Sometimes you just want to be surprised. That was my logic when looking for something to play for another Closer Look. After all these articles the fact is that some authors have shown up quite often while others have yet to have any of their creations showcased. The early 2000s seems to be a time of neglected works with releases schedules getting quieter and quieter as the years go on, and more worlds that just went completely over looked in terms of the public record.
Ultima is the author of our game of choice this time, with Ultima RPG, an ultimately mediocre adventure that seems to mean well, but just can't focus on anything long enough to really astonish. I really can't say much about what I was expecting here! I went in knowing nothing of the author and nothing of the game. This seems to have been their fate in the community with not a single one of their releases having a single review. Doomed to obscurity, the question is was it just bad luck, or are these games just nothing special?
It's the latter.
Not in a bad way or anything, and certainly not so forgettable as to warrant zero reviews across a reasonable number of releases. Ultima RPG is a game that feels as if Ultima threw everything they had in preparation of starting a lengthy series that one could anchor a ZZTing reputation to a la Chronos's Chrono Wars or Knightt's Stupid RPG. It wants to be something great, and really does try its best, but there's just nothing memorable in the execution.
Stories (Two of Them)
While the story in Ultima RPG will eventually be one about traveling to a fantasy world and saving its people from mysterious conquerors that are also kidnapping people from Zack's native world, the first act of the game has an entirely different tone and design. A story option on the main menu provides the backstory to this initally gritty adventure
He spent most of his life indoors with
computers and video games. He was wasnt
fat or anything. Zack was really strong
and agile. He was liked by most people.
But, he also hears voices in his head.
They tell them that he could save them.
He always ignored it.
On his 25 birthday, Zack joined the 78th
Attack squad. He became 1st on his team
within months. On the same day, his sister
was kidnaped. Her wareabouts are unkown.
Now a new case has come up. More and more
women are disapearing. Zack accepts the
case but does he really know what he's
getting himself into?
I think this is a corny plot...
• • • • • • • • •
The opening scroll here doesn't do much to define the world, but it does help define Zack, and perhaps author Ultima as well. Zack's cushy life led him to joining the 78th Attack Squad, an organization that seems to exist to make the world a better place by killing the criminals that plague modern society. Their methods, morals, and anything that might be of interest to the player go unstated. Whatever the organization's purpose may be in-game, from the player's perspective they're simply the justification for why Zack is a bad ass that is more than happy to walk into buildings and leave dozens of corpses in his wake with a quick and dirty justification.
As for Ultima, this scroll does an excellent job at preparing the player for the kind of remarks that get added here and there. "Don't worry!" Ultima is here to assure us: Zack isn't fat. There's a surprising amount of body shaming scattered throughout the first few boards of the game that's never remotely relevant to anything going on. It's just taking a swipe at people for the hell of it. By the time act two rolls around it will stop showing up (save for one joke in poor taste at the end), but the repeated judgment of others while not constant, shows up more than just a weird one-off moment that you'd hope it to be here.
Perhaps you can look at Ultima's lack of confidence in their own work as the explanation for why they're making sure to put others below themselves on the pecking order. Or perhaps it's that usual teenage deflection of releasing creative work meaning exposing yourself to criticism from others. It doesn't hurt as much to be told your story sucks when you're the one providing the negative tone to approach it with. There's a reason it's an overused trope to have characters argue with the game's creator, crying plot holes and bad design after all.
The game begins properly in the Attack Squad's building with Zack standing around in a hallway with some typical rooms found in an office building. One of these offices belong to "Cyprin", who gives Zack his latest mission to investigate the disappearance of young women throughout the state. There's an air of awkwardness in the room due to Zack's own sister having vanished some time ago, but Zack has no apprehension to working on a case he has a personal connection to.
Investigating the attack isn't going to be an easy process. The only information Cyprin can provide are a few photos of the missing women. Zack's plan of attack is basically to just wander the city streets, walking up to strangers and asking them for information, and checking out random buildings. (That's a pun, you just don't realize it yet.)
The rest of the offices consist of a bland conversation with a coworker about how Zack is confident and doesn't need luck, and a kitchen that takes opportunities to call people who would eat a leftover slice of pizza "fato" and complain about how coffee is bitter and tastes like shit. Calm down Zack. None of that stuff matters at all.
Oh. The kitchen is also where Zack keeps his assault rifle I suppose.
While the interior of the building looks pretty standard ZZT office made by somebody who has never been in an office affair, (Imagine having to cross a meeting room to get to your office!) the outside world brings up a lot of questions. The stark black backgrounds seen so far certainly make things look dark and dreary, but ZZT is no stranger to boards that take place in black voids regardless of what the intended aesthetic is supposed to be.
