he still plans to destroy Britannia. The ship he’s sailing on is magically beached amidst a strange storm, and all of his companions are magically whisked away from him. Not only that, but his possessions are replaced by strange items of unknown origin.
The Avatar’s initial quest was to rescue Iolo‘s wife, Gwenno, and find Batlin, the leader of The Fellowship, who’ve disappeared, but his arrival on Serpent Isle has thrown that into disarray. Now he must find his companions, reclaim his possessions, and get back on track.
Unlike in previous Ultimas, some quests must be completed before The Avatar can advance into a new area, so the game isn’t quite as open-ended as the previous games were, although that doesn’t really hurt the game in any way – it just makes it more linear. One early quest that must be completed to progress the story is The Knight’s Test, where The Avatar must enter a network of caves – alone – armed with only a mace, and wearing some leather armour, and come out the other end; only to discover that he’s been double-crossed. The place is filled with traps, fairly difficult puzzles, hidden doors, and deadly monsters, and there’s a sub-boss fight at the end; which is quite difficult to complete unless you’re clever with saves and healing. But this quest is somewhat indicative of the game’s structure. Needless to say: it’s not really for Ultima novices…
Serpent Isle uses an enhanced version of the Ultima VII engine, with changes made to hotkeys (to make them more comprehensive than in Ultima VII [part one]), and some cosmetic differences to the previous game. Portraits are now digitised photos of the actors, for example. Inventory management has also been tweaked, but – to be honest – it’s still not very good because the game doesn’t do a particularly good job of remembering the position of items inside sacks and backpacks, and the encumbrance system is still a bit too restrictive for my liking (money, for example, has weight, and can really restrict how much you can carry, if you have a lot of it). To me: the encumbrance system is about as welcome as the food system (ie. a pain in the butt that really detracts from the enjoyment of the game). Having to constantly feed whinging companions who complain when they’re hungry is not much fun!
Also not much fun are the numerous bugs that plague this game. Apart from the frequent crash-outs (that I experienced in the GOG version), there are also a number of game-breaking bugs that will prevent the story from progressing, unless you know about them in advance and take steps to avoid them. I also noticed that the game’s lighting system would stop working on occasion (at one point all the street lights in the main town of Monitor stopped working at night, leaving me wandering the streets in the dark; double-clicking each street light made them come back on again!). This lighting failure happened to me quite a lot, in various different locations, and it made examining inventories almost impossible. I lost count of the number of times I shut the game down and re-started it, in the hope that it would fix the lighting. Which didn’t always work. Sometimes resting fixed it, and sometimes even caused it. It’s an intermittent problem that I didn’t experience in The Black Gate.
Other new additions to Serpent Isle are: haggling in shops (which is welcome, but not that effective); weather effects such as rain, lightning, thunder, and changing light conditions (these are actually a key part of the story), and a simplification of the “paperdoll” equipment panels (which are a bit hit and miss as the game often auto-equips stuff onto your characters when you don’t want it to).
Just like in The Black Gate, in Serpent Isle you must spend Training Points to level-up your character’s primary attributes. It’s not a great system – especially as trainers tend to wander around and only be available at certain times – but it works okay.
Personally, I was a bit disappointed by Serpent Isle. I didn’t mind the linear nature of parts of the story, and I eventually got used to the skittish inventory system, but the damn bugs almost ruined it for me. Also: the companion AI this time seemed a bit glitchy. No matter what I tried with the Battle Tactics system my companions would often just run away to chase monsters that were some distance away, leaving me wondering where they were and whether they were still alive or not. During combat both The Avatar, and his companions, would sometimes jump around the screen disconcertingly. In fact: manual control of The Avatar in combat seems like suicide in most instances, and setting him to auto-hit using the Battle Tactics icon often gave me the best results. I’d use the mouse to make him run around, then leave it alone for a second or two when I wanted him to attack. During the aforementioned Knight’s Test it was the only way I could get past certain monsters.
Overall: Serpent Isle is a mixed experience. The level of detail and challenge are good, but the execution leaves something to be desired. If you like difficult, old school RPGs, then you’ll probably get something out of it. I recommend playing the game with a walkthrough, though, so you can avoid those game-breaking bugs. There’s nothing worse than investing hours into a game only to paint yourself into a corner with a bug.
An expansion disk for Serpent Isle, called The Silver Seed, was also released in 1993, and adds five new quests to the game. In them the player must go back in time to find The Silver Seed to “heal the land” of Britannia. These added quests must be completed before the end of the main game, though, and they can be started when you die for the first time. The expansion does add a couple of useful new features, such as the keyring (for organising the many keys found in the game), and The Amulet of Balance (which allows you to resurrect party members easily – although it does take a week of in-game time to re-charge); plus a few interface tweaks; new friends and enemies, and new trainers.
Ultima VII: The Complete Edition is available on GOG.com (at the time of writing) and includes: Ultima VII: The Black Gate, Forge of Virtue, Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle, and The Silver Seed.
Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle Keyboard Commands for PC MS-DOS:
a = Audio on/off
b = Spellbook (if in inventory)
c = Combat Mode on/off
h = Switch mouse handedness
i = Inventories
j = Serpent Jawbone (if in inventory)
k = Use key (if keyring is in inventory)
l = Combat Status
m = Map (if in inventory)
s = Save/Load menu
t = Targeting Cursor
v = Version number
z = Statistics
Alt+x = Quit game
Alt+8 = Frame Limiter on/off
Escape = Close all open windows