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Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress

Developer: Richard Garriott Publisher: Sierra On-Line
24 August 1982
Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress - cover art
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#68 for 1982
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Eugh, no. If Ultima 1 offered some semblances of questing and dungeon crawling to serve as a diversion, Ultima II doesn't even give you the courtesy of a goal. It is deservingly the black sheep of the franchise.

Richard Garriott was a bit too inspired by the film Time Bandits, and he placed the setting in our own planet Earth where you can travel through different time periods utilising time gates(think of them as predecessors to moon gates), to hop from one time frame to the next, including pangea time, medieval time, modern time, post-apocalyptic time, and a time-beyond-time which contains the stronghold of Minax the Enchantress, a disciple of Mondain from the first game and this game's antagonist. The time gates mechanic could have easily made for a game that's interesting at least as a framework, but the core gameplay of Ultima 1 has been additionally tampered with to make a depressing experience.

Now, here are all the things the game does wrong:
1. Grinding is not rewarding. The enemy dodge mechanics are way too good for what they represent at the lowest character level, and you'll waste a lot of time missing your shots at enemies. Upon beating them too, their drop of experience and loot is quite miniscule, and the entire game boils down to hacking enemies in the overworld to gain gold, items, and experience.
2. The dungeons are made obsolete. Any item you could possibly get from the dungeons is transfered to random overworld drops, and there are no quests that demand diving into dungeons anymore. Even as archaic as they were in Ultima 1 and Akalabeth, they were certainly the most interesting part of the game, but in here they were demoted to an optional quest that any player with common sense skips entirely.
3. Over-reliance on one-use-only items. There are many random drops that the game specifically demands you build a stock of for many sequences, including depletable keys(you'd need a stock of at least 50), magical time-stopping coins which are necessary to get past the final stretch of enemies, exotic items that allow you to travel through space in a rocket(yes, that's still a thing), and a whole slew of little, critical items you just can't get enough of.
4. Lack of NPC communication. The NPCs rarely dispense you hints that are revelant or clue you in to story details, and nevermind that the world is uncreatively populated by depraved stock characters that utter one-liners long before Skyrim turned it into a meme. When you're walking into the world, you don't get the sense you're talking to characters rather than visiting a post-apocalyptic world of cardboard cut-outs. The universe in Ultima II feels empty and dead.

Ultima II is like a fascinating, but nauseating fever dream that is the product of what teenage fantasy and high hormones would make as an awkwardly diced-up program, which you can either consider a true purveyor of punk ideals, or an incoherent mess of adolescent world views: The game is rife with pop-cultural references of the zeitgeist, from cameos by various pop stars to the corny Cold War subjects and the villification of the Soviets. Fortunately, from this nadir Ultima would be going on a steady climb of high points where every game would be better than the last, at least to Ultima VIII. The lore of Ultima really only begins at the 3rd game, but this one is best left under a drawer in Richard Garriott's bedroom and we'd best forget this confusing mess of a game that wasn't sure what it wanted to be does not necessitate an Ultima marathoner's playthrough. Ideally someone could take Ultima II's plot frame, and tailor it to the much more fairer mechanics of Ultima IV or V. Ultima III is where the series truly starts, and that is fortunate.
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Title
Despite its influence on computer role-playing games, the original Ultima was quite generic for the most part. It was an obvious Tolkien-style fantasy game down to its races, tone, enemies, and even some aspects of what little text there was between the game and the manual. Some parts, however, were…a bit odd. The aircar was a game-breaking vehicle that allowed the player to travel the lands, blasting enemies with a laser-mounted gun. The game had Phasers. You went to space to fight TIE fighters. And in order to locate the time machine used to reach the main antagonist’s lair, you had to murder castle guards and a jester to save a princess from what was presumably her own castle. It was clearly a fantasy RPG in overall tone and aesthetic, but it was also laced with an odd choice of science fiction elements and actions of questionable moral value with practically no context. But these elements were sparse. They were there, but only enough to feel out of place in the larger context of the game. But what if they were the driving force of the experience? Then you would have Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress.

Ultima II gives no semblance of a desire to have any more storytelling depth then the first game in the series did. After Mondain’s defeat, Sosaria entered a short-lived period of peace. But it turns out Mondain had an apprentice, Minax, who would carry on his legacy by travelling through time and spreading her minions across the land. The game manual cannot emphasize enough just how incredibly horrific her reign was. Apparently, it made Modain’s reign look “prosperous and carefree.” The only way that people managed to survive was by using the newly opened time portals that sprung up around the world to travel back in time to safety, even though civilization still exists just as fine in the Apocalypse as it does everywhere else. You, as the protagonist, must travel across time and space to gain experience, hit points, and special items to travel back to the time of “Legends” and stop Minax. Also, the game takes place on Earth now.

