Ultima IX: Ascension, PC

Ultima IX: Ascension is the ninth and final instalment of the core Ultima series and was developed by Origin Systems and published for Windows-based PCs by Electronic Arts in 1999. It was the first Ultima game to use polygonal rendering in a full 3D environment.

The game is also infamous for being bug-ridden upon release, although the developers reportedly complained about publisher Electronic Arts forcing them to cut content and release an unfinished game. Fixed versions and patches soon followed after release, but these could not save the game from the criticism it recieved. The poor reception of Ultima IX effectively killed the franchise, and EA cancelled all other Ultima projects – except for Ultima Online 2 (which was also cancelled, some time later). Richard Garriott subsequently left Origin and Electronic Arts – the parent company – shut the studio down. Ending the once legendary developer after almost two decades of existence. This, ladies and gentlemen, is just one example of a dispicable, greedy corportion treating its developers like dirt; making them release an unfinished game, and trashing their reputation in the process… The management of Electronic Arts at that time should truly hang their heads in shame.

But let’s get back to the game itself… Ultima IX: Ascension – in its current form, at the time of writing, and as available on GOG.com – is, in some respects, a return to what made the series interesting (except for a lack of party-based adventuring, but more on that later).

The game begins from a third-person viewpoint, with the camera following The Avatar from behind, but you can change this to first-person at any time by pressing ‘K’. You start on Earth at The Avatar’s house and must go through a short tutorial sequence, then a training area, before the mysterious gypsy woman (who is back) finally reads your cards and sends you on your way. After that you enter a portal to castle Stonegate in Britannia; undergo an outfit change; equip your starter weapons and armour, and finally get your Spellbook. You’re then instructed to find Lord British who is located somewhere inside the castle in Britain. When you find him, Lord British explains that mysterious columns have appeared throughout Britannia and are the probable cause of the corruption of The Shrines of Virtue, and of the people throughout the land. Your quest is to investigate this corruption; restore the shrines, and find solutions to the myriad problems facing Britannia.

In telling the story, Ultima IX does something that none of the previous Ultima games have done before, and that is: use pre-rendered cut scenes to help tell the story. These are interspersed throughout the game, at key points, usually to highlight something dramatic. These movie sequences mostly show The Guardian, and his various minions, trying to thwart, capture or kill The Avatar, and they’re not too bad for the time.

Playing the game is fairly simple, if a little different to most other third-person action-based RPGs. You hold down the right mouse button to move forward, and sidestep by either holding CTRL or Alt and right-clicking. You can also use the cursor keys to move forwards/backwards/left and right. Pressing the Spacebar makes The Avatar jump; hitting Tab puts him into combat mode (he’ll draw whatever weapon he’s currently got equipped); and pressing ‘C’ makes him climb. He can even swim, and dive underwater. And he’s also equipped with a very useful Toolbelt that can hold up to twelve different items or spells, which can be ‘quick-used’ by pressing the appropriate function keys.

On-screen are four horizontal, coloured bars that you need to take note of. Top left is a yellow bar indicating your defence level. Every time you equip better armour it will increase. Top right is a white bar that indicates your attack level. Likewise: every time you equip a better weapon this will increase. Bottom left is a blue bar that shows your mana level. Every time you cast a spell some of your mana will be consumed. It can be topped back up by drinking blue potions. Bottom right is a red bar that shows your health. Every time you take damage this reduces, and if it completely empties then you’ll die. This can be topped-up by either eating food, drinking yellow potions, or visiting a healer. A pointer indicates the current maximum level of both your mana and health and this is increased when you go up a level.

Pressing ‘B’ brings up the backpack window, which can be re-positioned in the same way as seen in the previous two Ultimas: by dragging it around the screen. To pick up items found in the game world you hold the mouse cursor over them and drag them onto the backpack, toolbelt, or onto The Avatar himself. To use an item, like a door or a lever, you simply left-click it once. Same for items like food or potions in your backpack. Keys are automatically used if you have them in your possession and disappear when they’ve served their purpose.

