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Thread: Ultima Underworld: the Stygian Abyss review from two different aspects

  1. #1
    New Member
    Registered: Oct 2017

    Ultima Underworld: the Stygian Abyss review from two different aspects

    Before you read: This is a long review mainly contains my blabbing of the things I found interesting throughout my two UU playthroughs. The first part is a little bit more serious, while the second part is just a series of silly Ultima jokes (which I happen to tell a lot). Iím writing it to two different groups of audiences simultaneously, so if youíre interested in Immersive Sims, you might like to read the first part; if you like Ultima series, you might find the second part interesting. If you take your time to read both, I would be very grateful for your taking your time to read my immature opinions and experiences.
    Itís impossible to know everything in an Immersive Sim/ Ultima game in just one or two playthroughs, so please forgive me if I made mistakes. Iím eager to learn new things about them, but please be kind to me when pointing out my mistakes >_<.

    Part 1: an approach slightly leaning to an analysis as a fan of Immersive Sim grene

    I played UU twice, in the same year.
    At first I came to this game for its Immersive Sim tag. As a big fan of Immersive Sim grene, this game is just unavoidable. I first started playing this game in 2018, after finishing its (older) spiritual successor Arx Fatalis, also partly preparing for Underworld Ascendant. However, I didnít finish the game until mid of 2020.
    Iím now feeling a bit ashamed to say it wasnít that impressive to me at that time. Iím intrigued for sure, it even led me into the main series of Ultima. But I have to admit that I didnít pay too much attention to it, obviously didnít see everything in the game and used guides a lot.
    Later, after I finished Ultima IV, I finally had an idea of what this series is about, as well as the background of UU. As Iím going more and more into the series, I realized I had a lot of misunderstandings about UU, both lorewise and in game mechanics. I felt an urge of replaying UU and as Iím playing the series nearly chronologically, I got to replay UU in December.
    Ironically, this time when I initially just wanted to enjoy it from the aspect of a fan of Ultima series, I actually see many of the Immersive Sims design that I never noticed before. During this playthrough, I was keeping in awe of many of the details, quests and secrets in game, forgetting how old this game was. It was astonishing to see that when this grene was just born, the beginning of it was already very strong and still very inspirational today.

    Here are some points that I found it interesting as Immersive design:

    1. Non-linear open ended quest structure
    The non-linear quest structure is almost a tradition in Ultima series, where you always find 8-something in parallel with no specific order. The other feature is the progress of quests is controlled by information and knowledge, you can skip many things if you somehow know the information somewhere else, either from outside of the game (guides), or your previous playthrough, even sometimes you guessed and found it accidentally.
    In UU itís more fascinating that there are many side quests that seems unrelated but later found to be quite useful, yet still theyíre largely optional. One of the seemingly unrelated side quest is a goblin gave me a recipe of worm soup, it seems so random at first. I made it out of curiosity but itís too nauseous so I just keep it for fun. Later when talking to a troll, they said they like worm soup, Iím surprised but happily gave it to them. They gave me some dragon scales that said to be lava proof. At 5th level when I tried to use the dragon scale but itís not a usable item, then I realized it might need to be made into something and recalled a tailor out of nowhere and I had no idea what could be made then I found them. They made me a pair of lava proof shoes which is vastly more convenient than using lava walking spells. Iím quite surprised because those quests are not related to the main quest finding the talismans at all and to be very optional, and it doesnít even look like a quest, but I got a very convenient alternate solution for lava levels.
    Not only such ďside questsĒ, some of the talisman quests are also optional even in a normal playthrough without guide. Book of Honesty and Shield of Valor are not that hard to discover without any hint if you just explore the map carefully, Taper of Sacrifice might be benefit to recognize with high lore skill, and you can even get Standard of Honor dishonorably by just killing the knights and skip their quests entirely (I joked on this already). In my first playthrough I skipped many of the side quests, and when I really play through the game differently, I was shocked by this degree of freedom in quest structure. Itís really hard to notice if you only play in one style, either you play with doing all quests or skipping most of them.

