Memory 2 MB
Disk Space 25 MB
Max/Rec Computer:. 386SX/20+
Control: Keyboard, Mouse (recommended)
Sound: Adlib, Sound Blaster, SB Pro, Roland LAPC-1/MT-32
Notes: Supports simultaneous SB or SB Pro and Roland. Cannot be run with expanded memory manager (EMM386.EXE or equivalent). Requires 535,000-587,000 bytes of free conventional memory to run, depending on configuration.
Reviewed version 1.02 on: 486/66, 8MB RAM, SB Pro and Roland sound cards. Reviewer recommends: 2MB disk cache, SB-compatible sound card.
(A warning: users of DOS 6.0's Doublespace may need some work to free up enough low memory. See the technical postscript at the end of the article.)
The ULTIMA series of computer games have been a breed apart almost from the beginning, and essentially unique in outlook and design since ULTIMA IV: QUEST OF THE AVATAR. Ever since that classic, the Ultima games have been distinguished by the detail and richness of the world depicted in the games, by an emphasis on more substantial 'role-playing' instead of endless combat, and by a continuing effort to find novel and interesting ways of having the player save the world -- not to mention ever-increasing sophistication in graphics and interface.
The most recent Ultima, ULTIMA VII: THE BLACK GATE, represented at once both a step up in technology and a step down in plot. The appearance of the world the player stepped into, and the detail of its elements, was incredible -- chairs, dishes, everything were all individually represented and manipulable. On the other hand, the plot was a thin combination of "hunt the elusive villains" and "stop the world-conquering megalomaniac" which had the player essentially following a series of step-by-step instructions from various mentors all the way through.
Happily, The Black Gate's sequel, ULTIMA VII PART II: SERPENT ISLE, further improves on its predecessor's interface while providing a new and substantially better plot. Serpent Isle looks significantly better, is controlled more easily, and has a lot more depth to its story and play. The game's one major flaw is an excessively forced linearity. Despite its 'Part 2' marking, Serpent Isle is worthy of recognition in its own right (and, incidentally, can be played without having played U7, without too much lost). In my opinion, it's substantially more enjoyable than U7, and worth a try from almost everyone.
Those who played Ultima VII will recall that at the end of that game, the Avatar, savior of the kingdom of Britannia in times of danger, had banished -- but not destroyed -- the demonic Guardian, while his arch- henchman Batlin escaped. In the tale of Serpent Isle, you, the Avatar, are dispatched with your companions by Lord British to the newly rediscovered Isle. It appears that both the Guardian and Batlin have retreated there, and perhaps there you may find the source of the continuing natural and magical disturbances plaguing Britannia. And so another chapter in the saga begins...
GO WEST, YOUNG AVATAR (Interface)
The interface will be immediately familiar to players of U7, and quite intuitive for anyone else. The left mouse button represents the player's hands, the right button his feet. A single right-click moves a step, a double-click moves to the clicked location, holding the button down moves the player continuously in the mouse pointer's direction. A single left- click looks at something, a double-click talks to it, uses it, or attacks it (whatever seems appropriate...), and a click-and-drag picks something up to drop it in the player's inventory or elsewhere.
Some nice touches have been added to the interface since U7. A 'targeting mode' lets the player click more easily on fast-moving characters ("Wait! You! I want to talk to you!"); keyboard 'hot keys' let the player conveniently call up his map, spellbook, or the like; a unified combat screen lets one adjust all party members' tactics at once.
Combat has also been improved in that characters don't shoot each other nearly as often as in U7. One nuisance that has not been eliminated is food; one's companions will still stoically (but vocally!) undergo starvation while food remains unused in their packs. But the overall control of the game is quite smooth these days.
U GOT THE LOOK (Graphics & sound)
The appearance of Serpent Isle is likewise similar to that of Ultima 7, but again ratcheted up a few notches. As before, the detail is incredible (especially compared to other adventure and role-playing games, where 90% of the 'environment' remains backdrop), with everything from cloaks to diapers to plates and flowerpots individually modeled. You can pick the things up, carry them around, drop them elsewhere, use them, break them or attack with them if it's appropriate. One gets so used to it that one has to remind oneself that it's not at all this way in other games.
