Review: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (16 Bit DOS)

By Drew Wilson

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss is a first person action RPG dungeon crawler game. It as been cited by many game developers as their source of inspiration as they create more contemporary video games. We take a look at this long game to see for ourselves why this game may be so inspiring.

This game is the first in a second spin-off series of the main series, Ultima. It was released in 1992, around the same time Ultima VII was released. It is also one of the earliest known free-roaming first person 3D video games.

This particular game takes place in the fictional location of Britannia, a frequently used setting in the Ultima series. You assume the role of Avatar. As the Avatar (the main protagonist of this game), you build your character at the beginning of the game via the character creation option. Some attributes you select serve no real functional purpose in the game (like choosing the gender of your avatar), but others play a big role in how you play (such as deciding whether you want to be a Warrior, Mage, Paladin, or other class you decide to try). You also have an option of what skill you want to immediately be trained in before even entering the abyss. You’ll also get a “roll” of your various attributes (how strong you are, how healthy, etc.). While most games, I’m sure, randomize these rolls, in this game, the rolls are fixed. That means it’s possible to Find an “ideal” roll at the beginning simply by writing down the different rolls, then going through the character creation process again and picking that dice roll. It may make things easier for you in the abyss, but I simply opted to take the first roll and had no problem completing the game with those stats.

When you are done selecting these options and choosing a character name, you’ll eventually enter the abyss. The storyline goes that you have entered the Stygian Abyss in an effort to locate and rescue Baron Almric’s daughter. She was kidnapped by someone and dragged into the abyss. You are aided by the ghost of Garamon who appears at the beginning of your game, speaking to you directly into your mind. He reappears in various points in the game every time you sleep, noting your progress and encouraging you to continue your quest (sometimes shedding light on the plot as you move about the abyss).

The controls of this game are fixed. To move around, you can use the mouse to click and hold to move in a particular direction. Alternatively, you can use keys on your keyboard to move. Strangely, these keys are “S” to move forward, “A” to turn left, “D” to turn right, “Z” to strafe left, “C” to strafe right, “X” to move backwards, and “W” to run forward. It’s strange because it doesn’t utilize the arrow keys on your keyboard for movement and is on the opposite side of the keyboard where most games contain the main movement of your character. Additionally, “J” is used for jumping which gradually comes into play more and more as you progress through the dungeon.

On the left hand side of the screen contains various options for you to use. There’s the game menu (which features an assortment of other options in a sub-menu), an eyeball (represents your looking command. Use this to identify items, monsters, and sometimes can be used to locate secret doors thanks to a 100% accurate reading of a wall as long as you click in the right place.), a hand with a key (indicates your use command. Use this to open doors, use items such as keys, activate switches and levers, and use healing fountains.), a pair of lips (use this to speak to various denizens of the abyss. You cannot complete the game without it), and a hand with a sword (use this to attack hostile monsters).

On the right hand screen contains most of your stats and status features. It shows what you have equipped (and updates the image accordingly). Place items in the circles to equip those items appropriately (or place it over the area you want to equip it such as over top of the avatars head to equip a helmet). Additionally, there is a grey rock-like circle with a number on it (probably something like 20 or 30 on it). This indicates how much stuff you can carry. If the number drops to zero from picking up so many things in the dungeon, you run the risk of being told that the object you are trying to lift is too heavy for you. The flask with red liquid below indicates health (click on it to show how many hit points you have left out of your maximum total. If this turns green, you are poisoned.). the flask with the blue liquid indicates your mana (again, click to see how much you have out of your maximum total). You can click on the chain above the flasks, but below your stats to reveal your skills and other attributes of your character (clicking the chain shows your main character stats again).

You start the game off with virtually nothing. You have no armor and you possess next to nothing except the ragged clothes on your back. Fortunately, there is a bag nearby that contains a few key items necessary for your exploration of the dungeon. This includes a map (which draws itself as you explore the dungeon. Click on it to view. You can even write and erase notes on it as you go along which is a very nice feature of this game), and a rune bag (used to hold runes necessary for casting spells).