Inventory management is made easier in Ultima IX because items snap to slots inside the backpack (or sacks inside it), which means that – while it keeps everything neat and tidy – there is a strict number limit (not a weight limit) on how many things you can carry. Finding extra sacks increases that limit, and if you know how to do it you can even use an exploit to keep getting extra sacks, and keep putting them inside other sacks, which will give you a carrying capacity far in excess of what the game’s designers originally intended.

Pressing ‘S’ brings up the Spellbook, and casting magic in Ultima IX can be done in two different ways. Firstly: if you have a Spell Scroll in your possession, you can cast that spell, regardless of your magic (circle) level. You can only cast the spell once per scroll, though, and – once cast – the scroll disappears. Secondly: you can bind a Spell Scroll to your Spellbook, which allows you to cast it any time. For the latter: you can only cast spells that show an icon in your Spellbook, and you have the reagents (ingredients) for. Also: you can only bind spells to your book if you are at the correct magic level for that particular spell. However: some Spell Scrolls are extremely rare so are best stored somewhere safe* until you can bind them. Your actual character and magic level is determined by the number of shrines you’ve cleansed. If you’ve cleared three, then you’ll be at level three, and so on. Just make sure that you don’t use the rarest spells (some are only found once) by accident. To identify scrolls, or any other item in the game, hover the cursor over them and press ‘X’.

To inscribe new spells into your Spellbook you must use a ‘binding ritual‘. To do that you need to find a bind pentagram (the ones with five candles on them – there’s one in Lord British’s castle); place the scroll on it, and the reagents needed to cast the spell. Then cast the ‘Linear’ (ie. free) spell “Ignite” on all five candles. You will then be asked for the “incantation“, which is the name of the spell. Type in the name of the spell (eg. “MANI” or “AN NOX”), making sure to spell it correctly, and if you’ve done everything right the spell should be bound to your Spellbook, to be used any time (at a mana cost, of course). Note that there’s a “good” bug in the game that you can use to save reagents during binding. Just before you type in the incantation, take the reagents from the pentagram and put them back into your backpack. The spell should still bind (once you’ve hit Enter), but you get to keep the reagents. This can be done repeatedly, which is nice.

*= Storing items “safely” in Ultima IX is a bit of a gamble, because sometimes they can fall out of bounds. A couple of guides I read suggested storing items in The Avatar’s room in Lord British’s castle, but when I did that I lost some of them because they either fell through the floor, or just disappeared into thin air. This could be down to the number of similar items being dropped in one place. If there are too many, then some might disappear. I suggest spreading your stored items throughout the world as you explore, rather than all in one place. Also: sell off repeat weapons and armour to the merchant in Buccaneer’s Den when you’re able to.

Combat is real-time and you left-click on a target when in Combat Mode to attack it. Pressing ‘N’ selects the next target; an ankh will appear over the target and you’ll face it while attacking. You can also jump in different directions when attacking, which is useful. Also: something that doesn’t become apparent until later in the game is that you can perform special attacks by holding down the CTRL and Alt keys while clicking – as long as you’ve trained your skills up beforehand. There are six different combat skills that you can train: fists; one-handed; two-handed; staffs; ranged, and magic, and each one of these can be trained from Novice, to Apprentice, to Journeyman, then to Master. So you can even specialise in hand-to-hand combat if you like – if you can find someone who’ll train you.