Here, it's almost literally possible to pick up everything that isn't nailed down. Even the bags and backpacks in which you carry your inventory appear on screen when opened as, well, bags and backpacks. The level of realism is really quite amazing, and still completely unequaled in computer gaming.
The biggest single improvement in Serpent Isle's look over U7 is in the character portraits. When you talk to someone, their portrait appears next to their words (and yours next to your choices of conversation subjects), each portrait an ellipse almost a half-screen tall and half as wide. Some seem to be digitized photos, others are painted, but all are very nice. Virtually everyone has a unique picture.
Other features have been added to dress up SI's look -- in the literal sense of 'dress up', 'paper-doll' inventory displays alter the character's pose and dress directly with what he or she wears, to the point where it becomes fun to try on different pieces of equipment to see what it'll look like. New terrain types have been added, and more variety and detail to the preexisting features.
Sound, for its part, is excellent as ever, with suitably realistic birds chirping, thunder crashing, and snow leopards meowing (don't ask). Another feather in SI's cap is substantially more and more varied speech than in U7; five different entities offer you digitized salutations at various points during the game, in addition to full speech during the introduction and endgame sequences.
So Serpent Isle definitely looks and feels even richer than its predecessor ... but how does it play?
A WHALE (SERPENT?) OF A TALE (Game story)
Serpent Isle's plot has a great story to it, with great atmosphere, lots of conversation, much more seriousness, depth and realism than U7. It also has a linear organization with a poorly designed flag system that can stymie the player for no logical reason. You win some, you lose some... it's more annoying in places than U7 ever was, but on the other hand there's so much more to do and so much more to the story than in U7 that it still comes off as a significantly better game. (Maybe we can get the best of both worlds in the next Ultima.) SI is an incredibly rich game; the frustrations are worth it.
The first thing to mention about the play of Serpent Isle is the conversation. Lots of it. More than one person on the net has remarked that the last time they saw this many words in a computer game, the name on the box was Infocom. Fortunately, the words are well spent -- this is a decidedly articulate and intriguing populace here on Serpent Isle. There is now much more to each character than simply his or her role in fulfilling your quest -- almost everyone has a distinct personality, and it's a lot of fun just to walk around, talk to everyone, and enjoy this miniature world.
There are cute idolizing kids, pompous fools, seducers and seductresses, braggarts, thieves, nincompoops, and plenty of average but still interesting people. Everyone has something to talk about. Even the little remarks people make when you greet or leave them have been improved tremendously -- you get little kids saying "Come back soon!" and knights saying "Slay a goblin!" on departure, not to mention old grumps muttering "Leave me alone!" when you try to talk to them. The quality of conversation in SI is unequaled... it's probably the single strongest feature of the game.
The next item on the list is the story of the game -- not so much what the player actually does in the game, but the tale that's revealed in the process. It's certainly one of the most convoluted and rich tales I've ever seen in a computer game... there are several different bad guys, good guys, and other guys, not to mention all manner of motives and activities.
It may be the stimulus of having a game not set on Britannia, where so much is already given; but for whatever reason the tale that unfolds is more interesting than any of the other Ultimas to date. Serpent Isle features all manner of romance, treachery, tragedy, and villainy. The ultimate secret of why things are going wrong, when discovered, is not completely novel, but it is more original than the norm and it is done well. And there are a LOT of surprising twists along the way.
I should also mention that Serpent Isle does a much better job of being 'adult' -- both in violence and in sex -- than U7. There's some real gore (dismembered body parts, and a few dismembered MOVING body parts), and some real heavy tear-jerking, that goes on at some points in the game. There are even two sex scenes, with full 1-inch-high nudity (although the screen does go dark before things get too raunchy).
