Ultima IX: Ascension
With the completion of this playthrough, I have now completed all the Ultima games (technically I never finished Ultima I, but that one’s a bit too retro for me). Now, everyone says Ascension is the worst of the series, and I think I agree, but it is not as horrible a game as its reputation would suggest. Taken on its own, it is a playable and fun adventure RPG game that hints at what would eventually become possible in games like Skyrim, Fallout 3 and The Witcher. But let’s be clear here, this game is still a hot mess.
So, let’s quickly go over the major problems with the game. First, the graphics are buggy and you often find characters standing in odd places, items floating in mid air, and camera clipping all over the place. The controls are wonky with the right mouse button used to walk forward and a weird switching between mouse pointer inventory management and movement. Your character runs so slow that I would recommend anyone that wants to play the game to enable the fast walk cheat. The game crashes a lot. I couldn’t get it to play in-game cinematics on my Windows 10 PC. The story bears little relation to what has happened in the first eight games and is an unsatisfying ending to the Guardian cycle. Mainly, it just feels incomplete.
What the game has going for it is its ambitious, persistent open-world. You kill a bandit, he drops a sword. If you return to that spot days later, the sword is still there! This is both awesome and potentially game breaking. If you drop an important item in an obscure place, good luck ever being able to retrieve it again. The world is just begging to be explored, but unfortunately, like I mentioned above, the game is incomplete. There are only a few surprises to be found.
And, if you don’t know exactly what spell to cast at the exact time, you may never find that hidden weapon. I appreciated the lack of hand holding but felt no shame in relying heavily on walkthroughs to complete the game. Unlike most modern RPGs, the Ultima series leans heavily on puzzle solving. This can be quite enjoyable as you are forced to think your way through the various dungeons. Admittedly, by around dungeon #6 it starts to get a little old and I just wanted to bash monsters and get to the prize at the end.
The main complaint about the game is the lackluster story that just abandons the cliffhanger that was set up in Pagan. I did enjoy meeting all the old characters from the past, but there wasn’t even a slight attempt to flesh them out (perhaps except for Dupre). This should have been the cumulation of 20 years of world building and it just lands with a thud. There’s a cringey attempt at romance and plenty of interactions that lead nowhere.
However, if you are a fan of the series or even just a fan of mid-90s 3-D games, this might be worth trying out despite its many flaws. Just be patient and don’t expect too much from it.