When the buildings look like this though? Things feel less "run down" and more "post-apocalyptic". Ultima never actually goes into specifics so what's going on in this world can only be inferred. I can't imagine that we aren't dealing with some cataclysm given the condition of another building on the next board. It's a mystery that seems very strange to not explain. Ultima having this very ruined world and not explaining how it got to be this way is one thing, but to straight up never even acknowledge it is really strange.
Or maybe it's just crime taken to such comical levels as to make part of the town effectively post-apocalyptic?
The specific proposal that some cops could whip this place with crumbling buildings into shape is good for a laugh at least. This line in particular put me on my guard for the worst, giving me the kind of vibes I got back when I streamed The Thief 3. I was fully expecting a similar turn to that game where the way to clean up the town is to kill a lot of people as violently as possible while besmirching anybody suffering for not just fixing everything on their own. Thankfully this isn't the direction the game is headed in. It won't be long now before Zack runs out of commentary and can focus just on his investigation.
At this point Zack gets his chance to start looking around the city. A person in purple is observed leaving a building and walking off screen, and can't be interacted with. The man in gray has nothing to say and just seems to be observing Zack. The burger place of course, "were bums get there food." ([sic] and [sic]) And with that, we're basically through all the weird shaming Zack does and can give our eyes a well earned break from all the rolling they've been doing every time he's opened his mouth so far.
The Burger Place isn't an actual exit, while the building on the side is. Entering the passage takes the player to a run-down interior instead where there's been another killing. Zack's comment shown here is the only reaction to the scene, with the only other thing of note being a free clip next to the body. Anybody that's played ZZT will be compelled to pick up all the torches along the walls here, but those are just dead plants. Torches represent your clips so there will be no need to bring in light to dark places in this game.
I get the sense that that Ultima is trying to do a bit of heavy lifting with this pretty barren scene. I would've glossed over this board and just moved on if I didn't feel like this board is used to show us how rough this place is in that a murder just happened mere moments before the player was given the opportunity to explore, and also to provide some insight into Zack's personality. There's no interest in finding out who the victim was, who the killer is, or calling somebody to remove the body. It's not part of his current mission, so unless the body is one of the missing girls or suspects, there's no need for him to bother with any of this. A clip is a clip.
Instead the player can only go south where we get a closeup of the Random Inc. building. Random Inc. was a ZZT company around this era led by Knightt (of Stupid RPG fame) that was mostly notable for being generally lax about who was allowed to be a member. Back when these labels held a lot of prestige, Random Inc. provided a few newer ZZTers a chance to be in a company whose founder held wildly varying levels of respect in the community depending on who you asked. A few already respected names have releases there as well including Oof, coolzx, and even tseng.
Curiously there are two demos available for Ultima RPG, whose differences basically boil down to the company the game is published under. The earliest version is released as a Mystical Winds game, with the building marked as belong to that group instead. Knowing that the company here is because it's the group Ultima belong to is a bit of a relief, as teenage community drama meant that things could get very tasteless very fast if somebody wanted to make a game "featuring" Random Inc. members.
The building is a hot mess too. Live electrical wires are shooting sparks, windows are shattered, and you can even find the missing "A" from the sign lying in front of the entrance.
The man in gray from the previous board returns too. Zack can again fail to get a conversation going. It's mighty suspicious.
Zack/The player will opt to enter the building for no other reason than that they can. Ultima isn't fooling anyone. Zack's investigation is really just aimless wandering. This time though, the player gets an opportunity to feel like they're doing something of interest. Looters are ransacking the building, turning would-be ZZTer cameos into ZZTer corpses in their wake. Zack finally gets to use his gun as he becomes their next target.
Several boards of action in the Random Inc. offices ensue. As far as the plot goes, Zack shoots a number of copy/pasted looter enemies scattered throughout each floor before heading upstairs. He can do some looting himself by opening up various closets and cabinets grabbing cash, ammo, and health in the form of stealing people's lunches.
A few of the bodies elicit slightly more text than "Ewww" or "Fuck..." when examined to reveal the deceased ZZTer. Funnily enough one of them happens to be Nanobot, a non-Random Inc. member from the aforementioned Mystical Winds. It looks like his body never got replaced from earlier in the game's development when it was supposed to be a Mystical Winds release instead.
Zack's plan of walking into random buildings (I told you it was a pun) pays off in the end. Eventually he comes across some photos of a few recognized suspects on a wall. Despite it being a rare instance of Zack doing his job well, no flag or code is executed to make the discovery have any significance, so players can get away with missing this.
After another floor or two of looting the building while shooting looters, Zack enters a strange place that almost seems as if it's not part of the Random Inc. building. The man from the streets is here for a third time, but this time he has quite a bit to say.
Man:Can you tell me what happened on your
Man:That was me.
Man:Yes. It may be shocking, but your
sister is in another world...
Man:Oh, but it is. Our world of Taiiagi,
is under attack by the underworld
horde. Your sister might of been taken
Man:Your Guess is as good as mine.