Overall, Serpent Isle feels like a much more serious, more real world than Britannia. People in SI have passions, ambitions, and problems -- less superficial ones than the convenient 'oh, Avatar, could you help me with thus-and-so' variety of U7. SI still features the Ultimas' annoying habit of stereotyping towns as the 'city of beauty' or the 'city of mages' instead of giving places a more natural personality, but it is by far the most realistic and vivid Ultima to date in terms of individual characterization.
GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS (Game play)
So, the atmosphere is great... what about the play? For the most part, the mix of player actions is vintage Ultima: talk to a lot of people, pass through assorted gauntlets, participate in a variety of rituals, and fight lots of nasties along the way. Serpent Isle's presentation of the blend has its good points and bad ones.
One of the strengths of SI is the number and variety of challenges. There are a _lot_ of subplots the player must work through in the game on the way toward solving the main quest and they come in many different flavors. The player, at various points, gets to: pass logical or physical challenges, unriddle mysteries, discover traitors, win free of prison, fight the occasional ferocious monster or deranged wizard, and participate in mighty rituals.
All of these come with very nice conversational dressing, so that they do come across as worthwhile rather than routine; only in a few places does the presentation fall flat and the transcendent come off as trivial. On the other hand, they do seem to come in packs... for example, at the beginning of the game, it seems one is continually attending banquets and trials, while toward the end one is constantly performing great rituals. It might have been more exciting if the two were better mixed. Still, the aforementioned quality of scripting makes almost every scene gripping.
A second strength of SI is its set pieces -- its 'reward' sequences and the like. There are numerous occasions when the player gets to sit back and watch the fun, and they are very well done. Again, the writers did an outstanding job scripting this one. It's hard to convey how much is added by this, short of quoting extensive sections from game play; suffice it to say that the story is presented in vivid and impressive detail in this game. It really is a standard-setter in this respect, not only for CRPG's but also for traditional adventure games.
SI does have a major weakness: linearity. That is, the game is excessively strict about requiring the player to do certain things in a certain order. Sometimes this takes the carrot-and-stick approach in which the person or object you need to do B is conveniently locked up and won't be available until you do A. Sometimes certain conversation options -- though they were entirely obvious! -- won't appear until you've done something somewhere else. Many times characters seem completely oblivious to important events, while occasionally doors will inexplicably become unlocked or chests will appear in places because a game flag has been tripped elsewhere.
All of this is a slap in the player's face and a real jarring factor when everything else seems so natural. The good news is that this only happens every so often, at crucial game bottlenecks. The bad news is that it gets very annoying to observe that one is being shoved none too subtly down a certain path. The frequent repetitions of citizens of Monitor of "Not a knight!" (there's a Test of Knighthood, which the game wants you to take, see) are only one example. It's a real pain, since the story could have been told much the same way without so many restrictions, and since it robs one of the opportunity to merrily explore that The Black Gate offered.
The corollary weakness of linearity is that the game highlights all the programmers' oversights, whether the player is expected to do certain things in a precise order or manner, or the programmers just plain goofed. For example, in the town of Monitor, one of the first things you want to do is go see the town leaders. You are directed to the crematorium, where you are told that the leaders are in the crypts -- but NOT where those crypts are!
So, you go hunting all over town for the crypts and fail to find them. Eventually, the leaders leave the crypts and can be found elsewhere in town. If you talk to the crematorium manager at this point, he now tells you, if you ask, that the crypts are behind the curtain at the back of the crematorium. Because of the way the conversation options are controlled by game flags, it was not possible to learn this from him when the leaders were in the crypts -- which was when you wanted to know! AARGH!
Worse yet, much later in the game, a gate is opened by placing the right sequence of runes on a set of altars. But the gate will not open unless one has been told the sequence -- the correct sequence does not work, even if one guesses it, until then. Moreover, unless one has had a certain dog sniff a certain object (in a logically completely unrelated event), it STILL won't work. You can't progress until you figure out what it is that the game expects you to have done that you haven't, the fact that there's no logical reason for this obstacle notwithstanding. Idiocies like these occur in various places throughout the game. Only one or two of them are show-stoppers, but when they occur they can be incredibly frustrating.
