Monday, January 30, 2012

Ultima III: Exodus (NES)

Rating: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun to play, lots of character options for such an early game
Cons: Average graphics and sound, not a lot of variety in equipment

Ultima III: Exodus was developed by Richard Garriott (aka Lord British) and published by Origin Systems. Originally released in 1983 for the Apple II. It was later released in 1988 for the Nintendo Entertainment System with a few modifications. These changes included vastly updated graphics and sound, more NPC dialog and changes to the user interface so that it worked better with the NES gamepad.
After Ultima II took place on Earth, Ultima III returns to the land of Sosaria where the player's goal is to defeat the game's antagonist and namesake, Exodus. This is also the last Ultima game produced before the introduction of the Avatar and the Eight Virtues that were used in every installation since. Instead of a single protagonist in Exodus, the player controls a party of four heroes during his journey.
At the beginning of the game, you have to create a party of characters. The character customization is pretty in-depth for a game this old, allowing you to choose from multiple races, classes and stat point distribution options. The stat points include Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Wisdom. Strength obviously governs your ability to deal damage; dexterity governs your ability to hit enemies, avoid being hit by enemies, and your chance to steal and avoid traps; intelligence governs your ability to cast magic spells and the maximum magic points of classes reliant on intelligence; and wisdom governs your ability to cast will power spells and the maximum magic points of classes reliant on wisdom.
The races include Human, Elf, Dwarf, Bobbit and Fuzzy. The Human, like in most games, is average all around and can obtain a maximum of 75 points into each stat. Jack of all trades and master of none, he works well for hybrid classes that are good at a little bit of everything - but usually one of the more specialized classes is a better option even for hybrids. Your probably going to have your hybrid doing one thing specifically, and a little bit of everything else. My hybrid character, for example, is usually a Bobbit Paladin or a Fuzzy Lark (often both), and I rarely bother with the average Human characters.
The nimble Elf can have the most dexterity with 99 but can only have 50 wisdom maximum to offset this. An obvious choice for a thief. The hardy Dwarf is, as usual, capable of an immense 99 strength; but he's not all that bright and can only cap out at 50 intelligence. A good choice for a fighter. The Bobbit is the obvious choice for your healer, as she can get up to 99 wisdom at the cost of only having 50 maximum dexterity. Finally we have the Fuzzy, who can actually get a maximum of 99 points into both intelligence and dexterity. His strength caps out at a whopping 25, but this makes him the ideal choice for a wizard.
On top of the five races, you can choose one of the eleven races for each character. These include the Fighter, Thief, Cleric, Wizard, Paladin, Lark, Ranger, Barbarian, Illusionist, Druid and Alchemist. Some are better than others at certain tasks obviously. A fighter can equip all weapons and armor but gets no magic points. The cleric is your healer and can't equip very much equipment, but can use every will power spell in the game. The wizard likewise, but can instead use every magic spell in the game. Overall, there's a few really useful classes like the cleric, wizard, paladin and lark; a few that aren't bad like the ranger, fighter and druid; and some that are pretty much worthless like the illusionist, thief, barbarian and alchemist. You'd think the thief would be more useful with his inherent bonus to avoiding traps when opening treasure chests, but since any will power user gets the Open spell for only 5 magic points, the thief loses much of his value. Still, these class choices are only my opinion and there is a lot of choice and many different ways to go when playing through the game.

There are no inns or areas to rest and recover your health in Exodus, instead you steadily regenerate health and magic points as you walk around. This is providing that you keep stocked up on food, which you can buy in any town. This makes some parts more challenging, and other parts a little easier. For example, if you run out of magic points far away from a town, you can just walk around for a minute and have lots again. However, this makes status ailments such as poison or cold much harder to deal with than usual. They tend to last quite a while in this game, and you steadily lose health for the duration.
The world itself is very non-linear - you can pretty much go anywhere you want to right from the start. One major exception to this is sailing around in the ocean, and that's only because there are no ships until you reach level five. After that, pirate ships will be sailing around and you can walk up to one that's near the shore and take their ship after you defeat them. A good tip is to take a pirate ship, then go create some brand new characters at level one and play through the game with them. You still get to keep your ship, but you also get to stick with the easy low level enemies instead of fighting the much harder ones that you find at level five. The ship allows you to travel through the whirlpool to Ambrosia where you can donate money at the various temples to increase your characters' stat points, as well as sailing to towns and dungeons that are unreachable from the continent.

Dungeons in Exodus don't have bosses, and the enemies aren't any different than the ones that are on the surface. The whole point in the dungeons is to find the various "marks" to brand your skin with. These include the Mark of Kings that lets you level up higher than level 5, the mark of fire that lets you walk on fire without taking damage, the mark of force which lets you walk on force fields without damage, and the mark of snakes that lets you get past the giant snake in the middle of the map. The whole layout is the old school, 3D looking first person effect where every time you push a direction it changes to the next screen. They're like eight levels deep, maze-like, and require torches or light spells to see where you are going.

At low levels the enemies are really easy. If you have a magic user and a will power user, you can pretty much kill all four types of enemies with no effort at level one and two. A magic user can cast the Repel spell for 0 magic points, and about half the time it will instantly kill the majority of Orcs or Goblins all at once. Similarly, a will power user can cast Undead and kill the majority of Skeletons or Ghouls. Both of these spells cost no magic points and can be cast over and over again. Since you don't actually level up until you gain enough experience and go talk to the king, you can essentially stay at a low level for a long time stockpiling gold to raise your stat points and collecting the best gear possible. Enemies don't drop any additional money at higher levels, so there's little point to progressing early unless you want the added challenge. Enemies don't drop anything except for gold either, so it's not like your going to get better equipment by killing stronger enemies. Nearly every weapon and armor in the game is bought from the various towns, and that's all there is to it.
The world map in Ultima III: Exodus is fairly decent, reminding me a lot of Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy. It's a top-down perspective with colorful tile-based graphics, with a smattering of towns and dungeons to be visited. It's easy to tell what everything is supposed to be, but it's definitely nothing ground breaking. They are, however, much improved over the original Apple II version. The background music is pretty memorable, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say it's some of my favorite music on the NES, I don't have to mute the television or pop in a CD or anything to drown it out. The sound effects are the standard fare of early NES beeps and blips though, and while they're befitting the gameplay they wouldn't be missed if you could turn them off separately from the music.
The game will take a good number of hours to play through, and with the many options for characters available it does have a little bit of replay value. You won't find much new after the first play-through, but it's still worth breaking out later to play through again.

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