You’ll eventually run into locked doors. Some doors can only be opened by activating a switch. Other doors require a key. A few doors in this game have neither and require you to bash it in with your fist (ideally, use your fist. It won’t get damaged like most of the other weapons in the process). Do note that there are doors that require you to speak to someone on the other side like some of the grate-like doors (portcullis).

Eventually, you’ll run into a hostile encounter. This requires you to either use a weapon, spell, or your fist. To attack in this game, you need to click on the attack icon to activate battle mode. To swing a weapon or use your fist, you have to click and hold down your mouse button. When you do that, you’ll draw back your weapon or fist and a gem on the corner of your screen will light up. It will change from red to yellow to green depending on how long you hold on to your mouse button. You can’t swing your weapon on red, but you can on yellow or green. If you swing with the gen on yellow, you’ll attack with a faster, but weaker swing. If you release the mouse button on green, you’ll attack with full force, but it takes a little longer to actually get to green. Eventually, the monster will die (or you run when your health is low or die in the process). If you successfully attack a monster (or kill it for that matter), you’ll obtain experience points. Experience points, like most other RPG games, enables you to gain levels. The tougher the opponent, the more experience points you can gain. The higher you level, the more experience points are necessary to move on to the next level. Leveling up will immediately raise your maximum number of hit points, but nothing else (that is immediately apparent to you at the early stages of the game).

One factor in this game that might not be immediately obvious in this game is how to recover hit points in this game. There are one of three ways you can accomplish this. the first method is to sleep. Ideally, turn off all light sources and use a bed roll before you do this. This can help recover a portion of your stamina (and sometimes trigger an image from Garamon with more details of the plot). Another method is using a healing fountain. There are numerous fountains throughout the abyss, but only some of them will recover your health. If you see the message “the fountain refreshes you” and your health does not recover, the fountain is incapable of healing you. The third method is to use a spell, but for that, you need to have enough mana and not only have the correct runs in your rune bag, but also enough mana to cast the spell in the first place. My method of choice to recover stamina is the use of healing fountains, but that’s not immediately available. To recover mana, you can wait a while an wait for mana to be restored. A faster method is to sleep and let the mana regenerate more quickly. You cannot sleep with hostile monsters nearby.

As you travel through the game, you’ll find various objects strewn about on the floor. Some objects (like a skull) is pretty much useless. Other items can be mildly useful (like food). A fair number of items are very useful (another pack, a backpack, runes). Some items are critical (like keys, very specific books). There are even items that are seemingly useless, but are actually extremely useful and maybe even critical (mixing bowl and thread comes to mind).

Not all denizens in the abyss are hostile. A number of them are actually quite friendly. There are even friendly goblins in the abyss. One way you can tell is by using your eye command and clicking on the denizen. If the denizen is described as hostile, they will attack you. Most of the other descriptions means they won’t be attacking you. Mellow monsters will just wander about. Some can even be talked to (goblins, outcasts, etc.).

As you travel deeper, you’ll eventually need to trade items for other critical items. It’s possible that all you need are gold and gems, but sometimes, you need a critical item to initiate dialogue needed to obtain other key items. The trading screen in the dialogue feature can be a bit confusing, but the four slots next to your picture are items you have in your hands, awaiting to be traded. You can go through your packs, sacks, or pouches and rummage through your belongings for items at any time in the dialogue process, but if there are items in your “hands” when you quit the dialogue, they’ll fall to the floor at or near your feet. You can collect them off the floor after. If you want to trade your items for other items, you have to click on the tiny black plus signs (whether on their side or your side) to indicate what you want to trade. When the plus signs are white, that indicates what is active in the requested trade/bartering session. If you are successful in your trade, the items you get can fall to the floor after the dialogue is finished, waiting for you to collect them.