Man:It seems that your related to a great
warrior named Zackath the 3rd.
Man:So, will you help us?
Man:The red portal will send you to our
world to save us. The blue one will
take you back to this morning and
I wont bother you any more. The choice
• • • • • • • • •
Suddenly the stakes change quite a bit. The man claims to be the voice that Zack has been hearing in his head all these years, that he's in some way related to a great hero, and that he's from another world not only needs Zack to be saved, but also is where his sister and presumably the other missing women have been taken.
We also get a Matrix style red-passage blue-passage choice. Zack has the option to brush to the man off and just return to a normal life. At least as normal a life as a member of the Attack Squad can have.
I mean, I had to know what the blue passage would entail. It's the expected game over with our one and only look at Zack's depressing apartment.
The red pill provides something a little more satisfying. While there's no cool effects used to signify Zack's journey to another world, the man at least gets to visibly teleport onto the board.
Suddenly, the world is much much more green. Things are no longer in complete disarray. Despite the tranquility of the scene, this world is having its own share of problems, with Zack being the one to fix them, at least after a bit of training. "Training" mostly means finding keys and exploring caves so Zack isn't particularly worried. I suppose that is the one thing about the shifting worlds aspect of the game. Zack is supposed to be an experienced fighter rather than just an average guy who ends up on another world that you see in some many other ZZT adventures.
Man:I see you made here ok.
Zac:Yeah, what a wild ride! Say, where am
Man:The woods of Raugawor. East of the
city Leux, our destination.
Zack:Hey! My gun and ammo is gone! Now I
have a cool looking sword and torchs!
Man:Yes. Why this happens between worlds,
we do not know.
Zack:So now what?
Man:You need some training so look in your
☼───*───∩ ☼-Camp Site
Man:Look for the key that will get you
into the cave. I will be waiting inside.
Man:Oh yeah! My name is Yomanay
• • • • • • • • •
Some excellent dialog follows. You know the whole clips and ammo and machine guns and all that jazz from before? 100% gone-zo. Zack's sister having been taken to this world is really the only connection the previous chapter of the game has to this next one. That first chapter is such a short lived thing that I don't even know if I'd miss it not having been there in the first place. Other than cameos of dead ZZTers and getting angry about people's diets, this game would have worked out just the same by having the man in gray, newly revealed as Yomanay, just saying hello to Zack the moment he left the Attack Squad building and brought the player over here. Ultima even goes so far as to drain the player's ammo and score of all things. The only thing that's really different is that I'm on the verge of death already due to some terrible play in the previous action boards.
The torches, once clips, are apparently now torches, which I suppose is why they were spared. There still aren't going to be any dark boards in the game though, so health is the only thing from what I guess I will dub the "World of Ruin" that carries over into the now world of Taiiagi.
Making his way into the nearby cave, Zack meets up with Yomanay again for more training. The vast majority of the actual gameplay in Ultima RPG is categorized as training. I feel like Zack doesn't need the help as much as I do, but it's my own fault for journeying to another world with only ten health. Yomanay can at least provide a casting of "Cure 1" which is a bit underwhelming.
Upon conquering the cave Zack is taken to the world map which isn't looking too great. There are very few locations here, and all the traveling needs to be done in a specific order making it feel like its inclusion is because this game does call itself an RPG and RPGs have world maps and "Cure 1" spells. Yomanay gives Zack his next test: head to the nearby village of WestWood and rid the town of the monsters that are causing trouble there. See? RPG.
In addition Zack takes the opportunity to ask why he can't check out the other island yet. Yomanay once again brings up the "underworld horde", the evil that's befallen this land, but again avoids going into detail demanding that Zack gets to work ridding WestWood of the monsters already.
And with the only other landmark on this first island being blocked off, that's what Zack is going to do whether he wants to or not.
Now admittedly the only thing the player has seen of this world so far has been wilderness, but I really wasn't expecting this world of swords, torches, and magic to have a village where one of the houses has a garage attached to it.
The town of WestWood is the most open area in Ultima RPG by far. Zack in true RPG fashion can enter most of the homes, with just two being locked.
As long as Zack respects this woman's wishes to not have her food be eaten by a stranger, he can pick up some helpful information on the town. The monster issue is caused by the men who are strong enough to do something about it having had to leave to either get jobs to support their families, or to fight in the war against the underworld horde. Without any solid warriors, the monsters can do as they please.
She also has a lot of praise for the town's mayor. He's nice at least, and unsurprisingly the person the player needs to speak with if they want to get started on this monster quest.
Little gags are all over the place in WestWood. The kid who loves balls, the lady getting mad about you trying to eat her food, the mayor's secretary having dialog for a player that goes behind the desk to talk with her. It's surprisingly silly given the game's really dark and mean-spirited opening, and I for one welcome it.