An additional flaw is the lack of any real source of good advice. The game has enough twists and turns that it's occasionally quite unclear what the player should do next. At times like this it would have been invaluable and simple to have an option to consult a companion -- "Gee, Dupre, what should we do now?" "Milord, I suggest we revisit some of our earlier acquaintances. Perhaps one of them has something new to offer." This sort of thing would significantly alleviate some of the problems caused by excessive linearity. Instead, the game generally has little or no help to offer.
("It's not a bug, it's a feature" -- there are two places where the game offers nonexistent or erroneous help, and it REALLY needs correction. First, for the soul prisms to work, they need to be 'sealed' after use by employing them on a device suitable for binding spirits (nudge, nudge). Second, when Xenka tells you to go to Sunrise Isle, don't. Nothing there at that point -- she really means the Shrine of Balance.)
On the whole, though, Serpent Isle is a very rich game. There's a lot to do, with a lot of variety, and the scripts that surround each element are extraordinarily well done. Kudos to the writers -- though not to the designers of the flag system. The story is definitely good enough to justify the player's suffering through the artificial restrictions, but the gamer should be ready for them (and Origin should be ashamed of them).
SETTING SAIL (Technical notes and summary)
Documentation and installation are fine (although at 25 MB, it's a real resource-eater). And there is the traditional nifty cloth map -- at last, of a place besides Britannia! I should note that characters from Ultima 7 are not transferred, although the Avatar does arrive at the Isle with a full complement of equipment.
While people have reported occasional problems getting the game to install or boot up, nothing like the reliably distressing bugs of Ultima 7 have shown up yet in Serpent Isle, except for the flag system mentioned before ("it's not a bug, it's a feature") -- there are, as noted, a couple of places where the game won't let you progress because you haven't done something else unrelated. Like U7, SI taxes the hard drive a great deal; I strongly recommend using any extra RAM for a disk cache. While it's hard to tell on a fast computer, users of 386SX's have reported that SI does run a bit faster than U7.
In all, Serpent Isle is certainly a quality game. It does have its annoyances, but it matches an unequaled technology in appearance and interface with a superbly scripted story. It's more vivid, more realistic, and more fun than its predecessor, and has more plot depth than anything on the market, although there are a few points in it where the poorly designed flag system and strictly linear organization can provide much frustration.
Along with the rest of the Ultimas, it occupies a place between the adventure games and the dungeon games, so it's not always clear who the audience is. But a game with this much depth deserves a look from almost everyone.
--Technical Postscript: Removing Doublespace Drivers--
Serpent Isle requires 535-587K of low memory to run, and is incompatible with expanded memory managers (which are normally needed to load programs into high memory), so users of disk compression software may need to remove their drivers to free up sufficient low memory.
The problem with doing this with DOS 6.0's Doublespace software is that the drivers are marked as system files and therefore are loaded regardless of the contents of your CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT files. It is possible, however, to get around this; the following batch files should do the trick. (Use EDIT or your favorite editor to type these in and save them as DOS text files.) Of course, Doublespace won't function without its drivers, so you will not be able to read the compressed portion of your hard drive. In particular, DO NOT USE THESE FILES IF YOUR ENTIRE BOOT DRIVE IS COMPRESSED. Use at your own risk.
(Why is it incompatible with expanded memory managers? Because the 'VOODOO' memory management system used in Ultima 7 and Serpent Isle puts the CPU into the semi-documented 'Big Real Mode'. This lets the programs access all of memory quickly, allowing the multitude of objects and characters featured in the games to be manipulated at a reasonable speed. Unfortunately, Windows and expanded memory managers can't deal with the CPU in this mode. The good news is that Serpent Isle should be the last Ultima to use this system; Origin apparently has found an adequate normal compiler for its purposes.)
Rem ** Once this is run, all subsequent boots will not load the
Rem ** Doublespace drivers. Run DOUBLE to cause Doublespace
Rem ** once again to be loaded on subsequent boots.