Many of the places you visit in Ultima IX will be familiar to those who’ve played previous Ultimas. You’ll also meet various characters from earlier games too, although – rather disappointingly – you won’t be able to recruit any of them to join you. Like Ultima VIII, Ultima IX is The Avatar by himself on his adventure, with no companions following. Which is a missed opportunity, because party-based adventuring was an enjoyable staple of many of the previous Ultimas. Your main quest – cleansing the shrines – will be familiar territory too, although there are many side quests to find and complete as you explore. Familiar dungeons also return, such as Deceit, Despise, Destard, Shame, Hythloth et al, although these are of course different to those seen in previous games. The first dungeon you take on – Despise – is more of a ‘starter dungeon’ than later ones, easing you in to the process of surviving traps and solving puzzles. Dungeon-crawling in Ultima IX is pretty interesting, though.

Story-wise, Ultima IX has been heavily criticised for ignoring important details that previous Ultimas established, and it also has to be said that dialogue and characterisation are pretty awful too. The voice acting in particular is very cheesy – particular of The Avatar, who at times sounds more like the disinterested and sarcastic Postal Dude from Postal 2 than a realistic fantasy hero… That said: as long as you don’t expect something like The Witcher 3 when you play this, and remember that this game is over twenty years old now, then there’s plenty to enjoy about it.

The music in particular is excellent, with orchestral, acoustic, and folk renditions of familiar Ultima themes. Graphically, Ultima IX is rich and colourful and the lighting is very good for an early 3D game. While the models and textures are simplistic by today’s standards, for a game released in 1999 they are very good. The animation of some creatures is a bit basic, though, and some of them (mostly rats) can’t even seem to walk on the ground properly and often get stuck…

The game – rather infamously – is still quite buggy. Even after numerous patches (the last one – 1.19f – being unofficial; reportedly released by one of the developers after Origin‘s demise), there are still numerous issues with the game, but if you’re careful/lucky you won’t encounter anything too game-breaking. The biggest problems I found with it were stored items falling under the ground (which I mentioned earlier and is very annoying), and the game crashing when Alt+Tabbing out to Windows (which I stopped doing after a while). Also: the GOG.com version (the one I played; shown here), doesn’t allow you to increase the game’s default 800×600 resolution, but there are fan-made patches available that will allow you to do that.

As single-player, action/adventure-based RPGs go: Ultima IX isn’t bad. I enjoyed playing it, even though it is clunky, and even though its mis-management at the hands of EA resulted in the death of one of my favourite development studios. I liked the many references to previous Ultimas; the interesting game world; the huge amount of items to collect; the broad range of character skills to expand, and the atmosphere created by the music, lighting and weather effects. Ultima IX may not be the grand finale to this classic Role-Playing series that many wanted, but it’s good enough to keep a player absorbed and entertained for a considerable length of time.

Note: one final thing I want to mention is that I had the privilege of having Ultima IX demoed to me by Richard Garriott himself, at E3 in 1999, for a preview I was writing for PC Zone magazine. I remember Richard‘s enthusiasm and glee at being able to bring the Ultima series into a new age of 3D adventuring. I sat with Richard for about an hour, with him showing off the game’s new features, and him talking about it in detail. The preview was printed in PC Zone issue 80; September 1999. It is a pity, then, that the game suffered such an ignominious release at the hands of EA, and was to be the final game in the Ultima series. I unfortunately didn’t get to write the review for PC Zone magazine (I don’t remember who wrote the review, or what it said), but I would’ve probably have been kind to it – even with the bugs – as the Ultima series had been part of the formative years of gaming for me. Playing the game now brings back a variety of memories; most of them fond.

More: Ultima IX: Ascension on Wikipedia
More: Origin Systems on Wikipedia
GOG: Ultima IX: Ascension on GOG.com

Ultima IX: Ascension Keyboard Commands:

b = Backpack open/close
c = Climb
k = Toggle first/third-person view
q = Hand mode on/off
s = Spellbook open/close
t = Target Mode on/off
n – Next target (only in Target Mode)
x = Examine
Spacebar = Jump
Tab = Combat Mode on/off
Caps Lock = Toggle walk/run
F1 to F12 = Tool belt hotkeys
CTRL+s = Save game to new slot
CTRL+l – Load game

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