Throughout you travels, you’ll encounter watery areas. To swim, you simply either jump into the water or walk into the water (jumping adds distance into you swim). The higher your swimming skills are, the longer it’ll take for you to start taking damage as you swim around. I don’t personally see a need for taking the skill beyond 10 points, but it’s up to you. I chose the swimming skill at the beginning and I can’t say it was a useless skill to have!

Eventually, you’ll find yourself needing to use a spell. In order to cast a spell, you need to use a combination of runes. To do so, simply open up your rune bag and click on the various runes. You can select up to three at a time, though some spells only require two runes to cast. Once you have selected your runes, click on the runes in the slot next to your compass to see if the spell worked. If it says it’s not a spell, then the rune combination is useless. So, simply click on the square “R” with an arrow pointing to a rune back to put the runes back in the bag to start over (the button is below the runes in your rune bag). If you collect more than one of the same runes, the run will simply be placed over top of your existing rune, making it disappear entirely. To get rune spells, look around the dungeon for parchment, or scrolls. Some scrolls contain bits of plot while others tell you some of the known recipe’s for spells (or, you can cheat and Google them).

What are also located on various pieces of parchments, scrolls, and books are “mantras”. These mantras are to be used at shrines located on every level of the dungeon. Chances are, your first encounter with a shrine will be on level 2 in the northwest corner of the level. To use a shrine, use the speech command. From there, you can type in a known mantra to receive more skill points in a particular skill. The maximum number of skill points is 30. You seemingly cannot progress past 30. What seems to happen is that you get points as you level up. These points can be spent when you use a mantra at a shrine. When you use up all of your (mantra points?), the shrine will tell you that you are not ready to advance (you only get that message if you cannot advance any further in a skill – whether it’s exhausting your advancement points or that skill is at 30). There is only so many skill points you can get in a game, so you need to get points in skills that are most likely to assist you (like mana skill points, spell casting skill points, attack skill points, etc.) I found that, at best, you can max out about 4 skills out of the large assortment of skills you can get, so you really need to choose your skills carefully.

In total, there are 8 dungeon levels in this game. While that may not sound like a whole lot, there is plenty of things you can do in this game. Ultima features a huge array of puzzles for you to complete. Some of these puzzles require you to travel back and forth on various levels – especially on the last three levels. I found that I was able to complete the game at a character level of 16, though it does take a while to get there. For some reason, my experience capped out around the mid 9000’s. After that, no matter how many foes I vanquished, my experience points never went up. So, unless I’m doing something wrong, the level cap seems to be 16. Not that this was severely limiting by any means.

One thing I do note is that there is a lot of problem solving in this game. This, in my experience, is a-typical of hack and slash games where 90% of the time, you are just swinging weapons or casting spells. Ultima Underworld requires some heavy problem solving. I could have made it almost all the way through the game without the help of a guide, but it would have taken far longer to do. I’m not sure how I would have answered Garamon’s questions without the help of a guide though as you are given very few clues as to what the answers are (they must be typed in). So, while this game is certainly possible, it’s not always a walk in the park. Still, that doesn’t detract from the amount of fun you can have with this game.

There’s all sorts of subtle features in this game. You can eat food by clicking and dragging the item to your characters mouth. After a while, if you eat enough food, you’ll become full. I don’t know if you can starve in this game, but I simply periodically fed my avatar food and never had a problem.

Another feature of this game is the dragons that flank the playing screen. If you do things like open doors or pull levers, one of the dragons will claw at the bottom of the window in interest. If you take on a lot of damage and your character is on the verge of dying, one of the dragons will duck and cover its eyes in fright. If you attack and defeat a monster, one of the dragons will snicker at the sight.

One feature that took a long time for me to notice (it wasn’t until level 7 that I realized what purpose they served, admittedly) is the eyes along the top of the screen. While it’s not immediately obvious, if you attack a monster, the eyes will turn green. As your enemy takes damage, the eyes will gradually turn yellow, then red. Red indicates that the enemy is very low on health (often when the enemy tries to run away too, depending on what you are fighting).