Conceptually, it is just short of impossible to take this plot seriously, and the way it all plays out only reinforces such ridiculousness. In the first game, despite your ability to commit some noteworthy crimes, you were never forced to steal or draw innocent blood until rescuing the princess (kind of sounds weird when you say it out loud…) In Ultima II, such acts are what drive the plot forward. Murdering guards is the only way to get keys needed to access plot-specific areas, stealing transportation is the key to advancing to the next important town, and food and equipment are more expensive than ever…your call on that one. If the protagonist of Ultima I was a mostly noble hero who was forced into an odd circumstance towards the end of the journey, the protagonist of Ultima II is an unrepentant mass murderer and thief who’s lack of social grace is only exceeded by a complete disregard for all living things and a total lack of self-awareness given the main quest of the game (though maybe the player character is just a sociopath who acknowledges that nothing matters because all time will be effectively restarted at the end of the quest.) The Earth setting stretches this insanity even further. This is a game where sword-wielding town guards patrol the streets of New San Antonio, circa 1990 A.D., where space travel extends across the entire solar system, and where you can literally steal food from the drive-thru window of a well-known fast-food restaurant chain. This concept may be ridiculous, yet I can’t help but enjoy it. It seems as though a young Richard Garriott just realized how odd certain aspects of his first game were and decided to run with it for the sequel. It’s stupid, confusing, and heavily riddled with pop culture references, but it’s just so damn amusing…

Which is why it’s so disappointing that the game is, for the most part, boring and often irritating to play through. While the questionable plotline and setting can garner some sort of amusement, the changes to gameplay structure mostly cannot. In Ultima II, the quest structure is practically non-existent. There is no longer any benefit or motivation to explore dungeons (and now towers as well, an entirely cosmetic change) because you are never required to visit any and you no longer gain hit points for killing enemies in them. If you do decide to go dungeon crawling, it’s a much more tedious affair as well, due to a constant need to use up torches acquired by killing enemies on the overworld, and a lack of enemy variety inside the dungeons. Because of this, you’re better off staying on the overworld to acquire gold…an overworld that is significantly blander than that of its predecessor. In the first game, towns and castles were plentiful, offering a sense of scope and liveliness to the world. In Ultima II, there is one persistent castle through each time period, one town, and a small few villages. There are also significantly less dungeons to pass by, making the world appear even more barren as a whole. When travelling across time periods, there are little to no changes to the geography of the planet, except for Pangaea (an entirely skippable era) and Legends, the final portion of the game. This limits the usefulness and incentive of time travel to simply accessing the next required city. On top of all this, you can only use magic in dungeons, rendering the wizard and cleric classes useless in the grand scheme of the game.

The main goal of the game is, again, to kill the evil wizard wreaking havoc, and to do that, you must acquire the quicksword (the only weapon capable of harming Minax) and the ring (to protect you from magic barriers in Minax’s castle.) The game is as much a sandbox as it was in the first Ultima, and your progress is mainly tracked by your access to progressively advanced transportation until you can reach Planet X. Surprisingly, these plot advancement points are where this game shines, and they exhibit a stronger sense of pacing than that of the first game. You start in 1423 B.C., with low health, gold, and hit points. Experience, as well, but like in the first game, it’s useless. You must fight enemies to gain money (to buy hit points) and items, which are often pointless, but those that do have use are essential to complete the game. Once you acquire blue tassels, you can board a ship and sail across the world, launching cannonballs at your enemies to maximize combat effectiveness and preserve food supplies. After becoming strong enough to take on town guards, you can purposefully travel forward in time, slaying those insidious lawmen and stealing higher forms of transportation all the way up to a KGB rocket ship, where you may blast into space to gain permission from a man on Planet X to get the ring from a man in New San Antonio, where you can also acquire the quicksword…by breaking into the prison and buying it off a jailbird. Apparently, the guards just let him keep this all-powerful sword after incarceration.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, towns themselves have much more depth than in the previous Ultima, offering full exploration, noteworthy locations, and even some light puzzle-solving. For the first time, you can also talk to villagers - villagers who mostly have nothing of worth to say. You cannot choose dialogue options yourself, and instead have to listen to single statements from NPCs upon interaction, ala every future Japanese role-playing game. Every class has individual lines of dialogue ranging from “Ugh…me tuff” from fighters to “Pay your taxes” from guards. The only reason to talk to people is for the rare occasion when you actually gain plot-sensitive information from a random NPC. It is as tedious and boring as it sounds. And sadly, that’s a persistent theme for most of Ultima II. Due to the lack of hit point increases upon killing enemies in dungeons, Ultima II becomes a much grindier chore of a game that its predecessor. While there was some grinding in Ultima I, it did not take long due to the steady increase of hit points from dungeons and inexpensive weapon and armor costs. The most tedious part of Ultima I in comparison was gaining attribute points by travelling back and forth between sign posts…and that’s also worse now. Alongside having to repetitively grind enemies on the overworld for items and gold for hit points, you have to pay a hotel keeper in New San Antonio 100 gold for random attribute increases…of four at a time…with a chance of no increase at all. While, again, this does keep the game pace more steady, it also adds to the pointless amounts of grinding necessary to gather enough Agility points just to wield the very weapon you need to defeat Minax.