    2. Intuition guided puzzle solving
    One thing that keep surprising me in game is the puzzle design in UU. The puzzles in UU usually donít have extremely clear guides in game, but most of them are not hard to figure out with the information provided throughout the game.
    A series of puzzles related to 8-directional lever plate really amazed me a lot. There are three that I can remember. One is related to a side quest which hints the directions are connected to numbers, the other two are a bit more ambiguous. One is with quite a large freedom that you just try until you find out how to raise and lower the platforms, and which is corresponding to which position. This one has no fixed solutions and you just adjust it to whatever you like. Even you cannot or donít bother to solve it, thereís another way to reach the tomb on 5th floor so itís again optional. The other one when I saw it, I didnít even realized it was a puzzle, I just saw a series of levers and the floor below it was strangely colored differently. I just tried to adjust the levers corresponding to the color out of curiosity, and it turned out paving a perfect way upward to a secret location! I was so amazed by this because it was all out of intuition and I didnít even try to actively solve a problem! That was really a magical moment in game, although again that wasnít the only solution of the puzzle. Theoretically you can also use the experience from the other puzzle to solve each other, which is also quite interesting.
    Another one was a bit simple but I havenít figured out at first so it was also impressive to me. There was a very deep room full of skeletons and if you jump into it, there seems to be no way to get out. At first I thought the only way is using the silver seed to get out, however later in game I found two other solutions, one is a secret door, the other is using telekinesis to control a series of platforms rising from the ground. Both need careful observation to figure out, which was surprising when finally seeing the solutions.
    Other puzzles, like Vas rune and mining ores, while seemingly more straightforward, are still very interesting to explore. Going into a new place that wasnít at the map before was very exciting, there were magical moments just passing through a wall seeing a brand new world. They were optional but largely increased the fun of exploring in the dungeon.

    3. Emergent gameplay mechanics
    As a classic example of systematic design, the Deus Ex LAM mine example was mentioned repeatedly these years which also inspired some mechanics in Prey. The rope arrow usage in Thief series is also considered a good example of such design philosophy. There was actually something quite similar to these two in Ultima Underworld, that is the mechanics of Silver Sapling.
    The Silver Sapling is a reviving mechanics in UU that allows you to revive at the point you decide with full HP/MP and some penalties in exp points. Itís quite flexible but still with limitations while you can only use it in mud ground. I noticed it to be interesting that at low levels mud ground is more common to appear, and silver sapling do help in these situations more. The reviving mechanics is not new in Ultima series, but deciding where to revive is very interesting, it allows you to decide whether to fight back or flee after a failed attempt, as well as a teleportation choice before you discover Moonstone in game.
    Moreover, I observed an unusual usage of silver saplings that might not be the intended designóeven if it was, itís a good example that good Immersive Sims make players think they come up ideas and clever . The silver sapling is planted a short distance in front of you, if you planted it in front of the door and the other side of the door is also mud ground, you can bypass this door without keys or levers after you revive! Although suicide is not that easy if youíre in a closed environment (using poison or jump into the wall might do), but itís really an alternate way to get through the locked door and I used this in my playthrough to get through a locked Lizardman door before I found the key.
    There are many other examples that are connected to the quest or level design which using certain magic or scroll can bypass a maze or skip some quests. For example, if platform jumping is difficult sometimes you can use fly magic or potion. Some other emergent gameplay elements are derived from Ultima VI, such as multiple ways of opening a locked door, breaking a container to get things or clear the path etc. Even if your character doesnít get access to some of the methods due to limitations in stats or skipping some side quests, there are almost always more solutions for you to solve the problems as you like.

    4. Level design with the third dimension
    As one of the earliest 3D game, UU really take advantage of this new dimension and creating multiple solutions in choices of path. I noticed one interesting detail that, in my first playthrough, there was a large amount of time that I didnít realize the existence of jumping, and I successfully reached level 8 without jumping once! And theoretically you can use potions and spells to avoid jumping almost entirely. That was actually surprising! But still jumping really let you see more of the secrets and possibilities of the level. In level 6-8 there are many complex platform jumping as an alternate way to walking in lava, which also lead to some treasures and secrets. When I jump on the platforms on level 7, I was so astonished to find another entrance of the deadly maze and many other ways to access to different part in this level.
    There was a moment that I realized my imagination was too limited comparing to this wonderful level design. In my first playthrough, I always go through the higher platforms and use the path through the door to locate the final chamber. When I found out in my second playthrough that the chamber can be accessed by merely several jumps from a place fairly easy to approach, I was completely mind blown. The dungeon routes are quite complex in the Abyss, but almost never feels boring, as there are so many shortcuts and different ways to go to a destination.
    There are actually special items that can change the gameplay drastically, for example the ring of leap. Itís hard to discover on its own, but provide the alternate solution to a hidden spell long jump. Theyíre usually similar to one of the spells, but using at anytime without limitations of mana is quite convenient and sometimes game changing. The ring of Leap actually allows you to jump to higher or farther platforms and sometimes creating a shortcut. This combined with the level design largely created more possibilities in route choices.