Rem ** Note: you will not be able to read the compressed portion
Rem ** of your hard drive without Doublespace loaded. DO NOT USE
Rem ** THIS FILE IF YOUR ENTIRE BOOT DRIVE IS COMPRESSED.
ATTRIB C:\DBLSPACE.INI -S -R -H
RENAME C:\DBLSPACE.INI DBLSPACE.HLD
ATTRIB c:\DBLSPACE.HLD +S +R +H
Rem ** when run after NODOUBLE has been run, resets files so that
Rem ** subsequent reboots once again load Doublespace drivers.
ATTRIB C:\DBLSPACE.HLD -S -R -H
RENAME C:\DBLSPACE.HLD DBLSPACE.INI
ATTRIB C:\DBLSPACE.INI +S +R +H
This review Copyright (C) 1993 by Daniel J. Starr. All rights reserved.
Lord British discovers a message from the Guardian to his servant Batlin. It seems the Guardian has ordered Batlin to regroup at the Serpent's Isle in case his first plan is defeated. Lord British sends the Avatar to the Serpent's Isle to catch Batlin and foil any plans the Guardian might have.
Once the Avatar arrives in Britannia he finds three cities full of people who left Britannia because they would not follow Lord British. He also finds the final remnants of The Fellowship. Intrigue follows as the Avatar uncovers a plot involving goblins, another involving mages, and yet another involving Batlin. Oh, and of course the Guardian has his own plot as well.
The Avatar soon discovers that Serpent's Isle is out of balance. Very soon the whole world will be destroyed from this imbalance. If the Serpent's Isle goes, so will Britannia and Earth. Following Batlin, the Avatar catches up to him just as he releases the banes, three powerful spirits that currently are insane due to the imbalance. The banes kill Batlin and then proceed to take over the bodies of the Avatar's companions. In these bodies they wreak havoc over the whole world, leaving a pile of bodies behind them.
The Avatar must then recapture the banes, and then restore the balance between order and chaos to save all three worlds. As the Avatar completes his quest to restore balance, the Guardian's giant red hand grabs him and pulls him into another dimension. Thus Ultima 8 begins.
There seems to be a plot whole in the story. The Guardian says at the end that by restoring balance, the Avatar has spoiled his plot to destroy Britannia. However, elsewhere in the game we discover that Serpent's Isle was out of balance long before the Guardian ever came. There was also no recognizable effort on the Guardian's part to make this imbalance worse. The whole bit about the banes turned out to be Batlin's own doing, not the Guardian's. If anyone can figure out the real plot, please email me. I am still scratching my head.
This game used the same game engine as Ultima 7. Graphically it is almost identical. One improvement was the addition of digitized portraits of characters. This was an improvement over Ultima 7's hand drawn portraits. There were many small improvements to the game engine over Ultima 7.
No bugs! The problems in the Ultima 7 game engine were all fixed for Ultima 7 part 2. No more disappearing keys and items.
More was done with the abilities of the game engine. "Barks" (the words that appear over a character's head when they are not in conversation mode) where used extensively and added to the characters and story. Character's would often start a conversation. (This was done once or twice in Ultima 7, but was largely never used.) It felt realistic to me to have someone walk up and start talking to me.
Horrible story! Okay, maybe I'm being a bit hard on this game, just because the main story was just one big plot hole. The truth was that I often found myself bored by the story. I was completely unmotivated by the quest to save Serpent's Isle. The truth be known, Serpent's Isle was not worth saving.
I also disliked that the plot was extremely linear. No free form adventuring here, and you can forget about side quests too as there weren't any.
You could still interact with almost everything in the world, but there was no longer any point in doing so. You couldn't take a job with the baker, you couldn't harvest eggs, etc.
I though Origin had a sure fire winner with Ultima 7 part 2, but I was wrong. This is an okay game and probably worth playing if you want to play the whole Guardian series. However, I feel that this game is the weakest of the series.