It’s a shame that this is the case because at its best, Ultima II is actually more engaging than its predecessor. The towns are a good deal more interesting and the game offers some fun new features like the ability to negate (freeze) time with “strange coins” and more challenging sections throughout the quest. For example, upon discovering the port in the town outside of the teleport gate in 1990 A.D., I discovered the primary way to advance across the land to New San Antonio. I had to kill a guard for his key, break into the shipyard, and steal a boat. Defeating the guard this early on was tough, as was having to avoid pursuing officers. Eventually, I made it to the port, negated time, unlocked the door and ran straight to a ship, sailing away from pursuing dockworkers and guards, following the somewhat cryptic (but still pretty obvious) message along the wall. Moments like these aren’t rare in the game and they add a great deal of fun over the basic template of the first game. The final battle is also a significant improvement over that of Ultima I. Minax’s castle is surrounded by powerful, varied sets of monsters, and the interior of the castle itself is much larger than Mondain’s one-room cave. Inside are long corridors surrounding large rooms, including an inhabited thieves’ guild, museum, prison, and various courtyards. The castle features powerful demons to keep things interesting and Minax herself is guarded by an invincible Balron who stalks you through the corridors as you make your way back and forth to attack Minax as she teleports through opposite ends of the castle. It’s an interesting, challenging final battle and a great conclusion to the game.

And this is why I found Ultima II so disappointing. It offers some notably advanced features over its predecessor, but is marred by its boring overworld, excessive grinding, and questionable design features. While it has higher highs than the first game, it has consistent lows. Whereas Ultima I is a thoroughly solid, if unexceptional, game, Ultima II is a tedious, unpolished game with fleeting moments of greatness. If the developers had just kept the ability to gain hit points in dungeons, if they had just offered a clearer sense of direction, if they had just let you sell the ever-growing mounds of useless inventory clutter for gold, Ultima II could have been a mostly enjoyable successor to the first game. But I really just can’t bring myself to recommend it to anybody who isn’t already committed to playing through the whole series. However, I can’t help but feel that a big reason I didn’t enjoy this game overall is because of the time period it now exists in. In the manual, it is mentioned that the top players would maximize their attributes. I didn’t come close. I stopped right after I had over 50 agility points and could wield the quicksword. But think of this implication. Richard Garriott likely expected that people would engage this game on a deeper level than I did. While I traveled aimlessly across the overworld, shooting cannonballs at orcs and demons for gold, and killing a respawning thief outside a local village for items, people in 1982 were expected to revel in this game’s content. They were expected to visit every planet in the solar system, explore Pangaea, and maybe even dungeon crawl to level 10, not because they had to but because they wanted to. Keep in mind, there weren’t many CRPGs at the time, so a lot of this content could have been quite interesting. But still, I find it hard to see the point when Ultima I offered more entertaining overworld exploration and dungeon crawling.
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urielink Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2024-05-16T22:34:51Z
2024-05-16T22:34:51Z
0.5
1
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ranzac Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2024-05-03T01:28:43Z
2024-05-03T01:28:43Z
4.0
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BlindNoldor Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2024-04-20T18:02:56Z
Apple II • XNA
2024-04-20T18:02:56Z
5 /10
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computer rpg ~usa status: dropped
Bitterballen Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2024-04-15T21:13:55Z
2024-04-15T21:13:55Z
1.0
1
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NordicBeans Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2024-02-05T03:47:39Z
2024-02-05T03:47:39Z
0.5
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basicneutron Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2024-01-17T21:50:25Z
Apple II • XNA
2024-01-17T21:50:25Z
1.5
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cronoclone Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2023-12-31T20:32:10Z
Apple II • XNA
2023-12-31T20:32:10Z
1.0
1
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sp4cetiger Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2023-11-14T04:01:00Z
2023-11-14T04:01:00Z
3.5
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MajorCom Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2023-10-21T15:06:58Z
2023-10-21T15:06:58Z
1.0
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Calyk Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2023-10-15T06:29:31Z
2023-10-15T06:29:31Z
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kukelennedy Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2023-08-26T01:29:35Z
2023-08-26T01:29:35Z
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nbatman Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress 2023-07-05T20:58:55Z
2023-07-05T20:58:55Z
2.0
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  • renegadexavier06 2024-04-14 06:45:40.133861+00
    "Western RPG, Dark fantasy, Open world, Dungeon crawler, Science fiction, Post-apocalyptic, High fantasy, Time travel, Medieval fantasy"

    LOL
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