Once you follow proper etiquette she's happy to send you to speak with the mayor, which leads to this gag.
After admiring the mayor's fancy pen and taking a seat the two get down to business.
Role. Playing. Game.
Yes, this is a rats in the cellar quest. They're not actually rats at least. They're zombies, which is honestly the next monster on the list. The mayor is all too happy to have somebody volunteer to clean the cellar which is where the town keeps its food supply. That explains why the rest of the town is so peaceful at least.
The mayor provides Zack with the key and now the quest can really begin.
The zombies act as zombies do, shuffling around and trying to eat Zack's brains if he doesn't chop them to pieces with his sword first.
It's got about as much depth as the Random Inc looters did, which is to say not much. The small rooms and melee combat at least make Zack somewhat vulnerable, but the combat hasn't been adding a whole lot to the Ultima RPG experience.
The gameplay has been whatever, and so has the story honestly barring for the unexpected twist of the world-change. Now to make matters worse, this is where the game starts getting quite buggy. The zombies' code suggests an object on each board should be counting the number of slain creatures. No such object exits! All the player can do is trudge through the cellar and grab a coin with strange markings set directly in front of the exit passage for the dungeon. The coin sets a flag as well, and may have been intended as an alternate form of proof of Zack's deeds, yet the flag goes unchecked anywhere.
Meanwhile, the mayor is waiting for a flag named WIN to be set. If something did so then Zack could collect some rewards of health, ammo, or just politely declining the offer (setting a unique MODEST flag for the end credits).
Back on the overworld, Yomanay is also checking for the unused WIN flag. After finishing his final test it's time to move on to the much larger city of Leux and meet him at the Red Hat Inn to strategize. I wouldn't think anything of the name "Leux" on its own, but now I'm very curious if it's supposed to be derived from Linux, given the name Red Hat inn. This would track with the early Mystical Winds period of development as well as Nanobot was known to be quite the Linux proponent.
Actually getting through the locked gate to Leux requires yet more cheating since Yomanay fails to send a message to the gate telling it to open up like he does for the gate to WestWood. Ultima RPG really doesn't want the player to finish it.
While Leux is a larger city to explore, covering six boards to WestWood's one, the city doesn't have a whole lot to do in it. There are actually fewer buildings that Zack can enter than the previous town.
It's also quick to introduce quite a few more bugs. This opening board has two knights protecting the city's entrance that can't be interacted with, with several more throughout the city that are effectively statues as well. That's not necessarily a bug if we're going to give Ultima's some credit and claim they're going for something like a British guard, but lacking even so much as a description when touched leads me to believe that the end of this game was just rushed and didn't get the proper polish and testing it needed.
The knights aren't the actual trouble here however! The indisputable bug is that the passages here for these two buildings don't have a set exit and dump the player onto the game's title screen forcing a reload!
For another troubling issue, just head to the south-east corner of the city! This board has no exits defined which is another forced reload if you're not playing on something with a cheat to change boards.
Dead ends be damned, Zack eventually can find the inn which looks like a bar to me. (And Ultima! The board is even titled "Bar"!) Like the rest of the game, most of the people are just there to add some color to the world with a drunk sitting at the bar, and a couple that leads to a transphobic joke (made by the man in blue and not Zack) if you make the mistake of talking to the dark blue smiley.
The last two patrons are a little more tolerable. Yomanay is indeed waiting for Zack, revealing that their next destination requires heading through the mountain cave south of the city. The gate is locked though, so Zack is tasked with finding the key with Yomanay suggesting that it's likely somewhere in the city.
Zack is perfectly suited for the task, being a master of talking to strangers and entering any building that happens to be unlocked. (Though he must be careful not to end up on the title screen.) He accepts the task, still being kept very much in the dark as to what the deal with this dark horde is, or what connection he could have to this Zackath person that led to him being the one summoned to this world.
Zack's got natural charisma.
This world's epic divorce guy wants a gem back that he lost in the epic divorce.
Ultima RPG has more than a few genuine attempts at humor, with reasonable success! Intentional or not, the context of this quest is undoubtedly the funniest thing about it.
Zack accepts the offer immediately with no promise what he'll get in return, and no information at all about what this gem is, who this woman is, or most importantly of all, where she is. He's not an idiot though, and does quickly demand some practical information which while still funny doesn't dethrone the divorce gem from its sport on top.
Aside from the barren bar/inn, that's about all there is for Zack to see. Some NPCs can be found on other boards with little to discuss, and another building has a third passage to the title screen so it doesn't take particularly long to see the sights and reach this large house on the east side of town where the divorce guy said his ex would probably be.
The butler is just hanging around outside, and shockingly doesn't tell Zack to buzz off when he starts asking about the gem, even revealing it to be the ~Lucado Stone~.
Plus this excellent exchange. I have no idea why the beginning and end of this game are just complete tonal opposites.