An additional feature is the ability to combine items. Sometimes, you can combine different items to create new items (such as string and a fishing pole to create a fishing rod or a torch and popcorn seeds to change the seeds to popcorn). Other items of the same kind can be combined such as gold or fresh fish. This, I found, to be necessary to free the mute as one of each item isn’t enough to bribe the guard.

You can use your fishing pole to catch fish in any watery area. Just click on the use action, click on the fishing pole and click on the water to try and catch a fish. You’ll either have a no luck message or you’ll immediately have your cursor turn into the fish you caught.

How you interact with various denizens of the dungeon impacts how they react to you. If you decide to play nice, sometimes, they’ll reveal hints and other bits of information that will assist you on your quest. If you are rude to them, they may even decide to attack you. This can stop you from obtaining critical or valuable items. Personally, I accidentally responded to a bandit with a hostile retort and ended up having to kill all of the bandits. Apparently, this prevented me from accessing a very valuable ring. In the process, skeletons would occasionally resurrect in that area to attack me as I made my way through there. Who needs a closet for skeletons in this game? Fortunately, it didn’t prevent my from completing the game… fortunately! Still, groups of denizens in the dungeon can change their alignment based on how you interact with certain members of that group.

One final thing to note is that you need to recover all 8 talismans. They are required for you to complete the game.

A tip for this game is to save frquently. I used all four blocks of the save feature in this game to save in steps. I ended up dying several times in this game and saving really saved me. there is a silver seed that apparently allows you to resurrect in a safe location, but I never ended up actually using it as saving was sufficient for this purpose in my experience.

Generally, I really liked this game. I found it to be very enjoyable and there was always something new to be encountered as I explored trough the dungeon. If I really wanted to, I could find myself playing this game again, so it has good replay value. this is in spite of the fact that this is a game that takes a longer period of time to complete.

Graphically, Ultima is quite impressive for a game of it’s time. If you think Doom is the first 3D first person game out there, this game predates it by a year. Most of the items are clear as to what they are (generally) and the various denizens are actually quite well done. My only complaint in the graphics department is the weird fish-eye effect you get if you look up or down (1, or 3. 2 will center your point of view again). I’m not entirely sure why it does this, but that would be my criticism for the graphics of this game.

Audio was quite interesting in this game. Depending on what you actually did in this game can change the music. For instance, if you look at your map, the music will change. If you simply wander around the dungeon, there’s a handful of songs that you can hear. If you, say, draw your sword, the music will change. If a monster tries to attack you, the music will change, yet again to react to the situation at hand. I thought this feature was a very good idea, but the music selection is a bit limited. After a while, the music got a little repetitive – not to the point of being irritating, but it was repetitive after a while. The sound effects were interesting. It used very basic, seemingly midi-like sounds to indicate different things happening. A medium low piano key strike indicates if you attacked something. A bell (xylophone?) was used to indicate a door opening. Another bell sound was used to indicate you entering the water. Movements of monsters used different string pluck sounds or even more bell sounds. A spell can use a different string pluck sound depending if the spell was a success of a failure. Two different piano key strokes were used to indicate footsteps (humorously at first, merely useful after you make this realization). I thought it was an interesting choice to put various notes of different instruments in place of other sounds that at least attempted to imitate the actual sounds they were emulating (such as what was found in games like Mega Man 2 or Dune 2). So, overall, the audio department in this game was good all around.

Overall, this game was a lot of fun to play. It is very rich in different ideas that will always keep players on their toes as they explore the dungeon. My only criticism is that, without the help of a guide, there are two or three spots that would be next to impossible to solve. With a guide, you’ll be able to complete the game a little faster, but even then, it’s lots of fun to play. It is very easy to see why this game inspires so many more modern day game developments because there are so many interesting ideas to be found in this game. It’s a real treasure trove of idea’s for RPG game developers. So, having said all that, a great game all around.


Furthest point in game: Jumped through the teleporter in the moon level (beat the game)

General gameplay: 23/25
Replay value: 7/10
Graphics: 9/10
Audio: 4/5

Overall rating: 86%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85

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