    5. Environmental storytelling
    Itís not necessarily some direction that modern game should pursue, and itís probably due to the disk limitations, but I just like it because itís rather unique, that is not only there is environmental storytelling elements in UU, most of the environmental storytelling are also serving as hints for puzzles or mechanics. There are books that only serving as storytelling like in the libraries and in rooms of knights (which I actually consider them as Easter Eggs of the Ultima main series more), but many of the others are serving as both.
    One impressive example is the rat lever. Thereís a random skeleton beside a lever and left a note, which indicates using the lever might cause some troubles. By observing the surrounding and even trying it you can figure out they were talking about rats and probably died from it. There are quite a few similar examples where you can figure out the incidents by the skeletons, notes and items, even blood stains might indicate a story or direction of enemies. It was very interesting to see such implementation in early Immersive Sim.

    Itís very astonishing that, some of the designs is not very obvious to find out if you only play it once, like some of the other immersive Sims such as Dishonored and Prey: how you play it might change the game drastically, but itís all up to your choice. As the pioneer of the Immersive Sim grene, UU had already paved the path for so many concepts that we see in later or modern Immersive Sims. It was a truly immersive experience playing UU, and exploring the dangerous, complex but charming Stygian Abyss.


    Part 2: the stories and experiences from the aspect of an Ultima fan

    Thereís no doubt that the main reason Iím paying more attention in my second playthrough, is my growing love of the main series Ultima. Yes, it certainly makes the experience more interesting and fun! Different from the rather serious first part, now Iím telling those interesting stories of the game itself, as well as my experiences.
    In my first playthrough, I really knew nothing about lores of Ultima, so everything seemed so random to me. But after I played and beat several Ultima games, Iím viewing the game completely differently: I know Iím playing as a (ought to be) virtuous Avatar, I know about Britannia and this Stygian Abyss, and why those talismans and three-part key had such ďweirdĒ names. I even have my own Avatar design for UU1 as a variant of the general design in the main series . I knew that UU1 is not that connected to the main series, as thereís barely any returning characters and such, but it still helps a lot, and knowing the lore of Ultima gave me the ability to tell you more funny stories and jokes about UU1.
    So we all know that at the beginning of the story, Avatar was thrown into the Abyss, with nothing but pajamas. Even on the game cover the Avatar was dressed rather casual, so itís naturally indicating there would be some difficulties lying at first. I didnít remember if my character benefited from the class choice or I played as easy difficulty in my first playthrough, the second one didnít really feel like Iíve played the game just recently. In the first few hours, I keep finding myself saying ďIím experienced in this gameĒ and died shortly after. Once I fight a goblin and I have to run away in combat then sleep to recover, and I repeated that 4 times to kill the goblin! That was really clumsy...
    However, soon I found out the interesting item Silver Sapling. It allows you to revive fully with a certain amount of exp (which is 1/8 of your current exp, the game is telling you exploiting this mechanics will lose an eighth ). I exploited the silver sapling anyway because it made my initial encounters much much easier. I just plant the tree around a battle site and eventually I can win over them. I wonder if the goblins would feel unfair knowing that Iím using this method, but well, I guess low levels like level 2 are almost all mud ground for a reason. On higher level however, I donít need to rely on the tree so much, it became a failsafe to get out of some seemingly dead lock situations, and even then we have a better one called Moonstone. But I still like this mechanics very much and it made the game very fun with it.
    Now that Iím paying attention to the quests, I found them very interesting. On the first floor some random goblin gave me a recipe of ďworm soupĒ, made from corpse of rotworms which one of my dragon friend described as challenging to make it cute at all. I made one out of curiosity but I didnít bother drinking that, ugh. And then you need to flatter a goblin, who obviously forgot everything about humility, to get some information about the Abyss, which made me laugh hard. The Lizardman language learning is just a classic, I still like it very much in my second playthrough.
