The latest Ultima Underworld release, Underworld Ascendant, recently surpassed its $600k Kickstarter goal, bringing in over $860,000, and many gamers, myself included, are quite excited. The exciting RPG is preceded by two titles, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, and Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds. In preparation for the forthcoming Underworld Ascendant, I sat down for a romp through the pixelated dungeon awesomeness of the originals.
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss debuted in 1992 from Blue Sky Productions, later known as Looking Glass Studios. It’s a dungeon crawling RPG, and takes dungeon crawling quite literally. The entire game is set almost entirely in a dungeon, the Stygian Abyss. You play as the Avatar, and no you’re thankfully not tall, lanky, and blue.
Upon launching The Stygian Abyss, there’s a brief cutscene explaining that a ghost, who’s been plaguing your dreams, leads you to the bedroom of Baron Almric’s daughter. She’s kidnapped, and the guards unfortunately discover you, leading to a sinister misunderstanding. “No wait, I can explain, there was this ghost, and…aw heck, I want my lawyer.” The good news: you don’t meet the guillotine. The bad news: you’re locked in the Stygian Abyss, and your mission is rescuing Baron Almric’s daughter.
As an avid Elder Scrolls fan, I thoroughly enjoyed The Stygian Abyss. Gameplay reminded me of hours spent hacking foes, or more likely dying, in early Elder Scrolls games like Arena and Daggerfall. There was also a hint of Doom, with the maze-like environments. The controls feature an unusual freely movable mouse, an aspect not found in older games. I found this particularly beneficial however, as mouse movements are so ingrained. The mouse is only used within the interface and to click on items though, for instance selecting the inventory, or choosing a command. A fairly simple set of options lines the left side of the screen, allowing the player to perform certain actions on in-game objects, like “look,” “touch,” and “fight.”
While controls are rather unusual, especially for older PC games, gameplay is truly revolutionary. The Stygian Abyss takes non-linear to the max. After the intro I found myself standing in a dungeon. There’s a heads up display (HUD) with a compass, but hey, I’m terrible at following directions. Instead I simply wandered into the first room I happened upon, found a worn axe, and soon a rat. Eventually I meandered into a room with a large supply cache, which was probably where I should have gone first. However, it’s really neat that you can tackle quests and explore at random, a feature lacking in many modern RPGs.
Further adding complexity, weapons and armor are found in varying degrees of use, like shopping at a thrift store. Sometimes the sword is pristine, but often it’s pretty battered. Use, which you can expect much of, wears gear down, so you’ll often need to check the condition of your loot. Additionally, as you progress through the Abyss, you’ll require food and rest. Features like these add intricacy to gameplay, which transcends mere route dungeon crawling.
Not surprisingly, the Avatar successfully rescues the Baron’s daughter, and there’s an epic finale, setting the stage for 1993’s sequel Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds. Like its predecessor, in Labyrinth of Worlds you once again play as the Avatar, and there are many similarities to The Stygian Abyss. However, Looking Glass continued their creativity, diverging subtly though noticeably from Ultima Underworld I.
Like The Stygian Abyss, a brief cutscene sets the stage. However, there’s no narration and the mood is considerably lighter. Well, until the end of the intro. It’s a letter from Lord British, commending the Avatar for defeating the Guardian, which follows the events of the Ultima series, specifically Ultima VII: The Black Gate. Lord British invites you to celebrate with all of Britannia, and accordingly the opening features images of feasts, fireworks, and general merriment. Feasts? Fireworks? Merriment? Looks like I’m not needed. Oh wait…
Luckily, foreboding clouds roll in, lighting strikes, and an enormous black dome encircles the castle. The jolly tone had me worried for a moment. From here, you find yourself in familiar territory: standing in a room, collecting gear, ready to embark on an epic journey. The user interface is similar to The Stygian Abyss, with recognizable commands and essentially the same HUD. However a few tweaks improve gameplay. Commands have been shifted to the right side of the screen, compiling all action commands and the inventory in one section. While playing Ultima Underworld I, the layout didn’t bother me, but Ultima Ungerworld II felt considerably refreshed and polished with this simple update. The free-roaming mouse, and WASD navigation remain.
Actual gameplay locations take place across several alternate dimensions, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I loved the Stygian Abyss for its classic dungeon atmosphere, but Ultima Underworld II added some psychedelic settings which differ from the more traditional locales in The Stygian Abyss. That’s not to say there’s no dungeon romping in Labyrinth of Worlds, as the general play style and mechanics persist. Furthermore, there are still many Medieval environments, but they’re broken up by dimensions featuring luminescent blue walls, and vibrant checkerboardesque floors.
As an avid RPG fan, both The Stygian Abyss and Labyrinth of Worlds, resonated with me for a few core reasons. I was 2 when “Ultima Underworld I” came out, and while exploring both Ultima Underworld titles, the experience was new yet familiar. That’s because of the impact these titles had on later games, and not just obvious relations like the Elder Scrolls franchise, but even games like Deus Ex, BioShock, and Doom. It’s neat when you can return to a classic game and easily identify the impact it had on later releases, even outside the RPG genre. Thus, I’m quite excited for Underworld Ascendant. It’s a continuation of a groundbreaking franchise, and this time I’ll be able to experience the Underworld universe in real-time. Just as Ultima Underworld I and Ultima Underworld II delivered revolutionary features, so too should Underworld Ascendant. The touted “Improvisation Engine” sounds exquisite, but the mere opportunity to revisit the Stygian Abyss with contemporary visuals is alluring enough.
If you’d like to check out Ultima Underworld 1 and 2 for yourself you can get both of them from GOG.com for $5.99 (affiliate link).