I keep plugging Good Old Games, but if they keep giving away some classic games for free, it's the least I can do. This past weekend I finished Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire. Ultima: Exodus (on the NES!) was my first exposure to a role-playing game in any format, predating my introduction to D&D by several years. I completed Ultima III through VII as a teenager and loved them all, but never had a chance to play the spin-off game The Savage Empire. It uses the engine developed for Ultima VI but is far more than a "re-skin": the developers clearly spent a lot of time on the game to give it a unique story and setting, and the results are a pretty fun and memorable adventure.
The setting for The Savage Empire is the other-dimensional Valley of Eodon, a land where dinosaurs and several different tribes of technology-primitive humans coexist. Much of the land is covered with lush vegetation, with high mesas, waterfalls, caves, navigable rivers, and other features adding to the richness of the terrain. The player, as the Avatar, has been accidentally (or on purpose?) pulled into Eodon during an accident involving experiments on a Moonstone in the "real world." Once the Avatar arrives, he saves a young princess named Aiela from a pterodactyl attack but is then knocked unconscious by Darden, a jerk from the mysterious Urali tribe who kidnaps Aiela. Fortunately, although there is a cliched "save the princesss" plot thread, there's several other plot threads as well that are a bit better. The Avatar realizes that not only must he rescue Aiela, he needs to find the friends who came with him to Eodon: a reporter named Jimmy Malone and a scientist named Rafkin. More, he soon learns that the various tribes are threatened by a race of giant ants called Myrmidex, and that the only way to defeat them is to unite the tribes. This is the part of the game that I thought could have been handled more subtly, as basically the Avatar has to chat with each tribe leader and ask them what they want in order to agree to unity. It actually ended up being a nice feature, however, as it offered a non-linear way to progress through the game because the various chieftan-quests (I think there's 8 or 10 tribes?) can be done in any order and require different skills.
One of the features that makes The Savage Empire stand apart from many other CRPGs is both the technology available (spears and stone-axes instead of metal swords and crossbows) but also the ability to craft a surprising amount of things by cleverly combining natural resources and tools. Thus, the player can create (with help from Professor Rafkin) bamboo rifles, primitive grenades, cloth, clay pots, and more. Although really good for its time, the controls can be a bit clunky and non-intuitive here, as is inventory management in general. One aspect of this era of the Ultima games I did like was being able to pick and choose, throughout the game, a variety of NPCs to ask to join your group. One major difference between this and other Ultima games is that there's no focus on virtue or morality; there's no such thing as theft in Eodon, for example, so feel free to take what you see, even from people's houses while they're watching!
A last word before moving into spoiler-territory is that although the plot isn't the more original in places, and the graphics are not the most impressive, it's still a quite satisfying game to play--especially for free! After a bit of a break, I'm looking forward to trying the next (and last) game in the Worlds of Ultima series: Martian Dreams.
The Valley of Eodon has a well-developed backstory that is integral to the Avatar's role in the story. Ages ago, the Valley was created by a race of highly evolved lizard-people named the Koti who developed futuristic technology and built a massive underground city. They decided to create a race of servants by evolving ants into the Myrmidex, but they revolted. The Koti then used portals to bring over various tribes of humans, but they too proved unsuitable and were allowed to escape to the surface. Later, the Myrmidex returned and slew most of the Koti. To succeed in the game, the Avatar must find the underground city of the Koti, unite the tribes, and then lead an expedition into the vast Myrmidex caves to slay their queen.
I progressed through the game fairly well, but as is often the case, I must confess to having to refer to a walkthrough at a few specific points (sometimes justified, others not): (1) There's one point where a living statue won't move unless exposed to a great deal of light; I tried every combination of torches, spells, etc. to get it to move, but no luck. A walkthrough revealed that what I needed to use was the camera brought over by the reporter, Jimmy Malone. The problem was that I had ditched Jimmy due to his general uselessness long ago and on the exact opposite side of the world. It was a long trek to go and get that camera! (2) One of the ways to make gunpowder is to use some raw ingredients found in jars in Professor Rafkin's lab; I kept trying to open the jars using controls like "Use" or "Move", etc.; but it turns out, the game wants you to drop the jars on the ground and (if they don't break) then smash them with a weapon! Odd--who uses jars that are sealed that tightly? (3) I feel stupid about this one: at one point in the game, you put a crystal into a ancient koti device left on the surface and a cut-scene says that a hidden staircase has been revealed somewhere to the north. I looked all over the north for that stupid thing, and I swear I did almost a grid-like sweep of the area where, eventually, a walkthrough showed me it was--hidden in plain sight, apparently. (4) The final search for the Queen of the Myrmidex was frustrating because she's hidden in a truly massive cave network that contains no distinguishing features to tell one tunnel or junction apart from any other. I wandered around in there for hours, slowly getting worn down by enemies, hoping to stumble upon the Queen or even an exit! I tried to leave "bread crumbs" (by dropping objects), but they quickly disappeared, as did the bodies of the drones I slew. It turns out, via walkthrough, that there was a locator device in the underground Koti city, but if you didn't grab it while there, it's too late to go back. I ended up having to use a map found online, and then the Queen died anticlimactically with one shot from my rifle.