    On the fourth floor, Iíd share one of my favorite UU joke. In my first playthrough, I met the knights and tried to finish their quests at first, however, there was a two year interval and I completely forgot what I was doing, and I probably threw it away at some point and failed to find such quest item. Then I tried to kill the knights and see what happened, surprisingly, the final reward that I need was dropped when I did that. I was very happy at that time seeing an alternate solution to the quest, and appreciated this design a lot. After I played Ultima series, I found something was not quite right. That item was called ďStandard of HonorĒ, and by killing the knights, I got it dishonorably... Well, although I still appreciate that possibility of alternate solution, doing that was not Avatar behavior at all!
    A big benefit that you played Ultima before UU is, you can understand those Easter eggs easily. As a new Ultima fan, I got excited too easily by those small details, such as books in the library, the knights mentioning about Jhelom and virtues, and even seeing that shrine of big shiny ankh made my eyes widely open with excitement. I just directly lost my mind when I used a random scroll (which turned out to be Gate Travel) and saw the moonstone! The side quests getting information of the talismans are also interesting, when they are trying to test my virtues I just know their purpose immediately .
    As the storyline goes on I gradually understand what happened here in the Abyss after my last visit. There was basically ďProject Avatar mass productionĒ where everyone should follow all the eight virtues. However, after Sir Cabirus died the whole thing failed and most of them just throw the idea away and fight each other for various of reasons. No wonder many of them are so mean to me when trying to talk to them. To be fair, some dialogue choices of Avatar are also mean and even aggressive or offensive. I guess itís either Avatar is sleepwalking the whole game, or the Abyss is really an evil place...
    Many interesting details are also worth mentioning. I like the taking note on map mechanics a lot, but I never expect this ďmapĒ to be 99 pagesÖ Now thatís really a big map. In this game we can also meet Warren the Spectre, I bet you know the reference already, but strangely he was upset. Soon I found a very interesting but a bit annoying talking door nearby, it must be this doorís fault . We have already met a lot of talking animals in Ultima series, but talking door is still quite refreshing to see (and to talk to).
    I spotted a lot of Ultima references in the game (well, itís an Ultima game after all), but surprisingly this time weíre not playing Stones for puzzle. I guess thatís because the talisman is somehow called ďCup of WonderĒ and not Spirituality. But thereís a puzzle I canít call it a direct reference but it really connected to U4 event that, when Garamon asked how to deal with the talisman, we need to give the idea of throwing them into the volcano. In my first playthrough, I was always wondering ďhow did everyone know what we should do hereĒ, but after playing U4, itís clear that Avatar is experienced in throwing things in volcano . And of course Iím familiar with the three part key, and wonít ask ďwhy the key is called InfinityĒ anymore.
    The ending was... still weird to me, I mean running along the strange green path with weird monsters. One thing I found interesting in my first playthrough was when you beat the game thereís that congratulations page which asked you to call Origin. It was new to me when I havenít played any Ultima games, so I laughed at that one for a long while. Well, Iím used to that and have collected several such proof of completion
    People often say ďyou canít enjoy a game the first time twiceĒ, but it was a strange experience that I enjoyed Ultima Underworld twice freshly in the same year. Iím so happy that such a game exists as a cross point of one of my favorite franchise and favorite grene. There sure were many out-dated things in UU, such as janky control and weird collision, even when you get used to the control method, the unpleasant movement especially jumping would still exist as a main setback of the game. Still I hope more people especially Immersive Sim fans could try this game and see what this grene was originated. There was so much fun even in today! After my second playthrough, I love UU wholeheartedly and changed my previous impression completely. It proved again that Immersive Sim is a grene that if youíre paying attention and dive into it more, youíre getting much much more in return!

    p.s. I didnít even talk about the innovation of game mechanics at that time but itís already too longÖ Iím not an expert on this topic so please forgive me skipping this part completely, I think it has been told by many people so I guess itís fineÖ

  2. #2
    Administrator
    Registered: Oct 2000
    Location: Athens of the North
    Interesting read and good to know that you weren't put off by the controls - a stumbling block for many players. The freedom to tackle challenges in different ways was something that really impressed me when I first played it in the 90s, even more than the graphics which were indeed revolutionary. Would be interested in hearing how you get (got?) on with UU2 - it's my personal favourite of the two games but I recognise that it has some aspects that put people off.

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